NORIEGA: Firing back at the DEA

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Why is Sen. Patrick J. Leahy threatening to kill vital U.S. anti-narcotics support in a key smuggling corridor when his home state of Vermont is awash in illegal drugs? He must have a heck of a reason, right? You be the judge.

Despite months of investigation by various authorities, Mr. Leahy, a Democrat, continues to second-guess the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) eyewitness accounts of a firefight that took place on a river in the middle of the Honduran jungle in the dead of night. Honduran police, backed by DEA agents, risked their lives to intercept bundles of cocaine headed for American street corners.

The incident took place near Ahuas, a remote village on the east coast of Honduras — ground zero in an explosion of cocaine bound for the U.S. market. In the early-morning hours of May 11, 2012, U.S. authorities detected a suspicious aircraft bound for a clandestine airstrip. With DEA support, a Honduran team was deployed by U.S.-supplied helicopters to meet the smugglers, whose movements were being tracked by a U.S. surveillance plane.

By the time the authorities had arrived, 450 kilograms — nearly half a ton — of cocaine were transferred into a canoe on the Patuca River, apparently headed downstream to a waiting boat in the ocean for transshipment north. When the Honduran authorities and DEA team landed, the drug traffickers cut loose the unmanned canoe with the illicit cargo aboard to prevent its seizure. Two Hondurans and one DEA agent were able to retrieve and board the drifting craft, but its outboard motor stalled.

It was at this moment that a DEA surveillance video clearly shows another craft divert from its course across the river and head directly for the stalled boat and loaded with cocaine. (Such craft transporting local residents in the cool of the night are not uncommon on the river.)

Judging from the videotape taken from overhead, the man steering the second boat was deliberately trying to retrieve the drifting craft and its valuable cargo. In the darkness, however, he evidently was unable to see the three law enforcement officials onboard until the last second. The video clearly shows the powered craft ramming into the drifting boat. An exchange of gunfire commenced, as evidenced by a series of muzzle flashes from both boats. Four people on the powered craft were killed and others were injured before the boat pulled away into the night.

Owing to the fatalities, the incident has generated much controversy, fueled by the testimony of survivors that their boat never approached the cocaine-laden boat and that agents fired at them without cause. Mr. Leahy apparently gives more credence to these accounts, although they are flatly contradicted by the video, which has been shown to congressional staff.

Rather than recognizing the culpability of the drug traffickers, who exploit impoverished local populations by recruiting them to either participate in or hide their operations, Mr. Leahy seems determined to find fault with U.S. and Honduran law enforcement officers who risk their lives on such missions.

Mr. Leahy wrote the DEA administrator saying that the agency’s written version of the Ahuas incident contained “factual assertions [that] are highly questionable” and “materially inconsistent” — in other words, that the agency is lying to Congress. He also said that unless “appropriate remedial action” is taken, he “would be reluctant to support further DEA involvement in such operations financed by the Department of State in Honduras or elsewhere in Central America.”

It is bad enough that four Honduran villagers died in the firefight that night. If Mr. Leahy were then to make good on his threat to cut off anti-drug aid to weak governments that are struggling to fend off bloody narcotics gangs, millions of people in Central America and closer to home would pay an even heavier price. Moreover, because of the deployment of U.S. military assets elsewhere, the DEA remains basically the last line of defense for promoting U.S. security interests in the Western Hemisphere.

It is doubly ironic that Mr. Leahy is threatening to undermine the DEA’s mission when a recently released report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration finds that Vermont has the highest rate of illicit-drug use in the country. A Vermont Department of Health official told the media, “We’re addressing it on all fronts.” Apparently, Mr. Leahy didn’t get the memo.

The only good news from the Ahuas incident is that evidence collected from that shipment will be used in U.S. federal court as material evidence in the prosecution of the smuggling ring. Given that 87 percent of the cocaine entering the United States first passes through Honduras, Mr. Leahy should be praising courageous U.S. agents and their allies who stand between Vermonters and deadly drugs, not questioning and threatening their mission.

Roger F. Noriega, former assistant secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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