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.

Since the coup, drug traffic through Honduras has boomed. The State Department now claims that 79 percent of all cocaine flown out of South America has a stopover in Honduras—offering local officials an opportunity to line their pockets with cartel cash. As a result, the US government finds itself in the seemingly counterproductive position of supporting a government that is supporting, and being supported by, its sworn enemy, the drug traffickers. 

“If drug trafficking has increased so much since the military coup, why is it that the US government supported the military coup so blatantly and openly?” Karen Spring said. 

It is a question that raises many unsettling answers for defenders of the War on Drugs. 

The US State Department claims that the Lobo government in Honduras is taking steps to clean up its act. Last year, the US forced the OAS to readmit Honduras, saying, “Thanks to the steadfast efforts of President Lobo and his commitment to national reconciliation, and the tireless efforts of several OAS member states, democracy was restored,” apparently referring to the 2010 elections that were almost universally dismissed as fraudulent. The State Department pointed to Lobo’s appointment of a minister for justice and human rights as a sign of good faith, despite the fact that violence and abuses have not declined.

The US government finds itself in the counterproductive position of supporting a government that is supporting the drug traffickers. 

Perhaps a more candid perspective was given recently by the US ambassador to Honduras, Lisa Kubiske, who said, “We have an opportunity now, because the military is no longer at war in Iraq. Using the military funding that won’t be spent, we should be able to have resources to be able to work here.”  If the US is following the model for countering a narco-insurgency in Afghanistan, as has been widely reported, including in a New York Times article published just days before the May 11 massacre, then perhaps we should understand the US’s support for Lobo’s government in light of its equivalent support for the Karzai government in Afghanistan.

In the name of the War on Drugs, US forces have taken on a much more aggressive role in Honduras. Following counter-insurgency models developed first in Colombia and then applied in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, they have built “Forward Operating Bases” in remote parts of the country, such as the base from which the US helicopters took off on May 11. “There’s an idea of exporting the role the US took in Plan Colombia all over the world, first to Afghanistan, since they had both an insurgency and a drug problem, then to Iraq, and now back to Honduras,” Alexander Main told The Fix. “There’s an interesting ricochet effect going on. And there are those who would say it hasn’t worked. In Colombia, for example, the cartels were broken, but there were a lot of abuses and civilian killings.”

Honduras gained importance for the US as a military base and center of influence in the region when it served as a base for the US contra war against Nicaragua in the '80s. Many of the local politicians and forces who regained power during the coup, such as the chief of police, had first been in power during that previous era of US complicity.

But since the coup, the UN has listed Honduras as the most dangerous nation on the planet, with one death every 74 minutes. It is especially dangerous to be a reporter or a human-rights observer in Honduras. Reporters Without Borders reports that 17 journalists have been killed in the three years since the military seized control. Benoit Hervieu, who leads the Americas desk of Reporters Without Boarders, said, “Unfortunately, the War on Drugs has provided plenty of opportunities for political revenge.”

In March, 94 members of the US House of Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State Clinton asking her to “suspend US assistance to Honduran military and police given the credible allegations of widespread, serious violations of human rights attributed to the security forces.” The letter was met with silence from Clinton herself; in a daily press briefing at the State Department, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland called the proposal to cut off funding to Honduras a “blunt instrument.”  

Obama’s budget for 2013 more than doubles US military assistance to Honduras, and Vice President Joseph Biden, on a controversial visit to the country in March that coincided with the representatives’ letter, promised military and police funds of $107 million in the upcoming year. On top of that, Honduras received $50 million in Pentagon contracts last year; 62% of all Defense Department funds for Latin America went to the post-coup government in Honduras in 2011.

Not all the US money is used for the stated goal of executing its counter-insurgency drug-war plan. At least some funds are diverted for the purpose of silencing the opposition and repressing criticism of the government, according to Karen Spring. “Many people in Honduras see the US as using the War on Drugs to justify militarization in Honduras. The reason for this widespread suspicion is that there’s a growing social movement in the streets to say no to the coup and the people who have taken power, and the increased funding from the US to the military and the police is being used to repress this movement,” Spring told The Fix.

UN Special Rapporteur to Honduras Margaret Sekaggya gave an account of an atmosphere in Honduras were journalists are routinely killed, human rights observers are threatened by police, and the rights of indigenous peoples are trampled upon. She collected evidence that police at senior levels had impeded investigations and obfuscated justice.

On March 24, 2011, 6,000 teachers, mainly women, took to the streets to protest the suspension of their salaries. The protesters were met with tear gas and live ammunition—one was killed, and 20 women were arrested on “sedition” charges.

Drugs are not the only economic interest in Honduras. The post-coup government has been selling concessions to multinationals for the right to extract the nation’s natural resources. For example, Ahuas, where the massacre occurred, is in a region rich in oil.

Spring, who remains on the ground in Honduras, told The Fix, “Since the massacre, there’s an increased militarization of the area where Ahuas is….I was speaking with an indigenous leader yesterday who said that the US and Honduran military have ongoing joint operations in parts of his country, specifically where there are strong petroleum interests.”

Other concessions, like mining and hydroelectric dams, have also been sold to multinational or North American companies. The Honduran congress is privatizing the country’s electrical systems, water systems and ports. Meanwhile, labor rights are under assault, as the government builds autonomous economic zones in which transnational investors and corporations write their own laws and avoid taxes.

Many Hondurans, as well as such outside observers as Main and Spring, support the call by members of the House of Representatives to end military support to their country. Most of the names on the letter are Democrats. “A clear, strong demand coming from the Honduran people is the suspension of US police and military assistance,” Main told The Fix. “But in the US congress, those who back the Obama administration’s policy are the most right-wing members, such as those from South Florida.”

Some of the US drug-war funding is diverted by the coup government for the purpose of silencing the opposition and repressing criticism.

He added, “Honduras is a showcase for everything that’s wrong with the US militarization of Latin America in the name of the drug war. But most Americans don’t even know that this is taking place.”

The same could be said of the massacre in Ahuas, which gained fleeting attention here at home, but has so far failed to spark a national conversation about the US’s increasingly aggressive prosecution of the War on Drugs in Latin America. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—not to mention predator strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere—have shown, the American people appear to have a high tolerance for so-called collateral damage in terms of the killing of innocent civilians.

The citizenry in the nations under attack are understandably less willing to acquiesce in the escalating violence. And unlike in Honduras, more and more leaders from Central and South America, like Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina, are showing a newfound independence from US influence as they call for wholesale reform in US drug policies.

This political conflict is set to intensify in response to the growing militarization of the region by the US. Meanwhile, the American people will likely have plenty of opportunities to develop greater sensitivity to the massacres of their neighbors. Said Alexander Main, “We should expect more collateral damage of the kind we saw on May 11 in Honduras.”

Jed Bickman is a frequent contributor to The Fix. He also writes for The Nation, CounterPunch and other websites and magazines. 

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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.