A New Approach to the Drug War

A New Approach to the Drug War

A novel model offers hope for communities battling narcos and militants.


When drug traffickers set their sights on running product through indigenous territory on the Miskito coast of Honduras, they could not have picked an ungoverned area with more potential to mobilize defenses when provoked. And the predictable confrontation came this past May when the area was the site of a shoot-out between U.S. and Honduran antinarcotics agents and traffickers.

Details of the events remain vague, but in the fog of interdiction, instead of firing upon a boat of suspected traffickers, the Honduran antinarcotic agents mistakenly killed four civilians and injured four more. Infuriated, residents protested both U.S. and Honduran police presence and also complained about the violence brought by drug traffickers. Some residents went so far as to eject community residents with drug ties by burning down their houses. These newly homeless individuals later fled.


Since U.S.-backed operations by Honduran authorities are only intensifying, a key question comes to the fore: How did local residents overcome the risks of taking them on? The answer is participation and cooperation. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, indigenous communities concentrated in the Caribbean department of Gracias a Dios—such as Ahuas, where the shoot-out occurred—are especially cohesive and have extraordinarily high participation in community councils.

The episode shows that cocaine shipments, antinarcotics policies and violence are not the only exports from the drug war. As community centrists draw on their reserves of social cooperation to take on narcos and residents complicit in the drug trade, they reclaim their autonomy. They also highlight other lessons about the roles of communities, even in a country that has been as troubled as Honduras, the small Central American nation that suffered a coup in 2009 and currently has the highest homicide rate in the world. As the president of the Ahuas indigenous Council of Elders said, “The drug activity here creates a danger to all of us. The people here, they just wanted to be rid of it.”

Unfortunately, this dynamic of being caught between sides in the drug war is found far beyond Honduras and Colombia. Indigenous lands generally are neglected by national governments and increasingly have been used as smuggling corridors throughout the Americas—even into North America and the highly “developed” United States. From Colombia and Peru, where much cocaine production originates, drug violence has spread to affect communities in Brazil to the south and to the north as far as the Tohono O'odham nation, which spans the Arizona-Mexico border and has been caught between DEA, border-patrol agents and cartels. Even Indian reservations on trafficking routes along the U.S.-Canada border have not been left out.

Analysts frequently note that illegal armed actors are quick to fill the voids in failed states and “ungoverned” spaces. But local communities can also exercise governance. Historically marginalized Indian and indigenous areas may be “stateless,” but they are not necessarily without order or institutions. Across the hemisphere, indigenous and nonindigenous communities concerned about intrusions by both cartels and government outsiders have constructed their own forms of local order and participatory decision making to manage their own affairs.

Indeed, just as the Miskito in Honduras overcame fear and repelled traffickers, indigenous residents of Cheran in Mexico organized to oppose illegal logging by drug cartels in the face of inadequate protection by police. In Colombia, the Nasa Indians and other groups have collectively rebuffed drug traffickers and insurgent and paramilitary groups (and occasionally even heavy-handed state forces) that have infringed on their territories or kidnapped or killed their leaders and members. My statistical research on indigenous groups in Colombia confirms that this pattern exists even more broadly: those groups with stronger community cooperation and authority structures in the form of respected tribal elders and leaders tended to suffer less violence from that country’s armed conflict.

The events of Ahuas should serve as a wake-up call to all parties involved to think more deeply about interdiction policies. Both governments and civil-society actors should study the promise that existing models of participatory community governance (both indigenous and nonindigenous) hold for managing security. This may yield insights about how to strengthen community cohesion for resilience against narcos and militants while reinforcing cultural traditions that provide youths with alternatives to the world of the traffickers.

Given the historical stigma attached to U.S. operations in Honduras and other parts of Latin America, Ahuas underscores the importance of a coordinated policy for interacting with these kinds of communities. One step would be to establish open dialogue and communication so that security forces work with local communities, taking their customs into account. This will help promote security with cultural sensitivity and prevent misunderstandings that could turn fatal. Only in this way will the protection of civilians be put on equal footing with interdiction.

Oliver Kaplan is a postdoctoral research associate at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. He has conducted extensive fieldwork in Colombia on community protection movements and recently published "Land Reform as a Counterinsurgency Policy" in The Journal of Conflict Resolution.