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Annie Bird of Rights Action and Alexander Main of the Center for Economic and Policy Research have published a new report titled, “Collateral Damage of a Drug War: The May 11 Killings in Ahuas and the Impact of the U.S. War on Drugs in La Moskitia, Honduras.”
The 53-page paper provides new evidence through eyewitness testimonies and in-country interviews that the U.S. government’s rendering of a lethal U.S.-Honduran raid three months ago, which killed four Honduran civilians, was misleading. (For further background, see my “Echoing the State: The New York Times on Honduras.”)
Below are just three of the report’s important claims, each differing from official U.S. statements that often dominated the media coverage of the raid:
1. The authors state: “A passenger boat was shot at repeatedly with high caliber weapons resulting in the death of four individuals, at least one of whom medical records confirm was pregnant, and the injury of four others. The boat was transporting passengers with legitimate reasons for traveling.”
In contrast, The New York Times quoted U.S. officials who “told reporters that the boat passengers were probably participating in the intense trafficking of illegal drugs that is known to take place here.” In another article, the newspaper let an anonymous U.S. official impugn the victims by insinuating that they were involved in criminal activity. This unnamed source expressed doubts that villagers would be in that area in middle of the night, and added that "the large number of people seen in surveillance video unloading the plane showed that many members of the impoverished community of Ahuas were involved in drug trafficking.”
2. Bird and Main conclude, “Honduran and U.S. agents actions’ violated the rights of local residents.” The Associated Press, however, allowed U.S. government officials, “speaking on condition of anonymity because their statements had not been authorized,” to claim “Honduran law enforcement did not initiate the shooting, but rather returned fire after being attacked.” Bird and Main found no evidence that any of the passengers instigated hostilities with the security agents.
3. Bird and Main assert that the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) “appears to have played a central, leadership role in the operation that led to the shooting deaths. . . . In witness testimony describing the helicopter which landed to load cocaine, the door gunner(s) were described as being of European descent, heads uncovered, wearing tan camouflage uniforms with a U.S. flag on the shoulder. . . . Although U.S. officials in Washington have sought to downplay the DEA’s role in the interdiction operation, statements from U.S officials in Honduras as well as eyewitness accounts suggest that U.S. agents in fact played a leading role.”
Nevertheless, the AP quoted U.S. officials at the time, claiming that the DEA played only a “support role” and that the “DEA agents did not fire.”
Unsurprisingly, Bird and Main’s report has received literally zero coverage in the corporate media, which by and large have faithfully echoed the official U.S. line regarding the incident. At the very least, the thoroughly accepted view that U.S. forces played solely a support role in the May 11 drug raid should be revisited by news organizations in light of new eyewitness testimony.
The report also questions the distinction between the work done by Honduran and U.S. forces. In separate interviews with the DEA’s former head in Honduras, Jim Kenney, and U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske, the report’s authors confirmed that “Honduran police agents assigned to the joint counternarcotics operations respond in practice directly to DEA officials.”
Kenney has been previously quoted saying the Honduran special police agents who participated in the Ahuas killing were “his guys,” and that they “basically work for the DEA.” This begs the question: If true, why hasn’t the United States launched its own investigation into the actions any U.S. personnel and the Honduran forces who “report directly” to the DEA?
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland has relied on hollow appeals to Honduran sovereignty in order to deflect pressure for an independent U.S. investigation (let alone the withholding of aid to the Honduran agents responsible for May 11’s human rights violations). Responding to questions raised by Bird and Main’s report in an August 15 press briefing, Nuland offered the following response:
Well, as you know and as we say regularly in Honduras, U.S. efforts in support of Honduran counternarcotics efforts are at the invitation of the Honduran Government. They are worked out with and for and are supportive of Honduran agencies’ efforts. And they have been increasingly successful, so this is the standard against which this has been judged. We are not in there doing our own thing without any partnership. We are doing what we are doing at the request of and in support of Honduran efforts.
As this blog has noted before, the charade of abiding by the Honduran government’s “invitation” quickly collapses once one recognizes that the United States provided legitimacy for the fraudulent Honduran elections that brought the illegitimate leader Porfirio Lobo to power three years ago. Since then, Honduran security forces have received tens of millions of dollars in U.S. aid every year even as over 10,000 complaints of human rights violations have accumulated against them. And since May 11, the U.S. agents in Honduras have shot and killed foreign nationals on Honduran soil—actions which defy Nuland’s contention that “we are not in there doing our own thing.”
Professor Dana Frank of the University of California, Santa Cruz, wrote an August 24 op-ed in The Los Angeles Times that provides an important evaluation of current efforts to withhold military aid to the Lobo government:
In its report, the State Department did announce that it was withholding all U.S. funds to Juan Carlos (El Tigre) Bonilla, the national chief of police, or anyone under his direct supervision, until an investigation of his alleged death squad activity has concluded. Meanwhile, the millions of U.S. dollars are free to flow to other units.
The State Department held back funds to Bonilla, though, not because it wanted to, (U.S. ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske in fact publicly welcomed his appointment in May). Instead, it did so only because of serious pressure from Congress, which was itself responding to a broad network of grass-roots activists, academics and non-governmental organizations alarmed by the human rights situation.
The piece is worth reading in its entirety. For those looking to end the militarization of the drug conflict in Honduras, as well as the ongoing military aid to a government that systematically violates human rights, consider visiting the websites of SOA Watch, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Honduras Solidarity Network, Witness for Peace, and Friendship Americas to learn how to participate in such efforts.
[Correction made on 8/28 at 5:30 p.m. to reflect the fact it was the Associated Press that quoted anonymous government officials, not CBS News, which hosts AP's reports on its website - KB]
Keane Bhatt is an activist in Washington, D.C. He has worked in the United States and Latin America on a variety of campaigns related to community development and social justice. His analyses and opinions have appeared in a range of outlets, including NPR, The Nation, The St. Petersburg Times, CNN En Español, Truthout, and Upside Down World. He is the author of the NACLA blog “Manufacturing Contempt,” which critically analyzes the U.S. press and its portrayal of the hemisphere.