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Drug Situation Worsens In Honduras


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene.

The United States has been trying to combat drug violence in Mexico for many years. But we turn now to a lesser-known drug war in the region that the United States is also involved in. The situation in Honduras has grown more violent in recent weeks and it's led to anti-American protests. Damien Cave of the New York Times has been reporting in Honduras, and he joined us from the Times bureau in Mexico City.

Damien, thanks for being with us.

DAMIEN CAVE: Sure, my pleasure.

GREENE: This is not a country, Honduras, that we hear about all that often. Situate us, if you can, and tell us why this is a country that's ripe for drug activity.

CAVE: Well, it's partially an accident of location and weak institutions. For a long time, drugs that move into the United States came through the Caribbean and then American enforcement kind of pushed it to another direction, which was Mexico. And then enforcement from Mexico started pushing it into Central America.

And so basically what you have is you have drug flights that are often coming from Venezuela or Colombia with cocaine. It lands in Honduras and then it's moved into trucks or boats that are then brought into Mexico to cross the American border.

GREENE: Well, we've heard about violence in recent weeks. Who's involved in the violence?

CAVE: In this case what you have - in May there were two very high profile raids involving American DEA agents and this sort of commando force that they work with that had come from Afghanistan, and Honduran police, going into this very isolated area called the Mosquito Coast to stop drug planes. And this is the first time that they've successful done this, whereas last year they had lots of flights coming in and they just couldn't stop them.

And so now what you have is a bunch of helicopters, American owned helicopters, with Honduran police and DEA agents landing in the area where the drugs are basically just as they land.

And so what happened on May 11 was there was a shootout and four people were killed. And according to the Honduran army and just my own interviews in town, it appears that these people were innocent.

GREENE: You reported there were four people killed, including two pregnant women. I mean, give us some details. What actually played out there as we understand it?

CAVE: Well, what happened was the plane landed and they moved the drugs into a pickup truck and then into a boat. And this is all based on American radar. And then the boat moved into the river. And helicopters swooped down. And they said that gunfire came from a second boat, which led the Honduran police to fire back. A few minutes later, the gunfire ends, they looked down, there's a bunch of people who were dead.

As it turns out, the people in the boats say, listen, we were coming home from a long trip to the Caribbean, which we do all the time, this was just a routine trip home to a place in the river where they get off to get into town.

I mean, the thing you have to understand is this is a town without any roads that go out of town. Boats are basically the form of transportation and the river is the highway. And helicopters that came in may not have recognized that or may not have been able to see. This was very early in the morning. And so it looks like it was a mistake. This is at least what the Honduran army's initial investigation has found.

GREENE: Well, what has the United States government said about those events?

CAVE: Well, you know, initially there was a lot of confusion about what happened. And both the Americans and the Hondurans said, oh, we killed two traffickers. And then after that, they started to say, well, listen, we can't talk about this. This is a Honduran investigation.

More broadly, though, the Americans really believe that this is increasingly a model for how to fight the drug war, in which they have these forward operating bases that are very close to where the drugs will land. They have a bunch of different agencies. They have the State Department, they have the DEA, they have the Honduran police, all working together to try and stop drugs from coming into Honduras. And what they're hoping is if they can cut off this air bridge to Honduras, maybe it will make Honduras a safer place.

GREENE: What's at stake here, Damien, broadly? I mean, is this something we're going to see much more in Honduras, and what might the challenge be, looking ahead?

CAVE: I mean, it does seem likely that this is going to continue to happen. Central America has a bunch of very small, very weak countries with very few resources. And the Americans are really pushing a lot into these countries to try and stop drugs.

And don't forget, this is a region that has had a lot of struggle and a lot of pain through the United States over the years, especially during the Cold War when there were civil wars in this area. So there's a lot of skepticism and a lot of fear. And yet at the same time there's a lot of desperation.

You know, this a place that is violent with very weak institutions and a lot of people do feel that the drug problem is an American problem and the Americans have a responsibility to help.

So I think we're at a transition point to some degree. Will the Americans build institutions? Will this create long term gains for Central America? Or will it continue to be a policy that in the '80s they used to call drugs and thugs? They stopped drugs and they get the bad guys and they get out. There's a lot of debate and we'll see how it heads.

GREENE: Damien, thanks so much for talking to us.

CAVE: Sure. My pleasure.

GREENE: That's Damien Cave. He covers Central America for the New York Times, and he was speaking to us about drug violence in Honduras. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.