Dudley Althaus Writes a Dud of an Article on Drug Violence in Honduras

A very bad article titled Very bad things are happening in Honduras is getting a lot of circulation. It's sensational and sloppy, not necessarily in that order. It is written by Dudley Althaus, who also writes for that repository of Drug War propaganda, InSight Crime. The article demonstrates a lack of geographical and political understanding of the country on the part of the author, and gives undeserved credibility to the usual talking heads quoted—in particular Eric Olson of the Woodrow Wilson Center and WOLA's Adriana Beltran. The central flaw of the article lies in a conflation of the political situation in the Moskitia vs. the that in the rest of mainland Honduras (which of course has its regional differences as well). Let's break it down. First paragraph:

A battle this week that killed at least 17 people in a remote corner of the Caribbean coast of Honduras underscores the deteriorating security situation in what already ranks among the world's deadliest countries.

I'll get into the details more below, but the "battle" that happened last week was a very circumscribed event. According to local Miskito residents with whom I have spoken, the neighboring population did not experience it in the way that "random" violence is experienced (i.e., creating a permanent embodied state of terror) in much of the rest of the country. The nature of the "security situation" in the rest of the country is not actually reflected in this particular incident.

The fight between two alleged cocaine smuggling gangs claimed the lives of an undisclosed number of women and children, and killed the leaders of both groups, officials said.

So here we have the implicit assumption that men who are killed are guilty—the same logic used to justify drone killings of any men in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen...and that women are somehow incapable of being actors on their own right. Let me underscore that any murder is a tragedy. But invoking "women and children" is overly vague and implies that the what happened was actually a "battle" in which there were collateral victims. In fact, the women and children were specifically targeted because they were the family members of one of the drug dealers (Fredy). The third main narco in the region, a man by the name of Paisano, has fled to the U.S. because things got too hot. As my interlocutors tell me, Paisano—unlike Fredy and el Muco (whose name one of the people I spoke with endearingly pronounced as 'el moco')—is legítimo de allá. That is, he is actually from the region, and is Miskito. But basically the story is el Muco claimed Fredy's stash (or vice versa) then killed Fredy's family, then Fredy and his crew went to kill Muco and everyone who was left ended up killing each other. So as horrible as the killings were, actually, the response of local "woman and children," at least from what local women and children have told me, is relief that they're all gone.

It came as the Honduran military took control of the country's violent gang-controlled prison systems and amid a national debate over militarizing public security altogether.

Honduras, along with neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala, has a become major transshipment point for South American cocaine routed through Mexico toward US consumers. Drug trafficking intensified the already rampant violence, much of it between local street gangs known as maras.

Okay, FULL STOP. Here is where we need to pay close attention to how the propaganda develops. Yes, the Honduran military took control of the country's prisons—a terrifying development for an institution that was already horribly run by the national police, as CPTRT and other groups have noted. But to simplify them as "violent gang-controlled prison systems" and to mention in passing and with no context the national debate over militarizing public security is downright irresponsible. No mention of the military's acting as a death squad on behalf of national and international mining and palm oil interests, or having carried out a coup d'etát four years ago, or of this debate being an election-year ploy of National Party members (some of whom have previously been complicit in prison massacres of gang members), fanned by intentionally misleading reporting about police "corruption" (as if the institution just needed a cleanup and wasn't rotten to the core).

In the next paragraph, Althaus correctly notes that Honduras is a transshipment point for cocaine. But to imply that "Drug trafficking intensified the already rampant violence, much of it between local street gangs known as maras" applies to the Moskitia is absurd. THERE ARE NO STREET GANGS IN LA MOSKITIA. There are no maras. Neither is there "rampant violence." What happened last week in and around Brus Laguna is not conflatable with the "security situation" in the rest of the country. But that doesn't stop a reporter whose doesn't think it's important to actually talk to real people affected.

“The security situation remains dire throughout the region and is at a crisis level in Honduras,” Eric Olson, an expert on regional violence at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, told a US congressional committee recently. “Organized crime in all its many manifestations — transnational drug traffickers; criminal transportation networks; and even youth gangs — continue to prosper.”

Analysts describe a ”balloon effect” over Central America. Squeeze drug traffickers in one place — as the authorities have done in Mexico these past seven years — and they surge elsewhere. The more graphic descritpion [sic] is of a flooding stream: drug trafficking, like flowing water, will always finds a new channel of lesser resistance.

So here, Olson (who is married to WOLA executive director Joy Olson) counts "transnational drug traffickers; criminal transportation networks; and even youth gangs" as all the manifestations of organized crime. What doesn't he count? Well, for starters, the crime and drug trafficking networks within the police, military, Congress, and U.S.-allied businessmen like Miguel Facussé. He doesn't count the poisoning of the land and sickening of entire populations by Canadian mining companies or the "Charter Cities" effort to usurp land from Garifuna peoples and campesinos to create libertarian drug havens. He doesn't count the plotters, executors and beneficiaries of the 2009 military coup. Par for the course for the Washington non-profit human rights industrial complex—creating a justification for further U.S. police and military aid.

Next paragraph, the "balloon effect." Really? "Flooding stream"? But I suppose it's always easy to resort to poetic metaphors when you have no use for actual political and social context.

Botton [sic] line: Very bad things are bound to happen when guns and millions of dollars worth of illicit merchandise get dumped into impoverished places with poor to non-existent policing.

“The problem of Honduras is basically drug trafficking combined with the fights between gangs for territorial control,” Migdonia Ayestas, director of the Violence Observatory at the National Autonomous University, said. “The trafficking situation is much worse along the coast and near the borders.”

In response, the US government has sent money and advisers to the region. But that effort has floundered.

“The results have been minimal to say the least,” said Adriana Beltran, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy group.

Although I use it myself when it seems necessary, I am no fan of the passive voice. Note: "...illicit merchandise get dumped into impoverished places with poor to non-existent policing." Once again—who is dumping? Mr. Althaus clearly has no interest in touching the well-known complicity of the CIA in drug trafficking at different points in recent Central American history, but it seems to merit a mention. And the second passive voice claim here, "impoverished," is also misleading. Impoverished by whom, according to whom, to the benefit of whom? People aren't starving in the region, and communities are tight. It is not (as the sentence implies) a bastion of moral decay or of criminality other than the drug trafficking, which except for the DEA killing of four canoe passengers last year has taken no lives of locals that I have heard of. The wording of the policing issue is also misleading, and assumes a certain kind of white-privileged U.S.-centric idea of what police are and what they do.

I'm going to cut my colleague at UNAH some slack here, because Althaus doesn't provide the original Spanish, and may have intentionally mistranslated to suit his purpose. The word "gangs" is the issue here, as noted above. If Ayestas used a word other than "maras" then that should have been translated differently, since to imply that maras were fighting for territorial control when what was really going on was a fight between two individual narcos and their crews, would be wrong. Once again, folks: THERE ARE NO STREET GANGS IN LA MOSKITIA.

And yes, the U.S. government has sent money and advisers to the region, the result of which as the murder of four innocent (not "apparently innocent" as Althaus later claims) villagers from the Miskito town of Ahuas. Seems a bit worse than "floundered." And Beltrán's quote is not incorrect, but what is really the purpose of that sentence in the article? It doesn't provide any information anyone with any minimal knowledge of Honduras couldn't have provided. It does give WOLA undeserved credibility as an "advocacy group" (although it certainly could be argued that they advocated for the coup in 2009-10 and have since advocated for policies that would lead to greater militarization in Honduras) and then mirrors that undeserved credibility back onto an article that also doesn't deserve it.

Then Althaus goes off on a tangent about the Zetas, which had no involvement in this incident, cites some more vagaries from Olson, and says this:

Honduras' Caribbean coast, including the city of San Pedro Sula, stands as the most violent corner of this murderous place, with per capita murder rates 33 times that of the United States.

I nearly shouted out loud in exasperation when I read this piece of cheap data manipulation. And not because Althaus describes the entire length of Honduras's vast northern coastline as a "corner." I was shocked that Althaus would make such a claim without mentioning the fact that although the per capita murder rates of the North Coast are indeed unimaginably high, the murder rate of the Moskitia is lower than that of the United States.

Althaus successfully leaves out any mention of the coup, the violence of resource extraction and U.S. occupation, and just about any other relevant context, finishing the story with a quote from some migrant who could be from anywhere but the Moskitia:

“Those of my age who are still alive, it's because we have left,” migrant Antonio Torres, 27, from a town near Honduras' northern coast, said at a refuge near Mexico City. “It's always been bad but now the gangs are taking everything.”



Battle in Zona Costera

Fredy Ramos and El Muco, the Nicaraguan reportedly died in this battle that took place at Belen on the shores of Ibans Lagoon-not Brus Lagoon.
Fredy Ramos is a non Miskito from Olancho who moved into the Moskitia with a group of ladinos--approx. 45 men and boys-- in June of 2012 and who established narcotrafficking airfields at Paru Creek and at Paptatingni to receive Kingair twin engine aircraft shipments from western Venezuelan airfields --about two or three flights a week.
Fredy defines Narcoterrorist and had killed twelve people-all local Miskitos in the unpoliced Zona Costera at Ibans lagoon--before the battle with his rival from the Brus Lagoon area. El Muco had been based at Brus Lagoon living high in the Ciudad Blanco Hotel where he and his fellow punks flashed their shiny expanded magazine Beretta 9mm pistols as the lounged in the hammocks in front of the hotel. In late July a Honduran force of specialized Honduran Navy Seals among other troops moved in on Brus and El Muco escaped some hours before the teams arrived--no doubt tipped off to the operation.
El Muco's group fled west from Brus Lagoon to Ibans lagoon and they were not received well by Fredy Ramos. Fredy's group and home were based at Belen on the shore of Ibans lagoon. Fredy had depopulated the community of Buenos Aires just adjacent to his base east of Belen--through murder, gang rapes of wives, girlfriends and daughters of the inhabitants who lived in the small community there. Buenos Aires is now a ghost town and houses boarded up.
As for Fredy--I have reports that he sought sanctuary in a Moravian church after his home was destroyed in the firefight involving the two groups. Fredy reportedly has consolidated his grip on the area and is more paranoid and dangerous than before the early August confrontation.
The zona costera on the northern edge of Ibans lagoon has been seemingly abandoned by Honduran authorities and is allowed to serve as a semi-sanctioned intake corridor for drug transport. Operation Martillo has placed assets at the Caratasca Naval station and at Puerto Castilla, but has not beefed up operations at Palacios, the closest honduran military force with potential to police the Zona Costera.
Some say Fredy Ramos is allied with Los Zetas--and his modus operandi is consistent with their methods and his men openly brag of their Mexican connections.

Thank you!

This is all very interesting. I need to check my comments queue more frequently (it's still mostly spam).