Nearly 17 months ago, dozens of heavily-armed Honduran and U.S. police agents carried out a pre-dawn drug interdiction operation along the Patuca River that left two women, a teenager and a young man dead and several others injured. There is no evidence that the dead victims or the 12 other individuals traveling on the same boat – six of whom were women and six of whom were children ranging in age from two to fourteen – had any ties to drug trafficking. The tragic incident – which Rights Action and CEPR analyzed extensively in the report “Collateral Damage of a Drug War” – left over half a dozen orphans in its wake and deeply scarred the tightly knit indigenous community of Ahuas, where the shootings took place.
As we noted in a recent follow-up report – “Still Waiting for Justice” – the judicial investigation of the incident remains woefully incomplete and neither the injured victims nor the relatives of the deceased victims have received any sort of compensation. Particularly troubling is the fact that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which played a leading role in the May 11, 2012 operation, has failed to cooperate with Honduran investigators who have sought to question the DEA agents who participated in the mission and perform forensic exams on their firearms.
In January of this year, 58 members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Eric Holder expressing concern about the Ahuas killings and asking for a U.S. investigation of the incident to be carried out. A full six months later, the DEA sent the 58 members a response which made no reference to the request for an investigation and provided a description of the DEA’s role in the incident which contains significant inaccuracies and unsubstantiated claims.
CEPR has obtained a copy of this letter and is making it available online [PDF]. Here is the complete text of the paragraph of the letter that addresses the Ahuas killings:
On May 11, 2012, the Honduran TRT, supported by DEA FAST, were recovering over 400 kilograms of cocaine when there was an exchange of gunfire between suspected drug traffickers and Honduran TRT members. Although no injuries were confirmed nor injured persons identified immediately after the shooting, media reports and a report subsequently issued by the GOH stated that two men and two women were killed on May 11, 2012. The GOH report also determined that neither of the female decedents was pregnant, and that no DEA FAST members fired their weapons during the May 11, 2012 incident. According to the DEA’s Office of Inspections’ internal review, no DEA FAST members fired their weapons during the May 11, 2012 incident. Contrary to media reports referenced in your letter, all operations conducted under Operation Anvil were led by the GOH, with support from DEA and DOS. All operations are planned, coordinated and executed with input and agreement from DOS, DEA and the GOH.
Let’s now take a closer look at the assertions that the DEA makes in this paragraph:
1. “On May 11, 2012, the Honduran TRT, supported by DEA FAST, were recovering over 400 kilograms of cocaine when there was an exchange of gunfire between suspected drug traffickers and Honduran TRT members.”
Honduran investigators have offered no concrete evidence of an “exchange of fire” between the boat passengers (referred to here as “suspected drug traffickers”) and the counternarcotics agents that recovered the cocaine shipment located on a second boat. No one contests the fact that agents fired the shots that killed four boat passengers and injured three others. The Honduran Public Ministry, in its report on the incident, cites forensic evidence showing that bullets shot by the agents were found in the bodies of those killed, and 21 bullet holes were found in the hull of the passenger boat.
There is no firm evidence, however, to support the allegation that one or more individuals in the passenger boat fired at the agents. The Public Ministry’s report (posted online here) relies primarily on the testimony of two agents on one of the helicopters, who both affirm that they saw three or four of the boat passengers advancing and firing on agents in the second boat carrying the cocaine. Other Honduran agents cited in the report say that “they could not tell whether the gunfire was coming from the boat that was moving towards them or from the other side [of the river].” The report also mentions video footage from a U.S. P3 aircraft which apparently shows “flashes of light, presumably from gunfire.” However, all of the surviving occupants of the passenger boat assert that no one on their boat was armed and that they were fired upon without provocation. Furthermore, none of the agents sustained bullet injuries and no bullet holes were found in the boat that they were located in and that one or more of the boat passengers allegedly fired on. The Public Ministry’s report on the incident remains inconclusive.
2. “…no injuries were confirmed nor injured persons identified immediately after the shooting…”
The testimony of witnesses – as documented by the human rights group COFADEH and by CEPR and Rights Action – directly contradicts the DEA’s assertion. Bera, one of the female passengers of the boat that was fired upon, described how one of the helicopters shined a bright light on her and the boat shortly after the shooting occurred. While most of the passengers had jumped into the water during and immediately after the shooting, Bera, her two young daughters and two dead – or dying – passengers were still in the boat when the helicopter shined its light.
Other witnesses, family members of the victims of the shooting, said that they told counternarcotics agents present on the bank of the river that their relatives had been injured and that they wished to assist them. Two of them explained that “they wanted to find their injured mother in the water, but were made to sit on the stairs for what they said felt like an hour during which time a gun was pointed at them.” Hilder, one of the two children of the injured woman, was later forced to drive agents to another boat, containing a drug shipment, and said that he was denied permission to assist his mother. It was only once the drugs had been transported to shore that Hilder was able to drive his boat to the passenger boat. When, instead of his mother, he discovered two corpses on the boat he said he waved to one of the helicopters and pointed to the corpses – but the helicopter flew off.
Even if one disregards this testimony – as the DEA has apparently done – the assertion that the DEA makes is deeply troubling. After having shot at the passenger boat multiple times, the FAST and TRT agents should have, at the very least, realized that there was a high probability that the gunfire had resulted in casualties. The fact that no effort was made to verify the condition of the boat passengers and ensure that medical attention would be provided to any injured individuals would suggest that the safety of bystanders was not an issue that the FAST and TRT team had taken into consideration.
Honduras’ National Human Rights Commission also noted that “at no point did any member of the TRT or the FAST Team bother in the least to investigate what happened to those who died and to the injured, or even try to help even though they had with them a specialized doctor who was well equipped.”
3. “The GOH report (…) determined that neither of the female decedents was pregnant.”
This assertion is based on the Public Ministry’s autopsy of the dead victims which occurred over 40 days after the killings occurred and were carried out in a shockingly unprofessional manner. The bodies were already in an advanced state of decay and, according to witnesses, day laborers lifted the decomposed bodies from the coffins which fell apart as they were lifted leaving sections of the bodies in the coffins, unexamined. The Public Ministry’s assertion that neither of the deceased women were pregnant is contradicted both by testimony from the women’s families and, in the case of the late Juana Jackson, by the medical exam of her body conducted shortly after it was recovered from the river, describing her as 26-weeks pregnant.
4. The Honduran government report also determined that “no DEA FAST members fired their weapons during the May 11, 2012 incident.”
This is false. The report that the Honduran Attorney General’s office issued – which we’ve analyzed in detail here – offers no conclusions regarding whether or not the DEA fired any rounds. In fact, at one point the report says that “the members of the [Honduran] counternarcotics team are unable to say whether the FAST team member [located in the boat carrying the cocaine] used his firearm or not.”
The Public Prosecutor’s office in charge of the investigation asserts that on multiple occasions it has solicited a list of the DEA agents that participated in the May 11 operation but that the U.S. Embassy has failed to provide them with that information. According to the Public Prosecutor’s office it first must obtain the names of the agents to then request access to the weapons they were assigned in order to conduct ballistics testing. These tests could help determine whether DEA agents did in fact fire their weapons. Furthermore, the Public Prosecutor’s office has noted that a bullet fragment not associated with any of the weapons assigned to Honduran agents who participated in the investigation was recovered during the exhumations of the deceased victims.
5. “Contrary to media reports [from the New York Times] referenced in your letter, all operations conducted under Operation Anvil were led by the GOH [Government of Honduras], with support from DEA and DOS [Department of State].”
Though the Honduran government may have been formally in charge of the May 11 Ahuas operation (and other operations carried out under Operation Anvil), key U.S. officials in Honduras, including Jim Kenney, head of the DEA in Honduras at the time, have stated that the Honduran police agents from the U.S.-vetted TRT responded in practice directly to DEA FAST agents. In a May 2012 interview, Kenney said that the Honduran agents “report directly to me, the DEA, and their first line supervisor used to be the minister and now it’s the Director General of the Police… [but] they basically work for the DEA.”
Testimony from the Honduran TRT police agents who participated in the May 11 operation is consistent with these statements. According to Honduras’ National Commission on Human Rights (CONADEH), these agents said that they “only receive orders from American superiors and they don’t report anything, neither before nor afterward, to their legal Honduran superiors.”
Moreover, according to one police agent’s testimony to CONADEH, a DEA agent gave instructions to one of the helicopters to open fire on the passenger boat following an alleged exchange of fire between the passenger boat and a second boat carrying a drug shipment and Honduran and U.S. agents.
All these statements suggest that DEA agents were in charge of the operation, in reality if not legally, and therefore may be considered ultimately responsible for the lethal outcome of the operation.
The rest of the DEA’s letter provides an explanation of why they are operating in Honduras and describes the programs that they’ve carried out in the country. They state that in their training procedures in Honduras, the “DEA and its counterparts maximize the safety of all involved personnel and provide a reference for after-operation evaluation and improvement.”
The fact that in their letter the DEA describes procedures to “maximize safety from all involved personnel” but makes no reference at all to any procedures designed to minimize casualties and maximize safety for bystanders suggests that no lessons have been drawn from the Ahuas incident. The shooting incident and the subsequent treatment of the victims and the local residents that sought to provide the victims with assistance indicates that, at least in this instance, the only thing that mattered to the DEA agents was recovering the drug shipment. Human lives appear to have been irrelevant within the context of the operation.