by Keane Bhatt
Honduras has belatedly appeared on the radar of the U.S. media over the past couple of weeks. A joint U.S.-Honduras drug raid on Friday, May 11, reportedly killed civilians—including two pregnant women—near Ahuas, a town in the Mosquitia region of Honduras. According to press coverage based on accounts by U.S. officials, four State Department helicopters—piloted by Guatemalan military officers and outside contractors—carried a strike force of Honduran security officers from a U.S.-built base to the Patuca River. They were accompanied by what The New York Times called a “commando-style squad” of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, and acted on Colombian and U.S. intelligence. U.S. and Honduran officials told The Times the forces seized 1,000 pounds of cocaine from a boat before being attacked by another boat of drug traffickers; Honduran personnel, then on the ground, and with support from “the door gunner of at least one of the helicopters,” engaged in a late-night firefight with the traffickers, killing two of them. The State Department and the DEA insist that only Hondurans participated in the shootout.
Both the local mayor and congressional representative disputed this account, asserting in the Honduran newspaper El Tiempo three days after the raid that four people were killed—Emerson Martínez, Chalo Brock Wood, Candelaria Tratt Nelson, and Juana Banegas—and that they were ordinary citizens. In a later interview with TIME, the local leaders said the civilian boat was “ferrying passengers,” and “was passing from the opposite direction and got caught in the nighttime crossfire.” Close to a week after initial reports incorrectly described the mission as having been carried out solely by Honduran forces, and days after the local authorities accused the DEA of involvement, official U.S. spokespersons finally admitted to the DEA’s “advisory role” in the brutal raid.
Only after this official response by the U.S. government did The New York Times first cover the story. Although reporters Charlie Savage and Thom Shanker presented the conflicting accounts of what had happened—which obviously included the possibility that civilians had been indiscriminately killed—the journalists still managed to promote the U.S. government’s stated priorities, which were internalized in their copy:
[T]he murky circumstances surrounding the firefights underscore the potential successes and risks in the United States’ escalating efforts to help small Central American governments battle well-armed and financed transnational narcotics smugglers by adapting counterinsurgency techniques honed in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. The challenge has been to help bolster local security forces without raising a nationalist backlash fueled by memories of interventions by the United States during the cold war.
It’s worth unpacking a few tacit points within The Times’ boosterish prose above. First, the paper has somehow reduced the murder of pregnant Honduran women to a “potential risk” to be weighed against “potential successes,” and does not question whether the United States has a right to make such decisions. Second, the fact is, the U.S. government has ignored its right-wing ally in Central America, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, who advocates stemming violence by decriminalizing drugs. The United States instead favors adapting to the region the military savagery it has employed in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Times ludicrously calls this an effort to “help small Central American governments.” Third, The Times invokes memories of Cold War interventions instead of referring to a much more recent and relevant intervention for Hondurans: After June 2009, the United States assiduously worked behind the scenes to prop up the military dictatorship that had overthrown the democratically elected, left-leaning president Manuel Zelaya.
The next day, the New York Times ran a follow-up article, filed from Mexico City by Damien Cave. It was much worse. Cave’s piece was dominated by official statements on the May 11 raid, an action which the U.S. government had every incentive to justify, rationalize, or manipulate. The newspaper must have eased its fact-checking standards when it cited “one American government estimate” that claimed “79 percent of all cocaine shipped to the United States passes through Honduras.” If correct, it would likely make the following statistic, taken from The New York Times’ own homepage on Honduras, irreconcilable: “[M]ore than 90 percent of the cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela bound for the United States passes through Central America. More than a third of those narcotics make their way through Honduras.”
Cave’s article also granted totally gratuitous anonymity to a U.S. government source, and offered no justification for it. This official, who was “briefed on the matter,” provided the article’s final word on the killings, and unsurprisingly “cast doubt on the local account.” The unknown U.S. authority expressed disbelief that innocent villagers would have been in the river at that time of night, and in The Times’ words, argued that “many members of the impoverished community of Ahuas were involved in drug trafficking” anyway. Therefore, the piece was able to conclude on a triumphant note: the source was quoted as saying, “What happened was that, for the first time in the history of Ahuas, Honduran law enforcement interfered with narcotics smuggling.”
To Damien Cave’s credit, his subsequent article, which was filed the next day from Ahuas, provided a much-needed corrective to anonymous spin. Through the surviving victims’ accounts and other confirming evidence, Cave reported that the boat that purportedly engaged in a gun battle with the four helicopters had indeed been a form of transportation for residents along the river for a quarter century. Cave interviewed Hilda Lezama, the boat’s owner, while she was hospitalized with gunshot wounds in both legs due to the U.S.-Honduran raid. She explained that she and her husband “dropped off lobster fishermen at the Caribbean coast, coming back with passengers picked up at several spots along the river.” They undertook the six-hour journey at night “to avoid the strong sun,” she added. Another survivor told Cave she witnessed her son, Chalo Brock Wood, “drift into the water and die” after being shot—he was only 14 years old. It’s commendable that The Timesfollowed up its uncritical promulgation of anonymous U.S. officials’ views with revealing accounts of local residents affected by the violence. But Cave’s most recent article barely begins to repair The Times’ flawed coverage of Honduras.
There are at least three overarching defects in The New York Times’ reporting:
First, there is no mention in the three articles that the “specially vetted local forces” which work “hand in hand” with DEA commandos in fact serve an illegitimate, post-coup regime. The Times’ news coverage also has not referred to relevant information from a January op-ed that the newspaper itself published, which found that “more than 300 people have been killed by state security forces since the coup.” The Times also ignored the undemocratic nature of the current regime earlier this month when the paper detailed three new “forward operating bases” the U.S. military has recently built in the country, and quoted U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Lisa J. Kubiske, who described the Honduran armed forces as “eager and capable partners in this joint effort.” One can almost forget that these partners form the coercive arm of the Porfirio Lobo administration, which came to power through “elections” marred by violence and held under a dictatorship in 2009. The United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the Carter Center refrained from sending electoral observers to avoid legitimizing the sham.
Second, The Times at no point questions the genuineness of the U.S. government’s efforts to combat drug trafficking in Honduras. The newspaper’s declaration that “Honduras is a growing focus of American counternarcotics efforts aimed at the drug cartels” obscures the fact that the United States indirectly supports, through its military aid, the Honduran oligarch, coup-backer and alleged narcotrafficker, Miguel Facussé. State Department officials, including the former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Larry Palmer himself, repeatedly filed reports that Facussé received massive shipments of cocaine directly to his enormous personal compound in Honduras, according to official cables made public by WikiLeaks.
Finally, while it’s obvious the U.S. government’s statements and actions have set the agenda for The New York Times’ coverage of Honduras, the inverse is also true. As a likely result of the State Department’s relative silence on the ongoing human rights crisis in that country, The Times has deprived its readership of crucial news stories over the past two months that could have provided some context for this latest grisly incident. The Times has found not a single one of the following developments “fit to print”:
- On March 12, Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and 93 other Members of Congress wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to suspend aid to the Honduran military and police, citing “credible allegations of widespread, serious violations of human rights attributed to the security forces.” Schakowsky’s letter also noted that in the Bajo Aguán region, 45 people associated with peasant organizations working to resolve land disputes had been killed since 2009.
- On March 30, the AP reported that armed assailants shot four Honduran farmworkers to death in an ambush in the Aguán Valley.
- In late April, Amnesty International issued an urgent action to pressure Honduran officials to investigate multiple death threats against journalist, human rights activist and Porfirio Lobo critic Dina Meza. The menacing text messages were signed off by “CAM,” or Comando Alvarez Martinez, a pseudonym linked to a notorious death squad. (General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez was the head of the armed forces that unleashed a wave of terror upon Hondurans in the 1980s.)
- On April 19, supporters of Manuel Zelaya, the deposed Honduran president, organized a protest of 10,000 workers. Agence France-Presse reported that the day before, “some 3,500 farming families took 12,000 hectares of land in eight provinces but were evacuated under the threat of police forces.”
- On May 8, Honduran journalist, LGBT rights campaigner and budding opposition politician, Erick Martinez, was found dead two days after disappearing.
- On May 16, the dead body of notable radio reporter Alfredo Villatoro was found, dressed up in a police uniform, a week after he was kidnapped.
- On May 17, Amnesty released a petition asking for urgent action to protect two European volunteers who accompany Honduran human rights workers in order to reduce the Hondurans’ risk of being attacked. The volunteers received death threats via cell phone, also signed by CAM.
- On May 18, José Efraín Del Cid was killed by multiple bullets to the face as he sat in his car. He was a member of the Campesino Movement of the Aguán on the Left Bank, an association of cooperatives and rural businesses.
This article appeared at NACLA. Keane Bhatt is the author of the new NACLA blog “Manufacturing Contempt,” which takes a critical look at the U.S. press and its portrayal of the hemisphere.