Collateral Damage of a Drug WarAlexander Main on the May 11 Killings in Ahuas and the Impact of the U.S. War on Drugs in La Moskitia, Honduras
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Baltimore.
On Tuesday, the U.S. State Department announced it was going to withhold funding that might be spent by the new head of the national police force in Honduras, because he's been accused of being involved in death squads. Now joining us to talk about this and U.S. support for the Honduran militarization of its drug war is Alex Main. Alex is a senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), and he focuses on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean. Thanks for joining us, Alex.
ALEX MAIN, SENIOR ASSOCIATE, CEPR: Thank you, Paul.
JAY: So first of all let's start with what happened with this new head of the national police force and why the State Department has taken the position it's taken. And then we're going to talk more about a new report that you've been involved with, which I believe is called Collateral Damage in a—let me get it right. I'll do it again. Collateral Damage of a Drug War.
MAIN: That's correct, yes.
JAY: Okay. Well, start with the story. What did the State Department announce and why?
MAIN: Well, the State Department didn't really announce anything. What happened is that there is a State Department memo that explained the decision it had taken that was circulating in Congress and that afterwards circulated to the press, and I believe it first appeared in an Associated Press story. That memo has not yet been made public, but apparently what it details—among other things, I think it discusses Honduras's human rights record in general and how the Honduran government is dealing with it, and it actually says quite positive things on that account that I think a lot of us would probably disagree with.
But it also discusses some of the issues with Juan Carlos Bonilla, the current police commissioner of the National Police of Honduras, and his involvement in death squads, his alleged involvement in death squads. But it went beyond just the state of rumors. There was an investigation opened on him that was dropped, it's not very clear why, but back in the early 2000s. At any rate, so these allegations have been hanging over him.
This is something that the U.S. government has known about for quite some time. And, in fact, when Juan Carlos Bonilla was first named a few months ago to this position, the U.S. supported the appointment, although the allegations had already resurfaced in the press.
JAY: Now, it suggests that the State Department maybe is listening. Human rights activists in Honduras and human rights organizations abroad have been calling for cutting off of funding to Honduran security forces. So is this a step in the right direction?
MAIN: Well, I think it can certainly be seen as a small step. But now let's remember it's not really cutting off the aid; it's a temporary hold on some assistance. At the moment, I believe, it's about $15 million worth of assistance that's going to the Honduran police forces, and only those forces that are directly under the supervision of Juan Carlos Bonilla. So it's just part of them, and it's not going to those forces that have been previously vetted by the U.S. and that are supervised—apparently supervised by the U.S., although this is actually something that the U.S. doesn't typically acknowledge. But it is something that comes in this memo.
JAY: Now, one of the recommendations of the report that you're just releasing is in fact that the U.S. should cut off—listen to what human rights activists are saying and stop support for Honduran security forces. How much support is there? And why should they stop?
MAIN: Well, there is a great deal of support. It's not actually easy to identify exactly how much, because a great deal of the funding that goes to the Honduras security forces goes through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and we don't actually have an itemized account of where the money is going. We only know through announcements that typically come from U.S. Embassy in Honduras approximately how much is going at what time. A few months ago there was the announcement that about $50 million was about to be dispersed to the Honduran police. It appears that it's those funds that have actually been put on hold. But there's a great deal more. And there's also money coming from the Department of Defense that we have an even harder time tracking and that goes to the Honduran military.
So there's a great deal of funding that's going on. It's a big investment for the U.S., and it has a lot to do with Honduras's geopolitical position in the hemisphere, and also the fact that the U.S. has an important base in that country.
But just to get back quickly to the report, as you were mentioning it, what's a bit ironic about the hold that's been put on these funds is that funds will continue to flow to the forces that were involved in a shooting that took place May 11 in Ahuas, Honduras, remote region of the Mosquitia region.
JAY: Yeah. So tell us what happened, 'cause this is really—the report is a real focus on this particular shooting, where it's alleged that civilians were killed by Honduran forces and American DEA forces. So what did you find? What's the big picture? And I should tell viewers, we are going to do a second interview with Annie Bird, who did this report with Alex, that will get into a lot of detail about what happened.
MAIN: Right. So just to give a very broad overview, I mean, what happened is that on May 11 there was a counternarcotics operation involving both the DEA and Honduran police, again, a unit of the Honduran police that's been specially vetted and that appears to be under the direct supervision of the Drug Enforcement Administration. It went into the municipality of Ahuas with four helicopters, apparently. A shooting occurred in which four individuals died.
It turned out that those individuals included two women, one of whom we managed to confirm for certain was pregnant, a 14-year-old boy, and a 21-year-old young man. They were all killed. And we did quite a bit of research. We talked to families, we talked to witnesses, we got a real sense of where these people were coming from, and we have a pretty persuasive case built that they actually had very legitimate reasons for being there, although they were identified as drug traffickers, including the pregnant woman, apparently, by the Honduran authorities afterwards.
So there was essentially something of a coverup, or what certainly appeared to be a coverup, as to what had happened on May 11 initially from Honduran authorities. Then both Honduran human rights groups and some media got into the region. It's a remote part of Honduras, but they managed to get there and get a completely different story of what happened. And when that emerged, since then, the Honduran government has launched an investigation. However, that investigation is absolutely not moving forward.
JAY: Now, the point here, I guess, the thesis of your report, is that these drug interdiction operations are being treated as military operations, and in military operations you can have collateral damage, which means you can kill civilians that are not involved and so be it. If it was a policing action (at least one would think), you can't imagine in the U.S. that they would shoot up an entire city block in order to get to some drug dealers. So is that the point you're trying to make here?
MAIN: Well, yes. Certainly, you know, the impression that we get, it was an impression that we had very early on from all the reports that we received from the region. But then when we got there it was really confirmed that these were innocent people that were traveling at night, as often occurs in this region, and they were mistaken for drug traffickers. For the moment, neither the U.S. nor Honduras has stated that they're anything but drug traffickers, so they remain sort of behind that position, though they haven't really said a whole lot more on the incident for now nearly three months. But certainly that's our impression, that they were—.
JAY: Now, you went to Honduras and you interviewed people who were at the site. So what's the big picture of what you found? And then Annie can fill in the details.
MAIN: Well, absolutely. I mean, what we found is that, you know, there are very, very credible explanations for why these individuals were on the river that night. We got a real sense of the story of each one of them.
Another thing that we found was that the DEA really appears to have played a very central role in the whole operation. That's certainly what eye witnesses were telling us, but it's also what U.S. officials in Honduras themselves were indicating. And it seems to now be broadly acknowledged that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had direct supervision, direct responsibility over the Honduran agents that were there. So regardless of who shot and killed these boat passengers, ultimately we consider that the DEA and the U.S. government has a lot of responsibility in what happened. But they haven't been willing to acknowledge that responsibility.
JAY: So there's no real sense of there'll be accountability for killing what are, you think, innocent civilians.
MAIN: Well, that's the real tragedy here. There is really no accountability. There's no accountability coming from Honduran authorities. And that's not something that's very surprising given the collapsed state of Honduras's institutions. And, of course, there's been an institutional breakdown in the country since the 2009 coup, and the judiciary is extremely politicized, pro-governmental, and very rarely, if ever, takes any sort of action against police abuses. So we can't expect much from them.
But then from the U.S., they're saying, well, we are supporting the Honduran investigation. So they're putting their faith in the Honduran judiciary, despite all of its weaknesses, weaknesses that are recognized by the U.S. State Department itself in its human rights report that it publishes every year. And yet the U.S. is supporting that investigation, and they are not taking any responsibility. They're not launching an investigation themselves on what might have happened on May 11.
JAY: Okay. Thanks very much for joining us, Alex.
MAIN: Alright. Thank you, Paul.
JAY: And stay tuned. You'll see very soon—maybe not the same day you're watching this, maybe it's the next day, depending on when you watch this video, but we will soon have an interview with Annie Bird, and she will tell us the story of what happened that night on a river in Honduras.
Thanks for joining us on The Real News Network.
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