It was a dark, moonless night. A small passenger boat had nearly reached the end of its six-hour journey upriver when helicopters appeared overhead and another boat came into view. Shots were fired, hitting several passengers. As terrified men, women and children leapt into the water, they were fired on again by a machine-gunner perched in a helicopter. Four people were killed, two of them women, another a 14-year-old boy. Several more were injured.
It could have been another tragic scene of carnage from Syria, South Sudan or some other war-torn place. But this grisly incident occurred in the otherwise peaceful Miskito indigenous community of Ahuas, Honduras, during a May 2012 counternarcotics mission involving agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, a United States-vetted Honduran police unit and machine-gun-equipped State Department helicopters.
The D.E.A. and Honduran police said that the passenger boat carried drug traffickers who fired first. Local residents told a different story, of a water taxi carrying unarmed travelers with no links to drug trafficking.
Weeks later we traveled to Ahuas and worked with local human rights defenders to piece together the boat passengers’ accounts. A grieving mother described how her teenage son was shot dead before her eyes. A nurse told us about her deceased pregnant sister and her struggle to care for her orphaned niece and nephew.
The testimonies we compiled indicated that the passengers were on the river for legitimate reasons. Multiple eyewitness accounts suggested D.E.A. agents played a leadership role in the operation.
Back in Washington, D.E.A. and State Department press officers insisted that the operation had been “Honduran led” and counternarcotics agents had fired in self-defense.
Five years later, United States officials’ version of events has been wholly refuted by a government review examining the Ahuas shootings and two other “deadly fire incidents” in Honduras.
The 424-page review, released in May by the inspectors general of the Departments of State and Justice, offers a startling glimpse into the tightly sealed world of United States security assistance in Central America.
The review found no credible evidence showing that the boat passengers opened fire. The D.E.A.’s “witness testimony” suggesting otherwise was completely unreliable, as officials knew.
The United States-vetted Honduran police unit wasn’t “highly trained and vetted,” as officials claimed, and D.E.A. agents “maintained substantial control” over the mission. A Honduran helicopter door-gunner opened fire only after United States agents ordered him to do so.
Further, the review found that officials from the D.E.A. and State Department knowingly misled Congress and continued to cite alleged evidence supporting their claims after they were aware that this evidence was compromised. They also refused to cooperate with State Department investigators trying to establish the facts around the Ahuas shootings.
The review, while shedding devastating light on the wrongdoing of United States law enforcement agents and government officials, also leaves some big questions unanswered.
First, do the review’s findings reflect broader patterns of behavior in United States institutions focused on the war on drugs abroad
Though the units involved in the Ahuas mission have been dissolved, many of the egregious actions documented in the review implicate senior and midlevel American officials. For example, the Department of State’s current assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs pushed back hard against D.E.A. cooperation with investigators and discussed putting the investigation “back into the box.”
Second, how effective is the heavy-handed, militarized approach to security and counternarcotics that the United States supports in the region?
Given the secrecy surrounding many security programs, it is nearly impossible to evaluate their effectiveness. Hundreds of millions of United States taxpayer dollars have been channeled to the region through the opaque Central America Regional Security Initiative; little is known regarding the final destination and impact of these funds. Now security aid to Central America is likely to become even more militarized and less transparent, with the current administration seeking to shift funding and responsibilities from the State Department to the Pentagon.
And while there’s scant evidence that the current approach has stemmed the flow of drugs or reduced violence and other drivers of Central American migration to the United States, there is little doubt that it has contributed to tremendous human suffering.
A ProPublica investigation has just revealed that a 2011 D.E.A. operation triggered dozens of killings in Allende, Mexico, after sensitive information about a drug cartel was shared with a notoriously leaky United States-vetted Mexican police unit. The D.E.A. itself has yet to investigate the incident.
More broadly, increased United States security spending in Central America has been accompanied by further militarization and reports of security forces’ involvement in organized crime and appalling human rights abuses. This is particularly true in Honduras, where even the country’s minister of security is accused of being involved in drug trafficking and United States-trained military officials were recently implicated in the murder of the renowned environmental activist Berta Cáceres. Dozens of United States legislators have called for suspension of all security aid to Honduras.
It is time for Congress and the American public to take a closer look at security assistance and reconsider the policies driving the costly United States “war on drugs” in the region. The questions raised by the inspectors general’s review are a good starting point. Congress should conduct its own thorough review of the effectiveness of United States security programs in Latin America as well as the system of United States-vetted units. Legislators should also demand more detailed information about regional security initiative and other opaque programs and require that metrics measuring the impact of these programs be made public.
Finally, Congress should consider further investigations of the D.E.A. and State Department cover-up around the May 2012 shootings and ensure that accountability mechanisms are in place to prevent officials from dodging scrutiny. The survivors and families of the deceased should receive reparations. And sanctions should be considered against those who tried to keep Congress and the public in the dark about what really happened that night in Ahuas.
Alexander Main is Senior Associate for International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.
Annie Bird is director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission.
This essay originally appeared in the New York Times.