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Militarizing the Police and Killing Natives: How the US Drug War Is Ripping Honduras Apart

Human rights organizations investigating a deadly raid where DEA agents killed four people found a peaceful indigenous community under siege.

Honduran Army personnel stand side-by-side with members of the US Navy.
Photo Credit: US Navy/Wikimedia Commons


Since the Central American peace processes began 25 years ago, a tremendous effort has been made to remove militaries from policing, an effort now apparently being reversed in the US’s increasingly militarized and multinational war against drugs.

On May 11, the US Drug Enforcement Administration led an operation that ended in the deaths of four indigenous Miskitu villagers on the Patuca River near the town of Ahuas, Gracias a Dios, Honduras. US and Honduran officials claimed the boat that came under fire was part of a trafficking operation. Neighbors, local authorities and human rights organizations claimed they were innocent bystanders.

Though the US Embassy provided technical assistance for the Public Prosecutors’ investigation, little probing occurred. In the weeks following the shooting US and Honduran officials made statements criminalizing the victims, Miskitu communities and local authorities.

In response, the Miskitu indigenous federation, MASTA, requested that two Washington-based organizations undertake an independent investigation. Through witness testimony, and interviews with Honduran and US Embassy officials, Rights Action and the Center for Economic and Policy Research brought into focus a disturbing picture of a peaceful indigenous community ripped apart by the US drug war. This disturbing picture has been created by the transfer of counter-insurgency strategies used in Afghanistan to Central America and a regional push to create militarized police forces.

The report was released August 15. Then, on August 27, Honduran Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodio, highly criticized for his role in the June 2009 military coup and coverup of abuses that followed, announced that his commission had also completed its investigation and intends to request that the US House and Senate Judiciary Committees investigate the shootings.

Gracias a Dios is Honduras’ largest region, and the country's most peaceful. While Honduras suffers from the highest reported murder rate in the world, 86 per 100,000 residents, courts in Gracias a Dios, with a population of 76,000, registered six murders in 2011 and two in 2010. The last violent death in Ahuas occurred in 2004; it hardly seems like a hotbed of drug trafficking.

Survivors of the shooting explained that the boat had taken lobster divers to a commercial fishing boat in Barra Patuca, about six hours away. They brought passengers on the return trip, including two families moving to Ahuas from Roatan, a diver who had been treated for decompression sickness and family members of divers.

Just moments before arriving in Ahuas, the boat driver saw an apparently unmanned boat float by, and the passengers were awakened by low flying helicopters that soon opened fire on them. Survivors and the wounded explain they struggled to get to shore while two helicopters dropped security forces just 20 meters away at the town’s boat landing. Hilder Lezama got a call from a survivor who had swam to shore and borrowed a neighbors’ telephone to tell him that his mother, the 53-year-old boat owner, was wounded in the river. He hurried to the landing, just as the helicopters descended. 

The first helicopter dropped what appeared to be Honduran police, though some spoke mostly English, and were described as “gringos.” A second helicopter landed, and stayed on the ground for over two hours. All on board were white English-speaking men--even the door gunner and pilots. All wore tan camouflage with American flags on their shoulders. To one resident who had studied near the Soto Cano Airforce base where the US Army Joint Task Force Bravo is stationed, the outfits looked like US army uniforms.

The white, English-speaking men forced Lezama to wait at gunpoint for what seemed an hour, and then ferried cocaine from a stranded boat downriver that held two gringo “soldiers” already onboard. He was not allowed to look for his mother who lay wounded on a log in the river. Security agents on shore also prevented neighbors from assisting those in the river.

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