The lobsters are removed from a freezer and placed in water to thaw. Another pot is put on the stove to heat. When the water boils, the lobster is dropped in for a minute or two and scooped out when the shell is soft. Then, “you put down a board and you hit it with a rock,” the cook says, “so that the shell starts coming off slowly. Because it has spines, you have to know how. With the knife, pull out as much of the guts as possible. There we add the garlic and spices.” These rock lobsters are local, from La Mosquitia, Honduras. They are served “traditional-style”: surrounded by slices of plantain, beans, and rice and salad.
It’s May, and lobster season starts in July. Selling them now is illegal, because the lobsters are not fully grown. They tell us this, sincerely, at peace with the law and its absence. The lobsters here are cheap—around $10 a plate. A fraction of the price a single lobster can fetch in North America and Europe.
Two men enter the restaurant. They order beer and sit at the corner of the bar.
One is an American from Roatán, blonde with a cap pulled down to his blue eyes speaking a mix of Honduran Spanish and English. He has a sour expression and seems suspicious. He says that he was the captain of a lobster boat. He speaks abruptly, like he’s spitting bullets. “The problem with Honduras is there’s no respect, there’s no law,” he says. “The Miskito divers their accidents are their fault. Instead of making money working, instead of letting the business improve…they use drugs, drink. They have accidents and then ask for help to get better.” He goes silent.
La Ceiba, after dark. On the dock, we watch a dozen men work in an assembly line passing empty crates and stacking them on to a large ship. The crates are used to transport rock lobsters caught in the Caribbean Sea. The electricity is out and the small shack outside the gate that serves as a bar is lit by a single candle. Divers, with broad shoulders and arms of stone, drop in for a beer or two, speaking in hushed tones. The depth of the sea, the pressure to deliver product. The race against time, time spent underwater. The quick ascent when the oxygen runs out, the accidents.
A tall, fair skinned man walks in and around the bar into a back room. From his demeanour and reaction he elicits, he is likely the captain of this ship. The atmosphere tenses. An armed port authority guard shiftily appears and disappears, in the flickering light, trying to look casual while making note of the goings-on. It is in La Ceiba that much of the lobster caught off the Honduran coast are prepared for transport to North America. Once a lively beach town, La Ceiba has become a major transit point for cocaine being trafficked through Central America, and has taken on a more sinister air in recent years.
Eventually, some of the divers ask and then demand money to eat. They surround us and it starts to get sketchier. Our cab driver hustles us into his car and speeds off down the road.
Flying southeast over the 300 miles of coastline from La Ceiba, you pass over Pico Bonito, Trujillo, Caxina Point, and Puerto Castilla. Mountains covered in dense tropical rainforest, carved out by a scattering of lagoons and long winding rivers that lead to the sea. There is speculation that this breath- taking landscape holds the ruins of the legendary Ciudad Blanca or White City. From time to time you can see craters, the remains of clandestine airstrips cleared by drug traffickers and then blasted by the Honduran military. A scarred landscape of lush greens punctuated by patches of red and brown.
The tiny, twin propeller plane lands on a plowed dirt field, kicking up a cloud of dust. Soldiers carrying machine guns check identification here and copy down the information. They are stern looking with puffed chests, but it is clear that they are in their late teens, early twenties at best, and perhaps not as confident as they let on.
Puerto Lempira, the capital city of Gracias a Dios, the eastern most state in Honduras, is not a city at all. The airport is less than five minutes from the single paved road that cuts through the centre of town leading to the main dock. The dock extends a few hundred meters into the Caratasca lagoon and is the lifeline of the city. Before 1957, Gracias a Dios was a territory without any governing body. Today it is governed by its neglect.
Gracias a Dios—Thanks to God—is the official name of La Mosquitia, an area of the Honduran Carib- bean coast shared with Nicaragua. Translated as the Mosquito Coast, the villages here are so difficult to get to that only a handful of adventure tourists, scientists, NGO workers, and missionaries penetrate their isolation. The landscape is a convergence of tropical rainforest, mangrove forests, swamps, and floodplains. There is only one dirt road—unusable for most of the year—linking the capital, Puerto Lempira, with some surrounding villages. The capital itself can only be reached by small boats and planes. Travel is treacherous and is often limited to night in order to avoid the suffocating heat. There has been no investment in local infrastructure. Electricity is provided only a few hours a day and otherwise by gasoline powered generators. Most homes have no running water and there is no proper sanitation system. Without septic tanks, many of the stilted houses sit elevated above large pools of human waste.
The people here, known as the Miskitos, are said to be a mix of descendants of shipwrecked African slaves, and the Kukra Sumo along with six other indigenous tribes. Varying historical accounts, generations of intermarrying, and no accurate census make it hard to pinpoint their exact origins.
They are a forgotten people, trapped in the most isolated corner of one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere. The only State presence here are the young soldiers who patrol the streets, mi- grating between the dock and a military base, and a handful of underpaid, complaining doctors and teachers.
Two-thirds of the population in Gracias a Dios are poor and 22 percent live in extreme poverty. More than one in five are illiterate. Only four out of every 10 inhabitants go to school for more than seven years. Median per capita income is a little more than $1,000 per year. That’s about eight times less than in the country’s capital city, Tegucigalpa. A quarter of all Miskito families are entirely dependent on 30 boats that catch lobster for export to the United States.
Children play around burning piles of garbage, along with stray dogs and the large black vultures that are ubiquitous in town. Chickens dart across the roads in front of motorcycles, the remains of the unlucky ones flattened into the dirt. When the torrential downpours hit, shovels are used to dig out the mud gutters clogged with plastic bottles and cardboard scraps to stop the streets from flooding. In the middle of the day, people stand or lay around idly staring off into space. It is heat and dust. There is a feeling of hostility and hopelessness that hangs in the air here. Mosquitoes fill your mouth and eyes as soon as the sun goes down.
Down the road where the pavement ends, Edgardo Bence Smith hobbles on crutches, dragging his broken body. He has a kind face, smiling with sparse facial hair, and leathery brown skin. In two precise, powerful, agile movements he shoots one crutch forward into a ditch, pole-vaults and leaps across. “When I’m sitting, it bothers me a lot because the blood isn’t dancing, so I’m a walker,” he says. He speaks quietly, you almost can’t hear him.
He says he is 36, but he looks at least ten years older than that. He pulls off his hat emblazoned with “The Money Team” and takes out a folded piece of lined paper that someone else has written for him. He can’t read or write. It explains that because of his physical state he is unable to work. He asks for small bills, to buy food for his family and the medications he needs.
“I dove with a hose, tank, free dive, snorkel, mask, I was good at it. Miskito divers have the courage to die.” He continues in the Spanish of the Miskitos: “Yo saqué un huevo, saqué el corazón: When I’m diving the salt water grabs my heart.” He lifts his shirt to show a scar on the left side of his chest just below his heart. He truly believes that after diving for 20 years, a spirit arrived in the night to punish him by taking his heart and a lung.
“The water was really dirty. So I thought it was a little shallow, but I’m going down and down and I don’t find the bottom…and I look at the watch and I’m at 160 feet. I wanted to surface, we were really deep then, but I see a hill, a rock, a lot of lobster walking. Pow, pow, pow, I grab them and I leave. Up in the canoe, bam, my head is dizzy, crazy, my head hurts, it hurts, I say to the canoe guy ‘let’s go, I’m already dead.’”
Edgardo had two diving accidents: one in 2000 and the other in early 2017. Many divers have no choice but to go back to sea after the first accident. The second time is always worse. Some, like Edgardo, with rehabilitation, can regain some strength in their legs. But often the recovery itself leads to them to a third accident, when the only alternative to diving is hunger.
Edgardo says that a while after the accident he went to the home of the person who had hired him and threatened to burn down his house. He left with 20,000 Lempiras compensation, about 850USD, more or less 50USD for each year of work. Now he repairs clothing and shoes in Puerto Lempira to support himself while he tries to rehabilitate. And, of course, he begs.
Edgardo is one of an estimated 2,000–4,500 divers in La Mosquitia who has suffered decompression sickness, also known as “the bends.” This the result of diving to depths of 50 metres to retrieve lobsters from the bottom of the Caribbean Sea. For approximately 9,000 Miskito men in Honduras and Nicaragua, it is the only form of gainful employment. A livelihood at the cost of a life.
In La Mosquitia, at least one in ten men of working age are paralyzed as a result of a workplace accident. A 2012 study by the Honduran Center for Marine Ecology in collaboration with the Smithsonian Marine Station found an even higher figure: 18 percent of all working age males. When they tried to take a census, they found 1,180 handicapped divers and some 2,500 active divers. In 2016, the Association of Handicapped Divers counted 1,150 handicapped divers in half of the region’s municipalities, but did not have funds to canvas the entire area. The doctor who led the count, Ana Paz, estimates there are more than 2,000 handicapped divers. A statistical projection in a place with no measure for pain. Ana Paz believes that there could be even more, as every week she adds at least two new files to her archive.
Edgardo limps away, the cartoon lobster imprinted on his t-shirt peeking out from under his backpack.
Edgardo is one of the lonely ghosts who haunt Puerto Lempira. Disabled and discarded, dragging themselves around on half-broken crutches or makeshift wheel chairs fitted with hand pedals, moving as fast their arms can push the chain that moves the wheels. They collect cans and beg to survive. Because adequate medical attention is either unavailable or unaffordable, they are often abandoned by family members unable to care for them. Notwithstanding alcoholism, drug addiction, and domestic violence which distances them further. In addition to marijuana and rum, crack is the drug of choice for the divers. A distraction from the weeks spent risking their lives collecting as many lobsters as physically possible before their contracts, or the air in their lungs runs out.
Another crippled diver takes shelter from the rain under a restaurant awning. He is over 50 years old.
With broken eyes, he speaks broken Spanish in a broken voice, explaining that he needs to recycle 100 cans to buy a pound of rice. So far he has three cans. He pedals off with his wife walking beside him, slowly, adjusting to the rhythm of the wheelchair.
A small motorboat, overcrowded with twenty passengers and heaps of luggage, skips like a stone thrown hard across the Caratasca Lagoon. Each time it lands, the boat feels like it could split in two. Passing rain and gusts of wind are a refreshing break from the sticky humidity in which clothing never seems to completely dry. This is La Mosquitia’s nerve centre—uniting and separating Puerto Lempira from a narrow passage of land that stretches along the Caribbean coast of Gracias a Dios. Two parallel coastlines. One of dense mangrove forests, tall, whimsical palm trees, fruits of all kinds, exotic birds, and free-roaming horses. The other a sprawling beach bracing the deepest parts of the Caribbean Sea.
The boat docks in a town called Kaukira. According to Miskito myth, the Kaukiro is a creature—half horse, half man—that lived in the region’s forests. A single dirt road runs through the middle, with smaller paths meandering through the villages. Strings of bright coloured clothing sway in the breeze. It is reminiscent of a tranquil literary paradise, full of promise, transformed into a banana republic fraught with contention. Instead of bananas, in La Mosquitia it is the lobsters and cocaine. Langostas y cocaina.
Kaukira could be paradise, but it isn’t. Every hundred meters or so an enormous puddle fills the entire street leaving only narrow paths on the sides for motorbikes and foot traffic. There is scattered garbage and piles of dung everywhere. The broken, rusted skeletons of trucks and motorbikes dumped by the sides of houses, seem abandoned exactly where they stopped working. People idle in the shade of their porches in small groups, sometimes listening to music screeching from smart phones, watching TV, or staring at nothing in particular, in silence. It seems that the things that break here, are never fixed.
Glenys Aguilar is a strong, stout, energetic, 27-year old woman with a warm smile. She runs one of the two restaurants in town. A pair of dog tags hang around her neck, souvenirs from her days in the navy. In addition to running her restaurant, she catches jellyfish which are sold to China and Japan. Next door to Glenys’s restaurant is the local police station and jail. The jail is a short concrete structure, two cells with bars and locks on the door. Adolpho, an acquaintance of Glenys’s, jokingly says that he spent twenty-fours in the jail for beating his wife. He holds two fingers under his nose and makes an unintelligible joke likening himself to Adolph Hitler. When asked why he beats his wife, he seems con- fused. He shrugs and attributes it to jealousy and machismo. Not long after he walks a short distance away with a friend to smoke crack.
“My grandfather used to say the Miskitos are an abortion of the earth.”
According to Glenys, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and incest are common here. When young girls become pregnant by their fathers, they are blamed for seducing them, then beaten and ostracized. She says she was impregnated by an older man when she was fourteen, a local police officer. She was kicked out of her home and forced to marry. But she wears none of the bitterness or emptiness that could accompany the theft of her youth. Everyone in town seems to know and respect her.
When speed boats from Colombia, Venezuela or Panama are chased by the Honduran navy, traffickers throw packages of cocaine into the sea. A few days later the packages wash ashore or get caught on the nearby cays, sometimes in spots where lobster boats drop anchor.
It happens all along the coast, not just here, Glenys says. “Those people who walk along the beach?” she asks, and answers, “they do that all day and night, walking and hoping to find a package of cocaine. Young people don’t look for jobs. It’s better to waste time looking for drugs, even though it’s like finding a needle in a haystack, than to look for work because there isn’t any.”
It’s a question of luck, she says. “I have an uncle who has spent years walking on the beach and he’s never found a package, and during this same time there are people who have found a lot, and you say: ‘damn, this guy is so lucky!’ As if it came especially for him.”
Few hide such luck. Walking through Kaukira you can find among the dilapidated wooden shacks and evangelical churches, gleaming new houses with four-wheel drive pickups parked out front. Locals say some have hot tubs and air conditioning. In a place with unreliable electricity it means they also have the money to run a generator for pleasure, as opposed to necessity.
When these packages arrive you have to be careful. Glenys says that people have been killed be- tween the beach where they recovered a package, and their home where they went to hide it. When a lobster boat finds one they have to divide it between everyone on the boat. The threat of word get- ting around is very real. Worse than being ratted out to the military or the police, is being identified to those who want their product back. “There are civilized people who say: I saw you got one; give me my share or somebody is going to die.”
This violence directly tied to drugs is not properly (if at all) accounted for in public statistics. Often the drug planes shot down by the military do not even make the news. So one, two, or three weeks after a package lands—something that happens at least once a month—someone arrives with cash for product. On that day, the town shuts down and people spread the money around. “Five-hundred lempira notes flying around town.” Glenys smiles. Ultimately, she is a businesswoman. “That has affected the price of things here, which are double or triple what you pay in the city. If something costs 100 lempiras and you ask them for 300, they pay it because it is easy money. And since they have it [money], and a lot of it, they do it.”
But, while these illicit pockets of wealth exist, most people are not building houses. Instead, they shut down a cantina, drinking and eating until the money is gone. While Glenys speaks, one crack smoking friend is joined by another. Others are snorting cocaine from a package that washed ashore. In the face of inhuman work conditions, and the constant risk of death, divers discovered that crack and cocaine makes them fearless. When they are high they are able to withstand hours of exhaustion and darkness 100 feet below the surface. But whether they are drifters or divers, eventually they get hooked.
The way Glenys tells it, “the cocaine, the weed, and drinking have made my people lazy and the ill-gotten money doesn’t build hospitals, and when it comes time to die you don’t even make it to Puerto Lempira. You die at home without a doctor.” Glenys also arranges the boats that take supplies from Kaukira out to the lobster boats. So she knows what the divers make and what they consume. She calls the sacabuzos, intermediaries (recruiters) between the divers and the lobster boats, “bad people.” But she works with them. When she wants to get paid for what she transports to the lobster boats, she doesn’t talk to the divers. She talks to the sacabuzos. There are divers who return to shore without a single lempira because they’ve spent it all on drugs and alcohol while working at sea.
An hour and half walk from Glenys’s restaurant, 51-year old Gabino Tetem Gibson sits leaning forward in a plastic chair. Scattered around the yard of his house are several fishing traps that he makes by hand from wood and mesh netting. He was a lobster diver for 27 years before he was injured. He is a squat man with a gentle demeanour and eyes that look as if they have learned to hold back tears over time. When he gets up you can see in each step the conviction it takes for him to move. He picks up the plastic chair with the effort and slowness of someone whose body has betrayed them and places it between two conch shells sitting on his porch. They serve as decoration, and reminders of a time in his life when he lived in the deep, and what he brought back from the depths.
At home in Kaukira, where he started diving at the age of 14, Gabino recalls his fateful encounter with the sea. “The weather was chilly, freezing, a northerly from Alaska had come through. The depth gauge wasn’t working and was telling me 80 feet, but it wasn’t true. When I came up I asked the kid in the canoe what depth we were at and he told me we were a little past 100 feet.”
In January 2010, after 30 years of pulling lobster from the sea, Gabino Tetem got the bends. The first way to alleviate decompression sickness—to rebalance the gases and fluids inside your body—is to go back under water. Attempting a rehabilitative dive of “about 30 feet, I was already feeling worse.” Afterwards, bad weather kept the rescue boat from reaching Gabino where he lay waiting, in intense pain and barely conscious. “You need to be in the (hyperbaric) chamber in less than 24 hours, but I did it after 48 hours.”
According to Gabino Tetem, 80 percent of the divers he knows suffer from decompression syndrome. The dives have become more dangerous over time, as the boats push further and further out to sea, having already swept the ocean floor clean of lobsters in shallower waters. Divers go out in large boats, 100 at a time. At 15 dives a day, they can catch up to 50 pounds of lobster. They are paid by the weight of their catch, approximately 70 Lempiras or 2.50USD per pound, which works out to about 80cents per lobster. They have to work eight-hour days, much longer than a well-trained and salaried diver would accept. Two weeks on the boat, 20 miles out at sea, and 150 feet under water, can earn each diver 500USD. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, in the last season ending in February 2017, Honduras exported 1.7 million tons of lobster worth approximately 34 million USD. 95% of the lobster ended up on tables in the United States, where each lobster can fetch as much as 50 times more than what the divers are paid.
Divers surface only to change tanks and leave their lobsters in the canoe. The more they catch in the limited amount of time, the more they earn. And it is the only job they will have all year. It is a vicious progression: the more lobster they catch, the fewer that remain. Those that remain are found deeper in the sea. The deeper the dive, the more dangerous.
As the depth and time under water increase, the pressure modifies the combined effects that nitrogen and oxygen have on the human body. The lungs compress and the alveoli stop working correctly, altering the balance between gases that circulate through the body. Nitrogen overtakes oxygen, some cells of the nervous system malfunction, and the communication between neurons begins to fail. Narcosis is a gradual deterioration of one’s basic sense of reason; your ability to make decisions suffers, confusion sets in; in a stupor, your memory fails; your vision and hearing shift, as well as your perception of time. You have hallucinations—the sirens appear—right before you completely lose consciousness.
There is no bitterness in Gabino’s story, it’s a matter of fact. “I couldn’t work anymore and I was left like this, I mean bedridden. I’m not a whole man anymore, I’m crippled.” He gets up from the chair. He drags his feet. It looks like he’s going to fall at any moment, but he doesn’t. He moves, with pain but without pause, toward the trap he’s building. Gabino, like thousands of Miskitos, must find a way to eat.
Not much is known about the original inhabitants of La Mosquitia. There was a pre-Columbian civilization that disappeared, leaving an abandoned city—“the White City”—still waiting to be found in the jungle.
A fog envelops everything about the history of this far corner of the Western hemisphere.
In 1502, on his final voyage, Christopher Columbus arrived in Gracias a Dios during a winter storm. He didn’t stay long. In 1508, Vicente Yanez Pinzon and Juan Diaz de Solis penned Honduras as the territory’s name (though there are varying accounts of how it got its name). The Spaniards tried to penetrate these lands from the sea on multiple occasions without success. The inhabitants knew what happened to people when the Spaniards arrived, and refused them hospitality. There were battles and retreats. Within the jurisdiction but without the governance of the Spanish crown, the Mosquito Coast fell increasingly under the control of British buccaneers.
Around 1630, La Mosquitia became a British protectorate, a status that endured for more than two centuries. The colonizers introduced English and crowned a local king who they gave a hat, rum, and some weapons to defend against the Spaniards. In Puerto Lempira’s central park, in protest of La Mosquitia’s abandonment, the Miskito Kingdom’s flag still flies. Crossed blue and red stripes akin to those of the United Kingdom.
In large part, the origin of the Miskitos is derived from the compiled accounts of English buccaneers. Around 1640, there was a mutiny aboard a Portuguese ship carrying slaves from Guinea to Brazil. They wanted to return to Africa, but did not know how to sail the ship and ran ashore in La Mosquitia. They were enslaved by the Kukra-Sumo Indians, descendants of the Chorotegas, of the legendary White City. The Miskitos today would be the product of this mix of African and indigenous peoples. But no one knows for sure. To protect themselves, the Miskito rulers decided to leave no written trace of their history.
La Mosquitia would remain an ungoverned territory until it was incorporated into the Honduran statehood in 1957.
Little remains of the original Miskito culture, which was animist—worshippers of the sun, moon and thunder. Missionaries from the Moravian church in the nineteenth century replaced the Miskito belief system with their Western colonial ideologies. Culture bearers, medicine men, and other intermediaries between the human and spirit world were labelled witches and demons.
Today only some remember this history and culture. Those who do are elderly, marginalized, stigmatized, and living in remote communities.
According to Jacinto Molina, a local Moskito historian, the first Miskitos left for Tegucigalpa in 1933, on military scholarships. “Some soldiers landed in a plane and took the students who received scholarships.” Since then, he says they have received little else aside from a few teachers and nurses, and many more soldiers. The Honduran government only established itself in La Mosquitia in the 1960s to strengthen its presence during the ongoing border dispute with Nicaragua. Some years later, the United States would exert its influence in La Mosquitia, arming, training, and deploying fighters and weaponry against the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. This would be the early shaping of the region in relation to arms and drug trafficking.
Molina, like many Miskitos, speaks of abandonment, oblivion, cultural decay, and the extractive theft of natural resources. There are no more bananas; there is no more mahogany. The owners and captains of the lobster boats have replaced the timber and banana companies.
Parallel to the depletion of the lobster population is the depletion of the population of Miskito men who dive for them. Two ecologies connected; two ecologies in the process of being destroyed. Consider the combination of marijuana, crack, alcohol, carbon monoxide from faulty oxygen tanks, and nitrogen bubbles in the blood from ascending too quickly. Molina attributes the appearance of sea sirens to this dangerous chemical cocktail.
The sirens that many divers proclaim to see before or during an accident are called Liwa Mairin—sent to punish the divers for stealing “what has an owner,” for exhausting the resources of the land and sea. And then there is the spirit that arrives at night to rip out their heart and lungs—sent to finish them off.
“All living things, whether they are plants or animals, have an owner. If a Miskito is going to cut down a mahogany tree, he has to place something at its base beforehand like a payment. That tree has an owner and if he doesn’t do it, that owner can punish him,” Molina says. “The Miskitos go down to catch (lobster) and if in exchange they don’t leave anything…the sirens send a cruel punishment, which is to get sick and die.”
Mythological beliefs translated through narcosis have been exacerbated by the absurdist interpretations of Christian missionaries. “Many churches now believe that this block of what is called cocaine is what is written about in the Bible—that the manna of heaven has fallen. As when Moses comes out of Egypt to the holy land.” According to Molina, many evangelical pastors have been explaining the proliferation of drugs in this way, and encouraging converted Miskitos to see the cocaine as a gift from God. “I do not believe it, but I have observed it here there are churches built with drug money.”
The Puerto Lempira Hospital has a single hyperbaric chamber and a single psychologist on staff. It is a ramshackle collection of buildings with patients lingering in its passageways. Aside from general illnesses, the hospital treats patients with malaria, malnutrition, and HIV/AIDS. More than one-third of the deaths registered in the region are attributed to diving accidents.
The hospital occupies a large room with bright blue walls damaged with water marks and treats, on average, 45 new cases of the bends every year. The chamber is a space age looking machine, perhaps the most modern feature of Puerto Lempira.
Between 450 and 500 divers have died as the result of diving accidents since the government began tracking the problem about a decade ago. Deaths most often occur when divers do not receive treatment within 24 hours. Hundreds more suffer for years until they die of illness(es) related to their paralysis. Half of the victims have not received any compensation. Forty percent never receive any medical treatment after an accident.
These are all conservative figures. No one has done a complete census of the situation. Because of its geographical isolation, the neglect of the Honduran government, and the sprawl of Miskitos across the coast into Nicaragua, there are few verifiable statistics—and often variable figures—depending on who you talk to about La Mosquitia. No one has centralized the data since 2012, when the report containing most of these figures was published by various local non-governmental organizations.
According to the Institute of National Statistics, 91,000 Miskitos live in six municipalities of Gracias a Dios, out of which 19,000 are men of working age, between 15 and 50. Approximately 9,000 of them are divers. The average monthly income of a diver during the eight months of the year when lobster can be caught is 500USD, an amount that shrinks to almost nothing considering serious drug and alcohol habits and payoffs to money-lenders.
During the last season, 45 divers were added to the list of injured. More than one per boat, more than one, for every one million USD of profit.
In all of Gracias a Dios, there is only a single staff psychologist, based at the hospital in Puerto Lempira. Twenty five-year old, Dexter Allen says depression is collective, regional, cultural – “the people’s.” Individuals suffer recurring bouts of anxiety brought on by the transition from being independent providers for their families, to being completely dependent on their families’ care. If they are lucky enough to have their support at all. He says that more than treating an illness, his job is to convince them that they are sick. Often they cannot accept it, and refuse to adapt to their new lives. And many do not go to treatment in the hyperbaric chamber because they believe decompression sickness is a punishment from a supernatural being. If they are not prepared to understand the bends as a medical condition, proper treatment is difficult, impossible to provide. As such, the hospital works in partnership with Asociación Miskitu Hondureña de Buzos Lisiados (AMHBL), the local disabled divers’ association, to explain decompression sickness in medical terms, with the hope that this will facilitate some aspects of their rehabilitation.
After an accident, divers usually go back underwater to compensate for the high levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen in their blood. This rarely works. The air compressors on the lobster boats feed their tanks and their lungs not with clean oxygen, but dirty air, often mixed with exhaust from the motors. This further feeds their chemically induced delirium. For re-submergence to have a positive effect, there are precise tables needed to calculate how long and how deep to dive with pure oxygen. Another thing the divers don’t have.
Cedrack Waldan, a 35-year old physiotherapist, runs the hyperbaric chamber at the Puerto Lempira hospital. He has treated some 150 injured men, and heard all the accounts of their accidents. “We have saved lives, we have improved the lives of the divers,” he says with a certain authority and conviction.
Yet, when one of his patients hobbles by the door, he speaks more softly, sadly. “We have not gotten him into the shape that he wants, but at least we managed to make him somewhat independent.” The chamber is oval shaped and resembles old school submarines. Inside, there is a bed surrounded by por- tholes. They allow eye contact with technicians during the treatment sessions, which can last as long as four and a half hours daily, for periods of up to two weeks. Out of necessity, they may fit as many as five people inside the chamber at a time.
It is impossible to stand up inside the chamber. “When you enter,” Waldan says, “the first thing is that you start to sweat, your voice becomes higher because of the pressure, you feel light and if you don’t drink you can dehydrate, because the heat is tremendous.” The divers have trouble urinating and defecating and are connected to an intravenous tube and a catheter.
The problem is the length of the dives, Waldan explains. Too many minutes, spent at too great a depth and then surfacing too fast. Desperate for more time to harvest lobsters, divers do not make the necessary safety stops as they begin to surface. When their tank runs out, because they waited too long or lost track of time as narcosis set in, they race to the surface. This is how the bends happens. At depths of 50 feet or more, as levels of carbon dioxide and nitrogen increase exponentially, bubbles form in the blood stream. The bubbles act like a guillotine to the nerves in the spinal cord, paralysis racing towards the brain.
When the bends hit, the diver can faint, dizzied by intense muscular and joint pain. The only way to save themselves is to get to the hyperbaric chamber, and fast. It doesn’t always work, especially if they are diving hundreds of miles from the coast. Or if the lobster boat captain decides their condition is not bad enough or not worth losing the money or time to fish.
“They are suffering when they arrive, their bladders swollen. Enema, enema, enema. They feel awful. The patient suffers and we suffer,” says Waldan. “It’s upsetting.”
A young man lays completely paralyzed on a bed while someone moves his feet. Another, who appears middle-aged, tries to walk along two wooden planks with the help of his son who reluctantly lifts him each time he reaches the end of his short trajectory. Each trip is painful. To watch him struggle is painful. His face is a rictus of pain.
Another diver is standing atop a plank board. He has leather belts tied around his chest and on his legs stretched across each knee. He is tied up so he can’t fall on the floor. He is 44 years old. He began diving when he was 14 and had an accident after working for 27 years. He talks about his accident. He did not receive any compensation. He wants to go to Tegucigalpa to sue the company, but has no way to do it. He asks us to take him.
“If the boat’s owner gives me something, I’ll buy you a soda,” he promises us in all seriousness. He lives in Kaukira, a five-dollar boat ride away—a lot of money for someone who has none. He talks about how difficult it is to stay in Puerto Lempira for a week, to pay for a room and food so he can come to rehabilitation and physical therapy.
“I’m sad, brother. When I lay down in bed a lot of things pass through my mind. I did things God didn’t approve of. I bought rat poison. I was going to make a drink and take it to kill myself, but my daughter took the glass and threw it away. I took out a pistol … and wanted to put it to my head. My kids took the pistol and sold it and that’s how I eat.”
On the bright side, he says they took out the catheter that had been bothering him. He opens his pants revealing a green diaper, in his case, a sign of improvement. If there is anything positive to be found here in Puerto Lempira’s rehabilitation ward, it is the camaraderie. Another therapist, Teofilo Vence, walks in with clear physical difficulty—crippled while diving. While being rehabilitated, he learned to rehabilitate others. He often says if “he could, they can.” And they believe him. That is why they come.
In 2003, the Asociación Miskitu Hondurena de Buzos Lisiados (AMHBL), or the Miskito Association of Handicapped Divers, filed a class-action lawsuit against the Honduran government. Forty-nine men signed on to the complaint, arguing their work-related injuries and lack of recourse as a violation of their human rights. Their lawsuit has made it in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. What that will mean remains to be seen. If they rule in favour of the divers, it is uncertain whether the result will be much more than a recommendation from the Commission that the Honduran government address the situation of the divers as a human rights “concern.”
So far, the only thing they have received is a small clinic. Here, 29-year-old Dr. Nuria Paz and two nurses attend to divers with a basic inventory of medicines and no rehabilitation equipment. They do their work even though their salaries sometime take months to arrive. The government provided boat—to retrieve injured divers at sea—often has no pilot, or if it has a pilot, it has no gas.
Dr. Paz speaks of the long term, of a progressive illness. “At first you try to reverse the damage a bit and you can,” when they arrive in time to the hyperbaric chamber and follow a rehabilitation program. “They arrive unconscious and without control of their sphincter and they improve.” That’s how the patients are the first time they see them. “But later they regress,” she says. “If they are not active, they lose strength, feeling; the cramps return, they feel hard, rigid and they go back to their original state.”
The worst are the bedridden and there are hundreds. Just walk through any town in La Mosquitia and ask around. There they are, lying on the floors of their houses. “They get bedsores and add to that that they don’t have good circulation, they urinate, defecate and get bacterial infections … even septic shock, until they die.”
She forgets something. “Add to that malnutrition. Many end up dying of malnutrition.”
Of the forty-nine divers who filed the lawsuit in 2003, twenty-five of them have since died.
Given the track record of the rampantly corrupt ruling class in Honduras, consistently turning a blind eye to on-going human rights violations, particularly as they relate to indigenous communities, it seems likely that the overfishing of lobsters will continue at the expense of thousands of Miskito men and their families, in Gracias a Dios.
In a 1940 written account of La Mosquitia, in the American Geographical Society magazine, the author, Wolfgang von Hagen, explained that everything was a race against time for the Miskitos.
Von Hagen spent five months travelling in the area, his research supported by timber exporters. He predicted that the day would come when the decades long exploitation of timber and bananas—in which the local population had worked as slaves/indentured servants—would end. There would be nothing left to take from the land and its inhabitants would have lost their culture and their ability to relate to their surroundings. A social regression would begin and would spell their downfall. But von Hagen was mistaken on one point. After the timber and banana, the plundering of resources would not stop. It began again and morphed into new forms of pillaging, with new commodities to be pillaged.
Von Hagen did not predict that in 1970, lobster boats would arrive on the Mosquito Coast.
Or that some years later drug traffickers’ airplanes and speed boats would come to exploit—again—the Miskitos; or that with their arrival, delirious visions of modernity would prey upon a people whose culture was already disappearing.
Or that pastors, well paid by drug traffickers, would concoct myths from the pulpits in their little woo- den evangelical churches. Religious men deceiving the faithful (and illiterate) that cocaine is the manna that God sent by sea and sky to help a people who want for everything.
The social regression predicted by Von Hagen—the disappearing of the Miskito people—has occurred through a nasty combination of cultural assimilation, poverty, labour exploitation, drug and alcohol abuse, nitrogen, carbon monoxide, pressure, and hallucinations. An intense collective suffering to which the government has remained deaf, either wilfully or through its inability to act. The Miskitos have been abandoned, never registering as anything more than another resource to manipulate and abuse.
The fate of La Mosquitia is repeating itself. It is a violent attack against nature and its stewards. An exhaustion of the Earth and its resources. And as always it is imposed by outside forces.
This is a land of cursed geography, condemned to exploitation.
The Miskitos’ Council of Elders meets weekly in front of an old wooden house, elevated on stilts and unstable pilings that keep it above floodwaters. A sign reads: Oficina De Cultura Miskitu, the Office of Miskito Culture. They sit in a circle around the eldest member, reverential, hierarchic, obedient. Organized.
They are here to discuss the current situation of the Miskito people and make plans for the improvement of their economic and political conditions. Their objective is simple. For decades the Miskitos have been neglected by the Honduran government and have deteriorated in isolation as a result. Given that the State has proven incapable of improving the situation of the Miskitos in Gracias a Dios, they seek independence so that they might have the power to address the issues affecting them, on their own terms.
With great care they show two photographs, blurry laminated images of the old Miskito kings. You can see traces of their smooth faces, dark skin, less mestizo—noses wider than now, with curly hair and handmade outfits. It was a kingdom, and this is the proof. They were protected by Great Britain and the elders want it to be that way again, because the Honduran government has never given them anything more than an invasive army and a few doctors and teachers ill-equipped to deal with an increasingly dire situation.
Cecilio Tatallon, 74, is the President of the Council of Elders. He is a short, pleasant man with bright eyes that are most welcoming. Beside him, Felix Espinosa, summarizes their objectives after being approved as spokesman. “There did not used to be fishing boats here. They used to fish with spears and hooks for what was needed by each family. Since the boats came in 1971 the consequences have been plenty. Our ancestors had taught us that the sea has an owner, the forests have an owner. We warned the youth, if you fish too much you will be taken by Liwa Mairin, the spirit who lives in the sea. She—the siren—punishes those who over exploit the resources. But the plague of the outsiders arrived with their army and their religion, who say that our customs are satanic and the result has been the disappearance of our people.”
After the meeting ends, the Miskito elders walk in a procession, others joining them in the street. They walk from the office to the park at the centre of town, where just a few days earlier they had raised the Miskito flag. A declaration of presence and a demand for autonomy.
Inside the military base at Puerto Lempira, the Colonel sits on a couch under a line of photos of his predecessors, the Galeria de Commandantes. To his left, a shelf holds a handful of books, a shark carved of wood, a little statuette of a diver, a bucolic painting of Indians at sunset, and two model sports cars with a barrel tank between them. Behind his desk is a framed painting of General Policarpo Paz—one of the first soldiers to visit La Mosquitia, who later became President of Honduras following the 1978 coup.
The Colonel is a short, stocky man for whom smiling seems to require great effort. He wears wireframe glasses, a baseball hat, gym clothes and a pair of Nike trainers with his socks pulled up past his ankles. He’s agreed to speak with us, but under his conditions: no recorder, no notebook. He makes sure both stay out of reach.
During a casual conversation he answers like a trained soldier, citing articles of the constitution, which he reads out loud from hard copy. His voice is that of someone not accustomed to reading.
He comes off as stubborn and suspicious, rude and dismissive. But his eyes light up and his chest puffs out when he flips through photos on his smartphone. Surveillance images: a clandestine air strip, a drug boat unloading its cargo and the wreckage of a plane transporting cocaine in nearby Brus Laguna. The Colonel explains that when surveillance identifies a new landing strip being plowed, they wait till the work is completed before destroying it.
The Honduran government policy regarding acceptable military activity, including the shooting down of drug planes, is all grey area. Officials mostly deny that the practice continues, having been advised/ warned by the United States that doing so would cost them invaluable radar surveillance. Often the downed planes land deep in the jungle and are never recovered, chalked up to accidents. Needles in the haystack that is La Mosquitia. But history has taught us what the United States says and does are often completely opposite, especially when it comes to its decades of interference in Central America vis-à-vis the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).
In 2012, the Honduran military killed four and wounded three Miskito people in Ahuas in a botched operation that resulted in nothing more than the traffickers escaping. Until 2017, the DEA denied its involvement in the operation, until it was revealed they had gone to great lengths to cover up not only their involvement but the illegality of how the operation was carried out in its entirety.
This is the most often unseen theatre of the U.S.’s neverending “war on drugs.” A series of theatrical attempts and failures to curb the flow of drugs north, that ultimately allow the U.S. to continue to exert its imperialist powers southward.
When asked, the Colonel denies that the plane was shot down by the military, but lingers, grinning at the photos of the blackened bricks of cocaine stamped with swastikas and the charred bodies of traffickers with their pink guts hanging out. “They think they’re so brave,” he says, “but we always win.”
But they aren’t winning.