WASHINGTON >> After several villagers were killed on a Honduran river last month during a raid on drug smugglers by Honduran and U.S. agents, a local backlash raised concerns that the United States’ expanding counternarcotics efforts in Central America might be going too far. But U.S. officials in charge of that policy see it differently.
Throughout 2011, counternarcotics officials watched their radar screens almost helplessly as more than 100 small planes flew from South America to isolated landing strips in Honduras. But last month — after establishing a new strategy emphasizing more cooperation across various U.S. departments and agencies — two smugglers’ flights were intercepted within a single week, a development that explains why U.S. officials say they are determined to press forward with the approach.
“In the first four months of this year, I’d say we actually have gotten it together across the military, law enforcement and developmental communities,” said William R. Brownfield, the assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs. “My guess is narcotics traffickers are hitting the pause button. For the first time in a decade, air shipments are being intercepted immediately upon landing.”
With Washington’s attention swinging from Iraq and Afghanistan — and with budget dollars similarly flowing in new directions — the U.S. is expanding and unifying its anti-drug efforts in Central America, where violence has skyrocketed as enforcement efforts in the Caribbean, Colombia and Mexico have pushed cocaine traffic to smaller countries with weaker security forces.
As part of those efforts, the U.S. is pressing governments across Central America to work together against their shared threat — sharing intelligence and even allowing security forces from one nation to operate on the sovereign soil of another — an approach that was on display in the disputed raid. But reviews from Central America include uncertainty and skepticism.
Government leaders in Honduras — who came to power in a controversial election a few months after a 2009 coup — have strongly supported assistance from the U.S., but skeptics contend that enthusiasm is in part because the partnership bolsters their fragile hold on power.
More broadly, there is discontent in Latin America with U.S. efforts that some leaders and independent experts see as too focused on dramatic seizures of shipments bound for North America rather than local drug-related murders, corruption and chaos.
“Violence has grown a lot; crimes connected to trafficking keep increasing — that’s Central America’s big complaint,” President Otto Perez Molina of Guatemala said in an interview. He added that the drug cartels are better organized than they were 20 years ago and that “if there are no innovations, if we don’t see something truly different than what we have been doing, then this war is on the road to defeat.”
Perez Molina, a former general, has been criticized by U.S. officials for proposing a form of drug legalization, but he argues that his goal is to create discussion of new ideas — like compensating Central American countries for the drugs they confiscate, or creating a regional court for organized crime.
In the area of Honduras called the Mosquito Coast, where the two recent operations occurred, residents have simpler demands. “If you’re going to come to the Mosquito Coast, come to invest,” said Terry Martinez, the director of development programs for the Gracias a Dios area. “Help us get our legitimate goods to market. That will help secure the area.”
U.S. officials say they know that interdiction alone is not enough. The number of U.S. officials assigned to programs that are designed to strengthen Central America’s weak criminal justice systems has quadrupled, to about 80 over the past five years.
And the U.S. Agency for International Development has, since 2009, helped open more than 70 outreach centers for young people, offering job training and places to go after school, officials report.
“If your drug policy is an exclusively ‘hard side’ negative policy, it will not succeed,” said Brownfield, a former ambassador to Colombia. “There has to be a positive side: providing alternative economic livelihoods, clinics, roads — the sorts of things that actually give poor communities a stake in their future so they do not participate in narcotics trafficking.”
Despite the shift that officials described, federal budgets and performance measures outlined in government documents show that the priorities of the drug war have not significantly changed. Even as cocaine consumption in the U.S. has fallen, the government’s antidrug efforts abroad continue to be heavily weighted toward seizing cocaine.
Most financing for the Central American Regional Security Initiative has gone to security and interdiction work, according to a recent congressional report.
“The problem is that the budget doesn’t match the rhetoric,” said John Carnevale, who served as the director of planning, budget and research for the Office of National Drug Control Policy from 1989 to 2000. “The budget that is currently being funded for drug control is still very much like the one we’ve had for 10 or 12 years, or really over the past couple of decades.”
U.S. officials counter that interdiction efforts include programs to increase the professionalism of local police units. And increasingly, Central American governments are helping to train one another’s forces, using common equipment, and sharing counternarcotics intelligence.
U.S. agencies are also combining their efforts in new ways. Officials say the May 11 raid near the town of Ahuas — and another one earlier in May in Honduras, during which there was also a firefight but no one is believed to have been killed — illustrated that joint effort.
The May 11 raid started with Colombian intelligence passing along a tip about the plane to a joint intelligence task force under the U.S. military’s Southern Command, which has its headquarters in Miami.
A U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft then tracked the plane as it landed, leading to a raid that was carried out by four State Department helicopters. They flew out of one of three new forward operating bases built this year by the U.S. military’s Joint Task Force-Bravo in Honduras.
Guatemalan pilots flew the aircraft — after overcoming some resistance from Honduran officials — because Honduras lacks qualified pilots. The helicopters carried a strike force of Honduran police officers who had been specially vetted and trained by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents, several of whom are part of a special commando-style squad that was on board as advisers.
The helicopters struck about 2 a.m., after about 30 men had unloaded 17 bales of cocaine from the plane into a pickup truck, which had carried it to a boat in the nearby Patuca River. Men working on the boat scattered as the helicopters swooped down, and a ground force moved in to secure the cargo.
What happened next remains under investigation in Honduras. Officials say a second boat approached and opened fire on the agents on the ground. They and a door gunner aboard the helicopter returned fire in a quick burst.
But rather than hitting drug traffickers, villagers contend, the government forces instead hit another boat that was returning from a long trip upriver — killing four unarmed people, including two pregnant women. While the DEA’s rules of engagement allowed agents to fire back to protect themselves and their counterparts, both U.S. and Honduran government officials insist that no Americans fired.
Nonetheless, broader questions remain. Even if the air route to Honduras is shut down, as long as the U.S. — and, increasingly, Africa and Europe — remains a lucrative market for cocaine, traffickers will continue to seek a way to move their product.
U.S. officials say they are already bolstering efforts in the Caribbean, anticipating another shift in direction for drugs.