Earlier this week, U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske gave a talk at the Institute of the Americas in San Diego. During the Q and A, audience member Aaron Montenegro asked her about the May 11, 2012 DEA-related shooting incident in Ahuas, in Honduras’ Mosquitia region in which four local, unarmed villagers were killed and several others wounded. (As Americas Blog readers know, CEPR has co-authored two in-depth reports on the incident with Rights Action, based on evidence and interviews with survivors, witnesses, and various U.S. and Honduran officials; and on a review of official investigations. And we have blogged about ongoing developments regarding the case as well.)
A recording of the revealing exchange is posted here, and a full transcript follows:
Question: I'd like to mention something that you didn't talk about, and that's the Ahuas case in Mosquitia and the lack of cooperation coming from the U.S. Embassy. For those of you who don't know, in indigenous territory, the Mosquitia, there was a massacre that took place in the name of fighting narcotráfico, and this was taking place with U.S. State Department helicopters, with DEA agents and subcontracted Guatemalan pilots. And there has been a refusal to participate within this investigation as far as the ballistic tests are concerned. So I would just like for you to maybe address that and why there hasn't been so much forward participation with that if you are talking about impunity. And then, another question I would like to
Moderator: Wait a minute, let’s do that one...
Kubiske: OK, Ahuas. I don't share that characterization that you just gave. There was a program. It ran for a very short period of time, called “Operation Anvil” or yunque in Spanish, and it was, it was part of a regional aviation air interdiction program - so drug interdiction program by air. In that program, which was basically a program that was lending U.S. helicopters to Hondurans as they learned to do aerial interdiction -- so it was a capacity building thing -- they had one incident in Ahuas in which the Honduran people on board, Honduran police, in self-defense, shot at people on the ground. And in that back and forth four people -- they didn't shoot from the air, they shot down on the ground -- when people were coming at them in a way that looked like the people were trying to recover drugs that had been delivered illegally into Honduran airspace and down into Ahuas. The goal was not to have anybody killed, obviously. People were killed, and it was a tragedy. And in looking at that program there are lessons learned about how to do that program if it were to happen in the future so that it would be safer, but it was a case in which there were investigations both in Honduras and in the United States. Those reports-- at least one of those reports, is circulating in Washington, and it should be available from your congressman, probably. It’s not a case of impunity. It was a case in which there was a perceived threat.
There was -- I'm going to go a little further and say it was not at all clear what was going on with the people. There was a boat coming at the boat that had the authorities. It was not at all clear that the people in the other boat were innocent or not innocent -- still not clear -- and it was very unfortunate. It happened in a community that was well armed, which people can see from the videos that exist of the event. So it was actually quite a dangerous interdiction as it happened.
And so one thing we learned is that when those drugs arrive in Gracias a Diós, which is a relatively unpopulated place -- Ahuas has about 60…600 people I think -- that these are not innocent communities. These are communities in which a lot of people find it not dangerous, perhaps, to help the drug traffickers who live there. And afterwards I think we know that many more people began to think that it was dangerous. We've seen some changes in behavior. That's not to justify what happened. It's a tragedy that four people died.
Ambassador Kubiske’s comments are disturbing for several reasons. Despite interviews with survivors and deceased victims’ relatives in The New York Times, the Associated Press, The Real News and other outlets – and despite several reports on the incident (including ours), she again presents a version of the events first made by U.S. officials immediately after the shootings, but the veracity of which has been called into question by both official and unofficial investigations. As we have described previously, these accounts have been contradicted by the National Commission of Human Rights (a Honduran government agency), by the Honduran officers involved, and even by DEA and other U.S. officials.
Kubiske states that “Honduran police, in self-defense, shot at people on the ground,” but then adds the qualification that “they didn't shoot from the air, they shot down on the ground…” Yet the forensic evidence – bullet holes in the villager’s boat and gunshot wounds suffered by victims – is consistent not with a horizontal (and two-sided) fire-fight, but with shots fired from above. The survivors and other witnesses as well as the Honduran police officers, former DEA chief in Honduras Jim Kenney, and an unnamed U.S. official (speaking to the New York Times just days after the incident) have said that the boat passengers were also fired on from the helicopter.
To bolster her version of what happened, Kubiske cites secret evidence – a video, supposedly taken by a Customs and Border Protection P-3 surveillance plane (also previously described in our “Collateral Damage of a Drug War” report). Although she says that “people can see from the videos that exist of the event” that the “community [was] well armed” and that it was “a dangerous interdiction,” in fact “people” have been unable to see this supposed video evidence. It has, to our knowledge, been seen by few outside of certain congressional offices and a few journalists. (Other journalists – from major media outlets - who have requested to see the video have had their requests denied.)
Kubiske’s description of a “well-armed” community is part of what is most disturbing about her response to the question: she again blames the victims, people who the evidence suggests have nothing to do with drug trafficking but who were returning home that night along a major traffic route in the area – the Patuca river – as is common. She comes back to this theme, to reiterate that the shooting victims may have been partly to blame, at least: “It was not at all clear that the people in the other boat were innocent or not innocent -- still not clear,” and even more chillingly says
…these are not innocent communities. These are communities in which a lot of people find it not dangerous, perhaps, to help the drug traffickers who live there. And afterwards I think we know that many more people began to think that it was dangerous. We've seen some changes in behavior. That's not to justify what happened.
Kubiske never notes, of course, that one of those shot dead in the operation was Juana Jackson, who was pregnant, and that another was Hasked Brooks Wood, a 14-year-old boy, and whether, therefore, the State Department and/or DEA wouldn’t find it strange for pregnant women and children to be involved in the drug trade. Kubiske has previously denied that any of the shooting victims were pregnant, even though a doctor’s report and statements by numerous individuals in the community – as well as eyewitnesses to her (unprofessional and insensitive) open-air autopsy -- attest to the fact that Jackson was pregnant.
As we have previously noted, in addition to obstructing Honduran investigations into the incident, the U.S. government has failed to provide any assistance to the surviving victims of the incident -- some of whom needed significant medical attention – nor the families of the deceased victims.
Kubiske also states that this “was a case in which there were investigations both in Honduras and in the United States. Those reports-- at least one of those reports, is circulating in Washington, and it should be available from your congressman, probably.” But as we have previously demonstrated, these reports themselves contain inconsistencies, and were based on improper investigations (as some authorities involved in the investigations have come forward to reveal). The public report to which Kubiske is referring is probably the Honduran Attorney General’s report, which has been sent to the U.S. State Department and congressional offices. It is this investigation that was the focus of our “Still Waiting for Justice” report released earlier this year, co-authored with Rights Action, and which we found had “serious flaws including major omissions of key testimony and forensic exams, a one-sided description and analysis of events, and ‘observations’ (in lieu of conclusions) that aren't supported by the evidence that is cited.”
The U.S. report that Kubiske mentions is likely the DEA’s internal report on the incident, which has not been made public, and which has not been shared with Congress. Unfortunately, this remains the only U.S. probe into the shootings to have been conducted, as the State and Justice departments have refused to conduct an independent investigation despite calls from members of Congress for them to do so.
It is also worth noting that Kubiske never addressed Montenegro’s actual question regarding the reports that the U.S. didn’t cooperate with Honduran Public Ministry officials who carried out the official investigation of the Ahuas killings. Indeed, though Kubiske cites the Honduran investigation to support her version of events, the U.S. government hasn’t allowed the Public Ministry to question the ten DEA agents and various State Department contractors involved in the Ahuas operation, nor allowed them to perform ballistic tests on these agents’ firearms. The irony would be laughable if four lives hadn’t been lost: the State Department and the DEA have themselves severely undermined the very investigation that they rely on to defend their deadly operation in Ahuas.