A Mission Gone Wrong

One night in May of 2012, a Honduran police inspector received a phone call from an agent of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, a man he knew as Tony. Tony told him to get his men ready. They were about to intercept a large cocaine shipment, one of many such missions that U.S. and Honduran forces collaborate on each year. At 8 P.M., four helicopters flew east from a base near the city of La Ceiba to a smaller refuelling base deep in the wet lowlands of La Moskitia, on the Honduran side of the Mosquito Coast. Along with the inspector, the helicopters carried ten D.E.A. agents, eighteen other members of the Honduran security forces, and eight Guatemalan pilots. Around 11 P.M., they lifted off again. Their target was a small plane heading for a Honduran village called Ahuas.

The U.S. military monitors what it can of the hundreds of tons of cocaine that enter the U.S. by plane, boat, automobile, submarine, tunnel, backpack, and catapult. Its maps show red lines veining South America and North America with such tangled complexity that they are known as “spaghetti slides.” Most of the air routes, however, follow a predictable path. They begin in Venezuela and head north, avoiding Colombian airspace, where authorities can shoot down suspicious aircraft. Then they turn west, toward La Moskitia.

Around 1 A.M., the plane touched down in a field near Ahuas, where a large receiving party had gathered. Some, carrying rifles, secured the perimeter. Others brought the plane’s cargo to a nearby truck.

A surveillance plane from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security relayed news of the landing to the D.E.A. agents aboard the helicopters. Their Honduran colleagues did not know exactly where they were going. Though the D.E.A. agents had vetted the Hondurans with polygraph tests and background checks, they were careful about sharing information, lest word of the mission get back to the cartels. Officially, the Hondurans were running the operation, with the D.E.A. agents present as “advisers.” But the D.E.A. agents had microphones and earpieces built into their helmets; the Hondurans had strips of reflective tape to help the agents find them if they got lost. (A D.E.A. agent told me that the Hondurans could have issued commands with arm squeezes and hand signals.)...


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