Thursday, May 17, 2012

Collateral Damage

Usually the stories we cover about Honduras are invisible in the US press.

So it has been notable that the New York Times has over the last few weeks published a series of stories about Honduras. Such coverage, potentially, could give US readers much more insight into the conditions of a country that has been wracked by violence under the powerless government that was installed through flawed elections held in 2009 while the country was controlled by a de facto regime operating with impunity.

I hope you caught that "potentially". Because as all of us who actually work on Honduras have noted, the New York Times has used this opportunity to advance story-lines that are essentially propaganda, claims that the current Honduran government is cleaning up its police force, using the armed forces to protect its citizenry, moving rapidly and supposedly effectively to investigate the kidnapping of at least (some) journalists, and oh, yes, collaborating with the US Drug Enforcement Agency in ever-more effective drug interdiction.

When the subject matter of these celebratory "we're helping the backward nation stop drugs before they reach your suburb" line was illustrated mainly by crowing about cutting the time it took to get helicopters in the air, this didn't even strike us as reporting about Honduras. Indeed, the NY Times actually used that opportunity to make a case that the US was employing "lessons" it "learned" in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, making it clear that Honduras was interchangeable with all the other threatening foreign places whose specificities we are being allowed to ignore in our new reality that construes the world in terms of friends, enemies, and potential enemies in the "war on terror".

But the latest New York Times coverage is indeed about Honduran reality: the reality that the US has assisted in the killing of innocent civilians, redefined as what once would have been clinically labeled "collateral damage": people in the wrong place at the wrong time, because their country was in our way, people who can be categorically suspect because they can be assumed to be guilty (in this case, of working for drug traffickers; in other times and places, of being terrorists or insurgents...).

The latest episode in this long and shameful history has led to demands by the Honduran people affected that the US cease operations that endanger innocent citizens of the country.

The BBC covered the story properly, titling its story Honduras protest over shootings, writing that
The leaders of several of the ethnic groups in the area said in a joint statement that "the people in that canoe were fishermen, not drug traffickers.
"For centuries we have been a peaceful people who live in harmony with nature, but today we declared these Americans to be persona non grata in our territory."
The ever-awful Washington Post titled its version of the story Angered by deadly drug operation, Honduran Indians burn offices, demand DEA leave. The stereotypes in that one sentence are horrifying, but the article at least specifies that the statement was issued by representatives of the Masta, Diunat, Rayaka, Batiasta and Bamiasta, a detail absent from the BBC story.

Unfortunately, no one at the Washington Post seems to understand what these names are: MASTA is described by David Dodds as "an indigenous federation...formed by a group of Moskito schoolteachers" that brings together village-level affiliates representing largely autonomous Moskito villages. Tanya Hayes identifies BAMIASTA as one of these chapters/affiliates of the larger group, centered in Ahuas, the village whose mayor Luis Baquedano has been quoted most widely as the source for the information about the murder of local people. Hayes identifies RAYAKA as the affiliate for Banaka, another village, and I assume that DIUNAT and BATIASTA are representative organizations of other local Miskito villages, not, as the Post described them, "ethnic groups".

As as recently as yesterday the New York Times coverage still emphasized the goodness of having DEA in security operations in Honduras: D.E.A.'s Agents Join Counternarcotics Efforts in Honduras. It would be hard from that title to predict what the actual lead was:
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

"Backlash"?  That's what's important here-- that the Honduran people have expressed their outrage at becoming targets for US-funded, equipped, and guided murder?

The murdered villagers from Ahuas, a small community in indigenous Miskito territory, included pregnant women.

The Times coverage includes that fact-- but it also trots out a lightly veiled smear that attempts to undermine the otherwise clearly acknowledged fact that the boat destroyed was not a boat of drug smugglers:
it is often difficult to distinguish insurgents from villagers when combating drugs in Central America. One official said it is a common practice for smugglers to pay thousands of dollars to a poor village if its people will help bring a shipment through the jungle to the coast.

The difference between our reaction and that of the Times is this: if you are likely to be shooting at people from a "poor village", you shouldn't be shooting. Period.

Honduran security forces are incapable on their own of discriminating between the citizens of the country engaged in lawful activities, and legitimate targets of policing efforts, as the history of violent repression of protests and murder by corrupt police has amply demonstrated.

A US-inspired policy of shooting at poorly identified targets in civilian areas makes a bad situation worse. While no one could have predicted the specific time and place that innocent people would be affected, that something like this would happen was inevitable.

It is time, and long past time, for the US to stop supporting the militarization of everyday life among the already suffering innocent people of Honduras.

1 comment:

John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

What really outrages me is that the way the New York Times article presents the killings seems to imply that they were involved in the firefight.