The United States has been quietly expanding support for counter-narcotics in Central America as the bloodiest parts of the War on Drugs move south from Mexico. The US has set up three small military bases in Honduras. These ‘Forward Operating Bases’ are taken straight from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Right now, there are 600 US soldiers in Central America (all based in Honduras). Colonel Ross Brown is in charge, and his group is called Joint Task Force-Bravo. Even with its new style and small footprint, a military theater has officially opened in Central America.
It is probably only a coincidence Colonel Brown’s headquarters is on the very same base Oliver North used when he illegally aided the Contras in Nicaragua in the 80s, but it isn’t a pleasant coincidence. That these efforts are centered in Honduras, a country sliding farther from democratic rule each day since a US-backed coup, is not a coincidence. Porfirio Lobo’s government has been aided consistently by the Obama administration, and is now emerging as a major partner in escalating the War on Drugs in the Americas. Currently Honduras is hosting US military personnel as well as highly militarized DEA agents trained and hardened in Afghanistan.
The soldiers have been sent to Central America to apply the lessons learned from a decade of counter-insurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. As Colonel Brown put it, “By countering transnational organized crime, we promote stability, which is necessary for external investment, economic growth and minimizing violence. We also are disrupting and deterring the potential nexus between transnational organized criminals and terrorists who would do harm to our country.” This statement illuminates the motivations behind sending soldiers to Central America: create an environment for external investment, grow the economy, and then, finally, ‘minimize’ violence. The conflation of drug trafficking and terrorism is a growing theme in the discussion around Central America, and doesn’t bode well for the future of US involvement.
The Drug Enforcement Administration’s militarized, commando-style ‘Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Teams’ or FAST are in Central America as well. These teams were developed to operate in Afghanistan, they wear military uniforms, carry high-powered assault weapons, and use military attack helicopters. In other words, they are technically law enforcement agents, but in practice are nearly indistinguishable from soldiers. This type of foreign engagement may prove to be the most dangerous of all, because countries are more willing to accept foreign law enforcement agents than foreign soldiers, and the parameters for their involvement are not clear.
Last Friday in Honduras something happened. Exactly what happened is contested. The official channels are reporting that during a routine drug seizure in la Mosquitia, Honduras, criminals approached Honduran and US (DEA) narcotics squads and opened fire. The villagers claim that a fishing boat was pursued as a result of mistaken identity, and that four innocent people were gunned down from State Department helicopters (flown by Guatemalan pilots) that were carrying DEA and Honduran counter-narcotics teams. The result has been a severe public backlash and calls for the DEA to leave Honduras.
There are historical and structural reasons for the case against military intervention and aid. In recent history, Colombia and Mexico are the most-cited cases of the problems with sending soldiers to fight the War on Drugs. Increased violence, decreased citizen security, and a growing need for money and guns are all consequences of military-style combat in the drug war. Unchecked Military power in Latin America (especially when it is propped up by the United states) has consistently led to human rights violations, and the military has been deployed to quell social unrest on behalf of the ruling class as a matter of routine.
People solve problems based on their backgrounds, and this is the structural problem with using the military in the War on Drugs. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail, as the old saying goes. A military has one purpose: to fight and win wars while maximizing the enemy casualties and minimizing its own. This goal shapes the training that a soldier receives, and makes military outcomes radically different than (civilian) police outcomes. Our problem-solving skills are simultaneously enhanced and limited by our skills and experiences (poets may be the most notable exception to this rule, and thank God for that).
When the military is asked to get involved, it takes control of the operation because that is the nature of a military organization. There can be no long-term military/police partnership.
Have thoughts on the article or the series? Comment, tweet, or e-mail, and let’s start a conversation about changing the future of US policy and the War on Drugs.