Honduras: Miskito villagers demand answers after deadly raids

Indigenous Miskito residents of Ahuas village on the remote Caribbean coast of Honduras are demanding justice in the wake of a deadly raid by Honduran National Police and DEA agents May 11—with details still emerging on the scope of the violence. Villagers report that machine-gun fire from two helicopters lasted 15 minutes near the man village pier, adding to initial accounts of four killed in a combined air and ground assault on a canoa or pipante (dugout canoe) on the RĂ­o Patuca. As residents cowered in their homes, the two choppers—marked with the US flag, villagers say—next landed and disgorged some 50 heavily armed and uniformed men, who then proceeded to break down the doors of local homes. Residents were menaced at gunpoint and threatened with death to demand information about one “El Renco,” as their modest homes were ransacked. Residents say English-speaking “gringos”—presumably, DEA agents—took part in the raids and rough interrogations, which lasted up to two hours.

One youth was marched down to the riverfront at gunpoint in plastic handcuffs, ostensibly to identify a drug drop-off point—and was then abandoned there, still handcuffed. A neighbor with a machete freed him, and villagers kept the cuffs as evidence of the abuse. Another villager’s boat and gasoline were commandeered to explore along the river—along with his nephew to serve as a guide. One of the “gringos” apparently had a laptop, and input the names of interrogated residents, who were made to produce their ID cards. Reports now say that one of the buildings burned down in the subsequent protest by outraged villagers was that of the local trafficker, who they blamed for drawing the heat.

The DEA insists that none of its agents were in the village. The US embassy in Tegucigalpa referred reports’ questions to Honduran authorities. The State Department said that the helicopters used in the operation were piloted by Guatemalan soldiers and contract pilots of unidentified nationality who are temporarily deployed in Honduras. The Pentagon’s Southern Command said there were no US military troops involved. The Honduran Security Ministry said it had no information about the raid reported by residents.

An investigation by the Honduran Joint Military Task Force-Paz Garcia based in nearby Puerto Lempira appeared to only acknowledge the raid on the boat, concluding that the agents fired on the civilians by mistake, killing four and wounding four. “It’s terribly sad,” Col. Servio Arita told the New York Times. “It was an error.”

The Honduran foreign minister, Arturo Corrales, challenge the villagers’ version of events , noting that the attack on the boat occurred when “it was totally dark, in a place that is not a fishing spot.” He added: “It’s in the jungle. It is very hard to believe that at 2 AM, in the jungle, the people in a boat that is beside another boat with 400 kilograms of cocaine were fishing.” In fact, survivors of the attack on the boat say they were not fishing, as the Ahuas mayor initially suggested—they were returning from a daily trip to drop off lobster-divers at the Caribbean coast, coming back with passengers picked up at several spots along the river. “We’ve been doing this for 25 years, day and night,” one wounded survivor told the Times. Her husband and relatives, surrounding her as she lay in bed, nodded. Village residents confirmed that the family business had been making the trip for years.

In an otherwise clear investigative piece, the Times refers to a “shoot-out” and “exchange of fire”—implying that fire came from the passengers in the boat, as stated by authorities. Survivors, however, indicate the passengers were face-down in the boat attempting to cover themselves as gunmen in chopper opened fire without warning. Agents later seized 1,000 pounds of cocaine from another boat at the landing, authorities said.

JosĂ© Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, said of the incident: “It is critical that both Honduran and US authorities ensure that the killings are thoroughly investigated to determine whether the use of lethal force was justified. If evidence demonstrates that security forces violated international standards, they must be held accountable.”

Rep. Howard Berman (D-CA) stated: “I have consistently expressed deep concerns regarding the danger of pouring US security assistance into a situation where Honduran security forces are involved in serious human rights violations.” Calling for a review of such aid, he added that “the problems are getting worse, not better, making such a review all the more urgent.” (Prensa Latina, May 23; AP, Fox News Latino, COHA, May 22; NYT, May 18)

See our last posts on Honduras, the struggle on the Miskito Coast, and Central America.

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