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Originally published Friday, October 12, 2012 at 9:35 PM

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In Honduras, deaths make U.S. rethink drug war

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...

The New York Times

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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 U.S. radar intelligence, a Honduran fighter pilot shot it down over the water.

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. Sen. Patrick 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 U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) 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 U.S. 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 DEA and the Pentagon rushed ahead this year with a muscular anti-drug 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 U.S. agents — quickly turned the anti-drug 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' 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 U.S. forces, will be put in place.

"We are trying to see what to do differently or better," said Lisa Kubiske, the U.S. 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, undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights.

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

A country's cry for help

The foreign minister, Corrales, 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' largest university.

Vargas' 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 were not arrested.

"It was a wake-up call for all of Honduras of just how corrupt and infiltrated the police were," 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 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 DEA 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. Brownfield and other officials wanted to test whether they could keep drug planes from landing on Honduras' isolated Caribbean coast.

The plan was for U.S. and Colombian radar intelligence to guide DEA 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," Brownfield said.

They started in the spring, and several officials, including 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 wrong.

According to a senior U.S. official who was not authorized to speak on the record, there were no detailed rules governing U.S. participation in law enforcement operations. Honduran officials also described cases in which the rules of engagement for the DEA 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 a U.S. military helicopter that had come to collect reinforcements.

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

The DEA'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 DEA'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 DEA.

But U.S. 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 DEA. U.S. 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, DEA agents shot and killed the pilot of a plane bearing drugs, and another pilot who landed further 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 Leahy, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee's panel on the State Department and foreign operations.

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 already had returned to Guatemala. The DEA agents were gone. Anvil had ended, but the broader mission of joint enforcement and the sharing of U.S. 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 U.S. military's Southern Command.

Intelligence-sharing is a major component of the U.S. 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' remote northeastern coast.

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

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

"It reflects a lot of frustration in the country, that they think this is a tool they need to use," 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 alternative."

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

Corrales said the plan is 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 DEA agents.

The DEA's role will also probably change. U.S. 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 U.S. military official said.

Castellanos, the university rector, said the challenge for Honduras and the Americans will 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 rivers.

"This moment presents us with an opportunity for institutional reform," 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."

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