Lessons of Iraq Help U.S. Fight a Drug War in Honduras

On May 6, 2012 by stratagem

FORWARD OPERATING BASE MOCORON, Honduras — The United States military has brought lessons from the past decade of conflict to the drug war being fought in the wilderness of Miskito Indian country, constructing this remote base camp with little public notice but with the support of the Honduran government.

It is one of three new forward bases here — one in the rain forest, one on the savanna and one along the coast — each in a crucial location to interdict smugglers moving cocaine toward the United States from South America.

Honduras is the latest focal point in America’s drug war. As Mexico puts the squeeze on narcotics barons using its territory as a transit hub, more 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, a country with vast ungoverned areas — and one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the world.

This new offensive, emerging just as the United States military winds down its conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and is moving to confront emerging threats, also showcases the nation’s new way of war: small-footprint missions with limited numbers of troops, partnerships with foreign military and police forces that take the lead in security operations, and narrowly defined goals, whether aimed at insurgents, terrorists or criminal groups that threaten American interests.

The effort draws on hard lessons learned from a decade of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq, where troops were moved from giant bases to outposts scattered across remote, hostile areas so they could face off against insurgents.

But the mission here has been adapted to strict rules of engagement prohibiting American combat in Central America, a delicate issue given Washington’s messy history in Honduras, which was the base for the secret operation once run by Oliver North to funnel money and arms to rebels fighting in neighboring Nicaragua. Some skeptics still worry that the American military might accidentally empower thuggish elements of local security forces.

In past drug operations, helicopters ferrying Honduran and American antinarcotics squads took off from the capital, Tegucigalpa, whenever an intelligence task force identified radar tracks of a smuggler’s aircraft. The three-hour flights required to reach cartel rendezvous points did not leave much idle time to spot airplanes as they unloaded tons of cocaine to dugout canoes, which then paddled downriver beneath the jungle canopy to meet fast boats and submersibles at the coast for the trip north.

In creating the new outposts — patterned on the forward bases in Iraq and Afghanistan that gave troops a small, secure home on insurgent turf — spartan but comfortable barracks were built. Giant tanks hold 4,500 gallons of helicopter fuel. Solar panels augment generators. Each site supports two-week rotations for 55 people, all no more than 30 to 45 minutes’ flying time from most smuggling handoff points.

Before his assignment to Central America, Col. Ross A. Brown spent 2005 and 2006 in Iraq as commander of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment’s Third Squadron, responsible for southern Baghdad. It was a time so violent that President George W. Bush ordered an increase in troop levels to retake the initiative.

Colonel Brown is now commander of Joint Task Force-Bravo, where he and just 600 troops are responsible for the military’s efforts across all of Central America. He is under orders to maintain a discreet footprint, supporting local authorities and the Drug Enforcement Administration, which leads the American counternarcotics mission.

American troops here cannot fire except in self-defense, and they are barred from responding with force even if Honduran or Drug Enforcement Administration agents are in danger. Within these prohibitions, the military marshals personnel, helicopters, surveillance airplanes and logistical support that Honduras and even the State Department and D.E.A. cannot.

Read More: NYT

Image Credit: AP

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