When the Central American country with the largest US military presence — Honduras — also became the region's preferred landing zone for international cocaine traffickers, it was probably inevitable that someone was going to get hurt.
But a recent series of lethal encounters along the muddy riverbanks and crude airstrips of Honduras' isolated Mosquitia region may be shaking up the entire drug war fight in Central America, and shift smuggling routes elsewhere.
US agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have moved aggressively in recent weeks against trafficking suspects in Honduras. Agents swooped down in helicopters and killed two alleged smugglers in separate incidents on June 23 and July 3.
The shootings are the first known instances of DEA agents killing suspected traffickers in Central America since the agency began conducting joint operations with local security forces. In both cases, US officials said the agents fired in self-defense after the alleged traffickers made threatening gestures or appeared to reach for a weapon.
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The two fatal shootings followed a May 11 gun battle in which four civilians were allegedly killed and four wounded near the lowland river town of Ahaus. In that exchange, still under investigation, Honduran forces said they returned fire after the traffickers shot first. DEA agents were present but did not discharge their weapons, according to US officials, but the incident drew criticism from human rights groups.
The intensifying confrontation in Honduras is the result of a new DEA mission, "Operation Anvil," according to the Associated Press. It teams Honduran anti-narcotics forces with US agents to track suspected drug flights and launch helicopter raids from so-called forward-operating bases in remote regions of the country.
The partnerships, and a more muscular US role in the region, are critical to taking back territory in Central America that has been overrun by Mexican and Colombian traffickers, said Michael Braun, the former DEA head of operations, in an interview.
"Our country is obsessed with creating strategies to defend the one-yard line, our Southwest Border," said Braun, now a managing partner at Spectre Group International, LLC, a private security firm based in Alexandria, Virginia.
"We need to be developing more defense-in-depth strategies, similar to what our government is again doing in support of Honduras, to have the greatest impact on the most powerful organized crime syndicates that federal law enforcement has ever faced," he said.
"Colombian and Mexican drug-trafficking syndicates make John Gotti look like a Boy Scout poster child, and they are growing stronger by the day."
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Over the past five years, tougher enforcement in the Caribbean has made Honduras the principal gateway for loads of US-bound cocaine traveling by air. DEA officials say some 90 percent of suspected drug flights leaving South America land in Honduras' rugged Mosquitia department, where there are few laws but plenty of makeshift landing strips and impoverished locals willing to unload the illicit cargo for a few dollars.
Though the United States has several hundred military personnel stationed at the Joint Task Force Bravo base in western Honduras, the drug flights typically land on the eastern end of the country. There they are quickly unloaded before security forces can arrive.
The new forward-operating bases have changed that, giving security forces the ability to quickly mobilize and seize the shipments. The July 3 raid confiscated 900 kilograms (nearly one ton) of powder.
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In the past two months, under Operation Anvil, US and Honduran teams have intercepted at least five suspected drug flights, after busting just seven from mid-2010 to the end of 2011. About 100 such flights land in Honduras each year, according to US officials.
Analysts say the enhanced DEA presence may drive the traffickers out of the country. They say it could push smugglers back into maritime routes through the Caribbean, or south into Nicaragua, where the DEA doesn't have the ability to operate as it does in Honduras.
"It would be surprising if the sustained DEA operations in Honduras did not follow an all-too-familiar pattern: drug trafficking is simply displaced to another location," said Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, DC policy center.
While Nicaragua cooperates with US forces on drug interdiction, leftist President Daniel Ortega's relationship with Washington has strains that stretch back to the Contra War of the 1980s.
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Shifter said Nicaragua's law enforcement and military institutions will likely be tested as the crackdown in Honduras intensifies. "Their ability to interdict drugs may dictate how the routes continue to shift," he said.
Other analysts say Honduras—and the Mosquitia region in particular—will remain an attractive smuggling destination because of its sheer ruggedness and difficulty to patrol.
"The vast and remote jungle areas of Honduras offer hundreds of clandestine landing strips," said Robert Munks, an Americas analyst for the London-based global security and intelligence firm IHS-Jane's. "And high levels of insecurity, corruption and ongoing political tensions in the aftermath of the 2009 coup provide a generally permissive environment," he added, referring to the Honduran army's ouster of ex-President Manuel Zelaya.
An increase in drug trafficking in Central America's "northern triangle" — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — has pushed the region's already-high homicide rate to crisis levels in recent years. A 2011 United Nations report ranked Honduras as the country with the highest per-capita homicide rate in the world, 82.1 per 100,000.
That type of violent environment will remain appealing for narcotics trafficking, said Munks.
"Drug cartels are notoriously adaptable when facing new interdiction and countermeasures," he said. "But local considerations mean that Honduras will continue to figure for some time as a key pivot in the northbound trade."
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