Residents of the villages of Ahuas and Patuca, in the remote Miskito Coast of northeast Honduras, took to the streets May 11 to protest a deadly DEA raid, demanding the US agency leave their territory—and burning down four government offices to make their point. In the incident in the pre-dawn hours that morning on the Río Patuca, four were killed—including two pregnant women—and another four wounded when DEA agents and Honduran National Police agents in a US State Department-contracted helicopter piloted by Guatemalan military men fired on a boat they apparently believed was filled with drug traffickers. Local residents—backed up by the mayor of local Ahuas municipality (Gracias a Dios department), Lucio Baquedano—say they were humble villagers who were fishing on the river, and had nothing to do with drug trafficking.
“These innocent residents were not involved in the drug problem, were in their boat going about their daily fishing activities…when they gunned them down from the air,” Baquedano told AP by telephone. Regarding the burning of government offices, Baquedano said, “Some of the inhabitants reacted with anger at the attack, and sought revenge against the government.” The leaders of the Masta, Diunat, Rayaka, Batiasta and Bamiasta ethnic groups* (all sub-groups of the Miskito people) said in a press statement that “the people in that canoe were fishermen, not drug traffickers… For centuries we have been a peaceful people who live in harmony with nature, but today we declared these Americans to be persona non grata in our territory.”**
US and Honduran officials dispute that account, saying that two traffickers were killed in an operation that yielded 1,000 pounds of cocaine as well as an M-4 assault rifle. US officials also asserted that no DEA agents had fired weapons, only Honduran police on the ground and a Honduran door gunner in the helicopter. The officials said the DEA agents—part of a special squad called FAST, for Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team— were allowed by rules of engagement only to shoot back if fired upon. The strike force, which included four helicopters, apparently spotted two boats on the river, one being loaded from the shore. Officials said that as one helicopter approached the boat on the shore, it drew fire from the second boat.
Speaking to the New York Times, one unnamed US official expressed doubts that villagers would be out fishing in the middle of the night, near where helicopters had landed an hour or so earlier. The official said the helicopters had been mobilized to the scene after a US surveillance plane recorded video footage of an aircraft being unloaded in the vicinity—following an alert from Colombian intelligence of an unidentified plane headed for the Honduran coast. The official said that the large number of people seen in surveillance video unloading the plane showed that many members of the impoverished community of Ahuas are involved in drug trafficking. “There is nothing in the local village that was unknown, a surprise or a mystery about this,” the official said. “What happened was that, for the first time in the history of Ahuas, Honduran law enforcement interfered with narcotics smuggling.” (NYT, May 18; NYT, AP, May 17; El Tiempo, San Pedro Sula, May 14; La Prensa, Tegucigalpa, May 12)
The controversy comes just as the Pentagon’s Southern Command has established three new “forward operating bases,” or FOBs***, to coordinate operations by the US military, DEA and Honduran armed forces and National Police in the region. The FOBs ring the Miskito Coast, long known as a transfer point for cocaine and other contraband. One is at Mocoron, in the heart of Gracias a Dios department—in sprawling Puerto Lempira municipality, an area of swampland and rainforest between Ahuas and the Nicaraguan border. A second is at Puerto Castilla, on a strategic peninsula overlooking the Caribbean port of Trujillo in Colón department, bordering Gracias a Dios on the west; the third is at El Aguacate, in Yoro department, inland and to the south of Gracias a Dios. (See map.)
The US also has forces at the new Honduran naval base at Guanaja, in the Bay Islands. Joint Task Force Bravo, SouthCom’s Central America component, keeps 600 troops at its headquarters at Soto Cano air base outside Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. In March, SouthCom commander Gen. Douglas Fraser told Congress that “the violence continues to increase in Central America, and that’s where and why we are focusing there.” (InSight Crime, May 7; NYT, May 5; US Southern Command “2012 Posture Statement,” March 12; InSight Crime, Nov. 23, 2011)
*These “ethnic groups,” as AP calls them, actually appear to be the names of Miskito villages.
**Use of the term “Americans” to refer to US personnel seems unlikely; the word norteamericanos is pretty ubiquitous for this denotation in Latin America, and we question AP’s translation. We were unable to find the original text of the statement online, but an English translation from the Honduras-watch wesbite Quotha.net renders the line as: “We agree: 1. To declare persona non grata the presence of Honduran and US military forces in the Moskitia territory…”
***The two pre-existing such facilities in Central America and the Caribbean—at Comalapa, El Salvador, and Aruba/Curaçao (seemingly spanning both islands)—are designated as Forward Operating Locations, or FOLs. We are unclear on the distinction between FOLs and FOBs. The facility at Manta, Ecuador, vacated by the US in 2009, was also rendered as a FOL.