A deadly May raid brought the impact of the drug war on local communities in Honduras into the global spotlight.
A boat riddled with bullet impact marks sits docked at a landing along the bank of the Patuca River. A few feet from the boat, a small building on stilts has become a de facto temporary military outpost. Armed forces patrol the small community of Paptalaya, in the municipality of Ahuas, the heart of the Honduran Moskitia.
The boat is evidence from an anti-narcotics operation on May 11 involving the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Honduran police and private military contractors. Four indigenous Miskitu residents were killed in the operation. Despite a regional outcry from local indigenous communities and organizations, the region rich in natural resources continues to be heavily militarized. The May 11 raid brought the impacts of the drug war on local communities in Honduras into the global spotlight.
The presence of Honduran and US security forces has dramatically increased over the past several years and even more so since the June 2009 coup, particularly in communities along the Patuca River where recent DEA-led operations have occurred. The militarization of the region is being attributed to fighting drug smuggling, but local residents do not trust the authorities that justify the strong security presence in the name of the “war on drugs.”
“More than anything else, they’re militarizing because of the natural resources that are in the Moskitia, especially the strategic spots where there is oil,” says Norvin Goff Salinas, president of MASTA, an indigenous Miskitu federation.
Regardless of its purpose, indigenous residents have denounced the increasing militarization and its negative impacts on local communities in the department of Gracias a Dios, in the Moskitia.
“The effects are negative,” says Goff Salinas. “It has affected us, like the intimidation of the communities and the effects of the presence of armed forces and the transportation they use, the panic specifically in children and elders.”
Back in the Honduran capital, the embassy’s DEA attaché, James Kenney, told a North American human rights delegation a different story. He spoke with delegation participants on May 27, at a meeting coordinated by the embassy of the United States in Tegucigalpa. US embassy political counselor Silvia Eiriz was also in attendance.
“These people out in Gracias a Dios or other departments, they aren’t doing what they used to do. They aren’t growing corn, and piña or pineapple and other products,” Kenney told the North American human rights delegation. “They are waiting for a narcotics plane or boat to come in.”
“So they are waiting more now for when is the next airplane to come in – ‘When am I going to get another shot at this?’ – and unfortunately it is really destroying these communities out there,” said Kenney, seated in the Marriott hotel coffee shop, where the meeting took place.
MASTA secretary Reymundo Eude points out the conditions of poverty in which the majority of people are living in the Moskitia. Many houses and boats are handmade with local natural resources. People would live differently if they all had money because of drug trafficking, he told the North American delegation.
“If you look at the Landín, ask people there if they asked [the armed forces] to come. Who asked them, the military personnel, to come here?” asked Eude.
“They come by force. They invent, saying there is drug trafficking [in the Miskitu communities],” he said, asking the group to take a look around at the poverty in local communities in the Moskitia. “You can see how people are living. If there were drug trafficking, we would not be in these conditions. Ok. So this is a ploy on the part of the government just to get the funding.”
Before their identities were verified, those killed in the May 11 raid were immediately branded as criminal drug traffickers by Honduran authorities and Honduran and US media outlets and the operation was deemed a success. But indigenous witnesses and survivors shared testimonies of indiscriminate violence, terror and the loss of community members who were in no way linked to drug trafficking. They highlighted the fact that two of the dead were pregnant women.
US authorities claim that at approximately 2:30am on May 11, people on a boat on the Patuca River fired upon anti-narcotic operation agents who were also on the river at the time. The agents, in the process of pursuing and seizing a boat loaded with cocaine, returned fire. Helicopters monitoring the situation from the air fired as well. But local residents claim that a passenger boat carrying 16 people — men, women and children — had almost ended its 6-7 hour journey from a community downriver when helicopters suddenly appeared above them and opened fire on the boat. The surviving occupants of the passenger boat say they had no interaction with anyone, drug traffickers or security forces, prior to hearing and seeing the helicopters that opened fire on them.
In response to questions at a press briefing, the US State Department said that Honduran police, the DEA, the Guatemalan military and private contractors were all involved in the May 11 operation and that the helicopters involved were titled to the State Department itself. But the US government was quick to declare that Honduran forces were the only ones to fire weapons and that the DEA was only present in an advisory role.
On Friday, June 22, during another anti-narcotics operation, a US DEA agent shot and killed a man and arrested at least four suspects in Brus Laguna, another community in the Honduran Moskitia approximately three hours down the Patuca River from Ahuas. According to the DEA, the suspect reached for a holstered weapon before the DEA agent shot and killed him. Although there have been deaths in other DEA activities in Honduras, such as May 11, according to the US government, the June 22 incident is the first time that a DEA agent has been the one to shoot and kill someone during an operation.
Still less than two months since the massacre in Ahuas, DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden confirmed that two US DEA agents were involved in another fatal shooting. Honduran officials initially reported that one of the two pilots of a suspected drug flight from Colombia died and the other was injured after the twin-engine plane crashed on July 3 in Olancho, in eastern Honduras, after its pursuit by government aircraft. However, in a July 8 interview with the AP, Dearden said that when an operation involving Honduran police and DEA advisers arrived at the scene of the crash, one of the pilots refused to surrender and made an unspecified “threatening gesture.” Two DEA agents shot and killed the man.
More than a month before the second operation made headlines in the US, indigenous people in the Moskitia had already demanded the departure of US security and military personnel, in response to the May 11 killing. Representatives from the Territorial Councils of MASTA held an emergency assembly in Brus Laguna on May 14.
“We resolve to declare members of the Honduran and US armed forces persona non grata in the territory of the Moskitia due to their invasion and effect on security, creating situations of intimidation and fear in the humble residents who survive through their own efforts, and without fulfilling their commitment to defend our sovereignty,” reads the declaration written at the emergency assembly. It was addressed to Honduran authorities, as well as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples James Anaya.
“We consider the Honduran and United States armed forces to be the only ones responsible for this incident,” continues the Declaration. “As the Territorial Council, we demand a rapid departure of armed North Americans from our communities.”
As concerns arose in the US regarding DEA operations in Honduras following the May 11 incident, a surveillance video allegedly filmed by a US Customs and Border Protection Service aircraft that night began circulating among government agencies and was shown to congressional staff. The families and legal representatives of the victims have not seen the video, nor have they been notified by US or Honduran authorities that a video of the incident exists.
The New York Times viewed the footage and reported that the video raises more questions about the operation and the different versions of the incident that have emerged from US and Honduran authorities, local residents, including those wounded, and bystanders. The video allegedly shows one boat ramming another, after the anti-narcotics team had fired on drug smugglers and intercepted their boat loaded with cocaine.
“In the seconds before contact, there were some flashes in the video, which American officials said were indications that the occupants of the larger boat had fired. After the ramming, a brief but ferocious flurry of shots from the boat carrying the agents was clearly visible,” Thom Shanker and Charlie Savage wrote in a June 22 New York Times article. “As the larger boat slid alongside and then moved away, there also appeared to be a spray of bullets across its middle, said by officials to be a volley of machine-gun fire from the Honduran door gunner aboard one of the helicopters.”
“Still, the video does not resolve the identities or motive of those aboard the boat that collided with the vessel carrying the agents, and who may have fired upon them,” wrote Shanker and Savage.
The controversy about US involvement in anti-narcotics operations in Honduras, resurfacing in the press in the wake of the video footage, also highlights the lack of clarity about the nationality and role of the various armed uniformed agents. While the State Department was quick to assert that only Hondurans fired weapons, the Honduran police agents involved are all part of a special tactical team and each individual agent has been vetted by the DEA. Some agents involved in the May 11 operation are part of a Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team (FAST), but unanswered questions remain about the role of private military contractors and other foreign agents, the organizational structure of cooperation between forces and the chain of command.
At the May 27 meeting in Tegucigalpa, Kenney told North American delegation participants about the actions of “his guys” — the vetted Honduran special police agents — that night.
“They don’t have a chain of command like most units. They don’t have a lieutenant, captain, major. They report directly to me – the DEA,” said Kenney. He added that the Honduran agents technically report to the Honduran General Director of Police, but that information does not really get passed on to the supervising Honduran authorities. “They basically work for the DEA.”
When delegation participants asked him about the details of US agents involved in the May 11 operation and whether some agents involved in the Moskitia had been previously deployed in Afghanistan, Kenney was less candid. There are three DEA agents in Honduras, and two more are expected soon, he said. But there are currently also “temporary duty” agents in Honduras, he said.
“The only thing that you need to know is that they are DEA agents. Some are part of the FAST. And FAST just happens to be guys that are trained on a unit that can deploy to different areas,” said Kenney.
“So yes, they were in Afghanistan, but this doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s not an issue where they were. They aren’t military.”
But the US military also has a longstanding presence in the country. In central Honduras, near the city of Comayagua, the US Southern Command’s Joint Task Force Bravo is based out of the Soto Cano joint US-Honduran military base, more commonly referred to as Palmerola. In the 1980s, the country was a strategic staging point for US counterinsurgency activities in the region, particularly in neighboring El Salvador and Nicaragua.
The Moskitia and other areas in eastern Honduras were strategic launching points for US-sponsored efforts to prevent broad support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and for the subsequent destabilization efforts and armed counterinsurgency incursions – the Contra war – after the victory of the Sandinista revolution in 1979. Today, northeastern Honduras is once again a US staging ground, with three US military forward-operating locations used ostensibly for the US-sponsored drug war in the region.
Sometimes called “the Amazon of Central America,” the Moskitia is a geographically isolated area covered largely by tropical rainforest and connected by networks of rivers and lagoons. It spans northeastern Honduras and northeastern Nicaragua. Home to indigenous Miskitu, Tawakha, Pech and Garifuna communities as well as non-indigenous residents, most of the Honduran Moskitia can only be accessed by air and boat.
The Patuca River that connects the communities where both recent DEA-related killings occurred is one of the main “highways” in the Moskitia. For decades, indigenous and non-indigenous communities both upriver and downstream and environmental organizations have struggled against plans to build large hydroelectric dams on the river. A series of transnational corporations have obtained concessions over the years for the Patuca I, II and III dams, but construction only began to move forward in recent years.
The only road-based highway in the region connects the community of Mocorón – home to historical and current US military presence in the region – to Puerto Lempira, the largest city in the Moskitia. Mocorón is reportedly the host of one of three US forward-operating locations in Honduras that directly support US operations in the country and beyond, together with Puerto Castillo on the Caribbean coast and former Contra War base El Aguacate in Olancho. These and other US military sites in the area are equipped to support actions like the FAST-assisted DEA anti-narcotics operation in Ahuas.
From the beginning, the survivors of the May 11 raid and local community residents who were bystanders when the boats and helicopters arrived have told a different story than US authorities including the DEA, the State Department and the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa. Their testimonies have remained largely unheard.
Timoteo Cruz Ulloa* and his sister were called to the boat landing on the bank of the Patuca River in the wee hours of the morning, receiving word that their mother had been wounded and was in the river. When they arrived at a neighbor’s house at the landing, a helicopter was flying overhead. After it landed, Cruz Ulloa addressed the uniform personnel that disembarked.
“We asked them if we could speak with them and they said yes. Some of them could speak a little Spanish, not much,” he said. “They told me to sit on the stairs of the house. They were pointing a gun at us. From there, shortly afterwards one of them called me over to them. When I went, one of them put a gun to my chest and asked me if there was gasoline for a boat.”
According to Cruz Ulloa, the armed uniformed men violently broke into a storage shed, held the owner at gun point, and took two 18-gallon barrels of gasoline to fuel a boat that was tied up along the river. Several community residents described the men as tall and white, with very limited Spanish proficiency. Amongst themselves, they spoke English. The men turned to Cruz Ulloa and told him, at gunpoint, to take them in the boat, navigating down the river a few hundred yards around a bend.
“They took me by force in the boat, myself and three other North Americans. They took me to where the drugs were. They forced me to drive the boat to bring the drugs. When we arrived, there were two North Americans in the boat where the drugs were,” said Cruz Ulloa. “Afterwards, they put the drugs on the boat and brought the drugs to the landing.”
Cruz Ulloa and many others were not able to assist their loved ones for over three hours while they were held at gunpoint by the security forces participating in the operation.
On May 11, Lucio Adan Nelson Queen, 22, was a passenger in a pipante, the traditional dugout canoe-style boat of the Miskitu and a principal means of transportation in the region. He was injured that night, with a gunshot wound to the back. The bullet exited his body below his right arm. He spoke with the North American human rights delegation while recovering in a hospital bed in La Ceiba, a hub city on the Caribbean coast.
“I was traveling to my girlfriend’s house when this occurred. It was nighttime. They shot me from above, from a helicopter. I was sleeping in the pipante,” Nelson Queen said. “When I woke up, they were shooting. The helicopter was low overhead. I threw myself into the water.”
Hilda Lezama was also a passenger in the pipante carrying local Moskitia residents from points further down the Patuca River to Ahuas. She received gunshot wounds to both of her legs, with the gunfire leaving a deep groove across her thighs. She spoke to the delegation from her hospital bed in Ahuas, where she lives.
“We were traveling with more than thirteen people plus cargo plus a table, chairs, loads of things. The pipante was full,” said Lezama. “Then when we were coming close to the landing we saw helicopters that were hovering, hovering, hovering, hovering. I thought – well, I didn’t know what they were looking for at the time.”
“I heard shots. I do not know how but I threw myself into the water when the bullet hit me. I wanted to hide under the cargo but I couldn’t when they shot me. I had to get into the water, close to the banks of the river. I could not swim. I don’t know how I did, but I did in that moment. I got to a patch of grass at the side of the river and grabbed onto it, a tree branch. Everyone was in the river, including the injured,” she said.
When people helped her out of the water, Lezama was only partially conscious. After emergency treatment in the hospital in Ahuas, she was sent to the hospital in La Ceiba. She was recovering in Ahuas when the delegation visited the region.
Fourteen-year-old Hasked Brooks Wood; 21-year-old father of two Emerson Martinez Henriquez; 28-year-old pregnant mother of two Juana Jackson Ambrocio; and 48-year-old pregnant mother of six Candelaria Pratt died as a result of their gunshot wounds. All four were indigenous Miskitu residents of communities in the region.
The local residents who were wounded on May 11 had just begun to recover and families of the victims were mourning the loved ones they lost when militarization continued to increase in the Moskitia. Weeks before the second DEA killing in Brus Laguna on June 22, residents reported the arrival of English-speaking uniformed personnel armed with high-caliber weapons, including snipers stationed at a strategic point in the community of Brus Lagua. Community members have said that the snipers in a tower point their weapons down at residents as they walk by on the dirt roads.
Out in the remote Moskitia, the night navigation lights from the new US military base installed in the Caratasca Lagoon reflect off the water and can be seen from the shore of Puerto Lempira, roughly 20 minutes away by boat. But regarding questions of foreign involvement in anti-narcotic operations in Honduras and the motives behind the increasing militarization of the Moskitia, the truth remains in the dark.
*This individual’s name has been changed for safety reasons because it has not appeared in press or other written reports. Authorities registered everyone present at the landing after the May 11 incident, noting their names.