Over a month ago, the Patuca River, which runs through the heart of Honduras’ Afro-indigenous Moskitia region, turned red with the blood of the Miskito people. Before dawn on May 11th a small boat filled with residents of the nearby town of Ahuas was fired upon without warning from a helicopter. A pregnant woman and a 21-year-old man were shot dead inside the boat. Another pregnant woman and a 14-year-old boy were killed as they tried to swim to shore.
Four more passengers were seriously injured.
The same day Honduras’ police triumphantly announced that two drug traffickers had been killed and around 1,000 pounds of cocaine seized in a joint operation with the U.S. DEA. Only after the town mayor denounced that the victims were actually ‘civilians,’ a term now common in a country that is supposedly not at war, the media began to report what had really occurred.
U.S. Department of State helicopters had ambushed unarmed villagers traveling upstream, many returning home after celebrating Mothers’ Day, as their boat passed an apparently unmanned motorboat filled with cocaine that was floating downstream.
The helicopters then landed and armed U.S. and Honduran agents stepped out as townspeople rushed to the shore. Relatives of the passengers were held at gunpoint for hours and prevented from assisting their loved ones. Some were threatened with death despite being unarmed and posing no threat. While the dying and injured passengers were left to fend for themselves, the agents forced a boat driver, son of one of the victims, to retrieve cocaine from the abandoned vessel downstream.
More than a month has passed, and there is no sign that those responsible for the massacre will be held accountable. The two principal actors responsible for the operation – the Honduran and U.S. governments – have only criminalized the victims in public statements, insisting against all evidence that they were drug traffickers, while establishing new military encampments in Ahuas and nearby towns.
The U.S. State Department has said that they support a Honduran government investigation and that a preliminary report by Honduran authorities concludes that agents fired in self-defense. Yet the State Department itself, in its 2011 human rights report on Honduras, acknowledges that “corruption and impunity” have been “serious problems” within Honduras’ security forces. Since a military coup in 2009 led to the breakdown of Honduran institutions and rule of law, hundreds of violent incidents involving security forces have failed to be brought to justice. How then can we expect Honduras’ authorities to carry out an honest investigation?
Today, the inhabitants of the Moskitia region are fearful of traveling along the river. For them, the massacre was a de facto declaration of a curfew and state of siege.
A week before the killings, The New York Times reported that tactics and personnel from counter-insurgency campaigns in Afghanistan are being transferred to the Moskitia. Though militarized interdiction has never been proven to decrease the availability of drugs in the U.S., U.S. and local security forces have succeeded in terrorizing indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. Statements to the press made by U.S. officials following the massacre equated indigenous communities and authorities with drug traffickers, an outrageous and dangerous assumption.
The commander of the U.S. Joint Task Force Bravo, which provides logistical support to DEA operations, told the Times that, “By countering transnational organized crime, we promote stability, which is necessary for external investment, economic growth and minimizing violence.”
Indeed, militarization of the region has occurred in tandem with the rapid encroachment of corporate ventures that threaten the life of the rivers and the people of the Moskitia. The subsoil of Ahuas is believed to contain massive, untapped petroleum deposits. Concessions in the area were recently granted to oil companies, including at least one Texas-based joint venture. Plans are moving forward to establish African palm oil plantations on the lands of indigenous communities and the construction of the first of three large hydroelectric dams along the Patuca has begun with potentially devastating consequences for ecosystems and traditional indigenous livelihoods.
The May 11th killings brought some attention to the plight of the Moskitia. It is now time for the U.S. to act. Given the U.S. government’s direct role in this tragedy, the U.S. should carry out a rigorous, independent investigation and identify those responsible at every level of the chain of command. The U.S. must also find a way of addressing its massive demand for drugs that does not involve turning indigenous territories into war zones.
Miriam Miranda is a founder of the Observatory of the Human Rights of Indigenous and Black Peoples of Honduras (ODHPINH) and the General Coordinator of the Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), a federation of the Garifuna communities of Honduras. In this capacity Ms. Miranda has participated in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous People, the Working Group to prepare the Draft American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People in the OAS, and has coordinated the presentation of groundbreaking petitions before the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), and Inspection Panel of the World Bank. She has been the target of violence by Honduran police, as a consequence in 2011 she was granted protective measures by the IACHR. In November 2011 Ms. Miranda was honored by the Chicago Religious Leadership Network.