The Ahuas Killings Five Years Later: Collateral Damage of the Drug War

Five years after the deadly Ahuas shootings in Honduras, a detailed report reveals direct DEA involvement, government inaction, and little help for the victims.

October 27, 2017

Marlene Jackson holds a photo of her sister, Juana, who was shot in the heart and killed when she was six months pregnant in a joint Honduran-DEA operation. (Photo by Kaelyn Forde, Ahuas, Honduras, July 2012).

When he was 14 years old, Wilmer Lucas Walter’s best friend, Hasked Brooks Wood, was shot and killed right next to him. The two were traveling with 14 other people along the Patuca River to Ahuas, deep in the Honduran Moskitia, when helicopters owned by the U.S. State Department opened fire on their boat. In an instant on that night in 2012, four people were killed. Lucas and three others were shot and survived.

It took two days for Hasked’s mother, Clara Wood, to find him in the river. His body was so swollen, she said, she had to bury him in a bag still wearing the clothes he had worn to the beach. Lucas had been traveling to visit his grandmother, and his mother, Sabina Walter, was more than 150 miles away when she received the call that her son had been shot.

“They called me and said, ‘You have to come for Wilmer, they shot Wilmer in the Moskitia.’ I said, ‘Wilmer? How is that possible? How could it be?” Sabina Walter told NACLA.  “I felt—to this day, I feel—the pain of that call.”

It took her days to get the money together to be able to travel to the hospital. When she arrived, Lucas, who had been shot in the hand, had lost so much blood that doctors initially thought they would have to amputate it, according to his mother. “They told me: his life or his hand,” she said. “I said, ‘Doctor, yes, his life, but also his hand.’ I want him to keep his hand.”

In the five years since, the family has struggled to pay for the medical care and therapy Lucas needs, and he still cannot fully use his hand. “Physically, it affects me for the rest of my life,” Lucas, 19, said. “But it’s really difficult because it affects me emotionally, my self-esteem. To see that I can never again use my hand the way I did before.”

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents participated in the Ahuas operation that left Hasked Wood dead and Wilmer Lucas with a permanent disability. The operation was designed as a counter-narcotics mission to intercept drugs, and was carried out by a DEA Foreign-Deployed Advisory and Support Team (FAST) along with members of the Honduran police. In addition to Hasked, Juana Jackson Ambrosio, 28, Candelaria Trapp Nelson, 48, and Emerson Martinez, 21, were killed. The adults all left behind children. Hilda Lezama, Melaño Eulopio Nixon, and Lucio Nelson Escoto were also injured. But in the more than five years since the May 11, 2012 shooting, no one in Honduras or the United States has been held accountable for their deaths.

Despite repeated calls for action from members of Congress and a 2017 joint investigation by the Office of the Inspectors General of the Department of Justice and the Department of State into three deadly force incidents in Honduras, the Ahuas attack victims and their families said they have received no apology or compensation from the United States.

“It’s been like hitting a brick wall in the search for justice,” said Annie Bird, acting director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission and the co-author of multiple reports on the shooting. “They have been unable to care for the victims’ children. It’s been very hard on the victims and they continue to have very pressing needs.”

Juana Jackson Ambrosio was six months pregnant when she was shot and killed. Her sister, Marlene Zelaya Jackson, has been raising her two older sons, Marlon, 14, and Francisco, 6. “She was my only sister,” Jackson told NACLA. “What I lost when I lost her, I will never find again.”

Since Juana’s death, there have been times when Marlene said she has struggled to afford basic necessities for the boys, like their school uniforms, which cost 1,800 lempiras, or $75. “In the five years since the death of my sister, I’ve been a single mother. I’m alone here trying to fight to give them a future. I want to work, but there is no work here,” Jackson said. “Right now, with the case, they have left us and washed their hands of us. What we want is justice.”

The DEA initially claimed that its agents had played an advisory role and not fired a single round in the operation, and that Honduran personnel had fired in self-defense after being fired on from the passenger boat or pipante, a claim that the inspectors general report found no evidence to support. The report also highlighted flaws in the way the DEA responded to the shooting, including the failure to conduct a search and rescue mission for people in the pipante who had been injured.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the New York Times obtained the three-hour surveillance video from the operation, which had not been previously made public. A forensic expert hired by the Times and ProPublica to analyze the video said in an on Oct. 23 article that it showed “numerous flashes of light consistent with gunshots originating from the antidrug unit” and a single flash from the passenger boat, which “could have been caused by a bullet striking the engine, which was later found to have a bullet hole.”

The DEA also initially claimed that only drug traffickers had been killed in the operation, a claim that also proved false, the report revealed. “Even as information became available to DEA that conflicted with its initial reporting, including that the passenger boat may have been a water taxi carrying passengers on an overnight trip, DEA officials remained steadfast—with little credible corroborating evidence— that any individuals shot by the Hondurans were drug traffickers who were attempting to retrieve the cocaine from the pipante [passenger boat],” it read.

Mary Schaefer, the DEA’s chief compliance officer, wrote the agency’s official response. “DEA acknowledges that its pre-mission preparation was not as thorough as it should have been and that the subsequent investigation lacked the depth and scope necessary to fully assess what transpired that night,” Schaefer wrote.

But to date, the DEA has not released the names of the U.S. agents who participated in the operation, Bird said.

Since the release of the inspectors general report in May, Representative Hank Johnson (D-GA) and 13 other members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Attorney General Jeff Sessions asking what steps their two departments “plan in response to the killing of innocent bystanders in U.S.-backed counter-narcotics operations abroad.” According to Johnson’s office, neither Sessions nor Tillerson have responded to their Aug. 31 letter.

“There are serious unanswered questions surrounding the 2012 Ahuas killings, which the current administration is apparently unwilling to have answered. No U.S. agency, including the DEA, can be allowed to operate abroad with impunity in its prosecution of this nation's futile war on drugs,” Representative Johnson said in a statement to NACLA.

“My colleagues and I will continue to seek the truth about the extent of U.S. participation in the operation that resulted in the killing and maiming of innocent Honduran citizens, and if evidence shows wrongdoing, we will work to ensure that those who may have been responsible are held accountable for their actions,” he added. The Department of Justice confirmed that it had received Johnson’s letter, but declined to comment further.

For its part, the State Department said it takes the allegations seriously. “The Department of State views the use of deadly force as a critical issue, especially when it involves the loss of innocent lives,” a State Department spokesperson told NACLA. “Given the seriousness of the allegations, the Department is engaged in a thorough review of the issues raised by the report.”

Now, the survivors and family members of the victims are considering taking legal action against the United States. They have been working with Miriam Miranda, the coordinator of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), and attorney Almudena Bernabeu, the founder of Guernica 37 International Justice Chambers.

According to Bernabeu, there is often an “imbalance of power” when victims abroad try to confront U.S. agencies. “Generally, members of agencies, when these kinds of events take place, they go into this defensive silence situation. Nothing is going to happen to them, they remove the agents who are in trouble and appoint new people. That’s the way these things are usually handled,” Bernabeu said. “If you’re lucky, they give you some reparations that is usually a small amount just to keep you quiet. That’s a reality that many victims in Latin America and other countries face.”

“But my experience has been that when you are legally represented in a U.S. court, that imbalance of power dissipates a little bit, there is a little bit of a shift in culture,” she added.

Marlene's house she once shared with her sister. (Photo by Kaelyn Forde, Ahuas, Honduras, July 2012).

Ray Mansolillo is an attorney and a former DEA agent who said he sent independent investigators to Honduras to look into the killings and has reached out to the victims about representing them, though he does not currently represent them. Mansolillo said he decided to look into the Ahuas shooting after he was “contacted by a government official that was aware of the injustice that happened” ahead of the release of the inspectors general report. “I can tell you that there are several people that work for the Justice Department and the State Department that are severely troubled by what happened here,” he said.

“The operational plan was wildly overdone,” Mansolillo said. “I don’t think they should have been in there in the first place, and it certainly wasn’t supervised properly.” Mansolillo added that once the agents knew they had shot and injured people, they should have tried to help.

“You might have thought they were a threat at the time, but now they’re trying to swim ashore and you try to shoot them down—which was the information we got in our investigation—that’s horrific. As far as I’m concerned, that’s murder,” he said.

According to Mansolillo’s investigation, at least three DEA agents directly participated in the Ahuas operation. To his knowledge, he said, the three agents who participated in the Ahuas operation are still working with the DEA. Mansolillo said that at least some of the agents from the Ahuas operation are now working in a DEA training facility. The DEA, for its part, declined to answer questions about whether it plans to provide the names of the agents who participated in the operation or say whether they have faced any disciplinary process related to the shooting.

“The people I spoke to from the government are concerned at how this was handled and are concerned about these people being sent to the training section—the internal phrase is quote-unquote ‘being put on ice’— until they can find a place for them. It’s outrageous,” Mansolillo said. “It’s horrendous. They have no business training new agents or young agents coming up in the job with the lack of experience they displayed themselves.”

The DEA did not respond to questions about whether the agents who participated in the Ahuas operation are still employed or whether any are working in a training facility.

Bernabeu said she is currently working with OFRANEH and the victims’ collective to see what legal remedies are available and prepare legal actions for U.S. courts. She plans to travel to Honduras this fall and will also work to secure legal representation there.“We’re talking about U.S. agency members, U.S. contractors and others attached to the U.S. government implicated in the criminal events of this attack. We believe there are remedies under U.S. law that the victims can exercise,” she said. “We will do what is necessary in Honduras to monitor and secure proper representation for the victims in the national case, because I think that is crucial. They live in Honduras, they need to assess their rights in Honduras simultaneously.”

According to Bernabeu, while the victims had been offered some aid, “only a percentage of the reparations awarded had been transferred to the victims, and none or very little had actually made it to the victims’ communities. Somehow it got intercepted. So we are tracing and walking backward what happened to that money.”

But it’s about more than reparations, Bernabeu emphasized. The survivors and their families said they want the U.S. to acknowledge the role it played in the deaths and injuries of innocent people in Ahuas.

“Money is not what is moving these victims, in my experience, nor any victims. The civil suits in the United States happen to provide for a remedy that in many cases is monetary, which is fine and it’s the right of the victims to receive it. But it’s more than that. It’s the right of the victims to acknowledgment,” she said. “Since this happened, the government agencies have been denying it or ignoring it. I think the potential of any legal actions is to bring the truth and bring it in front a judge, and in many cases, in front of a jury.”

Helping the children and young people who have been left behind, in particular, is a central concern. “For my part, I think this case goes beyond a simple compensation,” Lucas said. “We are no longer the happy people we were because of the simple fact of what happened.”

“I would like the government to bring the children orphaned by this operation to the United States and give them an education, more than anything,” he added.

Jackson agreed. “I hope the U.S. government gives us justice so we can help the children get ahead,” he said. I want them to take responsibility for the things they have done. That’s what I have been waiting for.”

Kaelyn Forde is a reporter and editor whose work has appeared on ABC News, Al Jazeera, the BBC and Refinery29. In 2013, she received NACLA’s Chavkin Investigative Journalism Grant to report on the Ahuas shooting.

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