Sunday, May 11 marked the grim two-year anniversary of a tragic incident that CEPR has investigated and frequently blogged about: the DEA-related killing of four indigenous villagers in the northeastern Moskitia region of Honduras. The victims – two women, a fourteen year-old boy, and a young man – were in a small passenger boat headed to the town of Ahuas when they were shot dead by a counternarcotics team made up of DEA and Honduran agents. Four other boat passengers were injured. When Honduran police authorities described the drug interdiction operation as “successful,” local authorities and human rights groups protested, pointing out that those killed all had legitimate reasons for traveling on the river and that there was no evidence that police agents had fired in “self-defense” as the DEA alleged.
Congressman Hank Johnson (D-GA), who initiated a congressional letter demanding a full U.S. government investigation of the incident back in January of 2013, has authored an opinion piece for Al Jazeera America that was published on the two-year anniversary date. The piece laments the DEA’s response – or lack of response – to the congressional letter, which was signed by 58 members of the House of Representatives:
Sadly, the response we received from the DEA failed to address key questions about the U.S. agents’ role in the incident and showed no indication that measures would be taken to avoid future accidents of this kind. Though the official reply to the letter made no reference to our request for an investigation, an anonymous DEA official told the press that there would be “no separate investigation.”
Most appalling, though, was the news months later that the DEA had ignored Honduran investigators’ requests to interview the U.S. agents involved in the operation and perform forensic tests on their weapons. Given that Honduran police told the investigating team from the Public Ministry that the DEA had led the mission and ordered a helicopter gunman to fire on the passenger boat, this lack of cooperation could only heighten suspicions of DEA responsibility for the deaths.
Johnson’s op-ed also notes that the “persistent call for a U.S. investigation of these tragic killings may have finally been heard.” Concretely, the Department of Justice’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) has announced that it is joining the Department of State’s OIG in carrying out a review of the U.S. government response to three counternarcotics missions in Honduras in 2012 that involved the use of deadly force. Aside from the Ahuas killings, the DEA was involved in two other controversial and deadly incidents during a two-month time period, during which DEA agents shot and killed alleged drug traffickers. The wording of the OIG announcement, which mentions the issue of “cooperation of DEA personnel” and “information provided to Congress,” suggests that the Ahuas killings will be a big focus of the review. Here is the full DOJ OIG statement, under “Ongoing Work”:
Post-Incident Responses to Missions in Honduras Involving the Use of Deadly Force
The Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of State OIGs are conducting a joint review of the post-incident responses by the Department of State (State) and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to three drug interdiction missions in Honduras in 2012, all involving the use of deadly force. The missions were conducted jointly among the Government of Honduras, the DEA, and State pursuant to an aerial interdiction program known as Operation Anvil. The joint review will address, among other things, pertinent pre-incident planning and the rules of engagement governing the use of deadly force, the post-incident investigative and review efforts by State and DEA, the cooperation by State and DEA personnel with the post-shooting reviews, and the information provided to Congress and the public by DOJ and State regarding the incidents.
In his op-ed, Johnson refers to the review as an important “first step”, one that has been “late in coming.” But, he says,
further steps are necessary. To begin with, it’s time for the DEA to come clean about the Ahuas operation and release all relevant documents, including any transcripts and videos that can shed light on how the killings occurred. Going forward, we need to maintain transparency and accountability around U.S.-backed counternarcotic operations, whether or not U.S. agents are directly involved. Never again should we allow a young, promising life like [fourteen year-old] Hasked’s to become the collateral damage of the war on drugs.