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The soldiers in America’s war on drugs

How the US is investing millions into security forces in Honduras, the country at forefront of America's war on drugs
Last modified: 10 Aug 2012 05:32
Photos by Jeremy Young

Deep in the Mosquitia jungle of Honduras, the US Forward Operating Base Mocoron is at the heart of one of the most active narco-trafficking routes in Latin America.

Soldiers at Mocoron are fighting on the newest front in the US war on drugs.

We spent two days at the base. An hour after we arrived, a helicopter made a dusty landing. On board were US-trained elite Honduran Air Force personnel, decked out in brand new military fatigues.

They were back from the last counter-narcotics mission of the day.

Three American soldiers, sitting in the same John Deere buggy I've seen farmers use across the Midwest, cheerily drove up to them and helped them refuel the helicopter.

New war strategy

Everything about Mocoron reflects the new US war strategy in an era of shrinking budgets: a small remote base, minimal boots on the ground and maximum US training for the host country's soldiers being deployed to the frontlines.

Mauricio Ordonez is one of those soldiers. It was hard to believe that this 20-year-old young man, with his shy demeanor and hushed voice, actually belongs to the elite unit within the Honduran Air Force.

"We spent two months with the Americans. They taught us jungle survival techniques and how to rappel from helicopters. Without their help, we wouldn't be able to accomplish anything," he explained to me.

Eighty per cent of the cocaine heading to the US from South America first lands in Honduras. This year alone, the US will spend over a $100 million on counternarcotics and anti-crime activities.

Evidence of how that money was being put to use was on open display. Brand new Made-in-the-USA army fatigues, stocks of ammunition and M60 machine guns lay across the base.

During the Vietnam War, door gunners on board of helicopters used the M60, which they nicknamed The Pig because of its bulky size, in the jungles of Southeast Asia. They are reusing it now, 50 years later, in the jungles of Central America.

The pride and joy of the soldiers we spoke to, however, was the mighty Galil, an Israeli-made weapon developed in the wake of the 1967 war. It's a top-of-the-line assault rifle designed for combat in harsh terrain. We saw it carried by the army and the police alike everywhere we went.

"We got this batch five days ago and I'm really happy. Compared to the old M16s, the Galil makes it easier for us to move around in tight spaces," explained Ordonez, as he showed me his own brand new gun.

Rules of engagement

There are three American forward bases in Honduras today. The US commander for Central America at the time of our filming told us 600 American soldiers are based in the country. Keeping a low profile is part of their strict rules of engagement.

That profile rose in May, when Honduran security forces on board a US-owned helicopter mistook civilians for drug dealers, then shot and killed four of them in a village called Ahuas.

An elite team from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) was on board. The incident has raised profound questions about the US's engagement in Latin America.

And the DEA has been in the media spotlight ever since.

We visited Ahuas to conduct our own investigation into the incident.

The village, which is closer to Nicaragua than it is the Honduras' capital, Tegucigalpa, has no running water, no electricity, no paved roads, and few job opportunities.

The community told us that narco-traffickers have moved into the area, to the dismay of the local population. Immediately after the raid, the villagers showed us how they burnt down the houses of member of their own community who they believe are working with narco-traffickers.

They say they did it to send a clear message about the fate that awaits those who collaborate with drug dealers.

At the end of our trip to Honduras, I asked a US official a question that many in the US and Latin America have been asking for decades: how much death and destruction needs to take place before US is finally prepared to rethink its war on drugs?

Watch Fault Lines: "The US and Honduras" to find out his answer.

Fault Lines can be seen on Al Jazeera English at the following times (all GMT) : Tuesday, August 14: 22:30, Wednesday, August 15: 09:30; Thursday, August 16: 03:30; Friday, August 17: 16:30; Saturday, August 18: 22:30; Sunday, August 19: 0930; Monday, August 20: 03:30; Tuesday, August 21: 16:30.