. . . . Congressional Record
Mr. LEAHY. Ten years ago today a joint counter-narcotics team of Honduran security agents and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officers opened fire on a water taxi as it approached Ahuas, a small town located in the remote Mosquitia region of northeastern Honduras.
The canoe-like taxi was carrying families traveling between the indigenous Miskito villages that populate the shores of the Patuca River when it was shot at repeatedly by the counter-narcotics officers, leaving two women, a teen-age boy and a 21 year-old man dead, and several other passengers injured. While the Honduran police announced that a “successful” drug interdiction mission had taken place, journalists and human rights advocates reported the victims were unarmed and had no known links to drug trafficking.
Instead of taking responsibility, assessing their mistakes, and examining their methods and partnerships with Honduran security forces, DEA and State Department officials obstructed U.S. and Honduran investigations of the incident and falsely reported to Members of Congress, including my staff, that the boat’s passengers had fired on security forces. They also insisted that the DEA bore no responsibility for the discharging of weapons and had only played a supportive and advisory role during the mission. After the horrifying events of May 11, 2012, the DEA continued joint operations using battlefield tactics in the area that resulted in two more fatal shootings. Following one of these incidents, the Honduran police team leader was reported to have been instructed by his superiors to plant a weapon into evidence.
It was only thanks to a joint Department of Justice and Department of State Inspector General Investigation report -- published five years ago -- that Congress was able to learn the truth about Ahuas and the two other fatal shootings. DEA agents had in fact played a central, leading role in the lethal operation. They had ordered a Honduran machine gunner to open fire on the water taxi and never verified whether DEA weapons had been discharged. The DEA’s repeated assertions that someone on the boat had fired a weapon were found to not be credible.
As senior DEA officials obstructed the work of the Inspector Generals, it was not until five years after the Ahuas shooting that the victims were finally cleared of any wrongdoing. But justice for the victims and their families remains elusive. Though the lives of those left behind have been shattered, some by debilitating injuries and others by the loss of parents and breadwinners, they have not received fair compensation and they have languished in dire poverty. The wrongful actions that resulted in their injuries or the death of their loved ones have not been punished in any way. Those who misled Congress, willfully concealing their agencies’ deadly errors, were not disciplined at all, and one senior official even received a promotion. The U.S. Embassy and the DEA coordinated this operation with the Honduras’ National Police Director Juan Carlos Bonilla. Today Bonilla is in custody after being extradited to the U.S., charged with ordering assassinations in support of drug traffickers protected by former President Juan Orlando Hernandez.
In honor of these and other victims of deadly errors committed by U.S. counter-narcotics agents abroad, it is imperative that we hold ourselves and our institutions accountable, and that we recognize our mistakes and correct them. If we claim to believe in justice and the rule of law, we cannnot allow Federal officials to misrepresent the facts and cover up their wrongdoing when reporting to Congress.
We must also provide support to victims of the so-called drug war, not stigmatize and slander them, and examine the impact that our approach to drug interdiction has on areas like the Moskitia. It was obvious soon after the massacre that those who had directed and carried it out had minimal knowledge of the people and communities of that isolated area. They rushed to judgment, assuming that anyone traveling that river, no matter how impoverished, must be in some way involved in trafficking drugs and therefore a legitimate target of lethal force. Those who pay the price for militarized policing, and for the corruption and violence drug trafficking organizations use to protect their activities, are the most vulnerable: indigenous communities like Ahuas and the human rights activists who defend the rights of those caught in the crossfire.
I wish I could say that the DEA and the State Department have learned the lessons of Ahuas. But that will not be possible until those who fired on those innocent people and lied about it are brought to justice, and until the victims are properly compensated and cared for. That is the shared responsibility of the U.S. and Honduran governments.