San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Moskitia: Paying the Price of Isolation (Second in a two-part series.)

PUERTO LEMPIRA, Honduras –On the dusty streets of this impoverishedport town in the heart of the Moskitia, a 15-year-old boy casually points out vehiclesknown to be owned by drug traffickers.“See that pickup truck?” he says,motioning down the street. “That’s a drugdealer’s.”Two top drug lords in town haverecently joined forces, he says. The boymentions them by name, as if they wereneighbors. In small rural towns, most peopleare neighbors.ISOLATION has allowed many thingsto flourish in the Moskitia: from great virginforests with hundreds of species ofwildlife, to a vibrant native language andculture. But it has also fostered its share ofsocietal ills, including drug trafficking,unemployment and illness from preventableand curable diseases.Automatic weapons on the Atlanticcoast may not be as commonly seen inpublic as they are in other parts ofHonduras and Nicaragua, but those whoown them here are more likely to be decoratedwith a narcotrafficker’s flashygold chain rather than a police officer’sbadge.A small security presence and millionsof hiding places have made the Moskitia apopular transfer point for cocaine on itsway from South America to the UnitedStates.On the Río Coco, the waterway borderbetween Nicaragua and Honduras, unwittingGringo tourists are vulnerable to interrogationby AK-47-toting thugs suspiciousof U.S. drug enforcement agents.THE Honduran National Police boastthat they have confiscated more cocaine inthe past two years (10,385 kilos) than inthe nine years previous. This, they assure,indicates increased police effectiveness,not increased drug traffic.Yet few anti-drug stings have takenplace in the Moskitia. Honduran policehave a grand total of one helicopter andzero motorboats patrolling this vastwilderness. Nicaragua’s patrol is equallythin, focusing anti-drug efforts more onthe southern Atlantic coast and the CornIslands.“We’re lacking in personnel and logistics,”said Honduran police spokesmanJosé Martínez. “There’s not a big enoughbudget; we’re one of the three poorestcountries in Latin America.”Illustrating his point, the police’s officesecretary passes by, asking other policemenfor donations to replace the bathroomdoor – a “nonessential” not covered in thebudget.LAST April, Nicaraguan police raidedone drug-trafficking circle at the mouth ofthe Río Coco, killing one and injuring severalothers.But the proliferation of large, brightlypaintedhomes sporting satellite dishes in aregion with a known scarcity of legitimateemployment opportunities suggests thedrug trade is a more entrenched problemthan sporadic police raids can solve.THE drug trade appears to be reinforcedby a workforce deprived of jobopportunities and desperate to make somecash.Most Miskitos live as subsistencefarmers and fishermen.Lobster harvesting provides some witha decent-salaried seasonal job. But it alsoproduces dozens of paraplegics each yearbecause of unsafe diving practices and fewdecompression chambers.TRADE is unlikely to increase as longas the region remains nigh cut off from therest of Central America.The situation won’t be improvinganytime soon for the Honduran Moskitia.Asked about government plans to buildroads into rural Gracias a Dios, theHonduran Ministry of Infrastructure flatlyreplies: “We have no projects there.”The situation is slightly better inNicaragua, where bus routes run fromManagua all the way to the Río Coco, andhundreds of workers are busy buildingnew roads and bridges along the way.INFRASTRUCTURE is not the onlything lacking here. Gracias a Dios has thehighest school absenteeism rates inHonduras, and the lowest Spanish-languagescores. For many families, a child’shands are still worth more in the fields thanat the chalkboard.Higher education is a problem evenfor those with the best grades. The nearesthigh school may be hours or daysaway, depending on the size of the boat’smotor.Universities are even less accessible.IN Raya, a small Honduran town witha large airstrip a few hours’ walk fromNicaragua, the daughter of the town’s onlyhotel proprietor watches soap operas onsatellite TV – an uncommon nod to LatinAmerican pop culture.“The politicians have forgotten ushere,” she says. “We’re on our own.”Outside, horses graze on the airstripand children chase a soccer ball around onthe grass.There are no gangs here to poison children’sminds, no smoke-belching vehiclesor factories to poison their lungs, no suggestivebillboards to poison their desires.There’re just endless miles of sea, sky andgreenery.Perhaps isolation – or abandonment –is the price of maintaining such a paradise.

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