Video has emerged which suggests the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been falsely claiming agents acted in self-defense when, during a raid in Honduras, they killed four civilians after firing a volley of bullets at a river taxi.
The footage, released under a Freedom of Information Act request and co-published by ProPublica and the New York Times, shows the incident unfolding on the outskirts of Ahuas, Honduras, at around 1am on May 11, 2012. It shows a propeller plane landing in a field and rolling to a stop, and people gathering around it to transport dozens of parcels – totaling more than 400kg of cocaine – to a nearby pick-up truck.
The traffickers then transport the drugs to a motorized canoe waiting in a river. However, four Honduran government helicopters appear, prompting the traffickers to flee into the jungle. One of them pushes the canoe – carrying the cocaine cargo – into the middle of the river.
Three members of an anti-drug team – two Honduran police officers and one DEA agent – pursue the canoe and climb into it. They try to steer it back towards the landing, but the motor stalls and it begins to travel downstream.
— ProPublica (@ProPublica) October 23, 2017
As the DEA agent struggles to restart the engine, a second boat appears in the frame, moving directly towards the canoe. Although the anti-drug agents assumed the boat was attempting to recover the cocaine, it was actually a passenger boat which simply found itself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The boats collided. At this point, the footage shows gunfire coming from the anti-drug agents. They continue to fire at the innocent passengers as they jump in the water in a desperate attempt to avoid being killed.
One of the helicopters joins in, delivering an eight-second burst of machine-gun fire. Four passengers were killed – one man, two women, and a 14-year-old boy. Three others were injured. The video cuts away following the gunfire, and the surveillance plane’s altitude and other technical intelligence-gathering information deemed sensitive by the DEA has been hidden.
‘False version of events’
The DEA has defended the actions of its agents for five years, citing the surveillance video which is claims shows an “exchange of gunfire” between the two vessels. The agency maintained its stance in at least eight briefings over six months, and in numerous letters to senators and representatives.
However, the agency struggled to prove that anyone on the passenger boat had been armed. No bullets had struck the agent, police officers, helicopters or the canoe.
A May report by the inspectors general of the Departments of Justice and State also found no evidence to support the DEA’s claim that its agents were fired upon.
As ProPublica and the New York Times note, it is “impossible to determine what is happening off camera, or underneath the blurred areas,” but the alleged gunfire from the passenger boat is “strikingly difficult to discern.”
The two media outlets hired forensic expert Bruce Koenig – a former supervisor of the FBI’s forensic audio/video group – to analyze the video. He determined that numerous flashes of light originated from the canoe, which were consistent with gunshots, but only one flash originated from the passenger boat – and that flash could have been caused by a bullet striking the engine, which was ultimately found to have a bullet hole.
Interestingly, the DEA kept the video under tight control. When a federal judge ordered the release of the video in January 2016, the agency appealed. It only released the footage in June 2017, after an appeals court ruled against the suppression. It was, however, shown in a secure conference room for a group of congressional staffers shortly after the incident occurred.
Following the report, a bipartisan group of four senators said the DEA and State Department of “repeatedly and knowingly misled members of Congress and congressional staff.”
“The DEA convinced themselves of a false version of events due to arrogance, false assumptions, and ignorance,” said Tim Rieser, an aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy and one of the staff members who has spent years investigating the shooting. “They rushed to judgment and then stuck to their story.”
DEA spokeswoman Mary Brandenberger declined to comment on whether the agency still believes a gunfire exchange took place, as the incident is still under internal review.
The DEA was in Honduras as part of Operation Anvil, which saw agents working alongside the country’s police and military to intercept drug shipments. The Ahuas incident was just one of three fatal shooting cases that took place during the operation. The other two incidents were also followed by inaccurate reports, according to the report by the inspectors general.
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