On the heels of learning that the United States has significantly scaled up its presence in Honduras in recent months, disturbing news emerged this week that suggests the country is suffering a bloody return on Washington’s military investment in the region. Last week, the New York Times reported that “A commando-style squad of Drug Enforcement Administration agents accompanied the Honduran counternarcotics police during two firefights with cocaine smugglers in the jungles of the Central American country this month, according to officials in both countries who were briefed on the matter. One of the fights, which occurred last week, left as many as four people dead and has set off a backlash against the American presence there.”

While it is still unclear just what went down and who was involved, initial reports that the US-Honduran team had killed members of a drug trafficking syndicate were almost immediately countered with claims by local politicians that those killed were all innocent bystanders. The details, if true, are horrifying: “Lucio Baquedano, the mayor of Ahuas, a small town near the incident, told El Tiempo, a Honduran newspaper, that a helicopter-borne unit consisting of both Honduran police officers and D.E.A. agents was pursuing a boatload of drug smugglers when it mistakenly opened fire on another boat carrying villagers. Four people died—including two pregnant women—and four others were wounded, he said.”

And then today, new accounts surfaced which suggests that the botched mission wasn’t the only ugly incident that day. A dispatch from the Associated Press reports that

After the shooting killed four passengers on a riverboat and wounded four more, the masked agents landed their helicopters in this community of wooden shacks on stilts near the river and began breaking down doors, hunting for a drug trafficker they called “El Renco,” villagers told The Associated Press on Monday. Witnesses referred to some of the agents as “gringos” and said they spoke English to each other and into their radios. Hilaria Zavala said six men kicked in her door about 3 a.m., threw her husband on the ground and put a gun to his head. “They kept him that way for two hours,” said Zavala, who owns a market near the main pier in Ahuas. “They asked if he was El Renco, if he worked for El Renco, if the stuff belonged to El Renco. My husband said he had nothing to do with it.”

American involvement in Honduras opens up a can of worms of questions and concerns that drive to the very heart of international relations, in theory and practice–sovereign power, authority and American hegemony, not to mention basic ethics and morality. Dana Frank has offered some good background that situated the current mess in its proper context, including the role of the 2009 Honduran coup that Washington would like to wipe clean from the imagination.

Only in the post-coup context, however, can we understand the very real crisis of drug trafficking in Honduras. A vicious drug culture already existed before the coup, along with gangs and corrupt officials. But the thoroughgoing criminality of the coup regime opened the door for it to flourish on an unprecedented scale. Drug trafficking is now embedded in the state itself—from the cop in the neighborhood all the way up to the very top of the government, according to high-level sources. Prominent critics and even government officials, including Marlon Pascua, the defense minister, talk of “narco-judges” who block prosecutions and “narco-congressmen” who run cartels. Alfredo Landaverde, a former congressman and police commissioner in charge of drug investigations, declared that one out of every ten members of Congress is a drug trafficker and that he had evidence proving “major national and political figures” were involved in drug trafficking. He was assassinated on December 7…

The coup, in turn, unleashed a wave of violence by state security forces that continues unabated. On October 22, an enormous scandal broke when the Tegucigalpa police killed the son of Julieta Castellanos, rector of the country’s largest university and a member of the government’s Truth Commission, along with a friend of his. Top law enforcement officials admitted that the police were responsible for the killings but allowed the suspects to disappear, precipitating an enormous crisis of legitimacy, as prominent figures such as Landaverde stepped forward throughout the autumn to denounce the massive police corruption. The police department, they charged, is riddled with death squads and drug traffickers up to the very highest levels…

The Honduran military is corrupt, too. On November 1, 2010, an airplane used in drug trafficking was “robbed” from a military base in San Pedro Sula. According to La Tribuna, a right-wing newspaper, at least nineteen members of the army were complicit, including top- and intermediate-ranked officers. In August 2011, 300 automatic rifles and 300,000 bullets disappeared from a warehouse of the army’s elite Cobras unit. Despite this record of corruption, a new decree permits the military to accept no-bid contracts—a green light for even more corruption…

This idea that the Honduran government needs US help to fix itself—which critics regard as naïve at best, given the Lobo administration’s manifest unwillingness to reform itself—is how US officials justify support for the Lobo regime. Vice President Joe Biden flew to Honduras on March 6, promising that “the United States is absolutely committed to continuing to work with Honduras to win this battle against the narcotraffickers.” Biden promised increased military and police funds under the Central American Regional Security Initiative, to the tune of $107 million. Obama’s proposed budget for 2013 more than doubles key police and military funds to Honduras…

The military coup made possible what Hondurans call the “second coup”: the deeper economic agenda of transnational investors and Honduran elites, now given almost free rein to use the state as they choose. At the top of their list is privatization of basic state functions. Laws are moving through Congress privatizing the country’s electrical systems, water systems and ports. In an overt attack on Honduras’s powerful and militant teachers unions, Congress in March 2011 passed a law opening the door to privatization of the entire country’s schools.

If all this sounds ripe for disaster, that’s because it is. American involvement in Honduras is unfortunately predicated on wrong lessons learned from the Colombian war on drugs and the insistence, also wrong, that governments can extinguish black markets through use of force. The vast majority of available evidence points to the contrary, and is currently being reinforced by the Mexican morass unfolding as we speak. And it looks as if Washington could be set to double down on its commitment. This past weekend, Honduran President Lobo paid a “secret” visit to the White House, where it is widely believed he asked the Obama administration for more money, and possibly an increased military presence, in his country. Were Washington to cede to Lobo’s request, stories like the one emerging this past week could become increasingly common.

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