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

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.

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.

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