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Hondurans Caught in the Middle: U.S. Militarization and Narco Traffickers Threaten Indigenous Culture

American drug war policy is responsible for the carnage inflicted on the Miskito community.

The United States is rethinking its drug war in Central America, specifically in embattled Honduras, where the downing of two planes in July led to the suspension of a militarized anti-drug program between the two countries. This is good news, not just for the Hondurans, but for the average American as well.

It’s also a great opportunity for American officials to learn a little something about the people they suspect of drug-trafficking, the Miskito, so that the next time they shoot in the name of the drug war they actually impede the flow of drugs instead of further disrupting the legal economies of indigenous people.

The downed planes in July – still not found – weren’t the only incident that prompted the drug war ceasefire. Back in May, a joint DEA-Honduran police raid near the indigenous Miskito community of Ahuas, located inside the Honduran Mosquitia region, shot upon a passenger boat travelling on the Patuca River.

The blast of gunfire killed four people, including two pregnant mothers and a fourteen year old boy.  Four other passengers were seriously wounded. While much of the debate about this incident questions the culpability of the DEA agents, little has been said about the failure of the U.S. anti-drug policy to understand the local cultural practices in the Mosquitia.

In this cloud of ignorance it might seem reasonable that the passengers were drug smugglers, given the well-publicized crisis of the current Lobo administration in power in Honduras and the increased corruption, violence and repression throughout the country since the 2009 coup. Given this, why wouldn’t U.S. officials question the moral fabric of all Hondurans?

In fact, former D.E.A. chief James Kenney does just that. According to a recent joint-report conducted by two Washington D.C. based organizations, the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a research and public education organization focused on the promotion of democracy in the Americas and Rights Action, a non-profit organization that helps support Central American community organizations with human rights and development projects, Kenney insists: “These people out in Gracias a Dios or other departments they aren’t doing what they used to do, they aren’t growing corn, and pina or pineapple and other products, they are waiting for a narcotics plane or boat to come in”.

Mr. Kenney might be surprised to learn that the staple in Mosquitia is yuca not corn. And he should know that the Miskito people are not waiting for anything. They can’t afford to wait.    

The Miskito village of Ahuas is enclosed inside the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve. Miskito communities are located inside the Reserve’s cultural zone, a special area designed for the protection of “traditional” peoples and their cultural practices. But Miskito culture is under attack.

Government-led enclosure of the Miskito inside the Reserve has meant restrictions on natural resource access; it also legally impedes the Miskito from gaining formalized ownership to lands inside the Reserve. As well, the cultural zone has experienced a number of land invasions by non-indigenous colonists, commercial farmers and narcotraffickers.

As a cultural geographer who has lived more than four years in Honduras, two of those in the Mosquitia and who is in her tenth year of ongoing research on Miskito land conflicts, news of the suspended plan is somewhat encouraging.

Miskito livelihood security is indeed in peril. While the Miskito have been demanding rights and protections from the state to thwart against encroachment for more than twenty years, they are left to their own devices and remain resilient in the face of state neglect in the areas of health care and education, and without state protection from encroaching colonists and narcotraffickers who in some cases invade Miskito lands by brandishing AK-47s.

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