Despite mounting criticism of US security efforts in Honduras in the wake of a controversial operation which killed four people, President Porfirio Lobo has asked the US to deepen its role in the fight against drug trafficking in the country.
A controversial joint operation carried out by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents and Honduran police in the northeastern Gracias a Dios department has sparked a major backlash against US drug policy in the country. In the early hours of May 11, officers opened fire during a drug interdiction operation in the municipality of Ahuas, killing several individuals the Honduran authorities claim were drug traffickers. Officials from both countries said that DEA officials participated in an advisory role in the operation, but did not fire shots. Up to 900 kg of cocaine was reportedly seized at the site.
Locals reject this version of events, however. Area officials, including Ahuas Mayor Lucio Baquedano, claim that the security forces fired on innocent civilians and killed four, two of whom were pregnant women. According to the Washington Post, relatives of the victims say that many on the boat were on route to spend Mother’s Day in town, and had no involvement in the drug trade. Survivors of the operation back this claim.
Community organizations in the predominantly indigenous region have expressed outrage at the killings and demanded that the DEA cease operations in the area. Several such groups released a joint statement, declaring “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.” There were also reports of riots in Ahuas in the aftermath of the operation, in which angry residents allegedly burned government offices in protest.
Both the US and Honduran governments deny any wrongdoing, insisting that those killed were likely drug traffickers. An anonymous US official who was briefed on the incident told the New York Times that the passengers on the boat fired shots at a police helicopter, and were killed when the helicopter’s door gunner returned fire.
The official claimed that surveillance video showing a large number of people offloading drugs from a plane near the incident was proof of widespread collusion with drug trafficking in Ahuas, insinuating that if there were local people killed in the shootout, they had at least some involvement in the drug trade. “What happened was that, for the first time in the history of Ahuas, Honduran law enforcement interfered with narcotics smuggling,” the official said.
Despite officials’ rejection of misconduct allegations, the incident has fueled criticism of DEA presence in Honduras, which was already a source of controversy. In light of this, a recent call by President Porfirio Lobo to increase anti-drug aid to his country may seem poorly timed. On May 17, the president told reporters that he had instructed his foreign minister -- who was on a routine visit to Washington at the time -- to pressure the US for "greater efforts" in the fight against drug trafficking. “Why would I buy planes [for counter-narcotics operations], why shouldn't the United States give them to us, if we talk about shared responsibility?" the president asked.
But while Lobo’s calls for more US commitment may not be politically popular in Honduras, the confrontational tone of his announcement puts pressure on the US. It is likely a strategic move, in an effort to win greater aid to the Central American country. Hours after his announcement, Lobo boarded a plane to Washington, in a visit which was not announced in advance. The purpose of the visit is still unknown, but La Tribuna reports that it has to do with his push for more drug aid.
The timing of this push is favorable for Lobo. It would be relatively easy for him to succumb to popular demand and restrict or end DEA operations, taking a leaf out of the book of the presidents of Bolivia and Venezuela, although this would be an unlikely move from the Washington-friendly president. Considering the importance of Honduras as a major transit country for US-bound cocaine, this would be extremely detrimental to US anti-narcotics strategy, and provides Lobo with significant leverage.
Ultimately, however, the strategy would carry risks for Lobo as well. If the DEA takes part in another controversial operation and opposition to US presence intensifies, the president might be forced to limit DEA activity. Additionally, the provision of more funds to Honduras could mean more US pressure on the Lobo administration to deliver results. Reining in corruption and drug trafficking in the country has proved difficult. Much of the $2.2 million promised to Honduras by the US via the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) this year, for instance, has been earmarked for programs intended to clean up the notoriously corrupt police force, a process which has seen little concrete success. Lobo has had similar difficulty bringing down the country's homicide rate, which at 86 per 100,000 residents is the world's highest.
If he cannot translate increased US cooperation into significant results, it will be hard for Lobo to convince the US to give more economic support in the future. Considering concern in Congress over alleged human rights abuses in Honduras, as well as the cutbacks the US is making to drug and military aid to the region, the bar for Lobo will be set even higher.