A new report examines a notorious gunfight in Honduras involving DEA agents, and offers a series of recommendations on how US officials can avoid such incidents in the future.

The report from the Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR), a Washington think tank with a left-leaning slant, is titled “Collateral Damage of a Drug War”, and analyzes the events of May 11, 2012, in the community of Ahuas, Honduras. In the incident, Honduran officials said that they had killed two drug traffickers and seized a significant amount of cocaine after tracking a drug flight arriving from South America.

According to the official account, the shooting was initiated after a boat driven by a local businesswoman, working with the traffickers, allegedly rammed another cocaine-laden vessel already under the control of two Hondurans and one US DEA agent. This prompted the three agents to call for assistance from one of the four helicopters in the area, which opened fire on the boat and its 16 passengers, killing two.

Local versions were significantly different. It was immediately clear that not two but four people had been killed, including a pregnant woman and a 14-year-old boy. Four others were injured. Moreover, locals denied any connection between the boat passing through the area and the drug traffickers, and rejected the idea that any of the boat's passengers, most of whom were asleep, had engaged the government agents.

The locals also reported a heavy presence of Americans supporting the Hondurans in the fighting. (They were English speakers, appeared to be of European descent, and wore uniforms emblazoned with the American flag.) Witnesses said that an American was operating a mounted gun from inside the helicopter involved in the gunfight, and that Americans later took a lead role in interrogating the witnesses and survivors.

The CEPR report, which was based on extensive interviews with officials and witnesses, largely supports the alternative version. The authors found no conclusive evidence of the boat full of locals attacking the Honduran and American agents, nor did they find any reason to suspect that they were associated with drug traffickers. They also found that the DEA, rather than supporting the local authorities, were in effect leading them.

More broadly, as the authors recognize, the Ahuas deaths demonstrate the downside of US eagerness to prop up counterdrug activities around Latin America. As the authors write, “In many ways, the Ahuas May 11 incident is emblematic of both the extreme risks associated with applying military methods to counternarcotics efforts and the pitfalls inherent to poor or inexistent accountability mechanisms around high-risk interdiction activities”.

And it’s not just Honduras, nor is it merely the DEA, driving the phenomenon.  The Ahuas incident comes amid a growing interest in Central American security from different US agencies. As InSight Crime noted in March, the US military’s Southern Command (also known as Southcom), which has responsibility for the Western Hemisphere south of Mexico, has ramped up its interest in Central America. As Air Force General Douglas Fraser, the head of Southcom, testified last year before the House Armed Services Committee:

“We're seeing that now some of that supply of cocaine -- and I'll talk specifically cocaine -- is moving through South America, as well as Central America. But the violence continues to increase in Central America, and that's where and why we are focusing there. Last year the UN estimated or said that Honduras has the highest violence of any country in the world. And we see that as a direct influence of transnational organized crime, but there are gangs and there are other factors that also enter into that.”

He read from similar notes during a Senate appearance a week later.

At the same time, Southcom’s stake in Colombia, previously its primary interest, has declined, and is set to drop further in the years to come, as the US aid granted under Plan Colombia, diminishes. In some ways, this makes perfect sense, as over the past decade the Northern Triangle of Central America has turned into one of the most violent regions on the planet, while Colombia has grown far safer. There is also evidence that cocaine production is shifting toward Central America: InSight Crime reported last year on the discovery of a cocaine-processing lab in Honduras, and authorities in Guatemala have interpreted a recent surge in seizures of coca paste as a sign of processing there as well.

But the Honduras incident, though it centered on DEA agents rather than military personnel, demonstrates the risks of flooding foreign countries with armed representatives of the US government, to fight an enemy that is largely indistinguishable from the civilian population on unknown terrain. The Ahuas shooting may not have been inevitable, but as Americans take a more hands-on role, such scandals are likely to be repeated.

While a greater degree of distance from the front lines of anti-drug operations may limit the number of busts local authorities are capable of pulling off, it will save the US, and its foreign partners, from future embarrassments.

Investigations

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