Three weeks ago, President Obama travelled to Costa Rica to attend a summit of Central American leaders, focused in part on regional security. Obama made headlines by proclaiming a shift in US strategy towards the region, which has been fighting a losing battle against drug trafficking.
The US, he said, would focus more on supporting education, economic development and poverty reduction – tackling the factors that push people to use and sell drugs – and less on a militarised approach that has in recent years sought to adapt US lessons from the war in Afghanistan to the “drug war” in the Americas.
The increasingly militarised approach to combating narcotics has, many observers and political leaders say, led to skyrocketing rates of violence in the region. More than 50,000 people have been killed in Mexico alone since the past administration of Felipe Calderon initiated a tougher approach towards cartels in 2006. The drug networks have increasingly moved into Central America, as has cocaine from South America, and violence has followed.
In response, presidents – from Guatemala’s Otto Perez Molina to former Mexican leader Vicente Fox – have proposed decriminalisation as an alternative strategy that would hit the cartels in the pocketbook. But the US government has continued to push back against such proposals, even as US states Colorado and Washington have legalised marijuana for recreational use.
The US-led “war on drugs” – in partnership with often corrupt and murderous police forces – has continued to have grave consequences for our neighbours south of the border. In the increasingly militarised drug war, suspects are sometimes killed in the field; suspicion of involvement in drug trafficking warrants a death sentence. Government drug warriors on the scene play the role of judge, jury and executioner. This May 11 marked one year since the tragic killing of four indigenous villagers in Ahuas, in Honduras’ Moskitia region. The victims, who included a pregnant woman and a 14-year-old boy, were killed in a joint US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA)/Honduran police counter-narcotics operation. Three other villagers were shot and wounded.
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One year later, the exact role that the DEA agents played in the deaths of Juana Jackson, Candelaria Trapp Nelson, Emerson Martinez and Hasked Brooks Wood remains unclear. The US government has never conducted an independent investigation into the incident, and has obstructed the Honduran investigation by denying the investigators access to either the ten DEA agents involved or their weapons.
Nor have Honduran authorities been allowed to examine the heavy-calibre mounted guns on the State Department-owned helicopters used in the operation, which survivors and witnesses claim fired on the victims’ canoe from above. Ballistics evidence – including victims’ wounds and bullet holes in their boat – suggest that large-calibre bullets rained down on them. The DEA, not surprisingly, tells a different story: a two-sided gun fight between the supposed drug traffickers, in one boat, and the Honduran police agents in another. The DEA agents, we are told, did not fire their weapons.
But the Honduran police agents on the scene that day claim that DEA agents and a helicopter fired on the villagers’ boat. They also claim that the DEA was in charge: something the DEA authorities in Honduras actually confirmed immediately following the incident.
In January, 58 members of Congress called for a new, independent investigation into what happened. The Obama administration has expressed no interest in doing this. Meanwhile, it has left the shooting victims to languish; people already struggling to make ends meet have been forced to find money to pay for complicated surgeries and other medical treatments. The deceased victims’ family members have had to carry on without the important support their relatives had provided them. The US government’s approach to the Ahuas villagers has been consistent in its callousness.
Obama’s vows of shifting the offensive against drugs away from such militarised methods have provoked scepticism, but his rhetoric, at least, is on the right path. The “war on drugs” has been a failure, a war that in practice has all too often resulted in civilian deaths, as happens in all wars. Moving away from such failed policies and practices would be a long overdue and welcome change.
The US also owes justice to the drug war’s past victims, including the four people shot dead one year ago, the surviving injured victims, and their families. This should include restitution for the victims and an honest, US investigation into what happened. Until the Obama administration begins to take such steps, critics will understandably dismiss Obama’s words as more “hopey, changey” rhetoric.
Dan Beeton is International Communications Director at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.
Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_Beeton
Alex Main is Senior Associate for International Policy at the Center, and has co-authored two reports on the May 11 shooting incident described above.
You can follow the editor on Twitter: @nyktweets