Is the US Covering Up a Drug-War Massacre?

By Jed Bickman 06/14/12

The DEA allegedly shot up a boat of innocent civilians in a Honduras raid. While the Obama administration remains silent, reports on the ground tell a chilling tale of a US-funded military regime on drug-trafficker payrolls.

Clara Rivas, whose son, 14, was killed in the raid.
Photo via

In the early morning of May 11, on the waters of the Patuca River on the remote Miskitu coast of Honduras, Hilda Lezama and her husband were returning from their nightly trip upriver. Since there are no roads in the underdeveloped region, small boats like Lezama’s provide all the transportation for the indigenous communities along the river, frequently plying the waters at night, out of the tropical sun. That night, they had 11 passengers—mostly lobster fishermen returning from their labors, but also a boy and his mother returning from getting new clothes and two pregnant women returning home to Ahuas.

As they pulled into the dock at Ahuas—a small town, but the cosmopolitan center of the region—four American helicopters thundered overhead. Without further warning, they opened fire, peppering the small boat with high-caliber machine-gun ammunition. Four people were killed: the two pregnant women, the 14-year-old boy and a 21-year old man. Hilda Lezama and three others were wounded, including another young boy.

As is typical in reports of civilian killings by government forces, especially in this part of the world, reports differ about what happened that night, and why. 

Certain aspects of the story are indisputable: The helicopters were owned by the United States Department of State and were manned by agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as well as Honduran and Guatemalan soldiers. They were fighting a war about which the people on Lezama’s boat knew next to nothing: the War on Drugs. American and Honduran officials claim to have seized 1,000 pounds of cocaine from another boat in Ahuas during the same operation, but only after opening fire on the innocent boat. According to Rights Action, an NGO that sent observers to Ahuas after the killings, American helicopters opened fire on—and stopped—both Lezama’s boat and a drug-smuggling boat and then landed in Ahuas, while what appeared to be US military personnel used their firearms to control the local population. They handcuffed residents who were attempting to help those wounded in the gunfire, preventing their victims from getting medical help. One of those wounded clung to reeds in the river for three hours before getting assistance after the Americans left.

“We confirmed that the victims had nothing to do with drug trafficking," Rights Action's Karen Spring told The Fix.

 In the immediate aftermath of the killings, when the story was headline news, US government sources kept changing their version. The DEA initially claimed that none of its personnel were in the village that night, but the agency later admitted—after the mayor of Ahuas, Lucio Banquenado, told the local paper his version of the story—that there were in fact DEA agents aboard the helicopters and on the ground in Ahuas, acting in “a supportive role only.” Following the mayor's announcement that the DEA was not only in charge of the operation but had essentially seized control of Ahuas to execute it, there were riots in the streets, and government buildings were burned down.

During a trip to Washington, DC, the Honduran foreign minister, Arturo Corrales, said that it was “hard to believe” that people who were not involved in the drug trade would be on the docks late at night, and anonymous “American officials” told The New York Times that they “probably” were involved in the drug trade.

The Honduran military conducted an investigation into the incident, which concluded that four people had been killed “in error.” Yet serious questions have been raised about the thoroughness and impartiality of that investigation, which did not include interviews with the Honduran or American officials who conducted the raid.

The US State Department, rather than conducting its own independent investigation, said that it is “cooperating” with the Honduran investigation and is referring all inquiries to Honduras. The DEA claims to have opened its own ongoing investigation into the incident. Unnamed DEA officials have told the press that the helicopters were returning fire after first being fired upon. This account contradicts the Honduran investigation, led by local police chief Ariel Bonilla, who said that law enforcement fired first. Observers with Rights Action told The Fix, however, that none of the victims or eyewitnesses in Ahuas have had any contact with government officials from either Honduras or America.

Neither the DEA nor the State Department responded to requests for comment for this article.

Karen Spring, a human rights observer in Honduras who works for Rights Action, led a delegation of North Americans to Ahuas to do its own independent investigation into the events in Ahuas on the night of May 11. Her team conducted interviews with victims, eyewitnesses and the families of those who were killed. “We confirmed that these people had nothing to do with drug trafficking—they were coming home late at night or really early in the morning to avoid the hot sun,” she told The Fix. “I am not sure how they [Corrales and the DEA] were able to conclude that these people were drug traffickers given that there hasn’t been any evidence collected. What became obvious to us was the complete lack of investigation by US authorities.”

Spring’s team was unable to verify US and Honduran government claims that it was Honduran law enforcement who fired on the boat. But she did confirm that Americans were using guns on the ground in Ahuas to threaten and hold people against their will while the operation took place. “For us, the citizenship of the person who pulled the trigger doesn’t matter,” Spring said. “It was a DEA mission, and the US government cannot escape responsibility for it.”

A former Honduran congressman declared—shortly before he was killed—that one out of every 10 members of congress was a drug trafficker.

For critics, the events of May 11 serve as a microcosm of the bloody folly of the War on Drugs in Honduras. If the DEA agents were acting in a “supportive” role on that mission, it would be in keeping with the US’s general support of a Honduran government widely seen as corrupt and illegitimate. In 2009, an army coup that ousted the democratically elected, left-leaning president, José Manuel Zelaya. On the day of the coup, the US refused to condemn it, merely calling for all sides to “respect democracy.” After an election that was so compromised that the United Nations’ (UN) international observers refused to participate lest their presence be seen as lending credence to a patently rigged outcome, the US was quick to back the new government led by President Porfirio Lobo.

US officials later admitted that they had been talking to the Honduran military right up until the day of the coup. In contrast, the Organization of American States (minus the US) called for the “immediate and unconditional” return of President Zelaya. When Zelaya did return to Honduras to oppose the coup, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounced his actions as “reckless.” The Obama administration has never condemned the heinous human rights record of the coup government, which have been well documented by the UN, Amnesty International, the OAS and others.

Corruption reportedly reaches to the highest levels of that government, as does involvement in drug trafficking, the nation’s leading industry. Prominent critics, even within the government, such as Defense Minister Marlon Pascua, talk of “narco-judges” who block the prosecution of cartels and “narco-congressmen” who take kickbacks from the cartels. Alfredo Landaverde, a former congressman and a police commissioner in charge of drug investigations, declared that one out of every 10 members of congress was a drug trafficker, and, before he was assassinated on December 7, claimed that he had evidence proving that “major national and political figures” were involved in the drug trade, principally cocaine.

The local police force is equally corrupt. Alexander Main, a senior researcher at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told The Fix, “There’s a common perception in Honduras that if you’re in trouble, the last place you want to go is the police. They’re the most dangerous people in the country.” The new chief of police, Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, is nicknamed “El Tigre” and has been fingered for his involvement in at least three extrajudicial killings and disappearances between 1998 and 2002. He has been a suspect in 11 other cases.

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Jed Bickman is a journalist and copywriter living in the greater New York City area. He is the associate editor at The New Press. You can find him on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.