By Nina Lakhani. This article was first published on The Guardian.
Bipartisan investigation finds drug agents misled Congress after river shooting left four dead, including two pregnant women and a schoolboy
An aerial view of the Mosquitia region near the remote community of Ahuas, Honduras, where the shooting took place. Photograph: Rodrigo Abd/AP Nina Lakhani
The US Drug Enforcement Administration lied about its role in a bungled anti-narcotics operation in Honduras that left four innocent villagers dead, then misled Congress, the justice department and the public as it tried to cover its tracks, a damning bipartisan investigation has found.
Honduran officers under the command of DEA agents fired at unarmed passengers traveling by taxi boat in May 2012, killing four people – including two pregnant women and a schoolboy – and seriously injuring three others.
The operation, which left several children orphaned, was part of a militarized DEA programme that led to a series of deadly confrontations and has now been abandoned.
The DEA had previously absolved itself of any wrongdoing, but the scathing report released by the justice department’s inspector general on Wednesday found major discrepancies in the agency’s description of the events.
The shooting took place at about 2am on 11 May on the river Patuca near the village of Ahuas in north-eastern Honduras, after a passenger boat with 16 people on board collided with a disabled vessel carrying American and Honduran agents and large quantities of cocaine that had been seized. The ground troops were escorted by four state department helicopters equipped with mounted door guns.
The DEA said two Honduran officers on the disabled boat had fired at the river taxi in self-defence after they came under gun attack.
In fact, the officers – who included a DEA agent – shot first, and even aimed at passengers who had jumped or fallen into the river.
Then at least one DEA agent in a circling helicopter ordered a Honduran door gunner to fire his machine gun at the passengers from above.
There is no evidence to suggest any shots were fired from the taxi boat, or that the passengers were involved in drug trafficking, the report found.
The self-defence motive claimed by the DEA was based, at least in part, on fabricated testimony from a confidential DEA informant who later admitted she had lied.
The role of American agents on foreign soil is one of the most divisive aspects of its long-running war on drugs.
The DEA consistently maintained that it was a Honduran-led operation in which its agents acted only as mentors and advisers.
But according to the new report, the agency planned and controlled the operation. Honduran agents did not have direct access to intelligence information or the necessary equipment to command such an operation. They received orders from the DEA; they did not give them, the review found.
The review also found that state department officials gave similar inaccurate and incomplete information to Congress and the public.
After the incident, the American-led mission showed little interest in helping the dead or injured.
It did not participate in search-and-rescue efforts. Instead, the aerial team rescued the cocaine and US agents from the stranded boat and returned to base.
It took community members two days to recover all four victims from the river.
They were Candelaria Trapp Nelson, a 48-year-old mother of six who was pregnant; Juana Jackson Ambrosia, 28, a mother of two who was pregnant; Hasked Brooks Wood, 14; and Emerson Martínez, 21, a former soldier and father of one.
The survivors have struggled to access adequate medical care and support.
Lucio Nelson, now 25, was returning home on the river taxi after visiting his mother and was shot in the right arm and lower back. He was a small-scale farmer cultivating rice and beans, but has barely worked since the incident. Despite four surgeries, he continues to suffer from severe weakness in his arm and chronic back pain.
“They called us narcos, but it’s a lie. It was a massacre of innocent people,” he said in a phone interview. “I need someone to help me, I cannot support by family.”
The owners of the boat, Hilda Lezama and her husband, Melaño Eulopio Nixon, were also injured.
Lezama, now 56, was injured in both thighs by a bullet, which ripped apart the muscle tissue. Her legs are still painful and swollen, and the scars never properly healed.
The shooting left four people dead and several children orphaned. Photograph: Rodrigo Abd/AP
Wilmer Morgan Lucas, 14, a school friend of Hasked Brooks, was shot in the right hand. His shattered limb was only saved after a local NGO intervened to pay for urgent medical care.
The fact-finding report does not make any recommendations regarding compensation or help for the victims.
The report praises and draws upon an investigation carried out by activists, which persuaded Congress to question the DEA’s account.
In comparison, the report describes the DEA internal investigation as “little more than a paper exercise” that gave no consideration “to the accounts of survivors from the passenger boat or local residents”.
Furthermore, the agency attempted to block any external oversight by refusing to cooperate with the embassy, the state and justice departments, and the Honduran government.
The findings are critical about almost every aspect of the DEA’s actions before, during and after the incident.
The report describes a separate fatal incident a few weeks after the two boats collided, in which senior DEA officials failed to act on information that a Honduran officer had planted a gun at the scene.
In a statement, the DEA said it had made significant and numerous changes in the past five years and had accepted all of the inspector general’s recommendations.
But victims of the bungled operation said that wasn’t enough.
Juana Jackson’s two sons are being raised by her older sister Marlene Jackson, who is struggling to maintain them.
“We wanted the truth, but we also want justice and compensation – or don’t they care what happens to these children?”