HONDURAS: DRUG WAR AS COUNTERINSURGENCY?

DEA
by Bill Weinberg, High Times

Recent headlines from Honduras give an uneasy sense of deja vu for the bad old days of the 1980s, when the US and its local proxy forces waged brutal counter-insurgency wars across Central America.
 
Residents of Ahuas village, on the remote Miskito Coast, took to the streets May 11 to protest a deadly military-style drug raid, demanding the US DEA leave their territory—and putting government offices to the torch to make their point. Miskito Indian leaders issued a statement declaring the DEA persona non grata in the territory.
 
In the incident on the Río Patuca in the pre-dawn hours that morning, four were killed—including two pregnant women—and another four wounded when DEA agents and Honduran National Police agents in a US State Department-contracted helicopter piloted by Guatemalan military men fired on a boat they apparently believed was filled with drug traffickers. Local residents say they were humble villagers who had nothing to do with drug trafficking.
 
But it didn’t end there. Residents say two choppers—marked with the US flag—next landed and disgorged some 50 heavily armed and uniformed men, who proceeded to break down the doors of local homes. Residents were menaced at gunpoint and threatened with death to demand information about one "El Renco," as their modest homes were ransacked. Residents say English-speaking “gringos”—presumably, DEA agents—took part in the raids and rough interrogations, which lasted up to two hours.
 
One youth was marched down to the riverfront at gunpoint in plastic handcuffs, ostensibly to identify a drug drop-off point—and then abandoned there, still cuffed. A neighbor with a machete freed him, and villagers kept the cuffs as evidence of the abuse. Another villager’s boat and gasoline were commandeered to explore along the river—along with his nephew to serve as a guide. One of the “gringos” apparently had a laptop, and input the names of interrogated residents, who were made to produce their ID cards. Reports say that one of the buildings burned down in the subsequent protest by outraged villagers belonged to the local trafficker, who they blamed for drawing the heat.
 
US and Honduran officials tell a different story. They say two traffickers were killed in an operation that yielded 1,000 pounds of cocaine as well as an M-4 assault rifle. US officials also assert that no DEA agents had fired weapons, only Honduran police on the ground and a Honduran door-gunner in the helicopter. The officials said the DEA agents—part of a special squad called FAST, for Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team—were allowed by rules of engagement only to shoot back if fired upon. The DEA denies its agents actually entered the village.
 
An investigation by the Honduran Joint Military Task Force-Paz Garcia based in nearby Puerto Lempira only acknowledged the raid on the boat, concluding that the agents fired on the civilians by mistake. "It's terribly sad," Col. Servio Arita told the New York Times. "It was an error."
 
But José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, warned in a statement: "If evidence demonstrates that security forces violated international standards, they must be held accountable."
 
Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) stated: "I have consistently expressed deep concerns regarding the danger of pouring US security assistance into a situation where Honduran security forces are involved in serious human rights violations." Calling for a review of such aid, he added that "the problems are getting worse, not better, making such a review all the more urgent."
 
US military commitment to Honduras is fast escalating. The controversy comes just as the Pentagon’s Southern Command has established three new "forward operating bases," or FOBs, to coordinate operations by the US military, DEA and Honduran armed forces and National Police. The FOBs ring the Miskito Coast, long known as a transfer point for cocaine and other contraband. One is at Mocorón, in the heart of sprawling swampland and rainforest between Ahuas and the Nicaraguan border. A second is at Puerto Castilla, on a strategic peninsula overlooking the Caribbean port of Trujillo, just west of La Miskitia. The third is at El Aguacate, inland and to the south of Miskito territory.
 
The US also has forces at the new Honduran naval base at Guanaja, in the Bay Islands. Joint Task Force Bravo, SouthCom’s Central America component, keeps 600 troops at its headquarters at Soto Cano air base outside Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. In March, SouthCom commander Gen. Douglas Fraser told Congress that "the violence continues to increase in Central America, and that’s where and why we are focusing there."
 
The Honduran security forces are meanwhile mired in scandals concerning murder, kidnapping, arms trafficking and corruption. The body of prominent radio journalist Angel Alfredo Villatoro Rivera was found in Tegucigalpa on May 15, six days after he was abducted. He had been shot twice in the head, and local media reported that the body was dressed in a police uniform. Five were arrested in the slaying—including an ex-agent of the elite Preventive Police.
 
In response to the revelation, President Porfirio ("Pepe") Lobo Sosa fired the National Police chief—who had just been appointed last October in an earlier effort to crack down on corruption in the force. But the new chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, was himself accused in 2002 of belonging to "Los Magnificos," a paramilitary group said to have carried out "extrajudicial executions" of suspected gang members. He was acquitted when the prosecutor quit the case.
 
Such attacks are growing. The body of Honduran journalist and gay rights activist Erick Alex Martínez Avila was found by a highway near Tegucigalpa on May 7. The Latin American Federation of Journalists (FELAP) says Martínez Avila was the 22nd Honduran journalist to be murdered since June 2009, when left-leaning President José Manuel ("Mel")  Zelaya was overthrown in a right-wing coup.
 
The election of "Pepe" Lobo in new polls in late 2009 was supposed to return Honduras to normalcy. But crime and drug-related violence have soared, along with claims of official corruption. In November 2011, the Tegucigalpa daily El Heraldo uncovered the disappearance of 300 automatic rifles from the elite police Cobras group. This led to speculation of police collaboration with resurgent paramilitary forces. A conflict between peasants and big landlords has led to several deaths in the fertile Lower Aguán Valley since the restoration of "legitimate" rule in Honduras.