New bases reflect what American military has learned in decade of conflict
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.
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.
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.
“By countering transnational organized crime, we promote stability, which is necessary for external investment, economic growth and minimizing violence,” Colonel Brown said. “We also are disrupting and deterring the potential nexus between transnational organized criminals and terrorists who would do harm to our country.”
To reach Forward Operating Base Mocoron, an Army Black Hawk helicopter flew through fog-shrouded canyons, over triple-canopy rain forest and across savannas that bore dozens of 200-yard scratches — pirate runways for drug smugglers.
Conducting operations during a recent day at the outpost were members of the Honduran Tactical Response Team, the nation’s top-tier counternarcotics unit. They were working alongside the Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team, or FAST, created by the Drug Enforcement Administration to disrupt the poppy trade in Afghanistan. With the campaign in Afghanistan winding down — and with lowered expectations of what Washington can do to halt heroin trafficking there — FAST members were in Honduras to plan interdiction missions in Central America.
And Honduran Special Operations forces, with trainers from American Special Forces — the Army’s Green Berets — were ferried from the outpost by Honduran helicopters to plant explosives that would cut craters into smugglers’ runways. Honduran infantrymen provided security for the outpost, which remains under Honduran command.
Another reminder sits across the runway at Soto Cano Air Base, the large Honduran base outside the capital that hosts a local military academy and Colonel Brown’s headquarters. Behind a high fence is a compound once used by Mr. North, a Marine lieutenant colonel at the center of the Iran-contra operation, a clandestine effort to sell weapons to Iran and divert profits to support rebels in Nicaragua, despite legislation prohibiting assistance to the group because of human rights abuses. Today, tropical undergrowth is erasing traces of the secret base.
But that history still casts a shadow, skeptics of the American effort say.
“We know from the Reagan years that the infrastructure of the country of Honduras — both its governance machinery as well as its security forces — simply is not strong enough, is not corruption-proof enough, is not anti-venal enough to be a bastion of democracy,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a policy research group in Washington.
One of those partners, Cmdr. Pablo Rodríguez of the Honduran Navy, is the senior officer at the second of the forward bases, at Puerto Castilla on the coast. He pointed to his “bonus fleet” of several dozen vessels seized from smugglers, the fastest of which were retrofitted with Kevlar armor over outboard engines and mounts for machine guns for chasing drug runners. The improvements were financed by the State Department.
“We have limitations on how quickly we can move, even when we get strong indications of a shipment of drugs,” Commander Rodríguez said. “We can’t do anything without air support. So that’s why it’s very important to have the United States coming in here.”
Permanent American deployments overseas are shrinking to match a smaller Pentagon budget — and missions will increasingly reflect partnership efforts traditionally assigned to Special Operations forces. A significant effort is the presence of 200 of those troops assigned as trainers across Central America.
The third forward base, at El Aguacate in central Honduras, has sprung from an abandoned airstrip used by the C.I.A. during the Reagan era.
Narcotics cartels, transnational organized crime and gang violence are designated as threats by the United States and Central American governments, with a broader consensus than when that base was built — in an era when the region was viewed through a narrow prism of communism and anticommunism.
“The drug demand in the United States certainly exacerbates challenges placed upon our neighboring countries fighting against these organizations — and why it is so important that we partner with them in their countering efforts,” said Vice Adm. Joseph D. Kernan, the No. 2 officer at Southern Command, which is responsible for military activities in Central and South America.
Before this assignment, Admiral Kernan spent years in Navy SEAL combat units, and he sees the effort to combat drug cartels as necessary to preventing terrorists from co-opting criminal groups for attacks in this hemisphere.
There are “insidious” parallels between regional criminal organizations and terror networks, Admiral Kernan said. “They operate without regard to borders,” he said, in order to smuggle drugs, people, weapons and money.