Prying native people away from their lands: how narco-traffickers assist with corporate land/resource grabs in Honduras

“[…] Honduras is now infamous for its staggering rates of drug-related violence, but links between drug trafficking and Lobo’s resource-grabbing agenda are rarely made. In fact—especially in La Mosquitia—it is narco-traffickers who act as shock troops in the assault on native homelands, ruthlessly dispossessing residents and rapaciously converting forest commons to private pasture primed for sale. And traffickers simply do not care who owns what. If they want it, it’s theirs. Many observers consider most of the Mosquitia—including the newly titled areas—to be effectively controlled by drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs). But the narcos are not in the land-grabbing business for themselves alone; in the Mosquitia region, they represent the thin end of the corporate wedge prying native peoples from native lands. […]

A landing strip used by drug traffickers near a native community in Honduras, 2011. Photo by K. McSweeney.
A landing strip used by traffickers near a native community, 2011 (Photo by K. McSweeney)

Cocaine has been smuggled along the Mosquitia’s remote coastline since the 1970s. But the region’s trafficking importance grew after 2006, when Mexican DTOs shifted their operations southward after anti-drug crackdowns at home. Then, in 2009, the Honduran coup was followed by a brief suspension of U.S. military aid, temporary withdrawal of U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents, and a political vacuum within the country. DTOs pounced on the opportunity to further entrench themselves in Honduras. Cocaine flows through eastern Honduras subsequently skyrocketed. By 2012, it was estimated that 86% of drug flights from South America landed first in the Mosquitia.

Traffickers are drawn to the Mosquitia for its strategic location and convenient isolation. Cocaine shipments (by sea and air) are sent to airstrips cleared from interior savannas and forests near indigenous communities. The DEA and Honduran military monitor these “cocaine movements” from three new forward-operating bases. But they rarely reach the ever-shifting landing sites in time to intercept drug shipments, which are quickly transferred to dugout canoes, boats, or 4x4s for transit to inland redistribution hubs.

The flow of drugs leads to land dispossession because traffickers have to secure and control these transit zones, to launder their vast illicit profits, and to legitimize their presence under the guise of frontier cattle ranching. Buying up land accomplishes all three. Where there are pre-existing land titles, local bureaucrats are bribed to falsify title deeds and manipulate tax payments in order to separate long-time residents from their ancestral lands. Traffickers also saturate regional and state bureaucracies with payments to ensure impunity for their illegal land purchases. Those who dare to speak out about the process face death threats and violence. Once-crusading indigenous leaders have been silenced. When they petition state prosecutors for protection or help, their claims are lost or permanently postponed.

If the land is not already in pasture, traffickers pay local residents to clear the very forests they have long used and defended. This “improvement” greatly enhances the land’s value in the Honduran market. Narcos can then profit from the speculative land market that they create. In the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, for example, we saw the narco land rush drive land values up by 300% between 2002 and 2010. In some areas, locals report that the low-level traffickers who are buying and clearing these lands are selling to, or are contracted by, foreign narcos (from Mexico, Spain, Colombia, the United States) keen to invest in the Honduran land market. It seems quite possible, then, that the narco-driven enclosure of the Mosquitia is at least partly coordinated and/or financed by external DTOs. If so, this exemplifies a pattern of DTO diversification into rural economies (especially through agribusiness and mining) seen in Mexico and elsewhere.

In the Mosquitia, the result is widespread dispossession, impoverishment, and ecological devastation. Entire communities have scattered; families that stay often survive as hired hands for rancher-traffickers (narcoganaderos). Residents speak under their breath about the climate of fear. As one Tawahka man told us, “There’s too much money, too many weapons—people are scared, I mean, to open their mouths. They’ve killed people!” A Miskitu resident put it simply: “We are afraid of them because they carry guns and threaten to kill us. There is no one here to stop them.”

Satellite imagery attests to this dispossession. The Mosquitia has long been an agricultural frontier, where settlers have chipped away at forest along the region’s western and southern edge. But since trafficking intensified after 2006, pasture clearing has accelerated sharply. Time-series satellite images reveal how the biodiverse patchworks of field, fallow, and forest—characteristic of native landscapes—are giving way to a narco-scape marked by massive, hastily cleared pastures proliferating cancer-like in the heart of indigenous homelands.

If destroying indigenous lives, lands, and livelihoods were not enough, narco-trafficking also intensifies social inequalities within native communities. The very few native families who are complicit in drug trafficking have grown conspicuously wealthy, with lavish homes and consumer luxuries (flat screen TVs, generators, motorboats). Many act as brokers for their own community’s land—consolidating their neighbors’ smallholdings on behalf of narcos further up the chain. As they are enriched at the expense of their neighbors, the governance norms on which indigenous political solidarity is built are profoundly undermined. One villager told us: “the community has disintegrated…everybody fled…All of this conflict is related to the conflicts over land…[Narcos] want to create conflict and division within the communities to continue amassing lands in our area.”

In short: narcos are paving the way for corporate investment in the Mosquitia. In many ways, the Lobo administration could not have engineered a more effective process for quickly and quietly converting biodiverse indigenous commons into ecologically simplified private holdings “open for business.” Narco-trafficking has, after all, been astonishingly efficient at weakening once-powerful indigenous political coalitions, silencing once-outspoken indigenous leaders, and creating a climate of fear in which land is grabbed with impunity. Already, narco-led forest-to-pasture conversion has created a booming (if entirely illegal) land market, attracting outside (criminal) investors. Further, the presence of traffickers justifies militarized intervention in the region. According to many natives, the military presence is used as much to “secure” elite interests in indigenous lands as it is to deter traffickers. The predictable result is an intensification of violence overall: indigenous residents are now killed and intimidated by both narcos and anti-narcotics forces. […]


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