America’s hypocritical drug policies took root in the Honduran countryside
Dr. Gordon Comstock, a family medicine doctor from Arcade, a tiny town south of Buffalo, has traveled to Honduras almost every year since 1989, when a leader in his church convinced him to join a medical mission to that Central American country. Comstock’s wife Ginger joins him on some of the visits, which are run out of the Syracuse office of the United Church of Christ, through NY/Help Honduras, a private aid organization affiliated with the church.
Every year church volunteers fly to Honduras and truck medical supplies and volunteers to La Laguna, a tiny rural community north of the town of Yoro, where Comstock helps treat patients and trains a local nurse who was hired with funds raised by NY/Help. “It’s a sleepy little corner in the north of the country where nothing ever happens,” says the 69-year-old doctor.
Except last winter, when a small airplane fell from the sky and landed on a young man riding a motorcycle, killing him. “It was one of those single-engine Cessnas,” recalls Comstock, “and it just landed on top of him on the main road from San Pedro Sula to Yoro. The plane was loaded with cocaine, and it hit him as it crash-landed. Then a bunch of people came in big cars and loaded up bags with the cocaine before the cops got there.”
This sleepy little corner of Honduras, which has become a pilgrimage site of sorts for dozens of kindly Central New Yorkers, has now turned out to be an increasingly popular flight path for drug shipments leaving Colombia and heading, via Central America, to market in the United States. With the Mexican government at war with the cartels that have replaced the Colombians who once ruled the trade, Central America is the preferred path for smugglers to move their product north. More than 80 percent of Colombian cocaine now makes its way to us through Central America.
The drug trade has turned Honduras, long one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, into one of the most violent places in the world. The homicide rate in the country of 7 million is 82.1 per 100,000 people. The comparable number for the United States is five per 100,000. Twenty Hondurans are killed every day, many of them in areas along the flight path bringing drugs north. Most of them are killed by gunfire, not by single-engine Cessnas falling from the sky. The ones not killed by the cartels are killed by police and security forces in a country where law and order, always a shaky proposition, has broken down.
The country recently made headlines when a prison fire killed more than 350 inmates, most of them young men, many of them locked up for involvement in the drug trade. That was in Comayagua, an hour’s drive north of the capital city of Tegucigalpa, still worlds away from the doctor’s clinic in La Laguna.
All across Honduras, prisons are overcrowded, jammed with young men who have gotten involved in the drug trade. Many of them joined street gangs after migrating illegally to the United States, and have continued their affiliations after being deported. Like young people in our cities, they find their employment opportunities limited and nothing as lucrative as working for the cartels.
Honduran prisons, like those here, are filled with people who buy or sell illegal drugs. We could never imagine a prison here at home bursting into flames and hundreds of prisoners dying, but we do routinely accept the waste of lives that is the result of our punitive approach to drug dealing and addiction.
Haven’t we wasted enough lives? Does it take death falling from the sky, or flames consuming youth by the score, to make us rethink our drug policies? We often hear that legalizing narcotics would only make a bad situation worse. Looking at the wreckage from the drug war in places like Honduras, it is hard to imagine what worse could look like.
Honduras has always been the unintended victim of U.S. wars. Today it is the war on drugs. In the 1980s it was the Contra war, when the United States raised an insurgency on Honduran soil to take on Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. We spent millions on the Honduran military and reacted with surprise when the military essentially took over the government for decades. The Obama administration has only made things worse by blessing the outcome of a military coup in 2009, a coup that most observers believe opened the door wide to the drug traffickers.
The violence has caused many international agencies to leave
Honduras. In January the Peace Corps pulled its 158 volunteers out of
the country altogether. This doesn’t deter Comstock and his fellow
faithful servants from planning their next trip to Honduras this summer.
Ginger isn’t sure whether she can make the trip this year—someone has
to take care of the dog and be around for the grandkids. The good doctor
has a nurse waiting in Honduras for further training, and patients who
count on their friends from the north to help their community struggle
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary every week in the Syracuse New Times. Comment at the end of this article, or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.