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More than a year has passed since a DEA-assisted drug war operation in the Honduran Moskitia killed four indigenous Miskitu civilians, and relatives of the victims are still looking for answers.
Responses have been few and far between. Honduran judicial authorities highlight a lack of cooperation from the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa, impeding their investigation. A leaked State Department memo suggests high-level interference in the United States’ own investigation. And a local police official in the remote Moskitia region in northeastern Honduras told Truthout that destruction of evidence by the DEA is a regular occurrence in the area.
In the early morning of May 11, 2012, a boat carrying 16 passengers was approaching the public docking site on the Patuca River in the town of Ahuas. The passenger boat was hit by rounds of automatic gunfire fired from US State Department-owned helicopters flown by private contractors carrying DEA Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team (FAST) agents and vetted Honduran Tactical Response Team agents. Four boat passengers were killed: two women, a 14-year-old boy and a young man. Three other individuals were badly injured.
Marlen Zelaya Jackson traveled from the Moskitia to the capital to find out what was going on with the investigation, including the case of her sister, Juana Jackson Ambrocio. The mother of two children, Jackson Ambrocio was 26 weeks pregnant when she was shot and killed while heading home on the river.
“We’re seeking justice. So they need to at least say something!” Zelaya Jackson told Truthout in an interview in Tegucigalpa, referring to officials at the US Embassy. “I don’t know what’s happening.”
A single mother, Zelaya Jackson is now taking care of her sister’s two orphaned children, 2 and 10 years old, as well as her own children.
“They killed her there, and now she’s not here. I’m in charge of [the kids] now. The little boy is still young. He’s still bottle-fed,” she said, urging the US embassy to at least provide some answers. “They don’t know how I make out caring for these two kids too, now that they’re my responsibility. So they need to at least do something. Respond! Do that! Or talk to the Honduran government so they speak and at least do something!”
Zelaya Jackson wasn’t able to get many answers about her sister’s case from the attorney general’s office in Tegucigalpa. But she did learn that Honduran judicial authorities are pointing the finger at the US embassy for impeding the investigation.
At a June 13, 2012, meeting, John Cesar Mejia, coordinator of the office of the special attorney for human rights, the office in charge of the investigation, told Truthout, that the US embassy has been asked to hand over the names of the DEA agents involved in the Ahuas killings, but have refused. The embassy also has not allowed ballistic tests on the weapons of the foreign agents that participated, Mejia said.
The bodies were buried in three locations in the Moskitia – Barra Patuca, Ahuas and Puerto Lempira. On June 22 and 23, 2012, a forensic pathologist and Honduran judicial authorities, accompanied by several soldiers from the Honduran Air Force, traveled to the grave sites to exhume the cadavers of the four victims to autopsy the bodies. The autopsies were conducted right at the gravesites in broad daylight while a large crowd that had congregated looked on. Relatives of the victims were horrified. Armando Perez, a former Texas police detective working with the US embassy in Honduras, was present, providing technical support, according to Collateral Damage of a Drug War, a report by Annie Bird of Rights Action and Alex Main of the Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR).
Clara Woods Rivas was on the boat on May 11, 2012, when it was fired upon. She survived, but her youngest child, 14-year-old Hasked Brooks Wood, was killed. The autopsy was yet another traumatic experience, she told Truthout in an interview, struggling with Spanish, her second language after Miskito.
“If it had been known that they would not respond after the autopsy, we wouldn’t have allowed them to take the body out, out in the open, in front of people,” said Wood Rivas. “It hurt me so much. I cried and cried.”
Zelaya Jackson also regrets giving permission, in retrospect, but the families were not notified before the day of the autopsy. When the forensic pathologist and accompanying team were finished, body parts were left outside of the grave.
“We wouldn’t have permitted that, but I don’t know,” she said. “At the time, when they were doing it, I don’t know why I gave permission for them to do it. So we allowed all that to happen in front of everyone. Like a dog, they did it, and now they don’t even give answers.”
The official Honduran government report of the incident was conducted by the 0ffice of the special attorney for human rights and released more than a year after Zelaya Jackson lost her sister. Testimonies from key witnesses from the community of Ahuas, DEA agents and US private contractors were neither gathered nor included in the Honduran government’s report.
Shortly after the official Honduran government report was presented to the US State Department by the Honduran attorney general, 58 members of US Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, noting “inquiries into the matter have been perfunctory, and deeply flawed.” The letter, dated January 30, 2013, calls for an investigation, but behind the scenes, a State Department investigation may have been suppressed.
On June 12, 2013, the New York Post reported that an internal memo leaked by State Department whistleblower Aurelia Fedenisn, citing attempts to quash State Department investigations, was included in the investigation into the Ahuas killings. According to the section of the October 2012 memo published online by the CEPR, a “case agent interviewed Assistant Secretary [of State] for INL [the Bureau of International Narcotics and Legal Enforcement Affairs], William Brownfield, who reportedly was not forthcoming and gave the impression he believed [the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security] should not pursue the investigation.”
Brownfield has vehemently denied the allegations. “The issue was never whether the incident would be investigated, but rather which US government organization would review the involvement of US law enforcement support of a foreign police operation overseas,” he told Foreign Policy blog The Cable.
The memo concludes that, “to date DEA has not cooperated with DS and the investigation cannot proceed further,” but it isn’t the first time investigators have had trouble with the DEA.
According to Oswaldo Perez Suazo, departmental chief of police in Puerto Lempira, the departmental capital of Gracias a Dios, the mess left for Honduran investigators by the DEA in the case of the Ahuas killings is par for the course. Commanding a total of 59 police officers deployed throughout the department, the police station is in front of an unpaved landing strip utilized as the regional airport and run by the Honduran military. Sitting in his air-conditioned office to escape the tropical heat, Perez Suazo read from police files, commenting on the DEA’s conduct in drug interdiction operations in the region.
“[The plane] was burned by members of the DEA. They themselves lit the plane on fire,” he said, referring to a plane carrying a cocaine shipment. “It could have been used for the investigation, but the truth is in that moment, what I have observed is an empowerment on the part of the DEA agents during their operations, and despite the fact that police officials and members of the national police are with them, they do not share information with the national police. They are empowered as if they are in their own territory. I have seen that what interests them is the drugs. They confiscate the drugs and take them with them. Then they take off and leave us there with the bodies, with the people that have been arrested, with everything.”
When asked about the four civilians killed in Ahuas, Perez Suazo admitted that the boat and its passengers were simply traveling on the river, one of the principal modes of transportation in the Moskitia. “Here there are only two ways to get around: by air or by boat. People that have money or can pay for a plane, arrive by taxi here to go and visit other municipalities,”he said at a July 15, 2012, meeting in Puerto Lempira, as he pointed in the direction of the regional airport. “But individuals who do not have money utilize boats to move around and that is how the [death of four Moskitia residents] occurred … resulting in four deceased people that had nothing to do [with drug trafficking]. It appears that the [joint US-Honduran forces] were confused because, in general, they use night-vision goggles and from the air it is difficult to determine [those involved].”
Although the DEA insists that it was present only in an advisory role and that only Honduran police officers opened fire, the number of different security forces involved in the May 2012 operation has made it hard to determine exactly who did what. “According to Honduran authorities, the operation included 13 Honduran police agents, four State Department helicopters with mounted machine guns, eight US government-contracted pilots and 10 US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents,” write Bird and Main in their April 2013 report, Still Waiting for Justice.
The regional drug war encompassing the joint DEA-Honduran interdiction operations is being fought under the banner of the US-led Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). According to the State Department’s website, the US has provided $496 million since 2008 to Central American countries for “capacity enhancements for public security, law enforcement and justice sector actors and institutions, and the rule of law agencies and personnel.” A significant area of interest for the US embassy in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, has been the promotion of security and police reform and an overhaul of the attorney general’s office. The embassy views this as a way of battling corruption, institutional weakness of the judiciary and investigative capabilities and rampant human rights violations by state forces.
Despite the US efforts to strengthen the rule of law in Honduras, DEA-led drug operations have raised questions by human rights organizations regarding transparency and chain of command during these operations. Speaking to a North American human rights delegation just 16 days after the May 11, 2012 incident in Ahuas, the US Embassy’s DEA attaché, James Kenney, said members of the vetted Honduran task force “don’t have a chain of command like most units. They don’t have a lieutenant, captain, major. They report directly to me – the DEA.”
Operating outside of Honduran chains of command, it remains unclear how Honduran state structures – particularly when evidence is destroyed during the operations by the DEA itself – can conduct thorough and reliable investigations leading to arrests and, ultimately, justice.
Despite the ongoing judicial, police and investigative reforms, Clara Woods Rivas and Marlen Zelaya Jackson had to leave Tegucigalpa without any definitive answers as to exactly what happened on the other end of the barrels of the guns that killed their loved ones last year. Via bus, pickup truck and small motorized boat, they traveled more than 15 hours back to their modest wooden homes in Ahuas. Together with other relatives of the killed and injured passengers, the women continue to hope that the national and foreign agents will be held responsible for the deaths of indigenous civilians caught in the crossfire of drug war policies.