Collateral Damage: Blood and the Drug War on the Miskitu Coast

Kaelyn Forde

 

Marlene Zelaya Jackson is tall and slender, with smooth brown skin, high cheekbones, and a warm smile edged by teeth with tiny seams of gold. She lives in a little house on stilts in the village of Ahuas, deep in the heart of the Honduran Moskitia, on the edge of wide, swampy grassland that quickly gives way to dense, green jungle. Her Spanish is perfect, but she transitions easily to her native Miskitu when she speaks to the little boys playing on her wood floor worn so smooth it shines like glass.

There are few photos pinned to the wall of the single room she shares with her children, niece, and nephew. In one of them, Marlene smiles from underneath a starched white nurse’s cap. In another, she embraces a woman with glittering eyes and creased cheeks—her late mother. And then there is the photo of Juana, her sister, standing proudly next to their mother in jeans and a red halter-top. That photo has been taken off the wall and framed.

Juana was six months pregnant when she was shot in the heart and killed along with three other people during a joint counter-narcotics operation by the Honduran police and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) on May 11, 2012. Among the dead were 14-year-old Hasked Brooks Wood, 21-year-old Emerson Martinez, and Candelaria Pratt Nelson, a mother of six.

2007Photo by Kaelyn Ford

Marlene and her cousin Clara Wood, Hasked’s mother, have traveled more than 15 hours to Tegucigalpa to the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights. But they have been told that the U.S. Embassy still refuses to release the names of the 10 DEA agents involved in the operation, or submit their weapons for ballistic testing. So Clara and Marlene return to Ahuas, to raise Juana’s children and wait for justice.

More than a year later, there has been no U.S. government investigation into the role its agents played in the Ahuas shootings, despite a formal request from 58 members of Congress. A memo leaked by a whistleblower from the U.S. State Department Office of the Inspector General states that the DEA “has not cooperated,” and Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement William Brownfield “reportedly was not forthcoming.” Dated October 23, 2012, the memo concludes that the “investigation cannot proceed further.”1

That whistleblower, Aurelia Fedenisn, hired attorneys in May after she said U.S. agents threatened her children and camped outside of her suburban Virginia home. Her attorneys’ Dallas law firm was broken into on June 29. According to attorney Damon Mathias, company credit cards, checkbooks, and silver bars were left untouched. But the firm’s three computers were stolen, including the one containing Fedenisn’s files.

It has been more than a year since Clara’s 14-year-old son wrapped his arms around her and joked with her. Hasked was learning English from his tourist friends who came each year to the white sand beaches of Roatán. His mother remembers how he would throw down his backpack after school, racing to put on his soccer cleats and uniform so he could play with as many teams as possible before dark. The family was moving back to Ahuas for good after Hasked finished out the school year.

“He asked me if he could just wear the clothes he had worn to the beach that day in the boat,” Clara said. “I didn’t know those would be the clothes we would bury him in.”

 

*

 

The Patuca River winds through the jungle, fast flowing and deep, brown in the summer from all of the rain that has poured into it. It is the lifeline and the highway that connects Ahuas to the Caribbean Sea. The major towns of the Moskitia rise along its banks.

On the evening of May 10, Clara, Hasked, and 14 other passengers boarded a motorized canoe known as a pipante in the town of Barra Patuca. The pipante had dropped off divers there to make their way to the rich waters off the coast, to dive for lobsters and conch to be sold to big U.S. chain restaurants. Hilda Lezama and her husband, Melaño, had been recruiting and transporting divers for 16 years. They would pay for gasoline for the return trip by taking these passengers, mostly women and children, back to Ahuas.

Clara, her son and his school friend, Wilmer Morgan Lucas, loaded plastic furniture and bags of clothes they had brought with them from the Bay Islands into the boat. Bera Gonzalez nestled her 11- and two-year-old daughters between the bags of clothes for the long trip. She found Juana on the landing just before both women boarded.

“It had been a long time since she had seen me, but she grabbed me, hugged me and kissed me. I didn’t know then it would be the last time I saw her alive. I saw that her belly was already very big,” Bera said.

Summer was beginning, and the pipante labored against the current for more than six hours. Temperatures in Ahuas can climb above 90 degrees and the tropical sun is relentless during the day—many in the Moskitia choose to travel by night. But the river is windy and the current is fast. Melaño relied on his son-in-law, Emerson, and his flashlight in the front of the boat to guide him away from trees and rocks.

By 2:30 a.m., with most of its passengers fast asleep, the pipante drew closer to the Paptalaya Landing. Clara said she was awakened by the sound of helicopters circling overhead. Confused, she peered up into the darkness. And then the helicopters opened fire.

“The shots began from above and I jumped up, I shouted out to God, ‘Where is my son?’ But he wasn’t there in the front of the boat. No one was there,” Clara said.

The four people in the front of the boat were gone and the remaining passengers frantically threw themselves into the river. Bera stayed in the boat, covering her children with her body.

“I thought, ‘How am I going to save myself? It’s better for me to die here with my children.’ That’s why I didn’t jump out of the boat and swim, to stay with my daughters. I waited for the shot that would kill me. I was waiting for death,” Bera said.

“Then I saw the helicopter lowering toward me, and I began to scream ‘I’m innocent! Can’t you see I have my babies with me?’ That’s when it shined its light on me, but by then there wasn’t anyone else in the boat. I looked up at the helicopter and it ascended again, circling above,” said Bera.

Sandra Madrid’s house is the closest to the Paptalaya Landing. She said there was no warning before the helicopters opened fire on the boat below.

“They say they used flares to warn people to move out of the way before they started shooting. But that’s a lie. I saw the flares, along with many other people. And that light was after the shooting,” Sandra said.

Clara reached the riverbank and scrambled ashore, running toward the landing. Men in khaki camouflage uniforms with the U.S. flag emblems were waiting for her, along with Honduran police, she said.

“I was going crazy looking for my son. And the police asked me, ‘What are you doing out here at this time of night?’ and I said to them, ‘You already killed my son and the others. Don’t kill me too!’ When I said that, they grabbed me and searched me. Of course, I didn’t have anything.”

Clara’s 17-year-old nephew, Celín Corbelo, had come to help her transport her furniture. He said the soldiers, tall with night-vision goggles and white skin, handcuffed him and beat him. Only one spoke Spanish, Celín said, the others spoke only in English.

“They had three guns pointed at my head, one at each side and one at the base of my skull. They questioned me and said if I didn’t answer, they would throw me into the river handcuffed, or they would shoot me and get rid of my body. They asked me, ‘Where are the drugs? Who is the leader? Where does he live?’ I told them I was innocent, that I was just here to look for my aunt,” Celín said.

 

*

 

Hilda had been shot through both legs and was clinging to a branch by the side of the river, losing blood. Her children, Elmina and Hilder Eulopio, arrived at the landing to frantically search for their parents and brother-in-law. But Elmina was surprised by what she found.

“I thought that the soldiers were going to help us rescue the people who had been shot. But then they asked my brother where they could find gasoline and took him there at gunpoint,” Elmina said.

Hilder said he begged the soldiers to help him search for his mother. Instead, they forced him to take them out onto the river. There, another boat was floating with two men already on board. Both wore khaki camouflage with U.S. flag emblems on their shoulders and were tall, white, and spoke English, Hilder said. The agents’ clothes were dry, and there were at least 14 bundles of cocaine, each weighing approximately 30 kilos, in the boat.

“When we arrived at the canoe, they told me to get close to it, and I did. Then they loaded the drugs into our boat. They unloaded them again onto the landing and then left in the helicopter,” Hilder said. “They forced me to bring the drugs with them. And then they asked me if I had a cell phone number or a bank account because they were going to leave some money for me in the bank. They never helped me rescue my mother.”

Hilder and Sandra said the pilots of the helicopter into which the drugs were loaded were also white, with graying hair, and the same khaki camouflage with the U.S. flag.

Hilder and the other members of the community searched the river for survivors and the bodies of the dead as the last helicopter circled overhead.

“The Americans went down to the river, got the drugs and then took them out in the helicopter. They saw very well that they were leaving people dead,” Sandra said. “But they weren’t even dignified enough to stop and look at what they had done. They only cared about themselves.”

Hasked’s friend Wilmer had also been shot in the hand, and a bullet had grazed Melaño’s arm. Another passenger, 21-year-old Lucio Nelson Escoto, had been shot through the arm and lower back.

The community found Candelaria’s and Emerson’s bodies that morning. It took two more days to find Hasked’s and Juana’s bodies, which had drifted several miles down the river. Neighbors brought Clara her son’s body.

“When they found him and they put him on the floor, he was full of water and his body was already rotting. I couldn’t see my baby’s face anymore. I couldn’t bathe him, he was so swollen and soft, so I put him in a bag and that’s how I had to bury him. They killed him like he was a dog,” said Clara.

Clara and Marlene buried their loved ones together. Forty-three days after the bodies had been buried, Marlene said, a Honduran forensic team along with an observer from the U.S. Embassy came to exhume the bodies.

The exhumation was done publicly under the hot sun in the cemetery, and Marlene tried to take a cell phone video before being stopped by police.

“They began with my sister. And so many people were there watching. They started to take her body out, and then they started cutting her body where the bullets were and putting the pieces in a little cloth. From her head, from her nose, from her leg. Then they opened her up and took out her heart. And we were there, watching all of it,” Marlene said.

The forensic team told Marlene that Juana hadn’t been pregnant. In Honduras, if a pregnant woman is murdered, the fetus is also considered a victim. It would have brought the casualties to six, as Candelaria’s family said she was five months pregnant.

“One of the men went into the grave with the forensic examiner to help him lift her body. He told me that the fetus fell out of her, but that they left it there and didn’t examine it. And then they went and said she wasn’t pregnant,” Marlene said.

Unable to pay for another coffin, Marlene buried her sister in the soft earth next to Clara’s son. Days later, Marlene found her sister’s teeth and small bones, carelessly left behind by the forensic team. She put them in a little jar of alcohol next to her sister’s photograph. After watching the autopsy, Marlene was unable to get out of bed for three days.

“It was like we watched them kill her all over again. Now we’re just left with these sad reminders,” she said, cradling the jar in her hands.

 

*

 

The Honduran Office of the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights issued its own report last Fall, and its conclusions are markedly different from the story told by the victims of the May 11, 2012 shootings. The U.S. State Department said it supports the findings of that report and will not conduct its own investigation into the shootings.

According to the report, the Ahuas operation—part of the larger Operation Anvil—was carried out using four U.S. State Department helicopters with mounted machine guns piloted by eight U.S. government contractors.2 The State Department says the helicopter pilots were Guatemalans temporarily deployed to Honduras. In addition to the pilots, a total of six gunners from the Honduran police and Air Force, ten members of DEA Foreign-Deployed Advisory and Support Teams (FAST) and 13 members of the Honduran Counter-narcotics Team participated in the operation. The team for the Ahuas operation was more than four times larger than typical Tactical Response Teams, the report noted.

According to the Special Prosecutor’s report, the operation began at six p.m. on May 10, when a P-3 surveillance plane registered an “aircraft located over the waters of the Caribbean, coming from the direction of South America, and believed to be flying illegally.” Around one a.m., the suspicious aircraft landed “at a place that at that point had not been identified” and a “small truck and approximately 60 persons had also been sighted.” Due to the fact that the “helicopters are old models that do not have as high a speed capacity of the suspicious aircraft,” the teams arrived about 15 minutes after the suspicious plane had landed. By then, the surveillance plane was reporting that the “suspicious truck in which the drugs were being transported was traveling in the direction of the closest village.”

“The truck reached a small village on the Patuca River. Several persons traveling in the truck were observed quickly stepping out of it and starting to remove drugs from it, placing them in one of the boats that was docked on the Patuca.” According to the report, the helicopters followed, and one team reached the ground. “The team members took control of a boat that at that point had been abandoned with the alleged drugs inside. They started the engine and traveled approximately 50 meters up the river, at which point the engine stalled with the boat was still [sic] in vicinity of the river bank.”

At this time, according to the report, the passenger boat approached. “The team that was in the stalled boat, consisting of two police officers of the Special Counter-narcotics Team and one member of the DEA FAST team, immediately noticed the boat that was coming towards them...One of the members of Team Four and the gunner from that same helicopter state that they observed at least three or four persons inside the boat, a motorized canoe, advancing and firing on the stalled boat holding the members of Team One.”

The report notes that none of the passengers coming from Barra Patuca reported seeing any weapons in their own boat, nor did they see a second canoe with the Honduran police officers or DEA agent on board in the river that night. Only Hilder Eulopio reports seeing the boat with the drugs as he approached it, accompanied by U.S. agents. According to Hilder, there were only two U.S. agents onboard with the drugs.

According to the report, the two Honduran police officers and the DEA agent in the boat with the drugs “realizing that [they] were in extreme, even mortal, danger, sought cover in the bottom of the boat and began to fire their weapons. The member of the FAST team had only his handgun on him at the time, and the members of the counter-narcotics team are unable to say whether the FAST team member used his firearm or not in the midst of the cross-fire fray.”

DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden declined to be interviewed for this article, but did confirm past statements that “DEA agents did not fire a single round” and that “the conduct of DEA personnel was consistent with current DEA protocols, policies and procedures.”

A video shot by the surveillance plane allegedly confirms this story, although it is not clear from the video whether the flashes of light coming from the passenger boat are gunfire or merely flashlights. To date, it has not been made public and only select Congressional staffers have viewed it.

In statements given to the Office of the Public Prosecutor, Honduran National Police officers said “they were not aware at the time of the deaths of those persons, so they confined themselves to seizing the drugs and transferring them to Mocoron base…”

The report also concluded that neither of the female victims was pregnant.

None of the DEA agents who participated in the operation were interviewed for the Special Prosecutor’s Report. No arrests were ever reported in relation to the “approximately 60 persons” seen unloading the plane or transporting the drugs in the truck.

“No one could look at the investigation that was carried out by the Honduran Attorney General’s Office and say that it was in any way a serious investigation of the killing of four people,” said Annie Bird, a human rights defender who traveled to Ahuas and co-authored a report on the inconsistencies in the investigation.3 “Often when investigations that look this bad come out, the perception that comes across is that there is a lack of capacity in the Honduran justice system, but actually what I would argue is that it goes beyond that, that there is a lack of political will to carry out a real investigation. It’s not that the Honduran authorities don’t know that when an incident like this happens that you should immediately impound the weapons and conduct ballistics testing, it’s that there’s not a political will for that to happen.”

Bird’s organization, Rights Action, Washington-based center for Economic and Policy Research, and Honduran human rights groups, have worked with members of Congress to demand a separate U.S. investigation.

“Given the ‘deeply flawed’ nature of the Honduran official investigation and the central role played by the DEA in the May 11 operation, 58 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Attorney General Eric Holder requesting that the U.S. carry out its own investigation of the Ahuas killings,” said Alexander Main of CEPR. The DEA responded to the Congressional letter on July 29, concluding: “According to the DEA’s Office of Inspection’s internal review, no DEA FAST members fired their weapons during the May 11, 2012 incident” and “neither of the female decedents was pregnant.” The letter ended with: “Contrary to media reports... all operations conducted under Operation Anvil were led by the Government of Honduras, with support from DEA and Department of State.”

Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Brownfield also declined to be interviewed for this article, but wrote that, “Allegations in the press that I stymied an investigation into a shooting incident in Honduras are false.”

 

*

 

Meanwhile, Clara Wood lives in her small house on the edge of the grasslands, all alone except for the girl who comes to help her with the housework.

Her walls are covered with cards from Hasked, “I love you, Mama!” and “World’s best mother.” His clothes are still piled on the floor of his room. She doesn’t have the energy to get rid of them.

“My poor baby, only 14 years old, how could he be involved in that? He didn’t know anything about that badness. He’s with God now,” Clara said, clutching a red rag she uses to alternately wipe sweat and tears from her brow. “My cousin was in that boat with her two babies, what did they have to do with the narcos? Anyone can see we are poor people here.”

 


 

1. Larry M, Dinger, memorandum, 23 October 2012, “Memo to OIG/INV on DS/ICI/SID Cases,” E-mail message to Susan K. Rogers and Wesley T. Kilgore.

2. Fiscalia Especial de Derechos Humanos, Ministerio Publico de la Republica de Honduras, “Informe: Expediente 2012-4926,” No Date (Estimated Date: September 2012), Official State Department Translation.

3. Annie Bird and Alexander Main, “Collateral Damage of a Drug War: The May 11 Killings in Ahuas and the Impact of the U.S. War on Drugs in La Moskitia, Honduras,” Center for Economic and Policy Research and Rights Action, August 2012, http://www.cepr.net/index.php/publications/reports/collateral-damage-of-a-drug-war.

 


 

Kaelyn Forde is a multimedia journalist specializing in Latin America. Her work has appeared on Al Jazeera English, the BBC and the Real News.

 


 

Read the rest of NACLA's Fall 2013 issue: "Chile 40 Years Later: The Politics of Memory and the Memory of Politics"

 

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