Honduras Adopting Failed Counternarcotics Model?

The rapid escalation of operations by U.S. and Honduran military and counterdrug teams against suspected drug-traffickers transiting Honduras suggests that Washington has persuaded Tegucigalpa to follow Mexico’s footsteps with a predominantly military strategy against the cartels.  The New York Times has published reports on the deployment of binational teams – patterned after U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – in remote areas of Honduras to disrupt clandestine aircraft dropping off Colombian cocaine for shipment by river to the north coast and then northward to the United States.  The aircraft, weapons, advisors, trainers, and intelligence used by the “Tactical Response Teams” are all provided by Washington.  U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske said the Honduran units are “eager and capable partners in this joint effort.”

The units claim to have intercepted tons of cocaine, but the operations have also stirred up controversy.  In one operation near the northeastern town of Ahuas in May, a response team killed four citizens, including two pregnant women.  Although the circumstances of the victims’ presence in the area are not entirely clear, the mayor has protested the U.S.-inspired tactics, and local indigenous groups issued a statement that “declared these Americans to be persona non grata in our territory.”  One June 23, a DEA agent shot and killed a man during a raid in northern Honduras when the suspect reportedly pulled a gun on him.

This military-intensive strategy has yielded some 60,000 dead in Mexico – with negligible impact on cartel operations – and in Honduras, where institutions are much weaker, the violence probably will be proportionally even higher.  The U.S. Ambassador’s confidence in Honduran units notwithstanding, the military’s human rights record – never stellar – has steadily worsened since the coup that removed President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009.  Vetting units and keeping them clean when institutions are so weak and vulnerable to corruption and protecting operatives’ identities in Honduras’s “small-town” society all argue for an approach different from that which has failed in Mexico.

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