Tragic deaths in Ahuas operation have never been properly investigated.
Fourteen-year-old Hasked Brooks Wood had a bright future ahead of him. Though born and raised in poverty, he was a good, dedicated student who, according to his school report, rarely missed a day of class. In early May 2012, Hasked and his mother, Clara, gathered their belongings and boarded a small riverboat bound for the remote town of Ahuas in northeastern Honduras. After years living on the Honduran coast, they were moving back to his mother’s hometown.
But as their boat neared the port of Ahuas in the predawn hours, tragedy struck. Helicopters swooped in from the sky, and bullets rained down on the boat and its occupants. Hasked was shot dead in front of Clara’s eyes. Three other passengers also lost their lives that morning: a single mother whom a local doctor found to be 26 weeks pregnant, a mother of six children and a 21-year-old man who left behind a wife and a 1-year-old child.
Later that day, the Honduran police announced that in the course of a “successful” drug interdiction operation, four drug traffickers had been killed. But soon afterward, journalists and human rights activists revealed that the people on the passenger boat had no known links to drug trafficking and had legitimate reasons for traveling that night. They also reported that U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents played a central role in the deadly operation and that for several hours Honduran and U.S. agents prevented the relatives of dead and injured victims from providing assistance to their loved ones.
When pressed by journalists, U.S. officials said a preliminary Honduran investigation showed that security forces “were justified in firing in self-defense,” though no evidence supporting this assertion was ever made public.
This deadly incident — described as a “massacre” by the peaceful Afro-indigenous population of Ahuas — has deeply troubled me and colleagues in Congress. Could U.S. agents engaged in the “war on drugs” abroad operate without any sort of accountability? When reports emerged that the Honduran investigation of the killings was stalled and badly flawed, I and 57 of my House colleagues sent a letter to the secretaries of state and justice requesting a U.S. investigation of the killings.
Sadly, the response we received from the DEA failed to address key questions about the U.S. agents’ role in the incident and showed no indication that measures would be taken to avoid future accidents of this kind. Though the official reply to the letter made no reference to our request for an investigation, an anonymous DEA official told the press that there would be “no separate investigation.”
Most appalling, though, was the news months later that the DEA had ignored Honduran investigators’ requests to interview the U.S. agents involved in the operation and perform forensic tests on their weapons. Given that Honduran police told the investigating team from the Public Ministry that the DEA had led the mission and ordered a helicopter gunman to fire on the passenger boat, this lack of cooperation could only heighten suspicions of DEA responsibility for the deaths.
May 11 marks the second anniversary of these tragic killings. The wounded victims of the incident and the relatives of those who died — including nine orphaned children — have received no compensation from the Honduran or U.S. governments, let alone justice. Many human rights advocates argue that the militarized “war on drugs” in Mexico and Central America has contributed to the surge in violence throughout the region. The least the U.S. can do is to take every measure to ensure that its agents and foreign partners receiving its support don’t contribute to the casualty list.
Only days ago I learned that our persistent call for a U.S. investigation of these tragic killings may have finally been heard. The inspector generals of the Departments of State and Justice have announced that they are conducting a joint review of the U.S. government’s response to the Ahuas incident and two other deadly incidents involving the DEA. Among other things, the inspectors will be examining “the cooperation by State and DEA personnel with the post-shooting reviews” that have been undertaken. It has been late in coming, but this is an important first step.
Yet further steps are necessary. To begin with, it’s time for the DEA to come clean about the Ahuas operation and release all relevant documents, including any transcripts and videos that can shed light on how the killings occurred. Going forward, we need to maintain transparency and accountability around U.S.-backed counternarcotic operations, whether or not U.S. agents are directly involved. Never again should we allow a young, promising life like Hasked’s to become the collateral damage of the war on drugs.
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson represents Georgia’s Fourth District.