A scathing new report by the Inspector Generals of the Department of Justice and State documents how the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) misled the public, Congress and the Justice Department about three deadly shootings in Honduras in 2012, one of which resulted in the killing of two pregnant women and a schoolboy on a taxi boat near the northeastern village of Ahuas.
The report’s release coincides disturbingly with the escalation of the War on Drugs by the Trump administration.
Two weeks ago, Attorney General Jeff Sessions sent a memo to federal prosecutors calling on them to stop seeking leniency for low level drug offenders. Previously, Mr. Trump issued an executive order on transnational crime vowing to increase funding for the drug war in Mexico and Central America.
The Inspector General report contradicted a previous DEA inquiry which claimed the victims of the Ahuas attack had been drug traffickers who fired on Honduran police agents after their canoe-like vessel had broken down at two A.M. following the seizure of considerable amounts of cocaine.
Based on eyewitness testimony and photographs, the new report found no evidence that there was any gunfire from the taxi-boat at any time nor that there was any narcotics ever on board. It also determined that DEA agents observed the massacre from a helicopter above and directed a Honduran door gunner to fire his machine gun on the boat.
The DEA and their local counterparts subsequently failed to conduct a search and rescue mission to assist the Honduran victims and instead focused solely on recovering law enforcement officers stranded on their own broken down vessel.
The Inspector General’s report pointed to further abusive action in a neighboring village, where Honduran police beat civilians at gunpoint after accusing them of drug trafficking and DEA agents threw an innocent man face down onto the ground and knocked down the door of his storage shed.
In Brug Laguna in June 2012, American-trained agents shot suspects who allegedly refused to comply with their oral demands and killed a pilot from a downed plane allegedly carrying drugs whom they claimed was attempting to reenter the plane to obtain a weapon.
The police report in the latter incident, however, made no mention of the use of deadly force by Honduran police and claimed the man had died in the plane crash. A second report claimed the pilot had aimed a hand gun at officers, though no gun was ever found on the scene; one was only planted later in evidence and reported as a weapon found at the scene.
Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont (D), who sponsored a bill promoting the cut off of foreign aid to security forces that engage in human rights abuses, called the Inspector Generals’ report “an indictment of the DEA,” that unmasked “egregious events and conduct and a subsequent cover up that demeaned the lives of the victims and the reputation of the United States.”
Unfortunately, Honduras is not the only country where American police and drug war assistance has been linked with human rights atrocities.
Megha Rajagopalan undertook an investigation for Buzz Feed News in November 2016 which found that the State Department provided training and equipment to police units on the front-lines of the bloody drug war campaign of Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte.
The State Department trained seven units in the Manila police, which gunned down hundreds of drug suspects in the last year.
The U.S. has been reluctant to cut funding as the Philippines is vital to the “pivot to Asia” policy designed to encircle China militarily, and Mr. Duterte has fashioned himself the “Donald Trump of the East.”
In January 2016, Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Edward Markey (D-MA) invoked the Leahy law in asking the State Department to act on a request for information related to U.S. law enforcement assistance to the Philippines. They noted that “the serious allegations of extrajudicial killings that have surfaced in the course of Duterte’s War on Drugs raises serious concerns about the legality and appropriation of the $32 million in funds” for police training and law enforcement assistance.
As state legislatures move in a more progressive direction, the Trump administration is hell bent on turning back the clock to the 1980s and waging a War on Drugs at home and around the world, while dismissing any and all human rights considerations.
Honduras and the Philippines point to the recklessness of this latter approach which decent citizens should rally to oppose. Study after study has shown that a punitive enforcement approach does not curtail drug supply when demand remains high. And the militarization of U.S. foreign aid only sows more violence and atrocities which the DEA can only cover up for so long.
Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches at the University of Tulsa and is author of Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (Massachusetts, 2012) and The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (Massachusetts, 2009).