Our Men in Honduras: Losing Control of the War on Drugs
On May 11, 2012, in a joint U.S.-Honduras drug enforcement operation gone terribly awry, four Honduran civilians, including two women, a 14-year-old boy and a young man were killed as they traveled in a fishing boat along Honduras’s Patuca River. Three other passengers were seriously injured. U.S. government officials have minimized the Drug Enforcement Administration’s role in the attack, characterizing its involvement as merely supportive.
U.S. and Honduran officials have cast the victims as participants in drug-trafficking operations, and maintain that agents acted in self-defense. Human rights groups who conducted multiple witness interviews and reviewed forensic evidence, however, paint a starkly different picture of the events that day.
In the aftermath of the shootings, witnesses reported that English-speaking men dressed in U.S. military uniforms threatened local community members, contradicting the official U.S. position that its agents were only peripherally involved. Then a report by the Honduran National Commission for Human Rights (CONADEH) revealed that Honduran police agents who participated in the operation said they were following instructions from the DEA and reported only to its agents. Now, after much scrutiny from Congress and human rights groups, U.S. officials have acknowledged—after many initial statements to the contrary—that DEA agents led the May 11 operation because they “did not feel confident in the Hondurans’ abilities to take the lead,” according to The New York Times. Despite the DEA agents’ central role, the U.S. government has downplayed looking into the incident—the DEA is supposedly conducting an internal probe, away from public scrutiny—and has instead promoted an investigation by Honduran authorities.
Yet, as the U.S. State Department itself has recognized, the Honduran judiciary has an appalling track record when it comes to investigating and prosecuting violent crimes, particularly when members of the country’s own security forces are involved. Furthermore, the U.S. government signaled a clear lack of trust through its recent decision to suspend radar support for Honduran drug-interdiction efforts after two planes were shot down in violation of prior agreements. Given the evidence of American responsibility for the May 11 incident, U.S. authorities should undertake a separate, independent inquiry.