Page last updated at 08:01 GMT, Monday, 16 July 2012 09:01 UK

Victims caught in Honduras drugs crossfire


Stephen Sackur joins a navy patrol crew in Honduras trying to stop the smuggling of cocaine to the United States.

Honduras is in the grip of a drugs war with US drug enforcement agents helping local forces fight organised gangs, who traffic tons of cocaine destined for the United States, as HARDtalk's Stephen Sackur reports.

The deep bullet wound in Hilda Lezama's thigh is a livid pointer to Honduras's unwanted status as a new frontline in America's war on drugs.

Hilda Lezama
My son-in-law was killed, two of my neighbours were killed, and I was wounded, so where are the Americans? Don't you think they should talk to me?
Hilda Lezama

For all of her 53 years, Hilda Lezama has lived in Ahuas, a settlement of wooden homes built on stilts, close to the fast-flowing Patuca river in the remote Mosquitia region of eastern Honduras.

She was shot in a joint Honduran-US counter-narcotics raid on a riverboat two months ago.

Four other local people, including two local women, were killed in the airborne attack which involved US drug enforcement agents and Honduran police.

"We were returning from a trip down-river with the fishermen," Hilda recalled.

"We travelled at night to avoid the heat. We heard the helicopters above us, but we couldn't see them.

"They could have let us dock and then searched the boat, but instead they shot us. Maybe they were thinking we were someone else."

US officials said Hilda's boat was part of a drug-smuggling operation that involved a stash of drugs flown into an airstrip close to the Patuca river, a charge she categorically denies.

"If we were criminals we could not complain, but we are innocent working people," she insisted.

Lethal force

The Americans said none of their agents opened fire. According to the US Ambassador in Honduras, Lisa Kubiske, a preliminary investigation by the Honduran authorities suggested "no wrong doing".

Boat on the river
The only way out of Ahuas is by boat on the Patuca river

That proposition may be tested in the Honduran courts.

A human rights group, the Committee of the Relatives of the Disappeared has filed a legal complaint against the Honduran and US governments citing violations of human rights.

The Ahuas raid was no isolated incident.

Within the last month, US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents have shot dead two suspected traffickers in separate raids in eastern Honduras - the first use of lethal force by US DEA agents in Central America.

The increasingly aggressive anti-trafficking strategy - codenamed Operation Anvil - is aimed at intercepting illegal drugs flown in to the sparsely populated Mosquitia region from South America.

More than 80% of the cocaine entering the United States is now thought to be trans-shipped through Honduras.

The US has long had a military presence at the Palmerola base in central Honduras.

What was once a key asset in the war against the Sandinistas in neighbouring Nicaragua is now focused on the war on drugs.

Elite agents

An elite band of US DEA agents have been embedded with the Honduran security forces in an operation supported by six State Department helicopters, piloted by non-US security contractors, who are not bound by the strict rules of engagement imposed on the DEA.

HARDtalk: On the Road in Honduras: Mon 16 July, Tue 17 and Wed 18 July 2012
BBC News Channel: 0030 and 0430 BST
BBC World News Channel: 0330, 0830, 1530 and 2030 GMT

Lisa Kubiske said the new strategy was working.

"More than 100 planes came into the country last year with drugs. Now interdictions of drug operations happen on a regular basis.

"Death or injuries are not the norm," she said.

That is of little comfort to Hilda Lezama who was sent home from hospital when she ran out of money.

Heavily bandaged and unable to walk, she scoffs at the US ambassador's talk of a thorough investigation of the Ahuas raid.

"My son-in-law was killed, two of my neighbours were killed, and I was wounded, so where are the Americans? Don't you think they should talk to me?," she said

Local anger continues to simmer but the Honduran Government insists its efforts to combat the traffickers will continue, and so will co-operation with the Americans.

Evidence suggests the Mexican cartels have moved significant resources and manpower into Honduras as a result of the military crackdown on their operations in Mexico.

"Every day, the narco-traffickers are innovating how they work, and changing what they do," said Colonel Ronald Rivera Amador, in charge of Honduran military operations along the Mosquito Coast.

"Last year a homemade submarine was captured carrying seven tons of cocaine. If we place obstacles in the way of their aircraft, they look for other routes, by sea or by land. They have communications, navigation and night-vision equipment that is better than ours," he said.

Colonel Rivera said his men dynamited 45 makeshift landing strips used by the traffickers in the last year.

Highest murder rate

Cocaine offers an unrivalled opportunity to make money and the vast sums generated are having a corrosive effect throughout Honduras.

Drugs Czar Colonel Isaac Santos
The government cannot allow Honduras to become a narco-state, with a narco-government and a narco-police force
Drugs Czar Colonel Isaac Santos

As the trafficking has spiked so too have levels of violence.

Honduras now has the highest per capita murder rate in the world. The country's dominant criminal gangs - Barrio18 and MS13 - have forged transnational alliances with some of Latin America's biggest narco-trafficking cartels.

'Marlon' - a pseudonym - was a member of the MS13 gang until earlier this year.

When he tried to leave the criminal underworld behind, members of his own crew shot him six times and left him for dead.

The 27-year-old is now in a safe-house run by a Honduran charity.

Marlon and his MS13 associates worked for the notorious Zetas Mexican cartel.

"We were like their servants. The money was in the millions, " he said.

The key to the traffickers success? Corruption.

"Always, always, always when drugs are being moved, a member of the military is involved," Marlon explained.

"They allow police officers to take a certain amount of drugs whilst the other part, the majority, is coming in through another channel. The police take their minimal amount, just to make it look as if they are doing a good job.

"Narco-traffic has taken control of our country, it's everywhere, in politics, even in the churches."

Corruption purge

The government has acknowledged that thousands of police officers have ties to organised crime. Officials say they're in the early stages of a purge - lie detector tests and drugs-testing are to become mandatory throughout the force.

But the criminal networks are still calling the shots.

The last chief of Honduras's Anti-Narcotics Directorate was assassinated.

The man tipped to succeed him was gunned down earlier this year. A new drug czar - Colonel Isaac Santos - has now been drafted in from the military.

"The narco-traffickers have a huge capacity to corrupt, both forces and individuals", he said.

"In reality, they have a lot of power. But the government cannot allow Honduras to become a narco-state, with a narco-government and a narco-police force."

Colonel Santos's appointment reflects the increasing militarisation of the government's counter-narcotics strategy.

Following Mexico's example, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo has ordered the army to join the crackdown on organised crime.

Colonel Santos now travels to his office in an American-built armour-plated vehicle.

"I have fears, but the important thing for me is that I am working for my country. A terrible war is being fought in Honduras - a war which may affect the destiny of humanity."

He fixes me with a steady gaze.

"And as long as there is one honest person we must keep on fighting."

HARDtalk is broadcast on the BBC News Channel on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 0030 and 0430 BST and on the BBC World News Channel on Monday to Thursday at 0330, 0830, 1530 and 2030 GMT.

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