Hilda Lezama was taking passengers back upriver to the township of Ahuas after a fishing expedition in a remote area of the Mosquito Coast in Honduras. In the pre-dawn darkness, she could hear the helicopters buzzing overhead, but she thought nothing of it at first.
Suddenly, bullets shot from U.S. State Department helicopters with DEA agents and Honduran police aboard penetrated both her legs.
"I threw myself into the river so they wouldn't shoot me again," she said. She stayed there, grabbing onto a branch and keeping only her nose above the water, to avoid the hail of bullets.
Later, in a press conference, Lezama spoke on her daughter's cell phone from a hospital bed in La Ceiba. In a surprisingly calm voice for someone just shot, Lezama said she never imagined the helicopters would fire on her little boat, with its cargo of fishermen, women and children.
Lezama is one of the lucky ones in that boat the morning of May 11.
Juana Jackson and Candelaria Pratt -- both bearing unborn children -- were shot to death, along with 14-year-old Hasked Brooks and Emerson Martinez. Three other Mosquito villagers are in serious condition.
The State Department helicopters were carrying out a joint counter-narcotics operation with a unit of the Honduran police trained by the U.S. government and a "Foreign-Deployed Advisory Support Team (FAST)" of the Drug Enforcement Agency. Their side of the story is that the boat had received an illegal drug shipment from a small plane they had followed into the nearby jungle. Why there were no arrests from the alleged drug plane is one of the many open questions to the story, along with contradictory reports on confiscations and conflicting versions of how and why the villagers were killed.
The State Department so far refuses to even open an investigation into the shootings. The killing of seemingly innocent Mosquito Coast villagers, questions about improper involvement in lethal operations targeting women and children, the anger of Hondurans, and petitions from U.S. human rights organizations have all failed to budge the State Department from this position.
Officials have deferred all concerns to the results of a Honduran government investigation that, more than a month later, have not been presented. The U.S. government, international organizations, and Honduran President Porfirio Lobos himself have publicly recognized that the Honduran justice system has serious deficiencies -- to say the least. Especially in cases that require prosecuting crimes allegedly committed by government agents, its track record leaves little expectation of a fair outcome. The DEA reportedly is also investigating.
The few brief statements to date from U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiskie and the State Department have claimed that the dead were drug traffickers who fired on the helicopters -- without the benefit of any investigation whatsoever.
The administration's refusal to deal with the incident doesn't end there. In early June when a delegation on violence against women led by Nobel Laureate Jody Williams and Just Associates specifically requested that the State Department assure medical care to the wounded as a basic humanitarian act (the young boy is on the verge of losing his arm), the Department issued a communique notable for its callousness:
"All Honduran citizens are eligible to receive care through the Honduran public health system. You can direct specific questions about treatment for these individuals to the government of Honduras."
In a recent phone call, Lezama's daughter reported that her mother receives treatments to clean the wounds twice a day and will need at least one more operation. "We don't know where we'll get the money from," she said. Eyewitnesses reported to independent human rights investigators from the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) and the international group that tall, English-speaking agents they assumed to be U.S. prevented family members from rescuing the wounded for several hours. These investigations indicate that at least one of the dead could possibly have been saved with adequate response and attention when U.S. agents were already on the ground.
Drug War Run Amok
The Ahuas massacre is just the latest and most blatant example of another U.S. foreign policy gone terribly wrong. Some say that the drug war has backfired. Others argue that the drug war is succeeding, but in serving a different set of interests from those used to justify the billion-dollar expenditures. With more than 50,000 dead in Mexico and Central America sucked fast into the vortex of violence, almost nobody says that the drug war is working or that victory is just around the corner.
In an implicit recognition of mounting criticism of the strategy, State Department officials have attempted to portray a "kinder and gentler" drug war. They emphasize "soft" aid, while in practice the military component remains at the center of the security strategy in both the Mexican Merida initiative and the Central American Regional Security initiative (CARSI).
Both of these initiatives use the standard Nixon model of a war on drugs based on interdiction and enforcement. As noted in a February 21, 2012 Congressional Research Service report on CARSI, "the U.S. drug control budget remains largely focused on overseas supply-reduction programs and domestic law enforcement efforts."
In the United States, this strategy involves throwing millions of young people in jail--mostly poor, African American, or Latino. Abroad, it means militarizing the lands of mostly poor, African-descent, and indigenous peoples. There's a pattern here.
The Ahuas massacre lays bare the fiction of a "new" approach and demonstrates the human costs of the military strategy. With more and more U.S. agents and equipment on the front lines, the likelihood of similarly deadly incidents will only increase.
Preliminary reports show that the helicopters flew from the recently re-installed El Mocoron forward operating base. El Mocoron was a base for U.S. illegal operations to support Contra forces in Nicaragua. Since the shootings, more military forces have been sent into the region. The historic parallels have struck fear into Hondurans who suffered under the repressive regimes supported by the U.S. government in the 1980s.
The Honduran human rights group COFADEH has demanded a full investigation of the massacre and aid to the victims. The U.S. government should fully investigate the shooting as well as subsequent acts including allegations of torture, blocking access to immediate medical care, and threats to family members who have protested the treatment of the survivors. Since taxpayer-funded personnel and equipment were directly involved in the massacre, U.S. citizens must pressure Congress and the State Department to investigate and then assign responsibilities.
As citizens we have a right to know who was in charge of this fatal operation, why they made the decision to unleash lethal force against a passenger boat, and what will be done to prevent the death of civilians in the future. We're told that the violence is all caused by organized crime. In this case, the shots fired came from security forces. As COFADEH points out,
"In the midst of the so-called 'war on drugs', the principal victims are Mosquito indigenous people, among them, women and children; the principal entity responsible for these very serious acts is the State."
These deaths must be treated with as much, or more, concern as those that result from drug cartel operations.
If the U.S. and Honduran governments sweep this case under the rug, it will be a travesty of justice and an affront to the grieving families. If we do not stand with the human rights organizations in the United States and Honduras to demand that the crime be fully investigated and the guilty punished, the war on drugs will enter a new phase of ignominy.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government continues to channel hundreds of millions of dollars into confiscating prohibited substances rather than making people safer. Not only do these policies not make people safer, they often end up killing, maiming, exiling, and bereaving the poorest and most vulnerable. We can put a stop to the drug war before the toll rises. We owe that much to the victims. To people like Hilda Lezama.