A new US government report documents a series of missteps related to several deadly anti-drug actions in 2012 involving US law enforcement in Honduras, a strong reminder of the need to have a clear mandate, avoid improvisation and make room for oversight.
The internal watchdog arms of the US Departments of State and Justice released the damning joint report on May 24, which examined three separate incidents in which deadly force was used during the course of anti-narcotic missions involving personnel from the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as well as the Honduran National Police.
Their conclusions stopped just short of saying the DEA lied about what happened, calling the review of one incident "significantly flawed."
"The resulting investigation was little more than a paper exercise," the report says. "From the beginning, DEA officials should have taken more seriously the allegations that the operation resulted in injuries and deaths of innocent civilians and should have ensured a thorough investigation of the incident. Had they done so, we believe DEA officials would have learned that their personnel did, in fact, exercise deadly force when at least one of them specifically directed a Honduran door gunner on a helicopter to fire his machine gun at the passenger boat. They may have also learned other facts relevant to assessing the allegations of local residents regarding the forcefulness of law enforcement conduct in the village."
A Deadly Encounter
The missions were part of "Operation Anvil," a "90-day pilot program" started in April 2012 that was aimed at disrupting drug flights from South America to Honduras.
According to the report, the State Department provided operational assistance for Operation Anvil, including helicopters for transportation and armed air support on the missions, while the "Honduran Air Force provided [helicopter] door gunners and, on certain missions, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) aircraft provided detection and surveillance capabilities."
The ground teams for Operation Anvil, however, were comprised of "officers from a vetted unit of the Honduran National Police known as the Tactical Response Team (TRT)," as well as members of the DEA's "Foreign-deployed Advisory and Support Team" (FAST) -- a set of special units created in 2005 to assist US armed forces and partners in Afghanistan with anti-drug efforts. The FAST program, which was recently renamed and excluded from operational and enforcement functions, was expanded to include the Western Hemisphere beginning in 2008.
During Operation Anvil, FAST members partnered with TRT officers for the "stated purpose" of "assisting the Honduran TRT in conducting intelligence-driven interdiction operations and acting as trainers and advisors to the TRT," the report states.
However, government investigators found that contrary to the DEA's public claims, the FAST team's role "was not solely supportive or advisory." In fact, the authors write, "FAST personnel maintained substantial control over the conduct" of the deadliest, and perhaps the most controversial Operation Anvil mission.
The incident occurred on May 11, 2012 in the town of Ahuas, on Honduras' northeastern coast. According to a detailed timeline contained in the report, a CBP surveillance aircraft helped guide FAST and TRT teams to an area near Ahuas where a plane carrying a drug shipment had landed. The individuals offloading the drug shipment fled when the FAST and TRT officers arrived by helicopter, abandoning a small boat known as a "pipante" full of drugs in a river.
One FAST member and two TRT members then boarded the pipante, intending to pilot it back to the village where they had landed. However, the boat's engine stalled, and it began to drift downstream, where it collided with "a larger, unlit boat containing over a dozen passengers."
Gunfire then erupted, killing four civilians and injuring several others. Initial reports from the DEA did not mention these casualties. Later DEA reports maintained that individuals in the larger boat had opened fire on the FAST and TRT officers in the pipante, and that only the TRT officers had responded with deadly force.
However, the new joint watchdog report contradicts this narrative. According to the authors, "there is no video evidence of gunfire from anyone on the passenger boat," and it was a FAST team member who directed a Honduran door gunner to fire on the boat from the helicopter.
Two More Deadly Incidents
The State and Justice Department report also raises concerns about two other Operation Anvil missions that took place in 2012.
One incident on June 23 involved a FAST agent shooting and killing a suspected drug trafficker who was reportedly "lying face-down near a tree" when he "refused to comply with oral commands and moved his hand toward a handgun holstered on his hip."
While early reports from the DEA and State Department repeated this narrative, the Honduran TRT reported that "multiple suspects fired at the TRT, and the TRT returned fire for a few minutes."
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"According to FAST," the new joint report states, "this reported firefight did not happen."
Another incident on July 3 also appears to have involved inaccurate reporting and misbehavior by the FAST team's TRT partners.
After responding to the crash of a suspected drug plane, FAST and TRT officers took one pilot into custody, who later died from injuries sustained in the crash. A second pilot, however, "Did not comply with commands from two FAST members and instead turned in an apparent attempt to reenter the plane (giving rise to the threat that he would obtain a weapon)," the report states.
Two FAST members fatally shot the second pilot, and both DEA and the State Department internally reported this version of events. However, the Honduran TRT team's report did not mention the deadly use of force by FAST agents.
Moreover, DEA officials told State and Justice Department investigators that "following the incident, a Honduran police officer planted a gun in evidence and reported it as a weapon found at the scene."
Clarifying Use of Deadly Force
The report notes that determining "whether the use of deadly force was justified under applicable laws or policy was not within the scope of this review." It does, however, closely examine the DEA and State Department's handling of these operations -- and it finds serious flaws in both agencies' actions.
For instance, the report cites "inadequate pre-operational planning" as a contributing factor in the fatal outcome of these incidents.
"FAST and TRT personnel had unclear understanding of what each other's deadly force policy permitted, and the planning for responding to critical incidents was almost nonexistent," the report states.
Therefore, "neither FAST nor TRT could be confident about when and how their partners would respond to an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury," the authors write, adding that "a misunderstanding of the policy applicable to FAST likely contributed to the TRT reportedly planting a gun into evidence to help justify DEA's use of deadly force in the July 3 incident."
In addition, the authors noted that the DEA identified "a lack of sufficient forces" as a reason for the confusion during the midnight operation on May 11 that resulted in the deaths of four civilians in Ahuas. The authors note that a more thoroughly planned and staffed mission might have allowed the ground teams to maintain better control over the situation.
'Inaccurate or Incomplete Information'
The report also criticizes both agencies' responses to these incidents. The authors argue that the DEA should have paid closer attention to the TRT's inaccurate reports surrounding the June 23 and July 3 incidents, "which should have led DEA officials to also look more critically at TRT's narrative regarding the May 11 events, particularly their assertion that people in the passenger boat were armed and fired first."
The report states that "DEA officials who were aware" of TRT's inaccurate reporting "took no action in response." In the case of the alleged July 3 gun-planting, the authors write, "No steps were taken to address it other than ensuring that DEA did not rely heavily on TRT information to support any US prosecutions."
Moreover, the report found that the DEA headquarters obstructed outside probes of the incident by ordering DEA employees "not to provide information about the May 11 incident, and later the June 23 and July 3 incidents, to those outside DEA while the DEA's own internal reviews were in progress."
This general failure to conduct a thorough investigation of these incidents contributed to the DEA providing "inaccurate or incomplete information" to the agency's overseers in the Justice Department and Congress, the authors write, noting that "in some instances, DEA officials described information favorable to DEA's positions while omitting unfavorable information."
The DEA also refused to cooperate with probes of these incidents by the Honduran government and the State Department, a decision the State Department watchdog determined ran counter to "longstanding executive orders" that "direct executive branch employees in a host country to comply with the direction of the Ambassador."
State Department officials also "made inaccurate and incomplete statements to Congress and the public regarding Operation Anvil," and did not inform Congress about its internal probe "despite numerous questions about whether the United States would conduct an investigation of the deadly force incidents," the authors wrote.
Will Anyone Be Held Accountable?
It is not clear if any individuals involved in these incidents -- none of whom are named in the report -- will face formal charges or reprimands for their actions. But several experts said that the new report highlights the need for improved monitoring of initiatives like Operation Anvil.
"This incident and the subsequent cover-up reveal a dangerous culture within the DEA. Those responsible for the shooting and those who misled the investigations should be held accountable, and the United States has a responsibility to provide adequate compensation to the victims. This culture of secrecy is unacceptable, and demonstrates why U.S. counternarcotics operations in the region require greater oversight and more transparency," said Adriana Beltrán, a senior associate at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), in a public statement.
WOLA's Adam Isacson told the Los Angeles Times that the report "confirms our worst suspicions."
"I don't want to use the word 'coverup,' but [DEA officials] strongly discouraged, perhaps even impeded, efforts to investigate what happened," he said. "I don't see any guarantee that another incident like this won't happen tomorrow."
In a statement, US Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) also expressed concern about the revelations in the report.
"DEA, Honduran, and State Department officials provided Congress with incomplete, inaccurate, and misleading information in order to perpetuate a self-serving narrative that was fundamentally flawed and demeaned the lives of the victims and the reputation of the United States. I am deeply concerned about the uninformed arrogance at these agencies that produced these failures. This raises serious questions whether these cases are isolated incidents," the senator said.
Although the FAST program has been rebranded and had its role in enforcement operations stripped away, the DEA and other US government agencies continue to engage in similar on-the-ground activities with partner countries across the region and around the world. For instance, the Wall Street Journal reported in 2014 that US Marshals have dressed up as Mexican marines and joined them on active patrol. And US military special forces have drastically ramped up training in Latin America over the last decade, reportedly becoming involved in anti-gang operations in Central America.
Thus, the recent report from the State and Justice Departments serves as a reminder that proper oversight and accountability is essential to maintain the safety of both civilians and security forces during such operations, and to avoid harming productive efforts to cooperate with partners on important security issues.