On January 30th, incoming Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Eric Holder received a letter from fifty-eight members of Congress asking for a U.S. investigation into a DEA-led counter-narcotics operation in Ahuas, Honduras that went badly wrong. Four indigenous Mosquitia villagers, including at least one pregnant woman and a 14 year-old boy, were shot and killed in a small boat in the Patuka River during the May 11, 2012 operation. Three other passengers were critically injured. CEPR visited the site of the killings last Summer and, together with Rights Action, published a detailed report describing the central role that the DEA played during that operation and the flawed nature of the Honduran official investigation of the incident. The Honduran human rights group COFADEH and the Honduran government’s Human Rights Ombudsman have asked the U.S. to carry out its own investigation, but so far U.S. officials have rejected the idea.
This letter, initiated by Georgia Democrat Hank Johnson, marks the first time that members of Congress have publicly called for a U.S. investigation of the shooting and shows that, despite the U.S. Administration’s attempt to brush the incident under the rug, the issue continues to fester. The surviving victims and the victims’ families have received no form of compensation and have great difficulty obtaining vital medical care (one of the wounded victims’ hands would probably have been amputated had COFADEH not helped pay for surgery). As our August report described, the killings generated outrage and a strong sentiment of injustice among members of the communities near Ahuas, and as a result, resentment toward U.S.-led counternarcotics operations has grown stronger in the Mosquitia region.
The signers of the letter include Representative John Conyers who is the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Meeks who is a high-ranking Democrat on House Foreign Affairs and Rep. Van Hollen who is the ranking minority member on the House Budget Committee. As State Department titled helicopters and contractors were a key part of the operation along with at least ten DEA agents, the letter is addressed to the top officials of both State and the Department of Justice. Eric Holder, the Attorney General, has proven to be a staunch supporter of the current course of the so-called “war on drugs”. John Kerry, however, has been critical of human rights abuses allegedly perpetrated by Honduran security forces, and recently backed the limiting of U.S. police assistance to Honduras. His quick and disconcerting mention of Honduras during his confirmation hearing last week provides little indication of whether he intends to review any aspect of policy toward that nation as chief diplomat of the U.S.
The Congressional letter also focuses on the broader impact of both increased drug trafficking and of the current militarized drug policy on Honduras’ impoverished Afro-descendent and indigenous populations, who have had to face attacks, threats and increasingly frequent incursions into their native lands. The letter states that the situation began to grow worse after the 2009 coup d’Etat that forced the constitutional government into exile. “The rate of impunity of alleged abuses perpetrated by state security forces has risen to unprecedented heights”, the letter says.
Unsurprisingly, a majority of the letter’s signers belong to the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), whose members have been among the most outspoken critics of U.S. drug policy at home, which has led to the mass incarceration of people of color. They appear to also be more aware and more concerned about how U.S.-backed anti-drug operations involving military tactics and equipment can negatively impact marginalized communities of color in other parts of the Americas. Aside from CBC members, the letter’s signers included progressive Democrats who prioritize the defense of human rights in the hemisphere, such as Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, George Miller and Sam Farr of California. The letter ends with a final recommendation to the administration:
We strongly recommend a review on the implementation of counternarcotics operations carried out by our government in Honduras taking into account the unique conditions and high vulnerability of Afro-descendent and indigenous communities, who are disproportionately affected by drug trafficking activities.
Will the administration listen to the Congress members’ advice? One can only hope, as the alarming situation outlined in their letter will likely deteriorate without a significant change in U.S. policy.