Washington, DC — Ten years after a notorious DEA-led operation resulted in the deaths of four villagers from the Indigenous Miskitu community of Ahuas in northeastern Honduras, and the shooting of several others, survivors and family members are still awaiting recompense. And while five years ago this month the Offices of the Inspectors General (OIG) of the US Department of Justice and of the US Department State issued a report concluding the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA’s) responsibility for leading the operation, none of the individuals responsible have been held accountable.
“This marks a sad anniversary. The injuries suffered by the victims and their families are compounded by an utter lack of accountability and total absence of any effort to make the victims whole. There is no viable route to justice open to them,” said Annie Bird, a human rights advocate and coauthor, with CEPR international policy director Alex Main, of the 2012 report “Collateral Damage of a Drug War: The May 11 Killings in Ahuas and the Impact of the US War on Drugs on La Moskitia, Honduras.”
Following the release of the OIG report in 2017, Bird and Main published an op-ed in The New York Times calling for congressional scrutiny into US security and counternarcotics assistance to Central America and Mexico, and for compensation to the Ahuas victims and their families. Specifically, the piece called for Congress to consider further investigation into the incident, and for DEA and State Department officials who misled Congress about what happened in Ahuas — or who attempted to obstruct the investigation — to be held accountable.
In the months after the 2012 operation, led by the DEA and also involving US-vetted Honduran police, US officials showed congressional legislators and staff a video that the officials claimed showed occupants of a canoe firing at DEA agents and Honduran officers. The OIG report, which cited Bird and Main’s work extensively, concluded that there was no evidence that the shooting victims, who were in a canoe traveling down the Patuca river, had weapons or fired at the law enforcement officers.
DEA and State Department officials had also claimed that the shooting deaths of Candelaria Trapp Nelson (48), Juana Jackson Ambrosia (28, and pregnant), Emerson Martínez (21), Hasked Brooks Wood (14), and the shooting injuries of four others resulted from a shootout between occupants of the canoe, who the DEA claimed were attempting to retrieve packages of cocaine from the water, and officers in other boats. But the investigation by Bird and Main, as well as journalists’ reports at the time, and later the OIG report, showed that the canoe had also been fired on from above.
In the shooting episode, part of a US-sponsored counternarcotics program called “Operation Anvil,” eyewitnesses and survivors say a boat carrying at least 15 people was fired on by State Department-titled helicopters. DEA agents and Honduran police then reportedly prevented injured victims from seeking medical assistance for hours after the shooting, and held them at gunpoint until the operation was concluded.
US officials had also repeatedly claimed that it was Honduran police, not the DEA, who had led the operation. But the OIG report concluded decisively that the DEA had in fact been in charge. Further, the OIG report found that a DEA official had ordered a Honduran officer to open fire on the villagers from the helicopter.
The incident occurred after 2:00 a.m. on May 11, 2012, as the villagers were being ferried down the river in a water taxi. Evidence suggests they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, happening upon an area where cocaine had recently been discarded, and which the DEA and Honduran police claim they were attempting to retrieve before drug traffickers or other criminals did.
In addition to the Ahuas massacre, there was controversy around the same time relating to US-supported counternarcotics operations that resulted in the shooting deaths of purported drug pilots, and notably in a notorious incident in Allende, Mexico, in which corrupt Mexican government officials appear to have leaked confidential DEA information to cartel members, after which dozens of people were killed.
Karen Spring, a human rights activist who contributed research to “Collateral Damage of a Drug War,” said: “Tens years after the massacre in Ahuas, the victims and their family members who were derailed by the loss of their loved ones face economic hardship, the long-term impacts of their injuries, and distress knowing that no has been held responsible in Honduras or the US.”
“The Ahuas massacre will forever be a black mark in the already disastrous US-led ‘War on Drugs’ in the region, and should have led to an overhaul of how the US engages in counternarcotics operations abroad,” Alex Main said. “Instead, there has been little change, and the incident, and the still-languishing victims and their terrorized community, seem to have largely been forgotten.”