Saturday, June 15, 2013

Advice for the Moskitia: Be careful. Very, very careful

June 12, 2013

Sure, it's pretty here, but not yet ready for tourists
   Day 6 here in the Moskitia, and I’m bored dead. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, as good old Joni once sang, and what I miss the most right now is freedom.
   One of my co-workers describes Palacios as a “beautiful prison.” That sums up the place nicely. The little town is a short boat ride away from Batalla, the Garifuna community where road access ends. But the two villages feel completely different.
   There's a gorgeous lagoon just steps away from the main road through Palacios – which is to say, the dirt path that passes for a road because it's just large enough for the handful of locals who have motorcycles or quads – and all kinds of palm-tree wilderness and rivers to explore behind the town. Were this any other land, I’d be rustling up a kayak to explore the lagoon, or happily walking for hours to look for birds, butterflies, and maybe a monkey if I was lucky.
   But this is Honduras, and the Moskitia is where much of the cocaine from Colombia arrives to begin its journey north. I don’t know if I’d really be taking my life in my hands by going out for a ramble, but everybody who lives here seems to think I would be. I’m going to take their word for it.
   And so I stay put, doing the five-minute walk between the hotel and my organization’s little office twice a day and nothing more. Today I stood on the tiny office lawn and looked longingly out across the lagoon. Tonight I stood on the hotel balcony and did the same. That’s about as adventurous as it gets here.
   There’s much talk about reigniting tourism in the area, which apparently disappeared after the 2009 coup. It could be a beautiful thing for everyone, given that there’s so much nature to enjoy here and so many locals who need jobs.
   But somebody’s going to have to bring the region’s narco-traficantes to the table for a discussion before that could ever happen. It simply isn’t safe to invite tourists into this part of the country right now. In my opinion the security warnings for travel in Honduras are ridiculously overblown for much of the country, but even I think it would be a big mistake to have tourists rambling around at will in the Moskitia these days.
    One recent afternoon, my co-workers and I nervously boarded our little boat after a visit to one of the villages while scary men carrying giant guns unloaded boxes at the same tiny dock. I don't know what was in the boxes, but I could take a reasonable guess. As for police presence, there are 25,500 people living in the massive region that makes up the municipalities of Juan Francisco Bulnes and Brus Laguna, and just five police. 
   It’s not that the narco-traficantes are gunning for tourists, of course. They’ve got way bigger things on their mind. From what I know of them, which is not much, they keep very much to themselves and have no obvious desire to kill a passing stranger.
    But they don’t like surprises. I have a feeling that a bunch of happy gringos stumbling into the wrong place at the wrong time would not end happily. All it would have taken in that situation at the dock would have been one crazy tourist to try to sneak in a photo, and you'd be reading in the papers the next day about the boatload of travellers gunned down in broad daylight. The men who work in the Moskitia have big, big guns, no fear of the police, and are no shrinking violets when it comes to resolving a problem through violence.
   Narco-traficantes have been active in this region for a long time, but the locals say they’ve really come to own the place in the last three or four years.  The dreamers among us might still think the day is coming when we’ll win the “war on drugs” and that will be that for the industry, but I’m of a more pragmatic nature and suspect that cocaine trafficking is not only here to stay, but in fact is creating a new social class in Honduras. All those glitzy, pricey malls in Tegucigalpa can’t just be for the old money in the country.
   That's not to say that tourism development in the Moskitia is out of the question. It just can’t be done without the cooperation of the narco-traficantes. If it’s possible to strike deals between rival Latin American gangs to reduce violence, as has happened in El Salvador, then it’s possible to imagine cartel leaders being invited to share their thoughts on how tourism and their own industry might co-exist in the Moskitia. The handful of hardy tour groups still operating down here would also have a lot of insight on a problem that has to be worrying for them, too. 
   It really is a wondrous region: three strong indigenous cultures; a biosphere reserve that’s on the UNESCO World Heritage list; birds and animals galore; miles and miles of sandy Caribbean beach without a soul in sight. I wouldn’t call it untouched – too much illegal tree-cutting, trafficking in wildlife, and garbage lying around to earn that description – but it certainly is authentic. And such potential.
   But first things first. Truce first, tourism to follow. Until then, be very, very careful about where you point that camera.

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