Is the US Covering Up a Drug-War Massacre? - Page 2

By Jed Bickman 06/14/12

The DEA allegedly shot up a boat of innocent civilians in a Honduras raid. While the Obama administration remains silent, reports on the ground tell a chilling tale of a US-funded military regime on drug-trafficker payrolls.

Clara Rivas, whose son, 14, was killed in the raid.
Photo via

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Since the coup, drug traffic through Honduras has boomed. The State Department now claims that 79 percent of all cocaine flown out of South America has a stopover in Honduras—offering local officials an opportunity to line their pockets with cartel cash. As a result, the US government finds itself in the seemingly counterproductive position of supporting a government that is supporting, and being supported by, its sworn enemy, the drug traffickers. 

“If drug trafficking has increased so much since the military coup, why is it that the US government supported the military coup so blatantly and openly?” Karen Spring said. 

It is a question that raises many unsettling answers for defenders of the War on Drugs. 

The US State Department claims that the Lobo government in Honduras is taking steps to clean up its act. Last year, the US forced the OAS to readmit Honduras, saying, “Thanks to the steadfast efforts of President Lobo and his commitment to national reconciliation, and the tireless efforts of several OAS member states, democracy was restored,” apparently referring to the 2010 elections that were almost universally dismissed as fraudulent. The State Department pointed to Lobo’s appointment of a minister for justice and human rights as a sign of good faith, despite the fact that violence and abuses have not declined.

The US government finds itself in the counterproductive position of supporting a government that is supporting the drug traffickers. 

Perhaps a more candid perspective was given recently by the US ambassador to Honduras, Lisa Kubiske, who said, “We have an opportunity now, because the military is no longer at war in Iraq. Using the military funding that won’t be spent, we should be able to have resources to be able to work here.”  If the US is following the model for countering a narco-insurgency in Afghanistan, as has been widely reported, including in a New York Times article published just days before the May 11 massacre, then perhaps we should understand the US’s support for Lobo’s government in light of its equivalent support for the Karzai government in Afghanistan.

In the name of the War on Drugs, US forces have taken on a much more aggressive role in Honduras. Following counter-insurgency models developed first in Colombia and then applied in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, they have built “Forward Operating Bases” in remote parts of the country, such as the base from which the US helicopters took off on May 11. “There’s an idea of exporting the role the US took in Plan Colombia all over the world, first to Afghanistan, since they had both an insurgency and a drug problem, then to Iraq, and now back to Honduras,” Alexander Main told The Fix. “There’s an interesting ricochet effect going on. And there are those who would say it hasn’t worked. In Colombia, for example, the cartels were broken, but there were a lot of abuses and civilian killings.”

Honduras gained importance for the US as a military base and center of influence in the region when it served as a base for the US contra war against Nicaragua in the '80s. Many of the local politicians and forces who regained power during the coup, such as the chief of police, had first been in power during that previous era of US complicity.

But since the coup, the UN has listed Honduras as the most dangerous nation on the planet, with one death every 74 minutes. It is especially dangerous to be a reporter or a human-rights observer in Honduras. Reporters Without Borders reports that 17 journalists have been killed in the three years since the military seized control. Benoit Hervieu, who leads the Americas desk of Reporters Without Boarders, said, “Unfortunately, the War on Drugs has provided plenty of opportunities for political revenge.”

In March, 94 members of the US House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Clinton asking her to “suspend US assistance to Honduran military and police given the credible allegations of widespread, serious violations of human rights attributed to the security forces.” The letter was met with silence from Clinton herself; in a daily press briefing at the State Department, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the proposal to cut off funding to Honduras a “blunt instrument.”  

Obama’s budget for 2013 more than doubles US military assistance to Honduras, and Vice President Joseph Biden, on a controversial visit to the country in March that coincided with the representatives’ letter, promised military and police funds of $107 million in the upcoming year. On top of that, Honduras received $50 million in Pentagon contracts last year; 62% of all Defense Department funds for Latin America went to the post-coup government in Honduras in 2011.

Not all the US money is used for the stated goal of executing its counter-insurgency drug-war plan. At least some funds are diverted for the purpose of silencing the opposition and repressing criticism of the government, according to Karen Spring. “Many people in Honduras see the US as using the War on Drugs to justify militarization in Honduras. The reason for this widespread suspicion is that there’s a growing social movement in the streets to say no to the coup and the people who have taken power, and the increased funding from the US to the military and the police is being used to repress this movement,” Spring told The Fix.

UN Special Rapporteur to Honduras Margaret Sekaggya gave an account of an atmosphere in Honduras were journalists are routinely killed, human rights observers are threatened by police, and the rights of indigenous peoples are trampled upon. She collected evidence that police at senior levels had impeded investigations and obfuscated justice.

On March 24, 2011, 6,000 teachers, mainly women, took to the streets to protest the suspension of their salaries. The protesters were met with tear gas and live ammunition—one was killed, and 20 women were arrested on “sedition” charges.

Drugs are not the only economic interest in Honduras. The post-coup government has been selling concessions to multinationals for the right to extract the nation’s natural resources. For example, Ahuas, where the massacre occurred, is in a region rich in oil.

Spring, who remains on the ground in Honduras, told The Fix, “Since the massacre, there’s an increased militarization of the area where Ahuas is….I was speaking with an indigenous leader yesterday who said that the US and Honduran military have ongoing joint operations in parts of his country, specifically where there are strong petroleum interests.”

Other concessions, like mining and hydroelectric dams, have also been sold to multinational or North American companies. The Honduran congress is privatizing the country’s electrical systems, water systems and ports. Meanwhile, labor rights are under assault, as the government builds autonomous economic zones in which transnational investors and corporations write their own laws and avoid taxes.

Many Hondurans, as well as such outside observers as Main and Spring, support the call by members of the House of Representatives to end military support to their country. Most of the names on the letter are Democrats. “A clear, strong demand coming from the Honduran people is the suspension of US police and military assistance,” Main told The Fix. “But in the US congress, those who back the Obama administration’s policy are the most right-wing members, such as those from South Florida.”

Some of the US drug-war funding is diverted by the coup government for the purpose of silencing the opposition and repressing criticism.

He added, “Honduras is a showcase for everything that’s wrong with the US militarization of Latin America in the name of the drug war. But most Americans don’t even know that this is taking place.”

The same could be said of the massacre in Ahuas, which gained fleeting attention here at home, but has so far failed to spark a national conversation about the US’s increasingly aggressive prosecution of the War on Drugs in Latin America. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—not to mention predator strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere—have shown, the American people appear to have a high tolerance for so-called collateral damage in terms of the killing of innocent civilians.

The citizenry in the nations under attack are understandably less willing to acquiesce in the escalating violence. And unlike in Honduras, more and more leaders from Central and South America, like Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina, are showing a newfound independence from US influence as they call for wholesale reform in US drug policies.

This political conflict is set to intensify in response to the growing militarization of the region by the US. Meanwhile, the American people will likely have plenty of opportunities to develop greater sensitivity to the massacres of their neighbors. Said Alexander Main, “We should expect more collateral damage of the kind we saw on May 11 in Honduras.”

Jed Bickman is a frequent contributor to The Fix. He also writes for The Nation, CounterPunch and other websites and magazines. 

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Jed Bickman is a journalist and copywriter living in the greater New York City area. He is the associate editor at The New Press. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.