When a botched drug raid led to the shooting deaths of four civilians, including a teenage boy, on a Honduran river in May 2012, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials insisted that the victims were cocaine traffickers who had shot first and that DEA agents were present only as advisors.
Those claims were not true, according to a scathing report released Wednesday after a joint investigation by the Inspectors General of the Justice and State departments.
During the nighttime encounter on the Mosquito Coast, the lengthy report found, a DEA agent flying in a helicopter overhead ordered a Honduran door gunner to open fire with a machine gun on what turned out to be a river taxi carrying passengers, not drugs.
The shooting continued even after the passengers jumped in the water, investigators found.
The report says the DEA failed to properly investigate the incident, frustrated attempts to find the truth and stuck to an inaccurate version of events despite inquiries from members of Congress and the Justice Department.
"Not only was there no credible evidence that individuals in the passenger boat fired first, but the available evidence places into serious question whether there was any gunfire from the passenger boat at any time," the 329-page report says.
The report also faults the DEA for slipshod investigations of two other fatal shootings by its agents in the impoverished Central American country in the summer of 2012.
The shootings sparked fury in Honduras, where protesters burned government buildings and demanded the expulsion of DEA agents. The controversy temporarily derailed U.S.-Honduran anti-drug efforts.
Human rights activists said Wednesday that they felt vindicated by the report's findings and called for those responsible to be punished.
The report "exposes the deceit and the coverup perpetrated by the DEA," said Annie Bird, a veteran environmental activist who works in Honduras and who had pressed for an official investigation.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who has also sought answers in the case, said that the report "exposed egregious events and conduct, as well as the subsequent efforts to hide the truth about what happened."
He scolded DEA and State Department officials for "uninformed arrogance" and for perpetuating "a self-serving narrative that was fundamentally flawed and demeaned the lives of the victims and the reputation of the United States."
Most of the senior leadership at DEA has been replaced since 2012, and an agency spokeswoman did not answer questions about whether anyone else had been disciplined.
The DEA did not dispute the report's findings.
Over the last five years, it said in a statement, "the DEA has made significant and numerous changes." It said the foreign advisory and support team involved in the shooting "no longer operates overseas and now contributes to our training mission."
In 2012, the State Department estimated that 79% of all cocaine smuggled to the United States moved through Honduras from Colombia and that most of the flights landed in the remote Mosquito Coast.
Operation Anvil was planned to intercept those flights, part of a larger anti-drug effort organized by the Defense Department.
DEA agents were supposed to provide intelligence and advice to Honduran security officials. But the report found the agents gave orders during the operations even though few of the DEA agents spoke Spanish and the Hondurans spoke little English.
The river shooting occurred during an operation intended to recover a small boat loaded with cocaine that drug traffickers had abandoned on the river.
When it drifted into an open canoe-like river taxi, two Honduran agents opened fire, killing four passengers, including a 14-year-old boy, and injuring four others. No drugs were found on the passenger boat.
Fearing the Honduran agents were under attack, a DEA agent flying overhead ordered the door gunner to open fire. There is no evidence he hit any of the victims.
Later, the DEA remained "steadfast" that the victims were drug traffickers trying to retrieve the cocaine, the report says.
Then-U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske, frustrated by her inability to get an accurate account from the DEA, launched an internal State Department investigation but the DEA refused to cooperate, the report notes
The report "confirms our worst suspicions," said Adam Isacson, an investigator with the Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy and research organization.
"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."