On May 11, 2012, four Hondurans were killed, including two women, a young man and a 14-year-old boy, and three more were gravely injured in a drug interdiction operation conducted by a joint US-Honduran mission. In the outcry that followed, the US relied on a widely criticized investigation conducted by Honduran authorities to exonerate its agents for any culpability for the fatalities that occurred that day. According to a follow-up report issued by US-based NGOs the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Rights Action earlier this month, US deference to the flawed Honduran investigation raises suspicions about its commitment to uncovering the truth about what really transpired.
The Honduran investigation into eyewitness and forensic evidence was faulty and incomplete. Numerous inconsistencies between the reports of the Honduran officers and the victims seemed to all be resolved in favor of the testimony of the officers. In a decision that defies explanation if uncovering the truth was the real goal, the US declined to make Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents available to be questioned by the Honduran investigators.
In citing the forensic evidence gathered, the Honduran report notes that the National Police turned over their firearms for ballistic and other testing. In a striking omission, the report fails to mention that no investigation was conducted on DEA firearms, which would seem to be important evidence to support the conclusion that DEA agents did not discharge their weapons. In fact, the Honduran report noted that “the members of the counternarcotics team are unable to say whether the FAST (Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team) team member used his firearm or not in the midst of the cross-fire fray.” The Honduran investigation noted with specificity the weaponry mounted on the US helicopters, but again failed to mention that these guns were not subjected to ballistics testing, despite testimony from witnesses that a helicopter fired on them.
The forensic evidence regarding the trajectory of the shots in the boat did not support the conclusion that all shots were necessarily fired from a lateral position. Moreover, the report takes pains to describe the facts preceding the shootings, but devotes far less attention to clarifying the critical elements of the operation. Instead of presenting a comprehensive review of evidence supporting an objective conclusion, the report seems calculated to exonerate US agents.
A meticulously-documented investigation released in August 2012 by the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Rights Action provides a much more credible narrative of the events that day and casts serious doubt on the credibility of the Honduran investigation. In addition to the concerns raised by US and Honduran human rights groups, 58 US legislators wrote a letter asking the United States to thoroughly and objectively investigate the deadly incident. Yet the United States has declared its puzzling satisfaction with the Honduran investigation and indicated that it will not investigate the matter further.
A transparent investigation is necessary, both to bring justice to the victims and to ensure proper precautions are integrated into drug interdiction operations conducted or “supported” by US agents that carefully safeguard the protection of innocent life. If the US is interested in truth rather than political cover, it should follow the common sense recommendations of the report by fully cooperating with the investigation. Specifically, the US should turn over the weapons carried by DEA agents and those present on the helicopters for forensic evaluation, disclose the details and conclusions of the DEA’s internal investigation, make the DEA agents available for interviews and provide the surveillance video of the event.
Observers have noted the unprecedented cooperation between US and Honduran agents in drug interdiction efforts, amid growing discontent with the incalculable costs of the expanding war on drugs and increasing misgivings about its effectiveness. Perhaps the Honduran government can deflect the muted outrage of besieged civilians desperate for an end to drug-related violence, but the United States must hold itself to a higher standard. The United States’ refusal to insist on a serious, thorough and credible investigation could be reasonably interpreted as an effort to cover up the politically unpalatable human toll of the escalating militarization of counter-narcotics operations. If the country is truly convinced that eyewitness and forensic evidence would exonerate its agents, it seems counterproductive to impede or evade a thorough and transparent investigation.