The Patuca River is like a highway for over 25 Miskitu, Tawaka and Pech communities that live on its shores; there are no roads in this part of the Gracias a Dios department. But the river is much more than a road, it is their source of life. Communities farm rice, beans, yucca, and plantains on its shores, and fish the waters. They leave their towns in planting and harvest seasons to spend weeks at a time in huts along the river shore close to their fields.
Though most make their life from the river, the main source of outside employment is working on the commercial fishing boats that pick up Miskitu men at mouth of the river and take them to sea for weeks at a time. For over 20 years, Lilda Lesama has coordinated divers and fishermen for the commercial boats, transporting them by canoe from Ahuas to Barra Patuca.
Midday in the jungle is very hot and the villages are far apart, so it is common to travel at night. On Thursday, May 10, after leaving divers in Barra Patuca, Lilda began the ten hour trip home to Ahuas at 5pm. On route she picked up farmers returning to town from their fields.
A little before 3am on Friday, she and fifteen passengers approached the town of Papalaya, just a few minutes from their destination, Ahuas, when four helicopters showered the boat with gunshots and grenades. Four passengers were killed, two women who were each five months pregnant, a 14 year old child, and a twenty one year old man. Four more were injured.
Later that day the story hit the national press, which described a press conference held he Director of the Honduran National Police, referred to the incident as a successful joint operation with the Honduran police and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, and claiming two drug traffickers were killed. A local mayor clarified that the victims were bystanders, not drug traffickers.
On Wednesday, May 16, the story hit major US news sources; U.S. officials acknowledged DEA presence in the incident but denied that U.S. forces fired. The New York Times quoted a US official explaining that drug traffickers pay local communities to transport drugs. The Washington Post quoted an official stating it was “not unusual for local authorities to work with smugglers and also said they wondered why innocent civilians would be on the water in the middle of the night,” apparently implicating the mayor who denounced the massacre.
Like in the cold war counter insurgency that cost the lives of at least 350,000 Central Americans, this new war is turning the general population into military targets. Community leaders ask that the U.S. find a way to control drugs that does not involve turning their river that is both their highway and the center of their way of life, into a war zone.