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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.

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These actions and the state’s environmental policies that allow non-indigenous peoples to increasingly exploit Reserve forests, are threatening Miskito livelihoods. Increasingly, the Miskito are caught in the middle between the American-funded state and the narcos, snagged in a war over the defacto right to smuggle drugs in a cultural economic terrain dependent on access to natural resources and the movement of people.

The violence that accompanies the presence of the narcos leaves no doubt something must be done to stem the traffic of illegal drugs into Honduras, but that something needs to be on behalf of local Hondurans as well as Americans. For example within a new anti-drug policy the security of Miskito livelihoods could be a priority so that young people remain empowered to resist the temptation and economic windfall rumored to come from drug smuggling.

Much of the Miskito economy depends on boat travel. Villagers travel by boat along the region’s river networks. With few roads in this economically poor and isolated region, residents of the Mosquitia eke out a living through subsistence farming, fishing, hunting and the collection of forest products.

These activities take place beyond villages along the coast and in agricultural and forest regions up river. Often travelling for hours before dawn ensures that one arrives up river early to have time to work on fields and escape the hottest part of the day. Farmers looking to sell or trade agricultural surplus will travel late at night particularly when going long distances.

In addition, a large portion of Miskito men participate in the highly exploitative Bay Island Lobster Industry. For those from Ahuas, travel by night up the Patuca River ensures that they meet the fishing fleet at the coast before it heads deeper into the Caribbean.

Villages rely on the influx of money from the lobster industry either via husbands, sons or fathers and cash salaries from the industry also provide economic stimulus to small home stores and provide Miskito women with a market for domestic services. Lastly, the Mosquitia also has a small but growing tourism industry that requires that tourists travel during the dark mornings to catch transport to and from the Mosquitia. Economic life in the Mosquitia depends greatly on the ability to travel the river at night.

That’s how the American drug war policy is responsible for the May 11th carnage in Ahuas. Diplomats and law enforcement officials justified the killings by criminalizing local residents and their cultural practices. 

According to an article published in the Washington Post, U.S. officials who presume a tight connection between local people and drug smugglers “…wondered why innocent civilians would be on the water in the middle of the night”. This statement is indicative of the failure of U.S. anti-drug policy that spends American taxpayer money to violate the rights of indigenous people in Honduras.

The American people shouldn’t just be relieved that this drug war plan is on hold. In the wake of two wars that have drained the country economically, Americans must demand that the taxes from hardworking people in the U.S. not be used to murder the hardworking people of Honduras.


Sharlene Mollett is an assistant professor of geography at Dartmouth College and an OpEd Project Public Voices Fellow.

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