Honduran Officials’ Report on DEA-Related Shooting Departs from Evidence

CEPR/Dan Beeton: CEPR’s lengthy report, “Collateral Damage of a Drug War,” continues to receive attention from the media and policy makers. The report is based on an on-the-ground investigation of exactly what happened on May 11, when four people were shot and killed and four others wounded in a joint U.S. DEA-Honduran counternarcotics operation in the Moskitia region of Honduras, and was co-authored by CEPR’s Alex Main with Annie Bird and Karen Spring of Rights Action, a human rights advocacy organization with decades of experience working in Central America.

The CEPR/Rights Action report is based on extensive interviews with survivors and eyewitnesses of the shooting and related events, as well as with U.S. and Honduran government officials, including U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske, and the then-DEA attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, Jim Kenney, as well as Honduran officials who took part in the autopsies and evidence gathering for the Honduran authorities’ investigation into the incident. The U.S. government, despite the admitted role of the DEA in the events, and the admitted use of State Department-titled helicopters in those events, has not undertaken its own investigation, nor has it taken any responsibility for the victims or their ongoing struggle to recover from the physical, mental and emotional wounds left over from May 11.
On Friday evening –a time when breaking news typically receives very little attention – the Honduran government released its own report on the events to the Associated Press. AP summarized the report’s findings: “that two victims of a shooting during a joint U.S.-Honduran anti-drug operation were not pregnant and none of the gunfire that killed anyone came from a law-enforcement helicopter…” and that “forensic tests show the bullets that hit the four people killed were fired horizontally, not from above. In addition, the slugs were from lower-caliber bullets used by M-16 rifles and not the heavier weapon mounted on the helicopter…”
The Honduran authorities’ findings, as reported by AP, depart from the evidence and the common points of the various eyewitness statements. In a lengthier follow-up article, I told AP’s Alberto Arce that the claims made by German Enamorado, chief of Honduras’ Office of Human Rights are “simply…not credible, when confronted with forensic evidence and so much eyewitness testimony to the contrary.”
Here’s why:
1) Regarding whether the shooting victims fired on U.S. or Honduran counternarcotics agents – and whether the victims’ boat collided with a counterdrugs boat – the government’s report directly contradicts the many statements and interviews by the shooting survivors and eyewitnesses. From our report (co-authored with Rights Action): "Although U.S. and Honduran government sources allege that their agents returned fire, in self-defense, the boat passengers who survived the shooting affirm that none of their fellow passengers opened fire or, in fact, were carrying firearms.  Furthermore, the surviving boat passengers state – in consistent and detailed testimony  –  that no collision took place between their boat and a second boat that contained cocaine and counternarcotics agents, as has been alleged by U.S. and senior Honduran government sources."
2) Regarding whether any of the shooting victims were pregnant, the government’s report directly contradicts the evidence. It is notable that the autopsies were carried out over 40 days later, on June 21 and 22. The autopsies of the two women said to be pregnant, Candelaria Trapp and Juana Jackson, were conducted in the open air in the cemetery. Independent journalist Kaelyn Forde includes footage of Jackson’s autopsy, as filmed by Jackson’s sister Marlene, in her video report for The Real News Network (at minute 09:02). As we noted in our report, Jackson’s womb was reported to have fallen out of her body during the autopsy, and was not examined. Kaelyn’s video includes an interview with Marlene Jackson’s in which Marlene reports the same: that one of the men involved in the autopsy told her that the fetus was not examined. The autopsies were conducted in such a poor and unprofessional manner that local residents reported finding bones and body parts on the ground near the examination site the following day.
3) Regarding the ballistics, the government’s report contradicts the evidence of high-caliber weapons having been used. Our report states: "Death records as well as an interview of a Honduran official present at the exhumation and autopsy of the victims confirm that all of the deceased victims had sustained high-caliber bullet wounds."
As noted in our report, according to Judge Camilo Peralta Fernandez from the Court of Letters in Puerto Lempira – the judge who ordered the exhumation and was present – Candelaria Trapp’s body displayed evidence of two gunshot wounds, appearing to have been provoked by two different types of weapons, an R-15 or similar weapon, and a high caliber weapon such as an M-60.  Juana Jackson’s body displayed two wounds, one entry wound and one gunshot with both an entry and exit wound.  Peralta says that the forensic specialists found a high caliber bullet lodged in Emerson Martinez’s trachea. It also seems likely that Hilda Lezama, who was shot through both her thighs, was shot with a high caliber weapon, considering the size of her wounds.
It is also important that much evidence of damage to soft tissue – such as in the case of entry and exit wounds, where the bullet may have passed through the body – would have been lost due to deterioration of soft tissue in the 43 days between death and exhumation for autopsy.
The Honduran officials admit that they were unable to perform a comprehensive investigation of the weapons used in the operation. AP cites Enamorado as admitting that “state investigators had spoken with all the Honduran officers involved in the operation and performed forensic analysis of 26 of the 29 firearms present at the time of the shooting. He said the DEA had not allowed Honduran investigators access to the DEA agents who were present or their guns.” We noted in our report that “To date none of the DEA agents that participated in the May 11 operation have been questioned, nor have ballistics tests been performed on their weapons.”
Not only does the U.S. government refuse to conduct its own investigation, but it has obstructed the one conducted by the Honduran government.
4) Regarding whether people were fired on from helicopters, the government’s report contradicts all the evidence showing that yes, the pipante (boat) and its occupants were fired on from above. As noted in our report, when the authors visited the village of Paptalaya, "The boat remain[ed] moored at the boat landing of Paptalaya a short distance from where the shooting occurred, with visible paint marks in the areas where bullet holes have been patched up." According to Peralta, some of the victims’ wounds were clearly provoked from above, for example, in Emerson Martinez’s body, the forensic specialists found a high caliber bullet lodged in his trachea. This is consistent with various eyewitness testimonies stating that they were fired on from a helicopter. Hilda Lezama, for example, says she had thrown herself onto the floor of the boat and lay on her side, when the bullet penetrated the width of both thighs from above.
Finally, it is important to note the corruption and lack of professionalism within the Honduran judiciary. As we state in our report:
[T]he Honduran judiciary is notoriously corrupt and unreliable. International human rights organizations as well as the U.S. State Department, in its latest human rights country report for Honduras, have described the high level of impunity and corruption in the Honduran judicial system.
The Public Prosecutor for Human Rights, which has reportedly taken the lead on the investigation, has been exceedingly slow in ordering investigative measures, such as ballistics tests, and the exhumation and autopsy of the deceased victims was ordered by a separate division of the Public Prosecutor’s office.
It is notable that Honduras’ National Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodio himself has felt it necessary to call on the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee to carry out a thorough investigation of the Ahuas incident.