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Story Publication logo December 31, 2013

Honduras: A Mission Gone Wrong


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One of the world's least-governed regions is caught between South American drug traffickers and the...

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Rio Tapalwas, a tributary of the Rio Rus Rus, Reserva Biologica Rus Rus, Dept. Gracias a Dios, Honduras. 2003. Image by Josiah Townsend / flickr commons.

One night in May of 2012, a Honduran police inspector received a phone call from an agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, a man he knew as Tony. Tony told him to get his men ready. They were about to intercept a large cocaine shipment, one of many such missions that U.S. and Honduran forces collaborate on each year. At 8 p.m., four helicopters flew east from a base near the city of La Ceiba to a smaller refuelling base deep in the wet lowlands of La Moskitia, on the Honduran side of the Mosquito Coast. Along with the inspector, the helicopters carried ten D.E.A. agents, eighteen other members of the Honduran security forces, and eight Guatemalan pilots. Around 11 p.m., they lifted off again. Their target was a small plane heading for a Honduran village called Ahuas.

The U.S. military monitors what it can of the hundreds of tons of cocaine that enter the U.S. by plane, boat, automobile, submarine, tunnel, backpack, and catapult. Its maps show red lines veining South America and North America with such tangled complexity that they are known as "spaghetti slides." Most of the air routes, however, follow a predictable path. They begin in Venezuela and head north, avoiding Colombian airspace, where authorities can shoot down suspicious aircraft. Then they turn west, toward La Moskitia.

Around 1 a.m., the plane touched down in a field near Ahuas, where a large receiving party had gathered. Some, carrying rifles, secured the perimeter. Others brought the plane's cargo to a nearby truck.

A surveillance plane from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security relayed news of the landing to the D.E.A. agents aboard the helicopters. Their Honduran colleagues did not know exactly where they were going. Though the D.E.A. agents had vetted the Hondurans with polygraph tests and background checks, they were careful about sharing information, lest word of the mission get back to the cartels. Officially, the Hondurans were running the operation, with the D.E.A. agents present as "advisers." But the D.E.A. agents had microphones and earpieces built into their helmets; the Hondurans had strips of reflective tape to help the agents find them if they got lost. (A D.E.A. agent told me that the Hondurans could have issued commands with arm squeezes and hand signals.)

From the helicopters' gun bays, the Hondurans could see the truck below, driving toward a river landing. Michael Braun, a former D.E.A. chief of operations, compared this kind of moment to "a state trooper walking up on a midnight traffic stop on a lonely stretch of highway." The uncertainty would have been especially great for the Honduran members of the force. In addition to the lack of timely information, they complained about inferior night-vision equipment. "If you use it to see something that's near, it doesn't work very well," the Honduran inspector said later, during an interview with Honduran investigators. "The goggles that the Americans use are better."

As the helicopters approached the riverbank, a group of men quickly transferred the cargo from the truck to a motorized canoe. One pushed the canoe out into the river, where it began to drift downstream. The men fled, just before six members of the anti-drug team reached the ground: the inspector, three Hondurans, and two D.E.A. agents.

At around 2 a.m., a helicopter swooped low and used the wind from its blades to push the canoe toward the bank. A D.E.A. agent, the Honduran inspector, and another Honduran policeman climbed in. They found waterproof bundles containing more than four hundred kilos of cocaine. The D.E.A. agent managed to start the canoe's motor, but moments later it stalled. The agent struggled with the engine while the Hondurans scanned the area for threats. The boat drifted on the moonlit water, a high bank on one side and forest on the other. The men were exposed, but they did not want to abandon the drugs.

"I observed with my night goggles that something was approaching," the Honduran policeman said later. It was another boat. He thought it might be his team members. A man stood at the bow with his shirt unbuttoned. There were shouts, then gunshots—rifle fire mixed with a machine-gun burst from one of the helicopters. "I saw sparks from the boat coming to us," the policeman said. "Then I knew nothing."

The Americans who touched down in Honduras that night were part of a unit called a Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team. Braun, who oversaw the creation of the FAST program, in 2004, told me that Special Operations Command had asked the D.E.A. for help building criminal cases against Afghan drug traffickers with ties to the Taliban. "They were running into heroin refineries and large caches of drugs," Braun said. "They needed seasoned agents with the criminal investigator's mind-set."

Part special-forces manhunters, part detectives, FAST operators were trained to kick down doors, work informants, and collect evidence. In 2009, a FAST squad assisted in the arrest of Haji Bagcho, a prominent Afghan drug lord. In one of Bagcho's compounds, they found a ledger recording more than two hundred and fifty million dollars in heroin transactions. Bagcho is now serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison. That year, the D.E.A. asked Congress to fund two additional FAST squads, for the Western Hemisphere. Braun said that "ungoverned spaces," described as "possible terrorist havens" by the 9/11 Commission Report, deserved special attention, likening these regions to the "Star Wars" cantina scene. Terrorists and narco-traffickers "are frequenting the same shady bars, the same seedy hotels and the same sweaty brothels," he told a congressional subcommittee, in 2012. "They are most assuredly talking business and sharing lessons learned."

The Honduras mission was part of a larger program called Operation Anvil. Honduras was not a war zone, so FAST worked under the State Department, using Huey helicopters instead of swifter Black Hawks. In Honduras, FAST could not call in U.S. military forces to fight alongside it, as in Afghanistan. But in some ways Anvil was familiar, the latest in a long line of overseas counter-narcotics operations with names like Blast Furnace, Ghost Zone, Snowcap, and Zorro. In addition to using helicopters to spirit agents to remote locations and seize drugs in transit, the U.S. has tried paying coca farmers to switch crops, spraying herbicides out of helicopters, raiding jungle laboratories, stopping and searching small fishing boats, forcing down aircraft, tapping phones, hiring informants, and extraditing drug lords. Anvil, like many of its predecessors, combined the legal framework of a police action with the hardware and the rhetoric of war. Honduras is often referred to as "downrange"; drug traffickers are "the enemy"; the Mosquito Coast is a "battlespace." In a broad sense, FAST was nothing new. What is remarkable is how many times the U.S. has tried such militarized counter-narcotics programs and how long it has been apparent how little they amount to.

In 1971, in a message to Congress, President Richard Nixon called drug abuse "a national emergency." "We have faced great difficulties again and again," he said. "Wars and depressions and divisions among our people." If Congress furnished "the authority and the funds to match our moral resources," the question was "not whether we will conquer drug abuse, but how soon." Two years later, with a budget of less than seventy-five million dollars, he created the Drug Enforcement Administration, to wage an "all-out global war on the drug menace."

In the early days of the drug war, cocaine was seen as less a threat to national security and more a "jet-setter and rocker drug," according to Mathea Falco, who ran the State Department's anti-drug program under President Jimmy Carter. Nixon's main priorities were heroin, a problem aggravated by returning Vietnam veterans, and marijuana. Under Nixon, the U.S. succeeded in persuading Turkey's government first to outlaw poppy farming and then to enforce a regimen of licensing and strict regulation. But heroin production in Southeast Asia and Mexico accelerated. Although the Mexican government was initially slow to accept interference with its domestic affairs, in 1976 it gave the U.S. broad authority to assist with Operation Condor, an ambitious eradication program. Thousands of Mexican soldiers were sent into poppy- and marijuana-growing areas, along with the federal police force and D.E.A. agents. Drug-producing fields were mapped with imagery from U.S. surveillance planes and satellites and then destroyed by flyover sprayings of chemical defoliants. Ground forces arrived by helicopter to secure the area, destroy any surviving plants, and pacify the farmers, many of whom left their barren fields for the city. In Mexico, the program was known as La Campaña Permanente.

After three years, Condor looked like a success. In the U.S., heroin overdoses and heroin purity fell, and prices nearly doubled. But, in the early eighties, poppy farmers from Iran to Burma and Afghanistan picked up the slack. The tendency of a crackdown in one area to stimulate production in another is now known as the "balloon effect."

In 1982, President Ronald Reagan framed drugs as a national-security threat, to be confronted with Churchillian determination. "We're running up a battle flag," he said. "We can fight the drug problem, and we can win." But the Reagan-era drug war did not get fully under way until 1985, the beginning of the crack epidemic and the Iran-Contra affair, when he appointed Edwin Meese Attorney General. Meese chaired quarterly meetings of a powerful drug-policy board, which included eleven other Cabinet members and the director of the C.I.A. In 1986, Reagan signed a law giving the Pentagon a permanent role in the drug war; Meese's board asked for airplanes, ships, helicopters, and radar. Two years later, Meese donned a D.E.A. cap and a khaki suit for a weeklong, five-country tour of operations in Latin America. (At a D.E.A. training camp in Bolivia, he used a gasoline-soaked pole to set fire to two tons of cocaine paste.)

In 1988, Reagan signed his second Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which made it official U.S. policy "to create a Drug-Free America by 1995." The same year, a RAND Corporation study concluded that interdiction—seizing drugs in transit—was unlikely ever to make much difference in U.S. cocaine consumption. It cited six previous studies that had reached the same conclusion. Later that year, Admiral Carlisle A. H. Trost, the highest-ranking officer in the Navy, said, "The economic incentives are so potent and the network of communications from farm to market via thousands of boats and small planes is so extensive. . . . The only way we are going to stop this immense flow of illegal narcotics into this country is to shut off the demand for it."

The next year, President George H. W. Bush appointed William Bennett the director of the newly created Office of National Drug Control Policy. Bennett, who was known as the "drug czar," coördinated anti-drug activities and published, each year, a book-length National Drug Control Strategy. Bennett initially called drugs "a crisis of national character" and asserted that casual drug users were more dangerous than hard-core addicts. They were "willing and able to proselytize," which made them "highly contagious."

Congress required Bennett to set quantifiable goals. He promised a ten-per-cent reduction in the population of illicit drug users by 1991, and a fifty-per-cent reduction by 1999. His targets were naïve at best. Since 1990, the number of users has almost doubled. Between 1990 and 2007, the street prices of cocaine and heroin, which Bennett sought to drive up in order to price out new users, declined by as much as eighty per cent, according to one recent study. Falling drug prices weren't due to a lack of enforcement. During the same period, the D.E.A.'s budget tripled.

In 1989, Congress approved $2.2 billion for Bush's five-year Andean Strategy, to pursue coca eradication with foreign militaries, who sought training and arms to assist with their own struggles against the leftist FARC and right-wing paramilitaries in Colombia and the Shining Path in Peru. The insurgents drew their strength from the remote mountainous areas that are hospitable to growing coca. U.S. aid paid for armaments, training, and a few alternative crop schemes, but these had little effect on drug cultivation. When the D.E.A. established a remote outpost, coca growers moved beyond the range of its helicopters.

During the third year of the Andean Strategy, counter-drug forces seized less than two per cent of Peru's cocaine base. "The Peruvian-American anti-drug policy has failed," Alberto Fujimori, the country's President, told the Washington Post, in 1993. In Colombia, D.E.A. assistance helped bring about the killing of Pablo Escobar and the dismantling of the Cali and Medellín cartels, but new traffickers emerged to take their place. The rise of each subsequent organization seemed to occur with greater speed and violence than the one before. The guerrillas took over a large share of the Colombian drug trade. By the late nineties, the area under coca cultivation had quadrupled.

In 1997, Bill Clinton's second drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, attempted to retire the language of a "war on drugs." "If you want to fight a war on drugs, sit down at your own kitchen table and talk to your own children," he said. Nevertheless, Clinton allocated roughly two-thirds of the federal anti-drug budget to interdiction and law enforcement. During his final year in office, he approved Plan Colombia, which poured another round of aid into Colombian military and intelligence efforts. Planes accompanied by U.S.-funded helicopters sprayed chemicals over hundreds of thousands of hectares. Meanwhile, the Colombian military carried out a vicious counter-insurgency campaign against the farc. Sometimes soldiers inflated body counts by dressing the bodies of dead civilians in camouflage. More than three thousand innocent people died, according to human-rights groups. Displaced coca farmers razed as much as a million hectares of native forest. After six years and nearly five billion dollars in U.S. assistance, the Colombian government had weakened the guerrillas and the paramilitaries. The country's murder rate fell sharply. Coca cultivation rose for a few years and then declined as production shifted back toward Peru. Today, Colombia is the U.S.'s staunchest ally in South America.

The drug war has split in two, and there are increasing differences in how it is fought. In August, the Department of Justice advised federal prosecutors that while possessing a small amount of marijuana remains a federal crime, it is not an "enforcement priority." A majority of U.S. citizens support decriminalizing the possession of marijuana, and Colorado and Washington have passed ballot measures legalizing it. "People see a war as a war on them," Gil Kerlikowske, the current drug czar, told the Wall Street Journal, in 2009. "We're not at war with people in this country." The Obama Administration has managed to briefly lift a ban on the use of federal funds for needle-exchange programs and reduced sentencing disparities between crack and powder cocaine. Recently, the President commuted the sentences of eight inmates who had been convicted of crack-cocaine offenses, perhaps signalling a new approach; more than three hundred and twenty thousand people remain incarcerated on drug charges.

Overseas, however, the U.S. approach to drugs still looks a lot like war. The D.E.A., assisted by the U.S. military, acts as an international police force, coördinating with foreign militaries through a network of offshore bases. Of the twenty-five billion dollars that the federal government spent fighting drugs last year, forty per cent went to treatment and prevention programs. The rest went to "supply reduction." In Mexico, the $1.9 billion Mérida Initiative has relied on an enforcement-driven strategy somewhat similar to Plan Colombia's. In 2006, President Felipe Calderón decided to deploy the Mexican military to fight drug cartels; since then, more than seventy thousand people have been killed in drug-related violence. Another twenty-six thousand people were reported missing. At least ninety per cent of U.S.-bound cocaine continues to move through the country. In Washington, one of Mérida's most prominent faces is Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, formerly Ambassador to Colombia and Venezuela, who was also instrumental in organizing Operation Anvil. In June, Brownfield told a Senate subcommittee that the criteria for judging Mérida's success should shift from "inputs" (aircraft, equipment, and training) to "outputs" (homicide rate, conviction rate, interdictions). "If the endgame is perfection, we'll never get there," Brownfield said. "At least, not in this world."

In Congress, some are losing patience. "There is great fatigue surrounding our drug programs in the Western Hemisphere," a staff member told me. "We don't have good ideas. We don't have good answers. We don't have good anything. But we also know that doing nothing is a problem. So the whole thing is on autopilot. When you're in the machine, it's very difficult to say anything other than 'Keep shooting. Keep decapitating the cartels.' "

"The war on drugs has simply not worked," George P. Shultz, who served as Secretary of State under Reagan, told me. "It hasn't kept drugs out of this country." In 2011, Shultz, along with a committee of former heads of state, businessmen, and retired U.S. officials, called for an overhaul of U.S. drug-enforcement policy. The effects of interdiction programs like Anvil, they wrote, "are negated almost instantly," wasting money that would be better spent on treatment and harm reduction. I asked Shultz why ineffectual policies have persisted. "We haven't felt the full effects of it ourselves," he said. "It took us twelve years to learn that Prohibition wasn't working. There was Al Capone, there was the St. Valentine's Day Massacre. The violence was here. Now we have outsourced the violence, in effect, to Mexico and Guatemala and Honduras."

The origin of the name of the Miskitu people is unclear. The number of theories about it seems roughly equal to the number of note-taking visitors. Some natives say that Miskitu comes from Miskut, a warrior who led their indigenous ancestors on the coast, where they mixed with pirates and shipwrecked slaves. Others say it refers to an old phrase meaning "they who cannot be dislodged." Still others say that the Miskitu got their name from "musket." The word and the gun arrived in the seventeenth century, carried by European traders to what is now Honduras and Nicaragua. For centuries, the Miskitu maintained control of their territory, assisted by an alliance with England. They used their muskets against Spanish colonists and chased runaway slaves in Jamaica, at the governor's behest. The British rewarded them with a treaty of protection and recognized a line of Miskitu kings. The king's "suit and cap, gifts of the English, glowed like hot coals," one Miskitu elder told an anthropologist. But, by the nineteenth century, the idea of an independent Miskitu nation struck the United States as preposterous. In 1856, the U.S. Secretary of State wrote, "The President himself cannot admit as true . . . that the Mosquito Indians are a state or a Government any more than a band of Maroons in the island of Jamaica are a state or Government."

Today, there are as many as two hundred thousand Miskitu living in La Moskitia, a nearly five-hundred-mile stretch of Caribbean coastline. The only steady employment is lobster-diving. In season, experienced divers can earn fifty dollars a day, descending a hundred feet or more to retrieve lobster from the ocean floor with hooks made of rebar and wire. For years, many lobstermen worked a pulmón, by lung. In almost every village, there are former lobster divers with their legs frozen in place, pulling themselves along on hand-cranked tricycles. "There's nothing special that makes Miskitu suited for this work," one diver told me. "We are the ones who are willing, that's all."

There are no paved roads connecting La Moskitia to the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, and the Miskitu maintain their claim to independence. The Miskitu people "have not relinquished their sovereignty . . . by defeat, treaty or vote," Bernard Nietschmann, the region's foremost scholar, wrote, in "The Unknown War." Nietschmann advised the Miskitu in negotiations toward the end of the Contra war, after the C.I.A. used at least a thousand Miskitu in a guerrilla campaign against the leftist government of Nicaragua.

In the spring of last year, Clara Wood, a fifty-year-old Miskitu woman, decided to return to Ahuas, the village where she was born. For the past seven years, she had lived in Roatán, a resort island off the north coast of Honduras, in a small apartment that she shared with her husband and three of her children; a cousin, Vera González, her husband, and their two daughters; and one other couple. Clara and Vera handled the housework, their children attended public school, and the men brought in money. "Any job they can get, they do it," Clara said. "If you don't have money, you don't eat."

Clara had not seen her mother for about a year. She missed the fine wooden house that her husband had built for her, near the end of a dirt road, raised high on stilts to let the breeze in. On clear nights, she slept in a hammock on her front porch. In Ahuas, she told me, people "don't steal and kill like Tegucigalpa and other places. The way you see them is the way they are."

The cousins decided that they would travel to Ahuas after the school year. Their husbands would join them later. On May 9th, they and three of their children, with their household possessions, boarded the Captain Gabo, a lobster boat bound for the Honduran mainland.

The Captain Gabo's overnight trip passed through coastal waters that cocaine-laden speedboats have used since the nineties, when the U.S. pushed trafficking routes out of the Caribbean's deeper waters. It was around this time that fishermen found the first twenty-four-kilo fardos of cocaine, jettisoned during high-speed chases, washed up on the shore. Some women were said to have mistaken the substance for flour at first and used it to make tortillas, but it soon came to be known as "white lobster." Some lobster divers began smoking crack to steel themselves against the cold depths. They paid for the cocaine with lobsters, which were carried back to the coast of Colombia and sold at seaside restaurants. In 1999, fishermen were selling found cocaine for three hundred dollars per kilo. Today, the price is roughly twenty times as high.

The Captain Gabo laid anchor within sight of Barra Patuca, a village at the mouth of the Río Patuca. Clara could see the Miskitu stilt houses, and the cattle standing in the shallows of the silty water. Onshore, she sought out Hilda Lezama, a stout middle-aged woman who, for many years, had been ferrying Miskitu divers down the Río Patuca to the sea, returning upriver to Ahuas with passengers.

Clara and Vera had brought a stove, chairs, canned food, and sacks of used clothing that they planned to sell. Hilda's husband, Melaño, loaded the cargo into the boat, assisted by his son-in-law, Emerson Martínez, who had recently served in the Honduran Army and had built a house beside the Lezamas' house in Ahuas. The boat was a rented pipante, a long riverboat, painted turquoise with two red stripes. At 8 p.m. on May 10th, as the helicopters were leaving La Ceiba, the boat set off for Ahuas with thirteen passengers. The sky was clear and the moon was nearly full. Emerson stood at the bow, using the beam of a flashlight to point out pieces of floating debris. Clara sat in the middle, between two piles of her cargo. Her youngest son, Hasked, sat near the bow and watched the banks scroll by. Fourteen years old, he loved soccer and pop music. Clara still called him "my baby."

As the turquoise boat made its way up the Patuca, Hilda received a phone call from its owner, one of the leading merchants in Ahuas. He said that he needed the boat for a trip upriver to the town of Palacio, where he was working on cell-phone antennas, Hilda recalls. She told him that she expected to arrive just after 2 a.m.

Clara wrapped herself in a blanket and rested against a sack of clothing. She awoke some time later to a loud noise. Helicopters and a plane circled above.

The helicopters seemed to panic Melaño. His steering became erratic, and the boat swerved from side to side. Some passengers shouted at Emerson not to turn on his flashlight. "Then they starting shooting at us," Clara says. "Buh buh buh buh bum! Buh buh buh buh bum! " She shouted for them to stop. She called out her son's name. He did not answer. Then she was in the water. Near the riverbank, she came upon two other passengers, both young men, one with bullet wounds. Clara pulled herself out of the river. She ran to the landing, where the D.E.A. agents and the Honduran forces met her with guns drawn. "Don't kill me!" she said. The men searched Clara, found nothing, and let her go. She ran to a house near the water and telephoned Hilda's son, Hilder. The security forces intercepted him and demanded that he take them to a house that had gasoline. Hilder brought a can of gas down to the water and piloted two members of the counter-narcotics force downriver, where they met up with the stranded boat carrying the drugs. The turquoise boat was nowhere to be seen. Hilder pleaded with the men to help him look for his mother. He says that the men refused. (A spokesperson for the D.E.A. says that the security forces were never asked for such help.)

Around 5 a.m., the State Department helicopters set off for the refuelling base with the cocaine on board. They left behind the Lezamas' passengers. A crowd of villagers, mostly family members of the missing, had gathered near the landing. Two boats set off to search for the injured and the dead. They found Hilda Lezama unconscious, tangled in the branches at the water's edge. Bullets had cut two deep channels across her thighs. Soon, the bodies of three passengers were pulled out of the water and laid on the landing—Candelaria Trapp, Juana Jackson, and Hilda's son-in-law Emerson Martínez. The crowd grew. Somebody slapped the justice of the peace, and three houses said to be owned by men connected to the drug trade were burned down. The mob marched to the center of town, where they surrounded the police station, waving sticks and machetes, until soldiers arrived by helicopter and ordered them to go home.

Clara resumed searching for Hasked the following day. That night, in the port town of Brus Laguna, she received a phone call. They had pulled Hasked's body from the river and carried him to her home. "When I found him, he was in a plastic bag," she said. "I could not take him out of the bag, because he was rotting. I buried him that way."

About a mile from the river landing, within sight of a pair of cold-water mosquito-net hotels, is Ahuas's palacio municipal, a single-story building of painted concrete. The mayor, Lucio Baquedano, is middle-aged, with a long mustache and wary sun-pinched eyes. One of the few Ahuas residents who is not Miskitu, he came to the area as a soldier, more than thirty years ago. Taped to the wall of his narrow paper-strewn office is a quote from Plato: "The man without laws resembles the wildest animal."

Early on the morning of May 11th, Baquedano looked out from the veranda of his two-story house and saw the helicopters. "I assumed they were chasing them," he said, referring to the traffickers with pronouns, as do most people in Ahuas. "They don't use people from here. You see them—they come in groups. They stay for a short time, maybe two or three nights in a hotel. For this operation they bought a house."

A few hours later, the families of the injured passengers asked him to arrange for a plane to take them to a hospital. He received a report from his son, who lives in Tegucigalpa: the Honduran border police had said there was a successful counter-narcotics operation in the department of Gracias a Dios. There was no mention of U.S. involvement. By late morning, Baquedano was on national radio. He said that innocent people had been killed, and demanded an investigation. On Tuesday, May 15th, the front page of the Diario Tiempo, one of Honduras's national newspapers, carried the headline "THE DEAD IN LA MOSKITIA WERE NOT NARCOS, AUTHORITIES SAY."

In Ahuas, the villagers' anger flowed in every direction—toward the local authorities, the Army, the drug traffickers, the Americans. Two days after the mob set fire to the houses, the Mayor held an emergency meeting for the entire village. Only a few dozen showed up, but they agreed that the traffickers' construction of illegal landing strips had to stop. Downriver, in Brus Laguna, a group of Miskitu tribal councils issued a statement demanding that U.S. and Honduran forces leave their land. They accused the U.S. of "invasion" and "the slaughter of innocent people." The government deployed soldiers throughout the department to inspect cargo at river landings and maintain order in the streets.

A week after the incident, a report by a Honduran deputy police commissioner said that the shootings were caused by "confusion." The security forces had mistaken household cargo for drugs. The U.S. Embassy maintained that the Lezamas' boat had opened fire on the security forces, and that the Honduran members of the anti-drug team—not the D.E.A. agents—had fired back. That account prevailed in stories filed by foreign reporters, who described the incident as a "shoot-out" or a "firefight."

By June, the controversy had reached Capitol Hill. In response to questions from the press and Congress, the D.E.A. screened video taken by the surveillance plane of the incident's most crucial moments. The briefings were led by Richard Dobrich, a decorated Afghanistan veteran and former Navy SEAL, who heads the FAST program. Dobrich told the congressional staffers that the Lezamas' boat was working with the drug traffickers. There had been an exchange of gunfire, he said, and the Honduran security forces responded to shots coming from the Lezamas' boat.

A Senate aide who was at the briefing told me, "It was not obvious to me that what they described was what was in the video. It was very difficult to make out details." A congressional staff member agreed. "Very few questions were taken," he said. "The story that was out there at the time was entirely different from what we saw." Later, having become more familiar with the shooting, the Senate aide said, "I am not aware of anyone in the Honduran government or the State Department who, after reviewing the case, believes that the evidence establishes that the people in the boat fired at the agents."

In January, fifty-eight members of Congress sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and others, requesting more information about the incident in Ahuas. Six months later, Eric Akers, deputy chief of the D.E.A.'s congressional-affairs office, responded, writing that there had been "an exchange of gunfire." Evidence that I saw in Tegucigalpa, including official case files containing interviews with Honduran members of the anti-drug team who were at the scene, raises serious questions about the accuracy of Akers's letter to Congress. Not only did the alleged cross fire miss all three members of the anti-drug team, according to a report by the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights, but their boat "showed no signs of gunshots." The Lezamas' boat had nineteen bullet holes. "We don't have any evidence that the people in the boat had weapons on them," an attorney in the Honduran prosecutor's office said. The five surviving passengers with whom I spoke all said that there were no firearms on board.

I was not able to speak with three key witnesses who were on the boat with the drugs—the D.E.A. agent, the Honduran police inspector, and the lower-ranking policeman. But a bullet recovered from the body of one of the Lezamas' passengers was "an exact match" for the policeman's rifle, according to the Honduran prosecutor's report. A second bullet did not match any of the Hondurans' weapons. "I don't know who shot, but I did hear shooting," the policeman said. "I don't know," the inspector said, when investigators asked the source of the shots. "No one from my team that I know of." Despite repeated requests, none of the D.E.A. agents have given statements to the Honduran government, nor have Honduran investigators been allowed to conduct ballistics tests on the fast squad's weapons. (The D.E.A. has honored the terms of its bilateral agreements relating to Operation Anvil, a spokesperson said.) In a letter to Michele Leonhart, the Administrator of the D.E.A., Senator Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, wrote, "I remain troubled by what appears to be a failure to thoroughly and critically assess the role that the D.E.A. played in the operation and its aftermath."

Forensic analysis of the video that depicts the fatal shootings could possibly determine whether the "flashes of light," as the Honduran prosecutor's report called them, are consistent with gunfire, and whether they came from one boat or both. The D.E.A. has declined to release the video, and a spokesperson also refused to give an on-the-record account of what happened at Ahuas or respond to a list of twenty-two written questions. In August, 2012, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the video and related documents. A year later, having received no response from the D.E.A., I filed a federal lawsuit, which is now pending.

The Ahuas controversy came at a sensitive moment for the United States. In June, 2009, the Honduran President, Manuel Zelaya, was deposed in a military coup. The U.S. said initially that it would not recognize elections the repressive interim government held six months later, but it eventually decided to support the winner, Porfirio Lobo. (Lobo's conservative National Party prevailed against Zelaya's wife in the 2013 Presidential election.) During weeks of street protests, the new government fought to consolidate its control of the cities, a campaign that aggravated the already volatile security climate in Honduras. Mexican and Colombian traffickers took advantage of the chaos by strengthening their ties to Honduran élites and increasing shipments. Among the underpaid police, some resorted to friendly extortion; others hired themselves out or formed death squads. In 2012, there were more than seven thousand killings in Honduras—the highest murder rate in the world. The workers in the morgues of the larger cities learned where to collect the bodies each morning. "If you have a problem with the groups in power, the state will not respond," Julieta Castellanos, the rector of Honduras's National University, said. Her son was killed by police at a checkpoint in 2011. "Then you know what the real state is like."

By late 2012, the Ahuas case was one of several problems dogging U.S. efforts in Honduras. In July, 2012, the Honduran Air Force shot down two suspected drug planes without following warning protocols. The U.S. stopped sharing radar intelligence. Then Alberto Arce, of the Associated Press, began to publish a series of reports, cataloguing abuses by the Honduran National Police and allegations that the chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla, once had ties to death squads. Senator Leahy placed a hold on foreign aid for Honduras; ten million dollars has still not been released. In October, the head of the U.S. Southern Command met with the leaders of the Honduran military, and U.S. radar sharing resumed the following month. Also in October, Lisa Kubiske, the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, flew to Puerto Lempira, the provincial capital of Gracias a Dios, where she announced a new U.S.-funded educational program for La Moskitia's children, to be conducted in their native language. In November, Arce reported on a killing that occurred two weeks after the ones in Ahuas. An unarmed fifteen-year-old boy was shot and killed by Honduran soldiers after he failed to stop at a military checkpoint in Tegucigalpa. The U.S. had vetted the soldiers, trained the leader of the squad in Fort Benning, Georgia, and paid for the Ford truck that chased the boy down. "Everyone who does not stop at a military checkpoint is involved in something," the head of the Army told the local press.

Washington's behavior in Honduras appears to be undermining the lessons it wishes to teach. A Honduran police officer told me that the anti-drug teams did not preserve evidence at the scene of another fatal Anvil interdiction, in June, 2012, where a fast member reportedly shot and killed a drug trafficker who was reaching for his gun. "When we got to the scene, they have the weapons ready for us," he said, showing me an image from his cell phone of rifles laid out on the ground. "But why are the weapons together? Why can't we determine if these weapons were actually carried there? This is an alteration of the scene." He shook his head. "All they care about is the drugs. Not who dies, not the evidence, not the legal procedures. Just the drugs."

United States drug policy was built on the premise that drugs are inherently evil. Even occasional users, Edwin Meese said, in 1985, are "supporting those who deal in terror, torture, and death." He continued, "There are no neutrals in this country's war on drugs." In La Moskitia, the infrastructure for moving cocaine overlaps with civilian life in ways that make it hard to draw such clear moral lines. Bishop Sam Gray, a Moravian missionary who lived in Ahuas for six years, told me about a woman in a nearby village who was offered two hundred dollars to cut down a tree on her property so that traffickers could lengthen a landing strip. When the woman refused, they made a similar deal with a landowner at the strip's other end. "There were no repercussions," Gray said. "In Ahuas, you go about your business. Everybody knows who the folks involved are, and you don't avoid them in public life."

In the Nicaraguan part of La Moskitia, some village elders assigned profits from found cocaine to churches and public works. For a time, cocaine was called the "blessing of God." Gray told me that the men who transported cocaine by boat sometimes asked local pastors to pray for their safety. "When they come back, it's expected that they're going to show their appreciation for that," he said. "Do you refuse to pray for someone?" In the late nineties, the influence of money from cocaine led the Moravian Church to discipline twenty-seven Honduran pastors and contributed to a split within the church in Ahuas. "Drug trafficking was a Trojan-horse kind of thing," Gray said. "It was seen as a blessing that's dropped on us from the outside. And then you suddenly realize it's not all that it's supposed to be."

In Ahuas, cocaine traffic was controlled by an outsider known as El Renco—"the lame one"—or simply as El Padrón. A Honduran police report gives his name as Danilo Peña. He is said to be a short man who walks with a limp. Though Peña has seldom been seen in Ahuas since the shootings, the few people who are willing to talk about him do so quietly. Even the policemen are afraid. "People get killed for making statements," one of them told me. "All the information I give you can go on the Internet."

One afternoon in August of 2012, along with a translator, I visited the river landing, half an hour's walk from the center of Ahuas. More than thirty boats were floating in the river. Villagers carried away loads of timber, soda, gasoline, propane, and livestock. There were five houses in the vicinity, but no one could recall any contact with the traffickers on the night of May 10th, except for a teen-age boy wearing flip-flops and a baseball cap. He said that some of the village's Miskitu leaders spoke with the drug traffickers that night and told them to take the product out of the village. As the helicopters hovered overhead, the traffickers "took cover under a house," he said. "They asked us to hide them. We said no, because we would get in trouble if we did."

Mayor Baquedano had told me that we were welcome to visit the airstrips, or pistas. "Just ask around," he said. "Everyone knows where they are." We hired a man to drive us into town. He had just moved to Ahuas from the city of San Pedro Sula, he said, and seemed eager to make new acquaintances. I said we wanted to see a pista, and he agreed to show us one. We turned off the main road and onto a dirt track. After a few kilometres, we reached a creek spanned by a rotten wooden bridge, where we parked. Our driver led us to a long stretch of meadow. The narrow pista was all but invisible. Two rows of knee-high branches sharpened into stakes lined the runway. Walking back to the car, we saw the charred skeleton of a small airplane poking out from the edge of the forest. Returning to Ahuas, our driver pointed out the house of a prosperous merchant. "He's the one who used to lend the boats so they could take the drugs," he said. "He's the only one left who used to work with them. They wanted to burn his house, too, but he managed to calm them down somehow."

Some pistas are as smooth as soccer fields, with centerlines of packed dirt. Last year, the Honduran Army began Operation Armadillo, identifying the pistas from the air and returning with ground crews and dynamite to blow them open. Between February and July of 2012, Armadillo disabled fifty airstrips, according to Colonel Ronald Rivera Amador, of the Honduran Army, who ran the program from the provincial capital. But the traffickers patched up the holes with truckloads of sand and constructed new pistas that are invisible from the air—nothing more than a stretch of ground, cleared of rocks and levelled with a tractor. When the drugs are due to arrive, the receiving party lights up the pista with two rows of headlights or torches. The drugs continue their journey by boat, or overland, through Guatemala and Mexico. "There are so many routes that it becomes a maze," Amador, who used to command the Army base in Puerto Lempira, told me. The traffickers "use Miskitu to load and unload the drugs, but not for security," Amador said. "For that they use people from the interior."

We saw the driver again the next day. "El Padrón knows that you visited the airstrip," he said. We asked if it was safe to stay in Ahuas. "Ehh . . . ," he replied. "That man there"—he pointed out the window—"he is in direct contact with El Padrón. I told him you were prospectors looking at oil deposits."

"Where is El Padrón now?" we asked.

"In hiding," the driver said. "He has houses all over the country."

That night, we told an officer from a Miskitu council about our trespass. "Don't worry," he said. "I will explain who you are and what you are trying to do here." The tribal council, he said, was the real power in La Moskitia. He compared it to a hawk, moving hundreds of miles when necessary, quickly responding to threats, always returning to the same spot. "We protect the Mayor," he said.

Despite the burning of the houses and the resolution against pistas, the official position of the tribal councils on drug trafficking is a work in progress. "We have a policy of not getting involved," the officer said. "Each person chooses to participate or not, according to his own conscience." A senior leader of the Miskitu organization Masta, in Gracias a Dios, was more emphatic. "Masta says they don't want it," he told me. "They reject it." Nonetheless, he believed that cocaine would continue moving through Miskitu territory. "Not even the Americans can stop it," he said. "Because of business. Money is the strongest thing in the world. The only one who can stop these things is God."

A few days later, Melaño Lezama took a boatload of passengers from Barr Patuca to Ahuas. We went along with him. Hilda, whose legs were still healing, handled the arrangements with the divers from Ahuas. Her nephew took Emerson's place at the bow. At sunset, the birds and the insects along the Patuca's banks sounded like an orchestra tuning up. Soon, all that was visible of Melaño was the orange glow from the tip of his cigarette. We reached the landing at Ahuas, and he busied himself with unloading his passengers' cargo—dry beans, fruit, sacks of clothes. The next morning, we spoke in his living room. The Miskitu officer translated his account into Spanish and helped him sketch a diagram. Melaño said that the helicopters had made him panic. He was trying to steer his boat out of trouble, toward the bank, when the other boat suddenly appeared. Then the helicopter started shooting. "I've worked for thirty years travelling the river," he said. "Nothing like this has ever happened. When I pass the spot, I start remembering. I feel scared, but there is no other way for me. I have to keep working."

Clara Wood buried her son in Ahuas. Soon afterward, her husband joined her at their stilt house. Clara has a few things from Roatán that were fished out of the water—a table, a bowl, a five-gallon bucket—all made of plastic and punctured by what look to be bullet holes. In her photographs, Hasked flashes a bright grin. Clara told me that she wants to open a small café in the school he would have attended. "I'm going to do it in order to keep myself busy," she said. "Not to be sad all the time."

In November of 2012, I visited the base where the helicopters refuelled on their way back from Ahuas. Just beyond the fence around the base's perimeter was the shifting map of La Moskitia—"the battlespace," a U.S. Army officer had called it. "The local communities see the helicopters landing, the ongoing operations," a U.S. soldier on the base told me. "They are deterred." Similarly, U.S. Ambassador Kubiske has said that villages, like superpowers, respond to shows of force. "These are not innocent communities," she said at a public event in September, in response to a question about Ahuas. "These are communities in which people find it not dangerous, perhaps, to help the drug traffickers who live there. Afterwards, many more people began to think that it was dangerous. We've seen some changes in behavior."

In the U.S., a gram of pure cocaine is worth roughly four grams of gold. Cocaine is harder to ship but much easier to produce than gold; making it from coca leaves is about as complicated as making corn syrup from corn. The amount of coca needed to supply the global market is relatively small: a plantation of two hundred thousand hectares, roughly half the size of Long Island, would be enough. For thirty years, the U.S. has chased this plantation around the Western Hemisphere.

In the late eighteen-thirties, an imperial commissioner in China named Lin Zexu arrested dealers, and destroyed more than a million kilos of opium. But the British East India Company, which brought the drug from India, went to war, forced China to reopen its ports, and resumed importing enough opium to satisfy the millions of users. This began what is known in China as the Century of National Humiliation.

More than a hundred years later, Mao Zedong adopted a more ruthless version of Lin Zexu's approach, tearing up fields, breaking pipes, and executing dealers. In some provinces, addicts were required to register with the local police, and there were rumors that anyone who had ever smoked opium would be rounded up and killed. At the beginning of Mao's reign, more than twenty million Chinese smoked opium. Within a few years, opium use in mainland China had all but disappeared.

Why did Mao succeed where Lin Zexu had failed? The victory was due in part to Mao's characteristic willingness to terrorize his people. But even more important were changes in the supply chain. In 1890, poppy cultivation was legalized, and soon domestic opium production exploded. During the Second World War, the Japanese colonized eastern China, planted opium, and encouraged consumption. By the mid-forties, when they left, almost all of the Chinese opium supply was homegrown. Mao did not have to argue with foreign governments, or bribe them, or send his armies abroad to burn the crops of indigent farmers, only to have them replant the moment he was gone. Unlike Lin Zexu, he could attack both the demand and the supply sides of the opium trade within the borders of his own country.

In La Moskitia, the U.S. acts through the Honduran government, which must itself wage a kind of foreign campaign. A boat ride away from Ahuas in Brus Laguna, the Honduran Army has an outpost on the edge of town. Painted over the barracks' wooden shutters is a flag, split along the diagonal between the five stars of Honduras and the U.S. Stars and Stripes. On the morning we visited, dogs and roosters wandered around the yard, and soldiers washed themselves from a water tank. The commanding officer, Captain Abraham Hernández, took us to a table in the shade. "What we lack is will from the people," he said. "Whenever there's a crash nearby, the whole community goes out to look for the drugs. They say they're going fishing."

The next day, Hernández borrowed a boat from the mayor, and we set off across a nearby lagoon with a few of his soldiers. Long ago, its marshy backwaters had been a pirate sanctuary. Recently, Hernández said, there had been violent "confrontations" with traffickers. An hour later, we arrived at an impressive pista—fifteen hundred metres of level ground concealed by high grass. Beside it were the remains of five airplanes. In its center was a circle of sand, where the military had gouged open the pista. The traffickers had returned, Hernández said, and filled in the hole. At the moment, there was not much he could do. The base in Brus Laguna was eight hours' walk away. He would file a report with his superior in the provincial capital.



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Migration and Refugees

Migration and Refugees
Drug Crises


Drug Crises

Drug Crises

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