Wrapped in black and white tarp, they were so heavy she could barely pull one out of the water. Later, officials said they'd collected $27 million worth of cocaine.
The current U.S. strategy began in Colombia in 2000, with an eight-year effort that cost more than $7 billion to stop the flow from the world's top cocaine producer. During Plan Colombia, the national police force, working closely with dozens of DEA agents, successfully locked up top drug traffickers.
But then came “the balloon effect.”
As a result of Plan Colombia's pressure, traffickers were forced to find new coca-growing lands in Peru and Bolivia, and trafficking routes shifted as well from Florida to the U.S.-Mexico border.
Thus a $1.6 billion, 4-year Merida Initiative was launched in 2008. Once more, drug kingpins were caught or killed, and as cartels fought to control trafficking routes, increasingly gruesome killings topped 70,000 in six years.
Mexican cartel bosses, feeling the squeeze, turned to Central America as the first stop for South American cocaine, attracted by weaker governments and corrupt authorities.
“Now, all of a sudden, the tide has turned,” said Brick Scoggins, who manages the Defense Department's counter-narcotics programs in most of Latin America and the Caribbean. “I'd say northern tier countries of El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Belize have become a key focus area.”
The latest iteration is the $165 million Central America Regional Security Initiative, which includes Operation Martillo (Hammer), a year-old U.S.-led mission. The operation has no end date and is focused on the seas off Central America's beach-lined coasts, key shipping routes for 90 percent of the estimated 850 metric tons of cocaine headed to the U.S.
As part of Operation Martillo, 200 U.S. Marines began patrolling Guatemala's western coast in August, their helicopters soaring above villages at night as they headed out to sea to find “narco-submarines” and shiploads of drugs. The troops also brought millions of dollars' worth of computers and intelligence-gathering technology to analyze communications between suspected drug dealers.
Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, head of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, predicts the balloon effect will play out in Central America before moving to the Caribbean.
The goal, he said, is to make it so hard for traffickers to move drugs to the U.S. that they will eventually opt out of North America, where cocaine use is falling. Traffickers would likely look for easier, more expanding markets, shifting sales to a growing customer base in Europe, Africa and elsewhere in the world.
Brownfield said almost all Peruvian and Bolivian cocaine goes east through Brazil and Argentina and then to Western Europe. Cocaine that reaches North America mostly comes from Colombia, he said, with U.S. figures showing production falling sharply, from 700 metric tons in 2001 to 195 metric tons today — though estimates vary widely.
When the drug war turns bloody, he said, the strategy is working.
“The bloodshed tends to occur and increase when these trafficking organizations, which are large, powerful, rich, extremely violent and potentially bloody, … come under some degree of pressure,” he said.
Yet the strategy has often backfired when foreign partners proved too inexperienced to fight drug traffickers or so corrupt they switched sides.
In Mexico, for example, the U.S. focused on improving the professionalism of the federal police. But the effort's success was openly questioned after federal police at Mexico City's Benito Juarez International Airport opened fire at each other, killing three.
In August critics were even more concerned when two CIA officers riding in a U.S. Embassy SUV were ambushed by Mexican federal police allegedly working for an organized crime group. The police riddled the armored SUV with 152 bullets, wounding both officers.
The new strategy in Honduras has had its own fits and starts.
Last year, the U.S. Defense Department spent a record $67.4 million on military contracts in Honduras, triple the 2002 defense contracts there well above the $45.6 million spent in neighboring Guatemala in 2012. The U.S. also spent about $2 million training more than 300 Honduran military personnel in 2011, and $89 million in annual spending to maintain Joint Task Force Bravo, a 600-member U.S. unit based at Soto Cano Air Base.
Further, neither the State Department nor the Pentagon could provide details explaining a 2011 $1.3 billion authorization for exports of military electronics to Honduras — although that would amount to almost half of all U.S. arms exports for the entire Western Hemisphere.
In May, on the other side of the country, Honduran national police rappelled from U.S. helicopters to bust drug traffickers near the remote village of Ahuas, killing four allegedly innocent civilians and scattering locals who were loading some 450 kilograms (close to 1,000 pounds) of cocaine into a boat.
The incident drew international attention and demands for an investigation when the DEA confirmed it had agents aboard the helicopters advising their Honduran counterparts. Villagers spoke of English-speaking commandos kicking in doors and handcuffing locals just after the shooting, searching for drug traffickers.
Six weeks later, townspeople watched in shock as laborers exhumed the first of four muddy graves. At each burial site, workers pulled out the decomposing bodies of two women and two young men, and laid them on tarps.
Forensic scientists conducted their graveside autopsies in the open air, probing for bullet wounds and searching for signs the women had been pregnant, as villagers had claimed.
Government investigators concluded there was no wrongdoing in the raid. In the subsequent months, DEA agents shot and killed suspects they said threatened them in two separate incidents, and the U.S. temporarily suspended the sharing of radar intelligence because the Central American nation's air force shot down two suspected drug planes, a violation of rules of engagement. Support was also withheld for the national police after it was learned that its new director had been tied to death squads.
As the new year begins, Congress is still withholding an estimated $30 million in aid to Honduras, about a third of all the U.S. aid slotted for this year.
But there are no plans to rethink the strategy.
Scoggins, the Defense Department's counter-narcotics manager, said operations in Central America are expected to grow for the next five years.
“It's not for me to say if it's the correct strategy. It's the strategy we are using,” said Scoggins. “I don't know what the alternative is.”