Pulitzer Center Update

Grantee's Reporting on DEA Killings Confirmed by U.S. Government Report

June 19, 2017|

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Rio Tapalwas, a tributary of the Rio Rus Rus, Reserva Biologica Rus Rus, Dept. Gracias a Dios, Honduras. 2003. Image by Josiah Townsend / flickr commons.

Rio Tapalwas, a tributary of the Rio Rus Rus, Reserva Biologica Rus Rus, Dept. Gracias a Dios, Honduras. 2003. Image by Josiah Townsend / flickr commons.

In 2015, Pulitzer Center grantee Mattathias Schwartz reported on a Drug Enforcement Administration operation in Honduras that resulted in the deaths of four unarmed civilians. The resulting public outcry in Honduras led to heightened congressional scrutiny of the operation, with the DEA testifying on the operation before Congress, claiming that the civilians' boat was used by drug traffickers. Now, more than five years after the killings, a 424-page report from the inspectors general of the U.S. State and Justice departments reveals that the DEA's congressional testimony was false.

Writing in The Intercept, Schwartz says: "The report depicts how the DEA withheld information from the U.S. ambassador in Honduras, passed incorrect information up the chain of command, repeatedly misrepresented the U.S. role as an adviser in what was actually a U.S.-led operation, recruited an informant to back up the DEA’s version of events and then stuck by the informant’s story despite its 'inconsistent and contradictory accounts.' The DEA told Congress that its informant had passed a polygraph test, but the report concludes that test was undocumented and 'largely useless.'"

He adds: "Most importantly, the report states that the DEA falsely characterized the deaths of four Hondurans as a shootout with drug traffickers despite proof on video that DEA-led forces fired on unarmed civilians. The dead were traveling on a passenger boat to a town called Ahuas, on the remote Mosquito Coast. Almost immediately, the mayor of Ahuas and other Honduran officials protested that the dead were innocent; the DEA maintained that its forces had been fired upon by drug traffickers. Today, more than five years later, the report confirms that the people of Ahuas were telling the truth. There was no crossfire. It was a DEA agent who ordered a helicopter gunner to open fire on the passenger boat. The four dead Hondurans — Emerson Martínez, Candelaria Trapp, Hasked Brooks Wood, and Juana Jackson — posed no threat. The DEA gave a grossly inaccurate depiction of its own operations to Congress and let that account stand uncorrected."

As Schwartz notes, the report does not make any recommendation of sanctions or punishments for the DEA agents and U.S. personnel involved in the killings. "Instead," he writes, "they recommended that the DEA improve its internal procedures around reviewing shootings."

Read Schwartz's full account of the new report at The Intercept