More Failed Targeting Based on Travel Patterns

The other day I noted what happened when the US or its allies applied the standard it is using in the Latif case: targeting people based on claims the route they traveled makes them a terrorist. In Turkey, 34 Kurds were killed because they were using the same path PKK guerrillas use.

In Honduras, our travel-based targeting appears to have killed civilians as well, sparking anti-US outrage in response. On May 11, four Hondurans were killed in a joint DEA-Honduran attack against suspected drug traffickers. It turns out the law enforcement officials (the US claims DEA agents didn’t shoot) shot at an unlit boat carrying 4 civilians nearby, not the lit traffickers’ boat; the traffickers escaped.

In US denials of fault, they said the unlit boat could not have been civilians, since it was the middle of the night. But it turns out there is a for their presence.

In fact, Ms. Lezama and her husband say, they were not fishing, as the mayor initially suggested — they were returning from a daily trip in which they dropped off lobster fishermen at the Caribbean coast, coming back with passengers picked up at several spots along the river.

“We’ve been doing this for 25 years, day and night,” Ms. Lezama said. Her husband and other relatives, surrounding her as she lay in bed, nodded. They and other town residents confirmed that the family business had been making the trip for years.

And the spot in the river where the shooting occurred is not as isolated as Honduran and American officials have suggested.

The Patuca River is like a highway; it’s always full of traffic from the village,” said Mayor Lucio Baquedano. Indeed, on Friday afternoon the landing where witnesses said the shooting occurred looked like a taxi stand: about 20 long, skinny boats bobbed in the brown water. A gray Yamaha motor hung from the back of one carrying families east to Brus Laguna, a larger town where Ms. Lezama’s boat usually stops. In another sat a red bike, while in a third, a man carried a hunk of freshly cut wood as long and wide as his leg.

Near the end was Ms. Lezama’s blue boat. A half dozen gunshot holes could clearly be seen.

“What worries me is that if there are more drugs moving along that river,” Mayor Baquedano said, “more of our people are going to be attacked.” [my emphasis]

Another common highway Americans didn’t recognize as such, seeing instead a route conveying only traffickers.

How many times do you suppose we’re going to do this before we learn that common travel routes are not, themselves, evidence of terrorism or trafficking?

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

8 replies
  1. klynn says:

    I sure hope that failed thinking does not come to our streets and roads. Many innocent people will get swept up and disappeared with such thinking.

    Such thinking applied by us in another country is even worse.

  2. MadDog says:

    Dependence on a birds-eye technology view from the air means everything on the ground looks like a worm.

    Actually living on the ground with one’s fellow creatures is the real genesis to knowledge of what is and isn’t a target.

    But being on the ground means accepting risk, and as we know, US technology is meant to reduce risk. To zero. For us.

    It doesn’t, but that won’t get us to quit our technology-dependence. Without the addictive illusion of our technology supremacy, one leg of our self-asserted exceptionalism crumbles.

    If we can no longer crow about the things we make, then we’re left with only the things we believe.

    Our species’ history is littered with the graves of those who believed in their own exceptionalism only to disappear under the trampling feet of another’s exceptionalism.

  3. BearCountry says:

    Since drones are being deployed around the country at universities and, apparently a large amount of drug traffic flows north on I95, I expect to see some drone strikes on that highway. Obviously anyone using the same roadway (land or otherwise) as drug traffickers must be participants or supporters. Let’s not put too fine a point on a solution by finding out exactly what goes on the road.

  4. SteveInNC says:

    @jerryy:

    I think this sort of thing may be going on elsewhere as well. I live in the vicinity of Raleigh, NC, and about six months ago a chain of surveillance cameras was installed along the highway I use to commute to work. I’ve never seen a public works project installed so fast. They’re sited in such a way that they provide near-complete coverage of the road, overpasses, and ramps. It’s creepy as hell. I wrote my county commissioner and got crickets of course. I’ve thought about what they were doing with them, and automated license plate tracking was one thing that came to mind.

  5. jerryy says:

    @SteveInNC: Maybe they want to keep track of all of the reporters that venture out that way every year showcasing the hurricanes nipping at the Outer Banks.

  6. SteveInNC says:

    @P J Evans:

    Nominally yes, they are traffic cameras, but it just doesn’t feel right to me. I can understand the public safety value of putting a camera at a congested intersection, but 100% coverage of 20 miles of light-to-moderately-travelled freeway? And the way these cameras went up so quickly and efficiently when most state agencies were laying people off and cutting services?

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