Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Two dead pregnant women, and the war on drugs

I meant to do a post last week, when the the New York Times carried a story saying the U.S. was taking the war on drugs into Honduras. DEA agents are operating out of three small remote bases, using U.S. helicopters and other equipment, and working with Honduran police.

"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 NYT enthused.
What got my attention was this sentence."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."
Come on. Iraq is a mess. Nothing lasting has been accomplished in Afghanistan, at a cost of thousands of lives and billions of dollars.
Jon Lee Anderson did a fine piece in The New Yorker on the reality of the anti-drug effort in Afghanistan. U.S. contractors, hired to do the work, made money, but not much else positive happened. 
Why would it? If people want something, suppliers will provide it. That's the lesson of prohibition.
The New York Times report went on about the safeguards and rules of engagement in Honduras. 
But on Friday, days later, El Tiempo reported, four "humble and honest citizens" were killed when DEA agents and Honduran police in a helicopter opened fire on a boat on the Patuca River in northeastern Honduras. They were after narcotraficantes, but apparently got the wrong boat. Two men, and their pregnant partners, were killed. Four other people were wounded.
Area residents, El Tiempo reported, set fire to four houses because they blamed local authorities for the deaths.
The local mayor, Lucio Baquedano, was not happy. "These operations were performed irresponsibly because it assumes that the people involved are specialists who will act against drug traffickers and not against healthy people."
Not a great translation. But the point is clear. 
There is increasing support in Latin America for legalizing the drug business. The U.S. isn't doing anything meaningful to reduce or manage demand, the argument goes. 
Why should Honduras and other countries engage in an expensive and futile battle against narco traffickers, and deal with the crime and corruption that comes with the drug trade?
There is real money to be made in supplying Americans and Canadians with cocaine, in a country where people are poor. People can be expected to seize the opportunity, whatever the risks, and to fight, and kill, each other for the chance to escape poverty.
Bringing the war on drugs - with real armies - to Honduras means more deaths and, at best, that the cocaine route moves on to some other country.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Lost in Translation, or in conference with OCDIH

Back from a two-day annual planning meeting with OCDIH, the agency I'm to help in Honduras, and I must say it went brilliantly. I succeeded in managing their expectations down to the point that any contribution I make will come as an enormous and pleasant surprise.
The entire team - some 40 people - gathered to review plans and current issues. It was my introduction to them, and the organization.
To the extent that they are thinking about me at all, the OCDIH team is probably hoping that my Spanish is really weak. It's either that, or I am just not terribly bright.
The meeting only happens once a year. I tried to weasel out the day before, but Edgardo, the top guy, made it clear to the local office that I should be there.
So at 4:45 a.m. Thursday, in the pre-dawn dark, I was in the square to catch a ride in a truck with the local OCDIH office staff. They probably weren't thrilled. I was the sixth person in a truck that seats five. Fortunately, Carlita was small enough to perch on the front console.
We roared along the winding, hilly road to La Entrada, about an hour, and then went another 15 minutes to Nueva Arcadia, where OCDIH has another office. Farmers are burning off the hillsides so they can plant before the rainy season, a bad but common agricultural practice. The haze is everywhere, so thick at one point we were driving the speed limit - a rarity unless a giant truck is in the way - with our four-way flashers on.
We then piled onto a bus, chartered for the occasion, that usually runs between two towns. It was a yellow school bus declared surplus by some district in upstate New York. 
Improved, of course. The row of seats on the driver's side had been lengthened by 10 inches to hold, nominally, three people. A 32-inch LCD TV had been mounted over the driver. And a giant 'Jesus Christo' decal covered the top half of the front window.
The decal was reassuring, given the state of Honduran roads. And we had more insurance. OCDIH stands for the Organismo Cristiano de Desarrollo Integral de Honduras (Dearrollo being development). And on both legs of the journey, we watched a big Christian rock concert on the TV. If our bus went off a steep embankment, the faithful would have some tough questions for God.
We gathered more people from OCDIH offices along the way. Hondurans value greetings. They shook hands, kissed, greeted each other in ways that conveyed real warmth. Edgardo, the boss, made a point of introducing me to the puzzled crew.
Guest today, lunch tomorrow
And, after three hours, we bumped into Monte Horeb, a kind-of hotel "capacitacion centre" outside Gracias Lempiras. First, a big breakfast in an open-air area restaurant - eggs, beans, cheese, tortillas, pickled vegetables - served up cafeteria style, then into the meetings.
Which began with a devotional. Religion is central to NGO life in Honduras. So we had a prayer, and then broke into groups to talk about seven scriptural passages - my group met outside in the sun - and  how they related to our goals of planning for OCDIH. We sang some religious songs, thankfully with lyrics projected on a screen - one to the tune of Red River Valley - and shared our thoughts on the scriptures.
And the meetings were good, if a little undisciplined in terms of time and schedules. Hondurans value inclusiveness, so a one-hour session can stretch into two without any compensating changes in the schedule.
But I was impressed with the presentations and the contributions. I learned a lot about the organization, which works with farmers and poor communities in economic and political development, and the challenges. 
Which is amazing, since I understood about two-thirds of the presentations and maybe one-fifth of the discussions.
Powerpoint was my best friend. In Canada, as soon as I hear the quiet hum of a projector in a meeting room, my mind began to drift. Here, my spirits soared anytime the agenda promised a 'Ppt.' I can read Spanish much better than I can speak it. The more detailed - and likely more tedious for rest of the audience - the better.
And in Canada, I’m good at meetings. I’m quick to grasp things, strategic in finding common ground, purposeful and pretty articulate. Here, I felt like a Grade 3 student thrust into a management meeting on take-your-kid-to-work day. Even if you have something to say, silence seems a wiser option.
The last such event I attended was at a Florida golf resort and conference centre. We ate well, drank some and each had a suite.
At the OCDIH meeting, after lunch, we crossed a field to see our rooms. One for men, one for women, two rows of metal bunks, each about two feet apart. A pillow, sheet and bar of soap. Five showers, one sink and three toilets in an annex at the end. It felt like a cross between summer camp and prison. (Based on my one summer stay at Camp Pinecrest, they are not conceptually that dissimilar.)
Anyone who donates to international aid organizations should be pleased. A chartered school bus, accommodation that almost certainly cost less than $5 a head and meetings that left no real down time. Pretty good value. (And I mean no down time. I woke at 4:50 a.m., because two guys had started talking about some organizational issue as they lay in their bunks.)
The meals were tough for me. The fare in Honduras is built around three staples - beans, tortillas and  queso - a white, salty cheese.  They were part of breakfast, lunch and supper. 
That was fine. I like beans. The challenge was making conversation in my tortured Spanish. Lord knows what I said, or the answers I offered to questions that weren’t actually asked. I spent half an hour talking communications with Gloria, the lead OCDIH person in that area. I’m sure her spirits sank with each passing minute.
But as we retraced the journey on the bus - through some beautiful country, big hills, broad valleys, narrow gorges - I was running through some ways I could help. They have some great stories to tell, and some issues came up in the meetings that cry out for a communications solution. I am good at that. If I can make myself understood. 
And everyone included me in their elaborate goodbyes as they got off the bus.
I don’t think they’re expecting much. But I’m aiming to surprise them.