Terror on the Patuca River, Honduras

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On May 11 in rural Honduras, a late-night anti-narcotic mission involving American Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents and U.S.-owned equipment resulted in the death of four people—two of them pregnant women, a fourteen-year-old boy and a 21-year-old man.  One of the leading Honduran human rights organizations, COFADEH, released this detailed report, calling the event “unacceptable and reprehensible.”

As a joint regional intelligence team spotted potential drug-running planes leaving Venezuela heading toward Honduras, American and Honduran officials boarded helicopters and deployed from a recently built compound just 30 miles from the village in the Mosquito region where the incident unfolded. 

Four indigenous people canoeing and collecting shellfish in the Patuca River were taken by surprise when the helicopters arrived.   According to survivors and witnesses, confusion gave way to terror as the helicopters, with Americans on board, began to fire at the small group.  The Nation reports that when the smoke cleared, four were dead, two of whom were mothers-to-be.  Others were wounded.  The Honduran police and the DEA affirm that they intended to target a boat which had received cargo from the planes and was being directed by traffickers to the ocean. 

The New York Times also reports that DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden confirmed the DEA was working “hand in hand with our Honduran counterparts,” and the Associated Press (AP) writes that the DEA verified “that some of its agents were aboard a U.S.-owned helicopter with Honduran police who opened fire on a small boat on a Honduran river.”  However, Dearden maintains that no DEA official fired a shot—although their status as law enforcement officials gives them authority to do so. 

There are additional concerns in the aftermath of the shooting.  The AP reports: “One chopper landed in front of Hilaria Zavala’s home at about 3 a.m. and the six men who got out kicked down her door. She said a ‘gringo’ threw her husband on the ground and put a gun to his head demanding to know about a trafficker named ‘El Renco.’”  “They spoke in English among themselves and on the radios,” she said.  The AP also spoke with Celin Eriksson, whose brother died in the canoe.  “The commandos who came off the helicopter handcuffed him, Celin said, and put a gun to his head. Some spoke to him in English, which he also speaks. ‘If you don’t talk we’ll kill you,’ the boy said he was told.” 

The L.A. Times, remarking that in Honduras “legal and political institutions are weak, and human rights are too often only an abstraction,” concludes:

“The incident raises more questions than it answers. In their role as advisors, did the DEA agents participate in the decision to open fire before the targets were positively identified? Are those agents authorized to intercede to prevent the killing of civilians? Does the U.S.-financed anti-drug effort in Honduras run the risk of putting American forces on the side of an unpopular and possibly trigger-happy Central American military?  One thing is clear: The U.S. military role should be extremely limited and carefully monitored.”

And this is clear, too:  There must be an independent U.S. investigation as well as an investigation in the Honduran justice system of this incident, including of the DEA’s role, what the rules of engagement were, and what happened to result in the deaths of two pregnant women, a 21-year-old man, and a 14-year-old boy, on that terrible night on the Patuca River.