STORIES

The DEA Lied About Honduran Drug War Deaths

By Charlie Tetiyevsky on June 7, 2017

The militarization of local police forces and the overreach of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) have long been visible at home, but the problem has not plagued our shores alone. The inspectors general at the Departments of Justice and State released a 424-page joint review of actions taken by the DEA in Honduras in 2012, which were decried for years by human rights organizations and the Center for Economic and Policy Research. The Honduran Public Ministry released a review of the incidents in 2013, upon which investigations were based, alongside congressional testimony and internal DEA reports, but the newest set of documents addresses discrepancies and outright lies that occurred at every level of self-reporting and -investigation.

The difficulty in dealing with these incidents honestly seemed to stem from the fact that it was not simply a DEA matter. Like in many foreign operations, the DEA was working in conjunction with other American and local police forces, in this case the DEA’s Foreign-deployed Advisory and Support Team (FAST) and a unit of the Honduran National Police known as the Tactical Response Team (TRT), who were trained “and advised” by FAST. (FAST, whose “squads received military-style training,” was initially established in order “to combat Taliban-linked opium traffickers in the Afghanistan war zone” and has since been shut down.) The State Department was also involved, providing helicopters “and armed air support on missions,” as well as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) provision of a detection and surveillance aircraft. The State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) provided ground support “from the command center in Honduras.”

Clearly the entanglement of multiple American and foreign government agencies not only led to confusion and incorrect use of deadly force, it also provided a motive for covering up the realities of what had happened (so as to avoid implicating a range of government offices, particularly the DEA).

Three separate incidents occurred, the most egregious of which was on May 11, 2012. Late at night in a 8,000-person Honduran town called Ahuas, one DEA/FAST and two TRT officers were transporting a large seizure of cocaine down a river in a “small canoe-like boat” when the vehicle, known as a pipante, lost power. The boat floated down the Patuca river, where “a larger boat carrying more than a dozen passengers [and cargo] made contact with” the directionless canoe. 

Surveillance footage from the CBP plane showed that the larger boat, identified in the joint review as possibly having “been a water taxi carrying passengers on an overnight trip,” was fired on “for about 26 seconds, including several seconds when officers in the pipante appeared to be shooting at people in the water who had fallen or jumped from the passenger boat.” In addition to fire at the boat coming from the water, a FAST member “directed a Honduran [helicopter] gunner to fire his machine gun” from the air, even though “there is no video evidence of gunfire [coming] from anyone on the passenger boat.” 

After the shooting, which resulted in multiple deaths and injuries, “FAST and TRT did not conduct a search and rescue mission for individuals from the passenger boat who may have been injured, and instead focused solely on recovering the law enforcement officers stranded in the pipante” as well as the cocaine that was there. Afterwards, “the ground team loaded the helicopters and returned to base” without tending to any of the dead or injured. The Guardian reports that “it took community members two days to recover all four victims from the river” and that “the survivors have struggled to access adequate medical care and support.”

“It was a massacre of innocent people,” a survivor told The Guardian. “I need someone to help me, I cannot support [my] family.” A 14-year-old survivor was shot in the right hand, “his shattered limb […] only saved after a local NGO intervened to pay for urgent medical care.”

Reports from the DEA following the shooting—which resulted in the deaths of four people (two pregnant women, a former soldier and father, and a 14-year-old schoolboy)—identified passengers of the boat as drug smugglers trying to steal back the seized cocaine. In reality, they were, according to locals (including leaders of a number of ethnic groups in the area), fishermen “diving for lobster and shellfish.” 

Chief of the Honduran National Police Ricardo Ramírez perpetuated claims, discounted by video footage and this year’s report from the inspectors general, that “the occupants of the boat were transporting drugs and fired at the helicopter,”saying that “an assault rifle was seized at the scene.” An anonymous U.S. government official told The Guardian that helicopters “were piloted by Guatemalan military officers and outside contract pilots,” ignoring the revelation that it was a direct order from FAST given to TRT to shoot at the boat. (In other words, DEA agents may not have pulled the helicopter gun’s trigger, but they did direct foreign agents to do so.) A fabricated claim of self-defense came from a “confidential DEA informant who later admitted she had lied.” (It must be noted that “even after [she] admitted to lying to [the] DEA and providing conflicting accounts,” the DEA’s previous representations to DOJ leaders, the public and Congress were not “clarified or modified” in response.)

Two more deadly incidents followed that of May 11. One on June 23 resulted in the death of a man who was supposedly a trafficker reaching for a gun, reports about which were conflicting. According to the inspectors general review, State Department officials “reported that a FAST agent shot and killed an armed suspect,” while “the TRT report did not mention FAST’s use of deadly force and instead stated that multiple subjects fired at the TRT”; FAST did not report any firefight as having happened. 

Another incident, this time on July 3, 2012, occurred when “FAST and TRT officers responded to a suspicious plane that had crash-landed near Catacamas, Honduras.” The pilot surrendered and was taken into custody, but a co-pilot “did not comply with commands from two FAST members and instead turned in an apparent attempt to reenter the plane,” which those on the scene assumed meant he was retrieving a weapon. The co-pilot was shot and killed, after which “the FAST team leader decided to evacuate the area with the drugs and pilots rather than wait for Honduran authorities to arrive and process the scene,” as was mandatory Honduran police protocol for any deadly shooting.

Both TRT reports on this incident had discrepancies. The first made “no mention of FAST’s use of deadly force and stat[ing] that the second pilot died from injuries sustained as a result of the plane crash,” and the second claimed the “pilot had aimed and fired a handgun at the officers [to which they] responded with deadly force.” Both reports refer to a 9mm handgun found at the scene, which FAST officers did not corroborate. The DEA later reported that they were informed after the event that “a Honduran police officer [had] planted a gun in evidence and reported it as a weapon found at the scene” in an attempt to legitimize the deadly force used.

The Honduran government had “at least five” government groups investigating the May 11 boat incident, but the inspectors general report mentioned a number of “flaws and omissions” in the Honduran report. These included “certain ballistics findings that [were] found questionable” as well as discrepancies between the report and accounts reported by those who had survived the incident. Internal DEA investigations were, like the Honduran report, “favorable to law enforcement actions” and “found that DEA personnel acted within the scope of their employment and authority,” with a “justified” use of force that “did not violate law or policy.”

Thanks to an independent report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research and the efforts of U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske, the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security (DS) was pushed to investigate all three events, something with which the DEA did not cooperate, refusing “to share information with DS or provide [them with] access to relevant personnel.” The DS’s report came back as inconclusive “because of [the] DEA’s refusal to provide access to evidence” as well as the inconsistencies and gaps in the Honduran investigations.

The report from the inspectors general concluded that from the planning stages onwards the offices working together to execute these missions had been disorganized. For example, they had not come to any meaningful conclusions in advance of “when and how [they] would respond to an imminent threat of death and serious physical injury” as well as not understanding “what each other’s deadly force policy permitted.” Such lapses at least partially led, the report argues, to the planted evidence and fabricated claims of being fired at by those shot and/or killed. 

DEA agents held steadfast to their false reports (described as “inaccurate, incomplete, or based upon unreliable and insufficient information”), “maintain[ing] in information provided to DOJ leadership, Congress, and the public that the Hondurans led and executed the operation and that [the] DEA acted solely in a support role as mentors and advisors.” In reality, “FAST personnel maintained substantial control over the conduct of the operation.” 

The review stops short of suggesting purposeful obstruction into investigations, but does maintain that the DEA’s “post-shooting incident procedures and decision-making failed to ensure that [the] DEA initiated a timely review [of] the May 11 incident.” The DEA claimed based on false evidence that “no DEA agent fired a weapon” and used that to legitimize not following typical protocol of filing a mandatory “shooting review” that follows every DEA-caused shooting.

“The resulting investigation,” the inspectors general report writes of the internal DEA inquiry, “was little more than a paper exercise.… We concluded that DEA inspectors did not meet their responsibility of ensuring a thorough, factual, and objective investigation of a very sensitive shooting incident.” 

The inspectors general report may give the DEA the benefit of the doubt, but with failures at every level of the investigation—including an “inappropriate and unjustified” order from DEA Headquarters to refuse “cooperat[ion] with the U.S. Ambassador[,] DS[,] and the Honduran government,” and the “omitting [of] unfavorable information, such as video evidence”—it’s hard to feel that this was simply the result of “carelessness” (as the report refers to it), a lack of appropriate planning in advance or ignorance. As is made perfectly clear in the entire report, it is important not to take such agencies at their word without the corroboration of external reviews.

Photo credits: Wikipedia and Media Defense.

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