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The Drug War Devolves in Honduras

Why the military model doesn't work.

What began as something of an innovative mission, with U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopters ferrying soldiers over mountains and through jungle forests to distant military outposts in Honduras, has ended quietly and in disarray.

In the spring, recent vets of Iraq and Afghanistan were sent to work with Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) units, Honduran security, and a new U.S. State Department narcotics unit, to interdict illicit cocaine flights from South America under “Operation Anvil.” Without intervention, the drugs would suffuse a burgeoning network of gangs, police, and even politicians, and then appear in the U.S. and elsewhere, fueling a global $85 billion market.

In May, the New York Times introduced an American veteran as the face of the new operation under the headline, “Lessons of Iraq Help U.S Fight a Drug War in Honduras.” Col. Ross A. Brown, commander of Joint Task Force Bravo, was tapped to oversee military drug interdiction efforts throughout the seven Central American countries in its area of operations. Brown had spent two years in Iraq as commander of the Third Armored Calvary Regiment’s Third Squadron. Reporter Thom Shanker explained, “[Col. Brown] is under orders to maintain a discreet footprint, supporting local authorities and the [DEA].”

But just six months after Shanker defined the mission as the “new way of war,” Operation Anvil has come to an unceremonious close. Joint operations between U.S and Honduran security forces have been suspended, and members of Congress have urged that police and military aid to Honduras — which totals at least $75 million for this year — be withheld.

The abrupt conclusion to what was hailed as “an effort to draw on hard lessons learned from a decade of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq,” came after a second plane was shot down by the Honduran Air Force equipped with American radar over the summer. No one knows whether the people killed in those planes were drug smugglers or not, and the planes, conveniently, are missing. These weren’t the only dubious deaths to have occurred under the jurisdiction of Operation Anvil. In June, a DEA agent shot and killed a suspected drug smuggler, igniting protests from human rights groups. The DEA claimed its officer fired in self-defense.

The Times suggests that while there were “strict rules of engagement” prohibiting American military combat in Central America, “a delicate issue given Washington’s messy history in Honduras” (think Iran Contra), the rules guiding the DEA commandos from the FAST (Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team) units were less unambiguous:

According to a senior American official who was not authorized to speak on the record, there were no detailed rules governing American participation in law enforcement operations. Honduran officials also described cases in which the rules of engagement for the D.E.A. and the police were vague and ad hoc. “In these kinds of situations, who can really say how the decision to shoot is made?” said Héctor Iván Mejía, a spokesman for the Honduran National Police. …

More broadly, it was often unclear who was in charge. Sometimes neither Honduran nor American authorities seemed to know who was ultimately responsible for the policy.The D.E.A.’s role was especially contentious. Its commandos were part of a tactical assault program known as FAST, for Foreign-deployed Advisory and Support Team, which has been credited with victories against drug traffickers from Peru to Afghanistan. But a May 11 shooting in a town called Ahuas, in which gunfire killed four people whom neighbors said were innocent, led to concerns in Congress that the D.E.A.’s commandos were operating with impunity.

What’s more, as Dana Frank details in her recent Foreign Affairs piece, “Honduras Gone Wrong,” the post-coup government under President Porfirio Lobo Sosa has been accused of escalating human rights abuses (10,000 complaints of abuse by state security forces since 2010, according to the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras), widespread corruption, an alleged crackdown on the free press, and enabling and in some cases participating in the drug trade our “commandos” are there to stop in the first place. Sound familiar? Meanwhile, poverty is soaring in Honduras and the murder rate is the highest in the world, according to the United Nations.

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), backed by Democrats in both the House and Senate, has asked that all military and police aid to Honduras be immediately suspended until the country can clean up its act. According to Foreign Affairs, however, the Obama administration approved the 2012 funding in August, and has not yet issued plans to change course.

The DEA’s alleged complicity in what could be the extrajudicial killing of Honduran nationals, has apparently ended. But aside from the irony in endeavoring — so far unsuccessfully — to shift neo-COIN impulses to the drug war in Honduras, the devastating failures of military-enforced prohibition are obvious. As TAC noted in June:

[N]ot until the 16th paragraph in the AP story [on Honduras] do we learn that “International crackdowns in Mexico and the Caribbean have pushed drug trafficking to Central America, which is now the crossing point for 84 percent of all U.S-bound cocaine.” According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, America is still  the “world’s largest consumer of cocaine (shipped from Colombia through Mexico and the Caribbean), Colombian heroin, and Mexican heroin and marijuana.”

First it was Colombia. The drug trade has supposedly diminished there now, though questions remain about how much it has declined, how long this will last, and whether farmers will be able to grow anything else there, since the country has been dusted-over with Roundup for years. Then it was Mexico’s problem. But now that Mexico’s government is boasting that its military crackdown on drug cartels is beginning to bear fruit, we must shift our resources ($1 trillion has been spent over 40 years on the drug war) to Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, where the trade has supposedly arrived with a vengeance. Is the next stop Peru? Because, according to The Los Angeles Times, that country is once again the world’s top cocaine producer.

“We can never really win the so-called war on drugs. It’s a demand-driven enterprise,” Chuck Pena, senior fellow at the Independent Institute, told TAC. “And the profit margins are so high that it will always attract criminal elements. Even if we could eliminate the supply-side in a place like Honduras, production is just likely to shift to another location.”

Neither the military nor the DEA will suggest that their efforts are futile or even consider pulling back from the region. They are institutionally committed to the notion that brute force will in fact, prevail over the illicit drug market. Ditto for the State Department and the Office of Drug Control Policy, which sets the intensity level for fighting the drug war under each administration.

Chasing the trade won’t destroy it, but it will continue to have horrific unintended consequences — like strengthening corrupt governments that hurt their people and keeping the black market alive, feeding gangs and endless violence. Just this week, the Associated Press reported an “unprecedented surge” of unaccompanied children jumping our southern border to get into the U.S from Central America, and Honduras in particular. Many of them don’t make it, and are sent back to lives made untenable by brutal poverty, gangs, and neglect.

These are our drug war orphans, made in part by failed policies that ignore the historic folly of prohibition.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter.