The Honduras Drug War
The inherent imbecility of the War on Drugs can most easily be measured in terms of sheer carnage. There are the decades of mandatory sentencing, racist policing, and inflated prison numbers that have many African Americans living on the economic fringes without voting rights, in what Michelle Alexander correctly labels a new American Jim Crow. Or the gruesome example of Colombia where even conservative estimates number of three million internally displaced paper, helped in part by Bill Clinton’s Plan Colombia, originally intended to simply be a collectively destructive anti-drug policy but with a series of waivers and provisions by Clinton and Bush Jr. puts the U.S. government into direct conjunction with a corrupt military to whom repression and murder are stables. Meanwhile in Mexico another mass grave has recently been found, this one with more than 30 bodies, to add to the over 85,000 people killed violently since the drug war was officially declared there in 2007.
In recent times the spotlight has expanded to include Honduras, now the third poorest country and possessing a murder rate that dwarfs even other high crime territories (Honduras’ homicide rate in 2012 was 90.4 per 100,000. Venezuela and Belize were a distant second and third at 53.7 and 44.7 respectively). The initial flashpoint for this expansion took place in the wetlands of La Moskitia (the Honduras side of the Mosquito Coast named after the Mosquito tribe) in the early morning hours of May 11th 2012, when an anti-drug mission made up of a mix of American DEA agents and Honduras security forces targeting a shipment of 400 kilos of cocaine, gunned down a family sailing upriver to their hometown of Ahuas killing four including a 14 year old boy. Apparently the boat carrying the family was mistaken for a drug boat after the mission managed to get the canoe carrying the cocaine off to a riverbank (the men carrying the shipment pushed it to drift and scattered into the woods to avoid arrest) just as the family sailed into the scene.
It was quite fitting that the incident took place a week after the New York Times proclaimed in a headline “Lessons of Iraq Help U.S. fight a Drug War in Honduras’. A few sentences in the Times summed up the lessons like this:
This offensive, emerging just as the United States military
winds down its conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and is moving
to confront emerging threats, also showcases the nation’s new way
of war: small-footprint missions with limited numbers of troops,
partnerships with foreign military and police forces that take the lead
in security operations, and narrowly defined goals…
A big component of the U.S. government’s effort is the Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team
(FAST). FAST has its roots in Afghanistan (another theater in the war on drugs where American policy has been to wage war on Afghan farmers best cash crop- a policy they once shared with the Taliban) where the original unit gained some fame with the arrest of Afghan drug lord Haji Bagato. In the words of a New Yorker story from earlier this year (A Mission Gone Wrong by Mattathias Schwartz) the unit is ‘part special-forces manhunters, part detectives, FAST operators were trained to kick doors down, work informants, and collect evidence’. It wasn’t long before the DEA asked Congress to fund two more FAST squads for the Western Hemisphere. Since then the Mosquito Coast is a ‘battlespace’ with Honduras itself being described as ‘downrange’. In 2011 the Pentagon increased its contract spending up 71 percent to $53.8 million.
Much like Colombia, the war on drugs in Honduras rages in a cauldron of inequality and state violence; of course this violence skyrocketed in the aftermath of the June 2009 coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of left-leaning president Mel Zelaya (for instance the murder rate back in 2008 was 58 per 100,000, high but much lower than the present rate).
When Barack Obama’s time in office done and beltway chatter turns to “legacies” it is already eviscerating to think how little attention his administration’s role, perhaps in the coup itself, but especially in the aftermath will receive. Marc Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, has helpfully listed the ways Washington implicitly and explicitly supported the coup from not condemning the coup when it happened (instead merely calling on ‘all political and social actors in Honduras’ to respect democracy- U.S. officials have acknowledged they were talking to the Honduran military right up to the day of the coup), never once calling for Zelaya to be returned to office (as opposed to the OAS- Organization of American States), not suspending aid, blocking an OAS from adopting a resolution that would have refused to recognize the subsequent election that took place under the oppressive coup regime and was boycotted by the opposition, and not meeting Zelaya despite numerous requests, while meeting the winner of the fraudulent election, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, in the White House.
Besides increasing lawlessness and violence in general the coup has turned the state into the main purveyor of it. Since Zelaya’s removal three dozen journalist have been murdered with barely an ounce of retribution. And paralleling the horror facing union activists in Colombia, land activists have also been killed in scores by both corrupt police and paramilitaries aligned with the state and land barons (i.e. agribusiness). A report released this past spring by Global Witness recorded 93 peasant farmers killed in the fertile Bajo Aguan region since 2010, most in conflicts with rapidly expanding palm oil plantations (traded globally on the carbon credit racket). That puts Honduras second only to Brazil in deadliest for land and natural resource activists. Another report, this one by the Honduras based Violence Observatory (Observatorio de Violencia) found that police killed 149 civilians between January 2011 and November 2012, averaging six per month.
The roots of the land conflict go back some years. Like many countries Honduras, dealing with the debt crisis, undertook many neoliberal reforms relating to land in the early 1990s at the behest of the IMF and USAID. It actually wasn’t long before that when Honduras was compared favorably in some circles to its neighbors Nicaragua and El Salvador in terms of avoiding the large-scale bloodshed of the 1980s when Honduras infamously served as the training and launching grounds for the U.S. funded Contra War (though in reality there was plenty of violent repression against the usual list of “subversives” with many a Honduran officer receiving training at the School of the Americans). Back in the 1970s, even under an earlier military government of the initially reactionary General Lopez Arellano, the state was more progressive, particularly battling an invasion by El Salvador after 1969. A 1974 law limited the size of large properties and prohibited their sale, requiring they instead be reverted to the state for redistribution to the landless. In the fertile Bajo Aguan valley peasant cooperatives were developed on hectares of land abandoned by the banana companies. Overall decades of agrarian reform awarded 409,000 hectares, 12.3 percent of Honduras’ agricultural land, to 60,000 families. (see Grabbing Power: The New Struggles for Land, Food, and Democracy in Northern Honduras by Tanya M. Kerssen). Lopez himself would be deposed in a coup that led to a more conservative government halting the agrarian reform.
The removal of state support for agriculture in the early 1990s left smallholders ripe for dispossession. By 1994 around 30,500 hectares previously set aside for collective use of the peasantry were swallowed up by private investors. The land consolidation, one percent of farmers now own 25% of productive land, has led to the expansion of the palm oil and tourist industries and the exploitive apparel industry (not to mention the rise of several well connected land barons, a new feature for Honduras which had previously avoided a large land oligarchy, again in comparison to its Central American neighbors, though for of Honduras’ history political power was greatly entrenched with American banana companies). It has also sparked mass resistance. It was Zelaya’s movement toward the resistance, he had agreed to grant land titles to peasants who had occupied and produced on lands for ten or more years (the law would have resolved over 400 land conflicts), that sparked the subsequent coup. The law, passed by the National Congress in March 2009, three months before the coup, was declared unconstitutional under the Lobo government in November 2010 and the country became a killing field.
The American war on drugs again pits it in an alliance with a corrupt, violent state and puts American aid into the hands of villainous police and military forces and their elite patrons, demonstrating that whether at home or abroad, the war brazenly amounts to a war against the impoverished.
Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City.