WASHINGTON – Top Drug Enforcement Administration officials consistently provided inaccurate information to the Justice Department and Congress about three deadly shootings during 2012 anti-drug operations in Honduras, including one incident that left four civilians dead, according to a new internal government inquiry.
The scathing review from the Justice Department's inspector general, which largely focused on a fatally flawed May 2012 operation that sparked calls for the DEA's expulsion from the country, concluded that top federal drug authorities withheld information from the U.S. ambassador to Honduras. DEA officials, according to the report, also blocked Honduran investigators from questioning U.S. agents or examining their weapons.
Among the most serious findings in the 329-page report released Wednesday was that the DEA long clung to unsubstantiated assertions that occupants of a passenger boat initially fired on a U.S.-Honduran anti-drug unit, prompting officers to return fire in the chaotic May encounter that left four dead, including a 14-year-old boy.
"Not only was there no credible evidence evidence that the individuals in the passenger boat fired first, but the available evidence places into serious question whether there was any gunfire from individuals in the passenger boat at any time,'' the report stated.
Justice investigators found no evidence to contradict prior DEA claims that none of the U.S. agents discharged their weapons. However, investigators determined that a DEA agent "directed'' a Honduran helicopter gunner to open fire on the river boat.
"The (helicopter) door gunner then fired multiple rounds at the passenger boat,'' the report stated. "Honduran authorities later determined that four individuals in the passenger boat had been killed and four more injured. No evidence of narcotics was ever found on the passenger boat.''
And even as information emerged that conflicted with the DEA's account of the incident – that the water taxi had no connection to illegal drug operations – DEA officials "remained steadfast with little credible corroborating evidence that any individuals shot by the Hondurans were drug traffickers'' attempting to retrieve a shipment of seized cocaine that was being held on a nearby vessel occupied by U.S. and Honduran drug agents.
Much of the conflicting evidence was contained on a detailed video recording of the incident, which investigators concluded had been either disregarded or ignored by DEA officials.
The DEA did not launch a formal review of the encounter until weeks later when public reports of the civilian deaths surfaced, "resulting in mounting pressure from (Justice) leadership and congressional inquiries."
Instead, U.S. officials largely relied on a Honduran government account that almost entirely absolved both Honduran and American law enforcement of any misconduct during the in the raid in the country’s Mosquitia region. Honduran investigators, however, did not question DEA agents or examine their weapons at the time.
"The resulting (U.S.) investigation was little more than a paper exercise,'' the inspector general concluded, adding that the DEA review included no interviews and omitted key facts, including the U.S. agent's order for the Honduran machine-gunner to open fire on the boat. While such DEA reviews require weapons inspections, none were conducted.
Nevertheless, the DEA provided assurances to then-Attorney General Eric Holder, while preparing for a 2014 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, that the weapons had been examined.
The information, according to the inspector general's report, was emailed by then-DEA chief Michele Leonhart, though the message "does not reflect (Leonhart's) source for this belief."
Leonhart resigned in 2015 in the wake of a furor over agents' misconduct including their participation in sex parties with prostitutes supplied by drug cartels in Colombia.
None of the conduct by DEA agents or executives was referred for prosecution, because the inspector general found insufficient evidence to prove that the officials knowingly provided false statements to government investigators or actively obstructed inquiries.
"The loss of life and injuries which occurred....were tragic,'' DEA chief compliance officer Mary Schaefer said in the agency's written response to the inspector general. "DEA acknowledges that its pre-mission preparation was not as thorough as it should have been and that the subsequent investigation lacked the depth and scope necessary to fully asses what transpired that (May) night.''
Since 2012, when DEA agents were involved in two other fatal shootings in Honduras, much of the agency's top leadership has been restructured. In 2015, then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch appointed former federal prosecutor and FBI senior counselor Chuck Rosenberg to run the agency.
"In the nearly five years that have elapsed since the events referenced in the report, much has changed internally... to include agency leadership and significant changes'' to the agency's teams deployed abroad,'' Shaefer said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the inspector general's investigation "unmasks egregious events and conduct, as well as the subsequent efforts to hide the truth about what happened.''
“This report is nothing less than a wholesale indictment of the DEA and Honduran police for three poorly planned operations that resulted in the use of deadly force -- in one case, the shooting deaths of four innocent civilians -- and of incompetent investigations that never seriously pursued the truth,'' Leahy said.
He said the DEA, Honduran, and State Department officials provided Congress with "incomplete, inaccurate, and misleading information'' aimed at perpetuating "a self-serving narrative that was fundamentally flawed and demeaned the lives of the victims and the reputation of the United States.''