Jun 1 2012

‘There’s Way Too Much of a History of Lying’

Dana Frank on Honduras

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency was reportedly involved in the May 11 killing of four innocent civilians on Honduras’ Mosquito Coast. The operation caused condemnation in Honduras, and scrambling among U.S. officials, who mobilized to defend the DEA with on-the-record statements denying the agency did any actual shooting, and anonymous officials casting suspicion on the victims. With a few exceptions, U.S. media have not distinguished themselves.

One of those exceptions is Dana Frank. Her piece, “Honduras: Which Side Is the U.S. On?,” appearing on the Nation website (5/22/12), discusses the killings and the U.S. role in the escalating drug war there. Frank is a professor of history at the University of California Santa Cruz and the author of Bananeras: Women Transforming the Banana Unions of Latin America.

CounterSpin: In reading your piece, I sense that you see the killings on the Mosquito Coast as somewhat emblematic of the larger tragedies affecting Honduras. But I wonder if you could talk about U.S. coverage of the killings–what do we know happened, and how good a job have U.S. outlets done in covering the story?

Dana Frank: This is a great opportunity for talking about critical thinking about the U.S. media, because this story would never have been broken if it wasn’t for a couple reporters. I saw it in the Honduran papers the day after it happened [5/12/2012]; it was reported in the Honduran papers that the DEA agents and Honduran troops killed drug traffickers and had a successful raid, and over that next weekend, indigenous people of the region put out a statement saying, “Wait a minute, we were killed by the military here, we were shot on from above and we are not drug dealers.”

And then what happened was on Tuesday morning [5/15/2012], one Honduran paper reported that the mayor and the congressman from that region, La Mosquitia, said that the people that had been killed by the troops were civilians, and that they had been killed by the DEA as well as Honduran troops. Thank goodness that was picked up by Bloomberg News in a piece that didn’t move that far, and AP [5/17/12] picked up that story and moved with it, and we really want to celebrate Bloomberg News for doing it and AP for doing it. And then they started talking to the DEA and the State Department, and then of course the spin machine kicked in.

The State Department said in its briefing that, yes, they did acknowledge that DEA agents were on board the helicopters, there were two helicopters at least, and they acknowledged that the helicopters were owned by the State Department, and also that there were Guatemalan military on board, which is also interesting. But at the same time, the State Department spin started to be implying that these people were in fact drug traffickers; there was some remark about, well, local authorities are often drug traffickers, sort of impugning the mayor who had said it, and saying that they had been shot at first.

And, you know, I can tell you as a historian that we don’t want to believe a word of what the State Department is saying here. There’s just way too much of a history of lying about things. Of course, we can believe them when they admit to bad things, but I think we have a lot to learn about what was going on in this incident.

Eventually the New York Times picked it up, and they started reporting what the State Department had said [5/17/2012], and then eventually they did report a story [5/19/2012] of a woman in the hospital who had been shot at, and that’s actually a very beautiful story, and AP has been on this all over. I don’t know if people have seen the additional story from AP [5/22/12] on the ground which reports much further that there were implicitly U.S., English-speaking troops with translators, who were terrorizing people in their homes and holding them captive and calling them drug traffickers and doing all kinds of really terrifying things to the local residents all the rest of that day, and this is, like, really scary, and that’s not being reported by anybody but AP.

CS: And we should note that early on, the New York Times as well as the Washington Post took those State Department comments at face value. How do the killings of the Mosquito Indians fit into the larger stories playing out in Honduras?

DF: Well, there’s what the media stories are and there’s what’s going on. People may have seen a Page 1 story in the New York Times about three weeks ago [5/6/12], which was really–you could see that it was by somebody who normally works on Iraq and Afghanistan, who knew nothing about Honduras–that reported on the so-called “forward operating bases” that the DEA is using to wage a war supposedly against insurgents and drug dealers in Honduras using lessons learned in Iraq. Well, that should tell you that something alarming is going on here: that Honduras is sort of the new Iraq.

The main story here is that the U.S. is, in fact, increasing dramatically its military funding in Central America, and most of that is going to the ongoing coup regime in Honduras, while using the drug war as a pretext.

Now, the drug trafficking is real and, of course, where do the drugs go? They go to the United States. And where do the guns involved come from? They come from the United States, they come from military funding, so where is all this coming from in the first place? But the real issue here is that here’s this supposed drug war that we’re fighting in Honduras, but the drug trafficking is completely interlaced with the Honduran police and military all the way to the top of the Honduran government. Even the minister of defense has talked about the so-called “narco-judges” and the “narco-congresspeople.”

There is a tremendous amount of drug trafficking connected to the government. So what’s going on is that we’re pouring money into this vicious regime that’s repressing the opposition and that admits that its own police are killing people, is absolutely incapable of cleaning itself up–all of that money is being poured into this regime by the U.S. in the name of this drug war. The DEA incident is interesting because it shows what we’re doing down there. But this is just one example of U.S.- funded troops in Honduras killing people right and left; I mean, there are 43 campesinos who have been killed in the last two or two and a half years in the Aguán valley by a combination of U.S.-funded police and military and private security guards, and that money should all have been cut a long time ago.

CS: Journalists and labor leaders aren’t doing that well either.

DF: Honduras breaks all the records. It’s got one of the highest levels of journalists being killed, including a very prominent LGBT journalist and a very mainstream radio figure in the last two weeks; there’s ongoing LGBT killings; there is repression of the labor movement, which the AFL-CIO has recently documented [3/29/12]. You name a group, it’s being repressed. And this is not being reported in the United States press.

Thank goodness for the Nation magazine, which lets me talk about the connection between the ongoing coup regime and the local government and these kinds of hideous disasters. Honduras is now breaking records all over the world for how terrible it can get, and the U.S. is just pouring money into the government that’s doing it.

CS: In reading your Nation piece, it seems like you are describing a vision of hell. Is there anything to be done?

DF: There’s no question that this is a hideous hell hole that’s getting worse, including the new chief of police who was just named, who is a known death-squad leader. But if you look at the Honduran papers and you talk to Hondurans, people are pouring into the streets and blocking roads and demonstrating and striking all day every day all over the country, and not just the labor movement. The indigenous movement, the LGBT movement, the intersex movement, the campesino movement, I mean, you name it, it’s amazing the level of social activism. They have nerves of steel after three years of fighting the coup, and it’s really important to celebrate that. You would never know that that kind of activism and resistance was going on: It’s always the poor victims of Honduras, or how terrible the country is.

CS: And what about activists here at home?

DF: Well, yes, people should know about the Honduras Solidarity Network and all kinds of groups connected to it that have been working on this under the radar screen for three years, like Witness for Peace, Center for Constitutional Rights, School of the Americas Watch, all kinds of folks. And people should know that there’s a huge campaign going on to try and cut the police and military aid and to stop human rights abuses in Honduras.

And everybody should immediately right now please call your congressmember or senator and ask them to immediately suspend police and military aid and investigate the DEA incident, because I was never one of these people who made these kind of calls, but I now know from what people are telling me that there are congresspeople and senators who are saying, “Please, we want to do more on this, would you just give us some calls from constituents.” And they’re begging for it because they want to do more.