Broken Anvil: Victims Fight for Justice After DEA Operation Leaves Four Dead in Honduras
The remote community of Ahuas, Honduras is located deep inside the countryâ€™s Miskitu coast, a tightly-woven indigenous community long forgotten by government help but also by crime. In contrast to the rest of the country, which boasts the highest murder rate per capita in the world, Ahuas is a peaceful place with deep family ties.
But that changed in the early morning hours of May 11, when soldiers opened fire from U.S. government helicopters, killing four people, including two pregnant women, a child and a young father.
Now Ahuas and the Moskitia have become ground zero in the Drug Enforcement Administration (D.E.A.)â€™s Operation Anvil and the broader U.S. war on drugsâ€”changing the lives of the gente del Rioâ€”River Peopleâ€”forever.
Produced by Kaelyn Forde and Craig Stubing.
KAELYN FORDE, TRNN: A journey to the new frontline in the U.S. war on drugsâ€”two hours by plane from the capital, Tegucigalpa, two hours by boat through a Caribbean
lagoon and down winding canals reached only by canoe. Ahuas was once a remote place where indigenous Miskitu communities lived for centuries, forgotten by governments but
But since launching what it calls Operation Anvil this year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration (DEA) has made la Moskitia ground zeroâ€”with deadly consequences for the people of Ahuas.
People here call each other cousin, and in contrast to other parts of Honduras, which
boasts the highest murder rate per capita in the world; in Ahus, neighbors rarely
lock their doors.
JUDGE WESLY MILLER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The people used to say, Ahuas is the best place in the department, itâ€™s a very good place. And it wasâ€”up until
the tragedy of May 11th.
FORDE: People here have no running water and no electricity. Rustic roads and few cars leave people relying instead on the fast-flowing Patuca Riverâ€”a lifeline and a highway,
bringing everything from building supplies to food.
FORDE IN AHUAS, HONDURAS: Passengers say this was the boat carrying 16 people, including women and children, on the night of May 11. The boat left Barra Patuca at 8:30 p.m., arriving here near Ahuas at around 2:30 a.m. Many of the passengers say they were asleep when they were awoken by the sound of helicopters. And then the gunshots began, puncturing the side of the boat, which can still be seen patched over here.
Within seconds, four people were deadâ€”including two pregnant women, a young father and Clara Woodâ€™s teenage son.
CLARA WOOD (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The shots began from above and I jumped up, I shouted out to God, â€˜Where is my son?â€™ But he wasnâ€™t there in the front of the boat. No one was there.
FORDE: Sandra Madridâ€™s house is closest to the landing. She says there was no warning
before the helicopters opened fire on the canoe.
SANDRA MADRID (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): They say they used flares to warn people to move out of the way before they started shooting. But thatâ€™s a lie. I saw the flares, along with many other people. And that light was after the shootout.
FORDE: Bera Gonzalez was in the boat that night with her 11-year-old and 2-year-old daughters. When she heard the shots, she covered her children with her body.
BERA GONZALEZ (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): I thought, how am I going to save myself? Itâ€™s better for me to die here with my children. Thatâ€™s why I didnâ€™t jump out of the boat and swim, to stay with my daughters. I waited for the shot that would kill me. I was waiting for death.
FORDE: Hilda was next to her husband, who was driving the boat. A bullet ripped through both of her legs.
HILDA LEZAMA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): By the time I realized what was happening, they had already shot me. I had to throw myself in the water to save myself.
FORDE: Hilda clutched a tree branch for more than three hours before being rescued.
LEZAMA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): I donâ€™t know how I did it, because all of my blood was flowing out into the water. I donâ€™t know how much blood I lost. But at five in the morning, my son came to get me out.
FORDE: Hildaâ€™s children had come to look for their parents and brother-in-law when soldiers came toward them.
ELMINA EULOPIO (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): I thought that the soldiers were going to help us rescue the people who had been shot. But then they asked my brother where they could find gasoline and took him there at gunpoint.
FORDE: Store owner Dole Woods says soldiers forced him onto the ground face down, tearing the cable out of his pacemaker.
DOLE WOODS (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): I told them, here is my ID card check and see my name isn’t on the blacklist of drug traffickers. I told them, if you already broke into my store, if you want to come inside, they asked, "Do you have children here?" and I said yes. But come inside and check everything. With all of the respect you deserve, come inside and see if you can find any drugs.
FORDE: A faded boot print can still be seen where soldiers kicked down the door. Hilder Eulopio says he then took the soldiers out to the canoe where the drugs were. Two American soldiers were already on board with 14 bundles of cocaine.
HILDER EULOPIO (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): When we arrived at the canoe, they told me to get close to it, and I did. Then they loaded the drugs into our boat. They unloaded them again onto the landing and then left in the helicopter. They never helped me rescue my mother.
FORDE: Hilder says two of the soldiers then offered him money.
HILDER EULOPIO (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): They forced me to bring the drugs with them. We brought them here and unloaded them. And then they asked me if I had a cell phone number or a bank account because they were going to leave some money for me in the bank.
FORDE: Soldiers handcuffed and beat Claraâ€™s 17-year-old nephew, Celin.
CELIN CORBELO (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): They had three guns pointed at my head, one at each side and one at the base of my skull. They questioned me and said if I didnâ€™t answer, they would throw me into the river handcuffed, or they would shoot me and get rid of my body. They asked me, â€œWhere are the drugs? Who is the leader? Where does he live?â€ I told them I was innocent, that I was just here to look for my aunt.
FORDE: As Hilder and others searched for the survivors, the helicopters were still circling overhead.
MADRID (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The Americans went down to the river, got the drugs and then took them out in the helicopter. They saw very well that they were leaving people dead.
FORDE: The community found two of the bodies that morning. One was 21-year-old Emerson Martinez, the other was 48-yearold Candelaria Trapp.
HILDER EULOPIO (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): When I saw my brother-in-law in the water, I touched him but he didnâ€™t move, he was already dead. All during this time, there was a helicopter circling overhead, watching me. And then it left.
FORDE: It took more two days to find Hasked and Juanaâ€™s bodies, which had drifted
several miles down the river. Neighbors brought Clara her sonâ€™s body.
WOOD (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): When they found him and they put him on the floor, he was full of water and his body was already rotting. I couldnâ€™t see my babyâ€™s face anymore. I couldnâ€™t bathe him, he was so swollen and soft, so I put him in a bag and thatâ€™s how I had to bury him. They killed him like he was a dog.
FORDE: Before that night, only one person had died violently in Ahuas in the past decade. Grief shook the community. Later that day, a group of people burned down four houses, belonging to the people thought to be working with the drug traffickers. Judge Wesly Miller was also targeted.
MILLER (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): I was very sad, and very scared. When the people passed by here, I was upstairs with my family, because they told me they were going to burn my house down.
FORDE: If a pregnant woman is murdered in Honduras, the fetus is considered a victim as well. Candelaria Trappâ€™s family says she was pregnant. Juana Jackson was also six months pregnant.
GONZALEZ (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): It had been a long time since she had seen me, but she grabbed me, hugged me and kissed me. It was the last day she was alive. I didn’t know then it would be the last time I saw her alive. I saw that her belly was already very big.
FORDE: The coroner came to perform an autopsy 43 days after the bodies had been buried. Authorities exhumed the bodies in public. Juanaâ€™s sister Marlene tried to take this cell phone video before police stopped her.
MARLENE JACKSON (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Then they began with my sister.
And so many people were there watching. They started to take her body out, and then they started cutting her body where the bullets were and putting the pieces in a little pan. From her head, from her nose, from her leg. Then they opened her up and took out her heart. And we were there, watching all of it.
FORDE: They told Marlene that Juana hadnâ€™t been pregnant.
JACKSON (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): One of the men went into the grave with the forensic examiner to help him lift her body. He told me that the fetus fell out of her, but that they left it there and didnâ€™t examine it. And then they went and said she wasnâ€™t pregnant.
FORDE: Since Marlene didnâ€™t have any money for another coffin, she buried her sister in the earth nearby, next to Claraâ€™s son. Days later, Marlene found her sisterâ€™s teeth
and bones, left behind by the forensic team.
JACKSON (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): Weâ€™re just left with these sad reminders.
FORDE: The government has not allowed the victimsâ€™ families or human rights groups to see the autopsy reports. Honduran investigators and the U-S Embassy in Tegucigalpa claim that only two people died of bullet wounds. But the judge in Puerto Lempira who was present during the autopsy disagrees.
JUDGE CAMILO PERALTA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): In some of the bodies, the bullets were still there. But all four bodies had bullet wounds. That’s what the pathologist doing the investigation reports preliminarily.
FORDE: A bullet hole is still visible in the motor of the boat. Claraâ€™s furniture was also on boardâ€”it too is riddled with bullets. Initial reports accused the victims of being
involved in drug trafficking. But Clara disagrees.
WOOD (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): My poor baby, only 14 years old, how could he be involved in that? He didnâ€™t know anything about that badness. Heâ€™s with God now. My cousin was in that boat with her two babies, what did they have to do with the
FORDE: The mayor admits that a small percentage of Ahuasâ€™ 10,000 people accept work from drug traffickers.
MAYOR LUCIO BAQUEARDARO (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): But to say we live off of narcotrafficking, that we live off of drugs, thatâ€™s a lie. I can say that when they have come and offered work clearing the landing strips, our people have cleared them. Thatâ€™s the concern we have always had. But what is the government going to do about it? What alternatives do our people have?
FORDE: These photos show a burnt plane on the nearest clandestine landing strip to Ahuas, several miles away. Honduran authorities say the D.E.A. often burns the planes themselves, but isnâ€™t interested in investigatingâ€”just in confiscating the drugs.
VOICE OF POLICE CAPTAIN OSWALDO PEREZ SUAZO, PUERTO LEMPIRA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): This plane was burned by the D.E.A. agents themselves. They lit it on fire themselves. REPORTER: But donâ€™t they need it for the investigation? Well, yes, it could have been used. But the thing is, in that moment, what I have observed is that there is an empowerment on the part of the D.E.A. agents when they do operations. And despite the fact that national police officers go with them, they donâ€™t share information with the national police. They are empowered as if they are in their own territory there. Iâ€™ve 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 who have been been arrested, with everything.
FORDE: On June 23, the D.E.A. shot an alleged drug trafficker down the river in Brus
Laguna. It was the first time the U.S. has admitted its agents killed someone in
Honduras. The U.S. military says it has copied its strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan by using three forward operating bases in la Moskitia. But the Honduran military says
their efforts have done little to stop the flow of drugs.
HONDURAN ARMY COLONEL RONALD RIVERA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The problem of drug trafficking is unstoppable. This is in spite of our efforts and preventative measures, including blowing up the landing strips with dynamite. But despite all that, drug trafficking continues. They find a way, they change their strategy and they use the air, the land and the sea. They are always looking for another way.
FORDE: He says the killings were an accident.
RIVERA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): What happened there was confusion, an accident. Because people who didnâ€™t have anything to do with drug trafficking died.
FORDE: So far, the people of Ahuas say no one from the U.S. government has come to ask for their testimony. But since the 2009 military coup that ousted him, former President Manuel Zelaya says the climate of impunity has worsened as the U.S. drug war expands.
FORMER HONDURAN PRESIDENT MANUEL ZELAYA (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): We lament that innocent people have died. We need to find an international way to end the crisis of drug trafficking. That’s both the production of drugs and consumption by the North. It needs to be a cooperative solution. The measures we small countries take don’t work if the larger countries continue their failed policies regarding drug trafficking. Those policies have produced more violence and more crime. Let’s remember two operations that the U.S. has done recently. Operation ‘Fast and Furious’ in Mexico, where they allowed arms across the border, and the operation where they allowed clandestine arms into Honduras also. The American government itself was putting clandestine arms in our countries. That needs to end.
FORDE: Human rights groups say the country is living a crisis not seen since the 1980s.
BERTA OLIVA, COMMITTEE OF THE FAMILIES OF THE DETAINED AND DISAPPARED (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): The low-intensity war of the 1980s deeply affected the most vulnerable communities. And obviously, the indigenous communities were the most vulnerable communities then, just as they are now. Where they have started their campaign of terror is in the indigenous communities, because they are defending their territories. And when there are people defending their land, by force and by conscience, the response is persecution, delegitimization and assassination.
FORDE: Human rights groups are demanding that the U.S. Congress investigate the D.E.A.â€™s role in the killingsâ€”a night that left Clara without her son.
WOOD (SUBTITLED TRANSL.): He loved to joke with me, to come to me. Now no one comes for me. He would hug me and kiss me, and now itâ€™s been months since he touched my body.
FORDE: Marlene now cares for Juanaâ€™s two orphaned children. The pain of her sisterâ€™s death is still deep.
JACKSON: She loved to walk along here, to stop and chat. Now when I leave, sheâ€™s not there in her house. She doesnâ€™t come here. I will never see her again. I go to the cemetery and she doesnâ€™t rise up to talk to me.
FORDE: From Ahuas, Honduras for the Real News Network, Iâ€™m Kaelyn Forde.
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