As the war on drugs has spread from Mexico to Central America, so has the U.S. role in Honduras. Pentagon contracts are helping to fund new military bases in remote regions of that country, and U.S. troops and special Drug Enforcement Administration agents have been deployed to train local security forces and assist in counter-narcotics operations.
It's a delicate partnership, and one that is already causing controversy. Last week the Obama administration confirmed that DEA agents were with Honduran security forces aboard a U.S. helicopter during a botched May 11 operation. Four civilians, including two pregnant women, were allegedly killed after the helicopter fired on a canoe during a predawn raid, local authorities said. U.S. officials insist that the DEA agents were participating only in an advisory capacity and were not involved in the shooting, but several Honduran officials have described the raid as a DEA mission.
The incident raises more questions than it answers. In their role as advisors, did the DEA agents participate in the decision to open fire before the targets were positively identified? Are those agents authorized to intercede to prevent the killing of civilians? Does the U.S.-financed anti-drug effort in Honduras run the risk of putting American forces on the side of an unpopular and possibly trigger-happy Central American military — a position the United States has been in all too often during the last century?
One thing is clear: The U.S. military role should be extremely limited and carefully monitored. There is little dispute that Honduras, ravaged by drug-related violence, needs help. It has the hemisphere's highest homicide rate. Crime and corruption are rampant, and likely to worsen, thanks to a cascade of drug money. Legal and political institutions are weak, and human rights are too often only an abstraction.
But as Rep.Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) recently noted, simply sending more boots and guns to Honduras may have the effect of exacerbating problems rather than helping solve them, given concerns that the country's security forces are involved in serious human rights violations. The police in particular are known for corruption and should not be empowered.
Military assistance alone is not enough. Surely it is just as important to buttress democracy by strengthening civilian institutions in Honduras, while clamping down on gunrunners in the U.S. who help supply weapons to the cartels. Attempts to track gun sales will be met with fierce opposition by the gun lobby, which has denounced past efforts as a threat to the 2nd Amendment. But ultimately fighting a war abroad while ignoring it at home makes little sense.