The DEA and the Return of the Death Squads

The US is once again hell bent on establishing death squads in its militarization of Central America. This is a stark reminder of the 1980s when Ronald Reagan and Ollie North were funding the contras with drug money, but now it is reinforced with lessons learned in terrorizing the people of Iraq and Afghanistan through night raids and counterinsurgency tactics. Another tactic that the current US administration has reinvigorated comes from the “War on Drugs” playbook of past administrations: by using the DEA as a front for creating and sustaining havoc, it can attempt to justify the military buildup and control the policies of the host country while manipulating the flow of drugs, all the while appeasing the tax payers back home and the folks in the host country who see the build up as necessary. Not abating by any measure the flow of narcotics into the U.S., the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ has actually increased the narcotics industry in Central America and provided a bogus rationale for the increased militarization of yet another Latin American county; this time Honduras.

On May 11th on the Rio Patuca near Ahuas, a small municipality in the Moskitia, a helicopter titled to the US State Department sprayed bullets into a pipante, a long, narrow dugout canoe, which carried sixteen locals. Four people were killed: 28-year-old Juana Jackson (six months pregnant), 48-year-old Candelaria Pratt Nelson (five months pregnant), 14-year-old Hasked Brooks Wood, and 21-year-old Emerson Martínez Henríquez. At least four more were seriously injured. The DEA confirms that its Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team (FAST) participated in the operation supporting a Honduran National Police Tactical Response Team.

I first heard of the tragedy while in the process of preparing for a human rights delegation to Honduras coordinated by the Alliance for Global Justice and led by Karen Spring from Rights Action. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Associated Press have all published stories glorifying the role of the DEA in seizing a huge quantity of drugs in the incident. They not only down played the killing and injuring of innocent people (some reports even questioned if there even were casualties), but also some of the news reports stated that those shot were actually involved in drug trafficking. In typical mainstream media fashion there was over-the-top anonymous quoting of US and Honduran officials and not much fact checking.

I arrived in Honduras on May 18th for the delegation. The original itinerary focused on the struggles of the campesinas and campesinos of the Aguan Valley and their fight to win back the land stolen from them by the oligarchs with the backing of the illegitimate post-coup government of Pepe Lobo. As important as the land rights struggle is to us, it did not take long for the delegation (made up of academics, human rights and labor activists, Canadian and U.S. citizens, several with extensive experience in Honduras) to agree that the massacre in the Moskitia was of a greater urgency especially in light of the contradictory reports coming from the US State Department and the DEA.

We spent our time in Ahuas talking to the survivors of the incident and families of those slaughtered by the US supplied M-60 bullets. We also spoke to several village leaders, the Mayor of Ahuas, and to many locals in order to piece together as best we could the incident and the aftermath. What we got was a startling look into how our government conducts its military adventurism and then obfuscates in order to cover up its crimes. We also witnessed the increased militarization of the region as platoons of masked Honduran soldiers, automatic weapons slung across their chests, patrolled up and down the muddied streets of Ahuas. An older commanding officer, whose Velcro name and rank patches were blank, stated that they would be there “for as long as necessary,” another chilling echo from the Iraq/Afghanistan quagmires.

Getting to Ahuas is no easy feat. We took a small plane from La Ceiba, closer to the Western end of the Caribbean coast of Honduras, to Puerto Lempira, which is on the Laguna Catrasco in the Moskitia on the Eastern side of the country near the Nicaraguan border. Once in Puerto Lempira we hired a small lancha, a motorboat with a capacity of about 15 people, to take us across the Lagunas. It was approximately an hour and a half in the scorching midday sun before we reached the port. Once there, we loaded into a giant pickup truck fastened with wooden planks for seating, which are placed across the truck bed, for the thirty-minute bumpy ride into Ahuas.

After our boat ride across the Laguna and through the rivers, which act as highways for the local people, it became clear to us what one of the survivors had been quoted as saying in the press, and that we were later to hear first hand. The reason that the pipante had been on the river at 2 AM was because they waited until the sun had set to take the boat home in order to avoid the mid-day heat. This is significant in light of the statement by the Honduran foreign minister, Arturo Corrales. He was quoted in the New York Times (05/18/12) as saying “it was totally dark, in a place that is not a fishing spot.” He added, “It’s in the jungle. It is very hard to believe that at 2 a.m., in the jungle, the people in a boat that is beside another boat with 400 kilograms of cocaine were fishing,” the implication being that they, the victims, were drug smugglers.

The ill-fated pipante had disembarked way downstream at the mouth of the river where it runs into the Caribbean, fighting against the current in order to get to Ahuas. Those that we interviewed said that they had been on the river for 8 hours. The owners of the boat had dropped off lobstermen at the opening of the Caribbean earlier in the day and waited for the sun to begin to set before heading back to Ahuas. This is a routine that they have been undertaking daily for 25 years. As they returned, heading into the current, they picked up other passengers along the way, some heading home and some heading toward jobs or to visit relatives. Many of them slept during the journey only to be awakened by the sounds of gunfire and the burning feeling of having M-60 rounds rip through their bodies.

The details of what exactly prompted the occupants of the helicopters to fire on the pipante are murky at best. The reports from the State Dept. and the DEA have not been consistent and leave out many details which calls into question their depiction of the events of that night.  While witness and victim testimonies have been consistent, the U.S. government versions are shrouded in a haze of information that cannot be divulged, parsed statements that are obviously leading, and “facts” that do not shed light on the operation and the role of U.S. government agents in it. COFADEH (Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared), a Honduran human rights group, put it most succinctly in a press release days after the incident, “To keep an act of terror covered up in the midst of media confusion was always a strategy of psychological warfare, a special chapter of state terrorism. We should not accept this.” Audio recordings of communications from the helicopters that evening or surveillance video, if it exists, could potentially clarify much of these issues.  The release of such recordings is something that the delegation would like to see Congress demand in any congressional investigation that it conducts. Until such data surfaces, we will never know the true motivation of those in the helicopters who pulled the trigger nor what they were truly doing on the Rio Patuca.

The events of the immediate aftermath became clearer once our delegation took the time to interview numerous witnesses to the shooting and those who rushed to the river upon hearing that loved ones had been shot at. We spoke to Hilda Rosa Lezama Kenreth, 53, laid up in the Ahuas hospital, an underfunded facility run by an evangelical church. She stated that as the shots were being fired from the helicopter she felt a pain across both of her thighs. A bullet had ripped through her left leg and cut across her right leaving huge gaping wounds. She instinctively jumped from the pipante and swam as best she could for cover in the reeds that hugged the bank of the river. She stayed there clinging to the reeds for at least two hours while going in and out of consciousness waiting for help.

Hilda’s son and daughter, Hilder and Elmina, who had been in town when they heard of the shooting, and were awaiting family members to arrive, rushed to the landing, a small sandy area where pipantes and other riverboats were moored. When they got there a helicopter was landing on an open area near were the boats were moored.  Before Hilder could begin to search for his mother and brother-in-law he was approached by what he described as three large white men in uniforms who spoke to each other in English. The soldiers ordered him, in broken Spanish, to sit down while pointing guns at his and his sister’s head and chest. They asked him where gasoline was stored. He told them that there was a building nearby that had gas for the boats. They ordered him at gunpoint to take them there often hitting him in the back of the head causing him to fall. When they arrived, the tall white soldiers kicked in the door of the building and stole two 18-gallon barrels of gas. They returned to the landing and ordered Hilder to fill a boat motor with the gas. He did so and then was ordered to get in the boat. They went down river to where the massacre had occurred and Hilder saw a boat with two more tall white soldiers sitting in it. Once they got along side this boat he was further ordered to move bags from it to the boat they had arrived in. He stated that the soldiers told him in broken Spanish to “move the drugs.” Once he was finished he and the five soldiers returned to the landing with the drugs. The soldiers then moved the bags from the boat to the helicopter, not allowing Hilder to look for his mother and brother-in-law. Instead, they hit him again and handcuffed him with plastic zip ties and forced him sit until they left. Once they were gone, another villager cut the ties from his hand. He found the body of his brother-in-law and loaded it onto a boat. He then searched for his mother and was able to find Hilda in the water semi-conscious, but alive several hours after he had gotten there and was detained by the soldiers.

Another survivor, Clara Wood Rivas watched as bullets shattered her fourteen-year-old son Hasked’s skull. As she described the tragedy, she lifted her arm in the air to show the downward trajectory of the bullets, motioning her hand toward the top of her own head and passing it downward mimicking the bullets exiting Hasked’s chin. She stated that he had been shot so many times that she couldn’t recognize his face. Her son slumped over and fell into the water. Ms Wood jumped in to avoid the rain of bullets. Unable to find her son, she swam to shore. When she made it to the landing, “tall gringos” who did not speak Spanish pointed guns at her. She saw her nephew, who had come to the landing to meet her, handcuffed with zip ties and also being held at gunpoint. Through tears she told us, “I thought they were going to kill me. I passed through a war there. I’m blessed to be alive. I’ll never see my son again!”

Traveling with Clara and Hasked was Walter Wilmer, also aged14. We were unable to meet with him in the hospital in La Ceiba. According to the preliminary report put out by COFADEH, at the time when the bullets began riddling the pipante Wilmer was asleep. He awoke to sounds of screams and blasts of gunfire. He managed to escape the boat unharmed, but the helicopter gunners aimed at him in the water, destroying his left hand. Wilmer managed to swim using only his right until he reached the bank of the river. He could still see the helicopters hovering over the river so he ran through the darkness making it to the hospital in Ahuas. He was later transferred, at great expense to his family, to the hospital in La Ceiba, but it was too late to save his hand.

Members of our delegation were able to meet with Lucio Adnan Nelson, 22, in the hospital at La Ceiba. He had been shot in the back and in his right elbow where he still has bullet fragments. Under sedation he was able to speak to us, but only briefly. Lucio jumped from the boat when it was fired upon. He felt a burning pain in his back as he clung onto a tree branch sticking out of the river. He managed to swim to shore using one hand and ran through the woods until someone found him and helped him to the hospital. Lucio’s father stated that they had to sell some of their livestock in order to pay for the transportation to La Ceiba hospital. He also stated that if his son doesn’t recover fully, which he most likely won’t, he fears that Lucio’s only option in life is to become a beggar in the street.

The AP and the New York Times have revised their reports many times since the incident. The AP in particular has given a clearer picture of the events, but the overarching bent is still on the justification of the DEA and Honduran military’s presence in the Moskitia. They continue to imply that it was simply a tragic mistake in identity, an example of collateral damage in the War on Drugs. I spoke with a Honduran lawyer who represents the interests of the people of the Moskitia. He stated that there have been several reports of US and Honduran military drug interdictions in that region. The common link to these reports is that in all of them the narcotraffickers have gotten away, but the military have seized the drugs. This raises serious questions, not just to the efficacy of the military in drug interdiction, but indeed, what truly is the US and Honduran militaries’ role in the trafficking. In the wake of the DEA’s implication in drug trafficking as related to Plan Colombia and Plan Mexico, as well as the nefarious scheme of the ATF in supplying arms to drug lords in Mexico, plus the rampant corruption of the Honduran military and police and their interrelationship to narcotraffickers, the questions linger as to the true motivations of the US military/DEA presence in Honduras.

The US’s military motivations come under sharper scrutiny when the issue of recently discovered oil reserves in the Moskitia region are brought to light. Texas based Honduras Tejas Oil and Gas Company, who is pursuing an oil and gas concession in La Moskitia, estimate that there are six to eight billion barrels of oil reserves there. Honduras Tejas has lobbying ties to Tea Party nut job Rep. Louis Ghomert (R. TX), who introduced legislation on their behave, HR 532 (110th): Recognizing the energy and economic partnership between the United States and Honduras. Its ties to the Honduran government as well as the US State Department need to be further investigated.

Many people we spoke with, including representatives of indigenous organizations, are deeply concerned that militarization and violence generated by the “drug war” are negatively impacting their communities and are focused where there are significant natural resources, rivers with hydroelectric potential, petroleum, gold, and forests with many of these natural resources being privatized.

In light of what our delegation observed on our visit and the concerns raised, we demand:

  • That the U.S Congress investigate and hold hearings about the U.S. role in the events of May 11, 2012 in La Moskitia.
  • That serious and independent investigations take place exploring the role and responsibility of agents of the U.S. government in the May 11 massacre in Ahuas, be they DEA agents, private security contractors under the direction or contracted by agencies of the U.S. government or other security forces. This investigation should include identifying criminal responsibility of specific individuals.
  • That the rights and decisions of indigenous communities and popular movements be respected rather than treated as drug traffickers and insurgents with complete disregard to fundamental human rights.
  • That the U.S. government speaks out publicly against the presence of individuals widely known to have involvement in drug trafficking and death squads within the Honduran justice system today.
  • That in light of the abuses we documented, the U.S. government must withdraw all U.S. security forces including DEA and private contractors from Honduras, cease military assistance and training, and stop promoting remilitarization in Central America.

On June 6th the State Dept. was asked to provide an update on the DEA agent investigation in Honduras and on what is being done to assist the victims?

Their answer:

“DEA’s internal investigation is ongoing and should be completed in the next few weeks and we refer you to the Department of Justice for further information. A Honduran special task force conducted an initial investigation and we understand their preliminary conclusion is that the Honduran security forces were justified in firing in self-defense. The Honduran Government referred the investigation to their Attorney General’s office. The U.S. government is working closely with the Government of Honduras and offered transportation for investigators and additional assistance.

All Honduran citizens are eligible to receive care through the Honduran public health system.”

After four weeks of inadequate care in Honduran hospitals where horror stories are common, such as the lack of sutures for routine stitching procedures let alone for major surgery, The International Red Cross and UNICEF have agreed to intervene and pay for the surgeries of Walter Wilmer and Lucio Nelson at La Ceiba Hospital. Meanwhile, the other survivors are left in the care of an inefficient underfunded healthcare system, while the family members of the deceased have not even received so much as an official apology from U.S. or Honduran government officials.

With the ever escalating US military presence in Honduras, we can expect the events described above to become commonplace, just as the horror stories that have come out of Iraq and Afghanistan are never ending. Can drone attacks be far behind?

Greg McCain was a member of the Human Rights Delegation to Ahuas, La Moskitia, Honduras.