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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — When the outsiders came offering food and cash for manual work, the village leader in La Mosquitia, a remote corner of northeastern Honduras at first thought his community was being asked to clear rain forest for cattle ranching.
But when the men returned, he said, they cut down trees and blasted out roots to clear two clandestine strips for drug flights.
“They used axes, chainsaws and earth compactors to flatten the land,” said the leader, one of four elders who agreed to speak out for the first time, on the condition of strict anonymity. “Then they brought in sand to surface the strips, which were big enough for aircraft with one or two engines to land.”
Now a dozen years later, leaders tallied at least 39 operational airstrips that have transformed their traditional tribal lands into a global hub for the cocaine trade, accelerated deforestation in an area of exceptional biodiversity and snared indigenous people in the war on drugs.
The area, studded with scores of clandestine airstrips and now dotted with abandoned and burned-out aircraft, contains the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site dubbed the Amazon of Central America. It is home to threatened or rare species, including giant anteaters, jaguars, ocelots and manatees as well as flocks of increasingly scarce macaws.
The region’s largest wilderness area is also home to the Miskito, Pech and Tawahka peoples, who live by farming, fishing and hunting sustainably on ancestral lands flanking sinuous jungle rivers and coastal lagoons. The four leaders who spoke to Al Jazeera America represent two of the most affected communities, and all four have received death threats.
The dangers faced by indigenous groups were highlighted last month in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signed by more than 100 members of the House of Representatives urging him to pressure the Honduran government to “protect the fundamental rights of its citizens,” investigate and prosecute abuses and “restore the rule of law.” Among particularly vulnerable groups, it singled out indigenous and campesino activists who, it said, were being “targeted and killed.”
Central America has long been a corridor for cocaine headed to U.S. markets. Trafficking operations erupted there after Mexico began to crack down on cartels in 2006. The ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya three years later further loosened already feeble state control in La Mosquitia and unleashed an influx of drug flights using scores of hastily cleared landing strips, some of them receiving as many as two to three flights a weeks, indigenous leaders said.
“The whole area was practically abandoned. There was no military presence, and the people trafficking in the coastal area decided to make landing strips,” another leader said. “The effect for us has been catastrophic.”
We can’t go and cut down a tree to make a canoe because there is now a wire fence. We can’t go to places to collect our natural medicines because they appear out of nowhere with guns and demand to know where you are going.
Honduran indigenous leader
The picture painted by the Honduran government is even bleaker. Former Deputy Defense Minister Carlos Funez said last year that the armed forces had identified some 200 clandestine landing strips in the north of the country and that troops destroyed about 70 of them.
Some 90 percent of the strips are operated by Los Cachiros, a brutal Honduran trafficking organization that coordinates the movement of drugs to and from Honduras for Colombian and Mexican drug-trafficking organizations, including Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa cartel, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
The air-trafficking boom has flooded the region with heavily armed criminals and millions of dollars in illicit cash, accelerating a process of deforestation by affiliated ranchers, palm oil barons and loggers eager to exploit lands that have been under the de facto protection of indigenous peoples for centuries, academics said.
“The traffickers are the shock troops of capitalism rendering these spaces available for external capital,” said Kendra McSweeney, a geographer at Ohio State University who co-authored a report on drug policy and narco-deforestation published in Science magazine earlier this year. “They have so much money to hand, they can pay people unimaginable sums to clear forests.”
The study found that the pace of deforestation in eastern Honduras increased more than fivefold in the five years prior to 2011, when more than 70 square miles of forest were cleared.
“The people doing the dirty work are former small-time timber traffickers or people selling scarlet macaws. They were frontiers people who all of a sudden got access to a lot of money and weapons,” McSweeney said.
The tribal people who live along the area’s forested rivers and lagoons farm cassava, rice and bananas and hunt game such as deer and pigs. They are increasingly finding their access to traditional lands denied and their ancient way of life disrupted.
“We can’t go and cut down a tree to make a canoe because there is now a wire fence. We can’t go to places to collect our natural medicines because they appear out of nowhere with guns and demand to know where you are going,” another traditional leader said, warning of growing food insecurity.
Young people are increasingly turning their backs on tradition, lured by the cash, drugs, weapons and consumer lifestyle of the traffickers.
“What is this teaching our children?” a leader asked. “They are not interested in education anymore but in joining in this illicit activity.”
In 2011, UNESCO placed the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve on the World Heritage in Danger list because of illegal logging, fishing and land occupation there and noted the state’s reduced capacity to manage the site because of “the deterioration of law and to the presence of drug traffickers.”
The recent influx of traffickers is bringing unprecedented violence to a once relatively safe corner of Honduras — currently the most violent country on earth, with a homicide rate nearly 20 times the United States’.
According to figures compiled by the National Autonomous University of Honduras, the murder rate tripled last year in La Mosquitia, at a time when the overall street-gang and drug-fueled homicide rate in Honduras dipped.
Most of the dead have been traffickers killed in clashes with rival bands over territory and drugs. Among them were up to 17 gunmen killed in a gun battle among Honduran, Nicaraguan and Mexican traffickers in the coastal village of Belén in August, reportedly over a disputed 1,500-pound shipment of cocaine.
Indigenous people are getting cut down in the crossfire. Two years ago, Honduran police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents on a counternarcotics operation along the Río Patuca fired from a helicopter on an unarmed Moskito group in a motorized canoe, killing a 21-year-old man, a 14-year-old boy and two women, one of whom was six months pregnant. Another four people were wounded by gunfire.
None of the dead or injured were traffickers. A subsequent Center for Economic Policy and Research and Rights Action report on the killings, “Collateral Damage of a Drug War,” flagged concerns that the U.S. government was “promoting increasingly aggressive military-style tactics” in regional drug interdiction efforts, with “few if any attendant accountability mechanisms.”
In another outbreak of violence last year, in Ahuasbila, a Moskito village on the border with Nicaragua, at least 30 armed traffickers dressed in police uniforms took over the community and shot dead five men in a bitter turf battle, according to news reports.
Pressured by violence, as many as five indigenous communities have been either totally or partly abandoned in La Mosquitia, including Ahuasbila and neighboring Rus Rus, leaders said.
The 2,000-strong Tawahka community, meanwhile, will decide this month whether to move women, children and the elderly to relative safety in neighboring Nicaragua.
"This drug war has nothing to do with us,” one of the leaders said. “It’s wrong that we, as indigenous people, are being made to pay the price.”