Drug War

We Had to Kill the Villagers to Save Americans From the Cocaine They Want

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Lucio Baquedano, the mayor of Ahuas, Honduras, says a U.S.-assisted anti-drug operation there last week left four innocent people dead, including two pregnant women. He says police mistook a fishing canoe for a boat carrying cocaine traffickers and fired on it from a helicopter. Villagers rioted in protest, burning down government buildings and demanding that agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), who participated in the operation as part of a commando-style Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team (FAST), leave the area and stay out. An unnamed "U.S. official" said the DEA agents did not fire any rounds during the raid, which seized about 1,000 pounds of cocaine, and he questioned Baquedano's account:

The US official briefed on the matter expressed doubts that villagers would be out fishing in the middle of the night, near where helicopters carrying armed police had landed nearly an hour earlier. The large number of people unloading the plane in the video, the official said, was evidence that many members of the impoverished community of Ahuas were involved in lucrative narcotics trafficking.

"There is nothing in the local village that was unknown, a surprise, or a mystery about this,"' the official said. "What happened was that, for the first time in the history of Ahuas, Honduran law enforcement interfered with narcotics smuggling."

The logic here seems to be that everyone in the town was complicit in the cocaine trade, so there is no such thing as an innocent victim. Even if Honduran police, who said they were returning fire from a boat that arrived as they were seizing the cocaine, did kill some villagers who were out fishing, they and their unborn children pretty much had it coming. Thus the literalized War on Drugs takes a step beyond regrettable "collateral damage" with the argument that anyone close enough to the action to get hurt probably was aiding the enemy.

As Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann notes, even the concept of collateral damage is inappropriate in this situation:

The basic distinction between the criminal justice system and a war is that the former does not tolerate "collateral casualties," whereas the latter regards them as an inevitable cost of military conflict. DEA agents are never permitted to be involved in the killing of innocent people, whether or not they are in pursuit of criminal suspects. What happened in Honduras appears to have crossed the line… 

Neither the drug czar nor anyone else in the Obama administration, or even in the Bush administration before that, likes to use the phrase "the war on drugs." But what happened in Honduras last week suggests that U.S. drug policy abroad—and often in the U.S.—increasingly resembles a real war, despite U.S. officials' efforts to abandon that rhetoric.

Worse, it is a never-ending war with the unattainable (and undesirable) goal of achieving "a drug-free society." Even in this context, measures like last week's raid stand out as worse than futile. Seizing those 1,000 pounds of cocaine was not worth risking a single person's life, since it accomplished absolutely nothing of consequence, even as measured by the drug warriors' goal of reducing the supply of cocaine or raising its price. Governments can create black markets by fiat, but they cannot control the ever-adaptable operation of those markets, which will always override attempts to disrupt production or block supply routes. Is it any wonder that Latin American leaders are increasingly angry about arrogant U.S. demands that they participate in the vain crusade to stop Americans from getting the drugs they want? 

Addendum: Mike Riggs noted the allegations about the Honduras raid yesterday.