New Report on DEA-Related Shooting Incident in Honduras Raises Important Questions

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Written by Dan Beeton   
Friday, 17 August 2012 15:24

CEPR released a new report on Wednesday in conjunction with Rights Action on the circumstances and aftermath related to the May 11 shooting incident in Ahuas, Honduras, involving the Honduran police and DEA agents. Four local members of communities in this part of the Moskitia region were killed in the episode, and four others shot and injured. As was reported by the Associated Press in May, residents of the nearby village of Paptalaya were subsequently besieged by armed men whom residents described as wearing U.S. Army-style uniforms and speaking to each other in English.

CEPR’s Senior Associate for Policy Analysis Alexander Main traveled to Ahuas and Paptalaya, along with Rights Action’s Annie Bird and Karen Spring, and others, to investigate. During their July trip, they interviewed numerous survivors and eyewitnesses to the traumatic events, as well as U.S. Embassy officials and Honduran authorities. They also examined evidence, and talked to legal experts regarding the current progress, challenges and faults with the Honduran government’s delayed and flawed investigation into the incident. Their findings are the basis of the new 54-page report, “Collateral Damage of a Drug War: The May 11 Killings in Ahuas and the Impact of the U.S. War on Drugs in La Moskitia, Honduras.” It provides what is probably the most detailed account of the events so far. Among its key findings:

•    U.S. Embassy officials contradict what State Department officials had previously stated about the DEA's role in the operation. Whereas State had said the DEA played a "supportive role only," both the former head of the DEA for Honduras, Jim Kenney, and U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske told the report's authors in separate conversations that Honduran police in these operations respond in practice directly to DEA officials. In addition, many eyewitnesses say it was North Americans, in uniforms with US flags on them, who were in the middle of everything, and that it was North Americans who besieged the Paptalaya village, holding residents at gunpoint and assaulting some of them. This would also contradict the “supportive role only” description.

•    The details of legitimate reasons each of the people present on the transport "canoe" (pipante) that was fired on by State Department-titled helicopters had to be on the boat at 2:00 a.m. that day, around the time that the helicopters opened fire on them. (U.S. officials' had previously insinuated that they must have been involved in drug trafficking in some way.)

•    Contrary to claims made by Ambassador Kubiske to the report's authors that "none" of the victims had been pregnant, Honduran medical records confirm that at least one of the women, Juana Jackson, had indeed been pregnant.

Aljazeera’s Rosalind Jordan questioned State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland about the report on Wednesday, asking, among other things, whether there is “any requirement to suspend any aid to the Honduras Tactical Response Team [TRT] that leads these sorts of operations?”

This is an important question, since, as mentioned in the report and broken by AP over the weekend, the U.S. government has suspended assistance to Honduran police under the supervision of National Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares while it investigates his past ties to death squads. But the State Department notes that certain police are exempt from the suspension, saying “we are carefully limiting assistance to special Honduran law enforcement units, staffed by Leahy-vetted Honduran personnel who receive training, guidance, and advice directly from U.S. law enforcement, and are not under Bonilla’s direct supervision.” If indeed the TRT responds “directly to the DEA,” as Embassy officials told the authors of our report, then the TRT might be exempt from the suspension, despite that it is the TRT that State Department and DEA officials have blamed for shooting children and pregnant women in the May 11 incident.

The report has made waves in the Honduran and Latin American press, thanks in large part to an early write-up by the major Spanish language newswire EFE, and a separate follow-up article by EFE reporting on the State Department’s response to the CEPR/Rights Action report. Press interest has also come from outlets such as Aljazeera – who released their own Fault Lines video documentary investigation into the Moskitia incidents and other, ongoing violence in Honduras the day before our report’s release. Report co-author Annie Bird, Co-Director of Rights Action, discussed the report on Aljazeera’s Inside Story Wednesday, and on Free Speech Radio News Thursday.

Honduras Culture and Politics has an interesting take on press coverage of the report, noting that the discrepancies in the State Department’s claims about responsibility and chain of command have been the main focus so far. The blog speculates that

For many Hondurans, the attempt to disclaim the deep level of involvement of US forces in the country, and especially in drug operations, is the most significant aspect of reaction to the Ahuas killings.

US diplomats may focus on establishing that no DEA agent fired a gun-- a claim disputed in this report-- but in Honduras, the key issue is that this operation would not have taken place without the funding, equipment, training, and leadership of the DEA.

Tags: Honduras | human rights