By Frederick B. Mills, Ph.D.
The Council on Hemispheric Affairs is closely following the news out of Honduras concerning a joint Honduran police-DEA operation which appears to have resulted in the deaths of innocent members of the Miskito Coast community. A follow-up report will be issued after checking with sources in Honduras and the U.S. Here is a briefing on some of the initial reporting on the Honduras-related operation.
Based on a May 14th report from Tiempo.hn, a joint anti-narcotics Honduran national police-US DEA operation targeting a small boat on the Patuca River, near Paplaya, resulted in four deaths and four persons wounded; the dead reportedly included two pregnant women and two children. According to the parliamentary representative of Gracias a Dios, Wood Grawell Maylo, and the Mayor of Ahuas, Lucio Baquedano, the victims were not drug traffickers, but “ciudadanos humildes y honestos”; in other words, innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.
According to the Tiempo.hn report, the incident occurred last Friday, when Honduran National Police and DEA agents opened fire on the boat from a helicopter. The dead include the youths (ages not confirmed) Emerson Martínez and Chalo Brock Wood; the two pregnant women, Candelaria Tratt Nelson and Juana Banegas; and the wounded, Hilda Lezama de Eulopio, Wilmer López, Lucio Adán, and Melanio Eulopio.
The agents apparently mistook the boat, which was lighted, for another boat in the area which was allegedly engaged in the trafficking of drugs, and did not have its lights on.
This incident has raised alarm among residents of nearby towns regarding U.S.-assisted policing and military operations conducted on their soil in accordance with the War on Drugs. The Mayor of Ahuas stated, “We ask that this case be investigated thoroughly because four persons died, among them the two pregnant women.” Meanwhile, Congressman Maylo introduced a motion in the national assembly calling for an investigation of the incident, afterwards expressing his indignation that “the director of the Police, José Ricardo Ramírez Del Cid, said the operation was a success because two narcotrafickers died when in this attack it was humble citizen who perished” (Tiempo).
On May 16th, Dan Kovalik of the Huffington Post, one of the first to file a report about this incident in the American press, included parts of the COFADEH (the Committee of the Families of the Disappeared of Honduras) response to the gunning-down of innocent civilians. COFADEH places this operation in the historical context of other human rights abuses that recently occurred under the U.S.-backed golpista regime in Honduras. This issue also invites attention to U.S. intervention in the region in the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration unleashed Colonel Oliver North to expand the right-wing government of Honduras into an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in furtherance of the U.S.-supported war against Daniel Ortega and the left-leaning Sandinistas.
Last week, an Associated Press report detailed the initial U.S. side of the story. According to Wednesday’s AP report, “U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials acknowledged that their agents were working with Honduran military forces aboard a helicopter during an anti-drug operation in which several people were reportedly slain.” DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden said, “We were there in a support role, working with our counterparts.” Also, anonymous U.S. government officials said Honduran police had returned fire and that the DEA agents did not fire on the boat. According to the U.S. embassy in Honduras, the DEA provided logistical support (AP).
The New York Times (May 16th, Charlie Savage and Thom Shanker) gives more details about the collaborative relationship between U.S. and Honduran authorities. It appears that the DEA agents involved in this operation were part of a DEA commando squad called FAST (Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team), which operates out of “forward operating bases” inside Honduras. This morning, May 17th, Freddy Cuevas of the Associated Press reported that an anonymous U.S. government official said that “the aircraft were piloted by Guatemalan military officers and outside contractor pilots.”
Cuevas also reported that some residents set fire to several government offices in the northern Gracias a Dios region in an angry response to the incident. A statement by local leaders of a number of ethnic groups said, “For centuries we have been a peaceful people who live in harmony with nature, but today we declared these Americans to be persona non grata in our territory.”
Given the region’s growing opposition to Washington’s anti-drug strategy, most recently expressed at last month’s Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, the United States’ historic role in providing security assistance to Latin American regimes responsible for significant human rights abuses, along with the tragic loss of human life, it is important to get to the bottom of this incident and re-examine the DEA-Honduran relationship. More generally, it is time to call for Congressional hearings to re-examine the efficacy and collateral damage of the war on drugs in the hemisphere.
Senior Research Fellow Frederick B. Mills, Ph.D.