Pubdate: Sat, 13 Oct 2012
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2012 The New York Times Company
Author: Damien Cave and Ginger Thompson


TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras - The Honduran Air Force pilot did not know what
to do. It was the dead of night, and he was chasing a small, suspected
drug plane at a dangerously low altitude, just a few hundred feet
above the Caribbean. He fired warning shots, but instead of landing,
the plane flew lower and closer to the sea.

"So the pilot made a decision, thinking it was the best thing to do,"
said Arturo Corrales, Honduras's foreign minister, one of several
officials to give the first detailed account of the episode. "He shot
down the plane."

Four days later, on July 31, it happened again. Another flight
departed from a small town on the Venezuelan coast, and using American
radar intelligence, a Honduran fighter pilot shot it down over the

How many people were killed? Were drugs aboard, or innocent civilians?
Officials here and in Washington say they do not know. The planes were
never found. But the two episodes - clear violations of international
law and established protocols - have ignited outrage in the United
States, bringing one of its most ambitious international offensives
against drug traffickers to a sudden halt just months after it started.

All joint operations in Honduras are now suspended. Senator Patrick J.
Leahy of Vermont, expressing the concerns of several Democrats in
Congress, is holding up tens of millions of dollars in security
assistance, not just because of the planes, but also over suspected
human rights abuses by the Honduran police and three shootings in
which commandos with the United States Drug Enforcement Administration
effectively led raids when they were only supposed to act as advisers.

The downed aircraft, in particular, reminded veteran officials of an
American missionary plane that was shot down in 2001 by Peruvian
authorities using American intelligence. It was only a matter of time,
they said, before another plane with the supposedly guilty turned out
to be filled with the innocent.

But the clash between the Obama administration and lawmakers had been
building for months. Fearful that Central America was becoming overrun
by organized crime, perhaps worse than in the worst parts of Mexico,
the State Department, the D.E.A. and the Pentagon rushed ahead this
year with a muscular antidrug program with several Latin American
nations, hoping to protect Honduras and use it as a chokepoint to cut
off the flow of drugs heading north.

Then the series of fatal enforcement actions - some by the Honduran
military, others involving shootings by American agents - quickly
turned the antidrug cooperation, often promoted as a model of
international teamwork, into a case study of what can go wrong when
the tactics of war are used to fight a crime problem that goes well
beyond drugs.

"You can't cure the whole body by just treating the arm," said Edmundo
Orellana, Honduras's former defense minister and attorney general.
"You have to heal the whole thing."

A sweeping new plan for Honduras, focused more on judicial reform and
institution-building, is now being jointly developed by Honduras and
the United States. But State Department officials must first reassure
Congress that the deaths have been investigated and that new
safeguards, like limits on the role of American forces, will be put in

"We are trying to see what to do differently or better," said Lisa J.
Kubiske, the American ambassador in Honduras.

The challenge is dizzying, and the new plan, according to a recent
draft shown to The New York Times, is more aspirational than anything
aimed at combating drugs and impunity in Mexico, or Colombia before
that. It includes not just boats and helicopters, but also broad
restructuring: several new investigative entities, an expanded vetting
program for the police, more power for prosecutors, and a network of
safe houses for witnesses.

Officials from both countries have often failed to fully grasp the
weakness of the Honduran institutions deployed to turn the country
around. But the need to act is obvious. The country's homicide rate is
among the highest in the world, and corruption has chewed through
government from top to bottom.

"We know that unless we really help these governments and address the
complexities of these challenges they face, their people and societies
would be further endangered," said Maria Otero, under secretary of
state for civilian security, democracy and human rights.

"Honduras," she added, "is the most vulnerable and threatened of them

A Country's Cry for Help

The foreign minister, Mr. Corrales, a hulk of a man with a loud laugh
and a degree in engineering, said he visited Washington in early 2011
with a request for help in four areas: investigation, impunity,
organized crime and corruption. President Porfirio Lobo, in meetings
with the Americans, put it more bluntly: "We're drowning."

In 2010, a year after a military coup eventually brought the
conservative Lobo government to power, drug flights to Honduras spiked
to 82, from six in 2006. Half the country, which is only a little
bigger than Tennessee, was out of government control. Then last
October, the mingling of corruption and impunity hit the front pages
here with the murder of Rafael Alejandro Vargas, the 22-year-old son
of Julieta Castellanos, the rector of Honduras's largest university.

Mr. Vargas's death stood out not just because he was the son of a
prominent academic; he was killed by police officers, who appeared to
have kidnapped him as he left a birthday party, and then killed him
when they realized who he was. Many of the officers were not arrested.

"It was a wake-up call for all of Honduras of just how corrupt and
infiltrated the police were," Ms. Otero said.

Another State Department official said the killing - along with the 
soaring homicide rate and the increased trafficking - sounded alarms in 
Washington: "It raised for us the specter of Honduras becoming another 
northern Mexico."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton demanded a strong response,
and William R. Brownfield, the assistant secretary for international
narcotics and law enforcement affairs, became the point man for what
was created: a broad security program centered on rapid-response law
enforcement activities organized by the D.E.A. and the Pentagon.

Known as Anvil, it was meant to work alongside efforts like outreach
to youth and training for some police officers, prosecutors and
judges. But the interdiction of cocaine was the immediate focus. Mr.
Brownfield and other officials wanted to test whether they could keep
drug planes from landing on Honduras's isolated Caribbean coast.

The plan was for American and Colombian radar intelligence to guide
D.E.A. agents working with the Honduran police. They would intercept
drug planes once they landed, using State Department helicopters flown
by Guatemalan pilots. "It was the most multinational law enforcement
operation we have ever conducted," Mr. Brownfield said.

They started in the spring, and several officials, including
Ambassador Kubiske, said the program had succeeded in many ways. From
April 24 to July 3, 4.7 tons of cocaine were seized, and the number of
drug flights coming into Honduras fell significantly.

But the operation had evident procedural flaws. It was started without
some simple measures that could have prevented deaths or allowed for
swift investigations and a full public accounting when things went

According to a senior American official who was not authorized to
speak on the record, there were no detailed rules governing American
participation in law enforcement operations. Honduran officials also
described cases in which the rules of engagement for the D.E.A. and
the police were vague and ad hoc.

"In these kinds of situations, who can really say how the decision to
shoot is made?" said Hector Ivan Mejia, a spokesman for the Honduran
National Police.

And for a law enforcement program, investigations seemed to be an
afterthought. On several occasions, crime scenes were left unsecured
for more than 12 hours, until an investigator could be flown to them.
After episodes in which suspects were injured or killed, it often took
days - and significant public pressure - to begin inquiries about
whether deadly force was justified, too late to create a full and
credible account.

The Honduran authorities were not much help. After one previously
undisclosed interdiction raid in July, soldiers refused to board an
American military helicopter that had come to collect

More broadly, it was often unclear who was in charge. Sometimes
neither Honduran nor American authorities seemed to know who was
ultimately responsible for the policy.

The D.E.A.'s role was especially contentious. Its commandos were part
of a tactical assault program known as FAST, for Foreign-deployed
Advisory and Support Team, which has been credited with victories
against drug traffickers from Peru to Afghanistan. But a May 11
shooting in a town called Ahuas, in which gunfire killed four people
whom neighbors said were innocent, led to concerns in Congress that
the D.E.A.'s commandos were operating with impunity.

The agents were supposed to act as trainers. "During our operations in
Honduras, Honduran law enforcement is always in the lead, and we play
a support and mentorship role," said Dawn Dearden, a spokeswoman for
the D.E.A.

But American officials overseeing Anvil now acknowledge that turned
out not to be the case. Members of the Honduran police teams told
government investigators that they took their orders from the D.E.A.
Americans officials said that the FAST teams, deploying tactics honed
in Afghanistan, did not feel confident in the Hondurans' abilities to
take the lead.

Three of the five joint interdiction operations during Anvil included
deadly shootings. In Ahuas, officials said the gunfire came from the
Honduran police. In late June, D.E.A. agents shot and killed the pilot
of a plane bearing drugs, and another pilot who landed farther inland
on July 3. Anvil ended soon afterward, several days ahead of schedule.

"This operation was bungled in its conception, in its implementation
and in its aftermath," said Mr. Leahy, chairman of the Senate
Appropriations Committee's panel on the State Department and foreign

Representative Howard L. Berman of California, the ranking Democrat on
the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote to Mrs. Clinton,
"Unfortunately, this is not the first time the United States has come
perilously close to an overmilitarized strategy toward a country too
small and institutionally weak for its citizens to challenge the policy."

Mr. Brownfield, the assistant secretary, said it was impossible to
"offer a zero risk program for interdicting drugs in Central America."
He noted that the shootings during interdiction raids happened in the
middle of the night, in remote locations that were hard for
investigators to reach. Despite these challenges, he said that
investigations were conducted and that he was "basically satisfied"
that he knew what had happened.

But an aide to Mr. Leahy said members of Congress were not reassured.
"One of several reasons funds currently are being withheld is that we
have yet to see the results of any investigation, and there is little
confidence that the next time would be any better," the aide said.

Military Justice Gone Awry

When the Honduran Air Force pilot took off from his base at La Ceiba
on July 26, tracking a plane without a flight plan, the State
Department helicopters used for interdiction had already returned to
Guatemala. The D.E.A. agents were gone. Anvil had ended, but the
broader mission of joint enforcement and the sharing of American
intelligence had not.

>From the moment the Honduran pilot departed in his aging Tucano
turboprop, just before midnight, he was in radio contact with
Colombian authorities, who regularly receive radar intelligence from
the American military's Southern Command.

Intelligence-sharing is a major component of the American approach to
fighting drugs regionally, and military commanders said they were not
especially worried about any mistakes as they watched the suspicious
flight on their radar screens. Nearly a decade earlier, Honduran
military commanders signed an agreement with the United States to
abide by laws that prohibit firing on civilian aircraft. After all,
small single-engine planes are used by local airlines, courier
services and missionaries all over Honduras's remote northeastern coast.

Yet Honduran and American officials said the Honduran pilots did not
seem to be aware of the rules.

Mr. Corrales, the foreign minister, and some American officials have
concluded that the downed planes amounted to misapplied military
justice, urged on by societal anger and the broader weaknesses of
Honduras's institutions.

"It reflects a lot of frustration in the country, that they think this
is a tool they need to use," Ambassador Kubiske said. "If you had a
law enforcement system and then a justice system that could reliably
detain suspected narcos when they land - if they could seize the goods
and put together a strong case." She added, "If they had a strong
functioning system, then this would look like a less attractive

Creating a stronger system is at the core of what some officials are
now calling Anvil II. A draft of the plan provided by Mr. Corrales
shows a major shift toward shoring up judicial institutions with new
entities focused on organized and financial crime.

Mr. Corrales said the plan was closer to what he had hoped for before
Anvil, with a few protective fixes: each vetted investigative unit
will include up to three embedded prosecutors, who will direct the
activities of Honduran police officers and D.E.A. agents.

The D.E.A.'s role will also probably change. American officials say
they are discussing how to keep it more limited, possibly by requiring
FAST agents to stay on helicopters during raids, "more like a coach on
the sidelines," one American military official said.

Much of what is being proposed would be paid for with a national
security tax Honduras recently established. The Americans have agreed
to help Honduras determine how the money will be spent, and if
Congress releases its hold on American contributions, joint security
programs will accelerate quickly.

But many Hondurans worry that the pull of the familiar - of muscular,
military-style interdiction - may be difficult to resist. In the
handwritten notes on Mr. Corrales's draft, he placed a No. 1 next to
two items: intelligence-sharing, and a reference to training for 20
Honduran helicopter pilots.

Honduran officials have also resisted demands from Congress for a more
thorough investigation of Juan Carlos Bonilla, the head of the
Honduran police, who has been accused of running a death squad that
killed at least three people from 1998 to 2002. (He was acquitted of a
single murder charge in 2004, though critics say the case was hindered
by corruption.)

Dr. Castellanos, the university rector, said the challenge for
Honduras and the Americans would be staying focused on long-term
problems like corruption. "It's a tragedy; there is no confidence in
the state," she said, wearing black in her university office.

The old game of cocaine cat-and-mouse tends to look like a quicker
fix, she said, with its obvious targets and clear victories measured
in tons seized. Since Anvil ended, officials have seen a revival of
suspicious planes heading to Honduras, with many landing inland, along

"This moment presents us with an opportunity for institutional
reform," Dr. Castellanos said. But that will depend on whether the new
effort goes after more than just drugs and uproots the criminal
networks that have already burrowed into Honduran society.

"There's infiltration everywhere," she said. "There is no guarantee it
can be stopped."

A version of this article appeared in print on October 13, 2012, on
page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. Rethinks
Antidrug Efforts After Deadly Turn in Honduras.
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