After five years of defending its agents’ actions in a deadly Honduran cartel case, the DEA was forced by the Freedom of Information Act to release an infrared video they continued to refer to as evidence justifying a gunfire exchange that led to the death of four Honduran civilians. In the 2012 incident, DEA agents as a part of the agency’s Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team (FAST) worked with Honduran police to stop a 2:00 a.m. riverboat cocaine exchange. However, the operation did not end as planned. After securing the Honduran cartel’s boat on the river, another vessel came straight toward the DEA agents. With no signs of stopping, the boat rammed into the DEA-claimed boat and prompted DEA agents to exchange fire under the assumption that the oncoming boat held cartel members.
After the incident, when the DEA had confirmed the dead as civilians and not members of the cartel, it claimed that its agents reacted to the aggression according to protocol; it also claims that the passenger boat initiated the gunfire. Video evidence of the exchange remained in the hands of the DEA until late October of this year. After analysis by Bruce Koenig, a former supervisor of the FBI's forensic audio/video group hired by ProPublica and The New York Times to analyze the images, the infrared video only detected one flash of light from the passenger boat, which Koenig determined was not likely caused by a gunshot. Koenig believes the flash probably occurred due to a bullet striking the engine, which was later found to have a bullet hole.
For five years the DEA refused to acknowledge their mistakes and yet this fact appears only as a small detail when considering the peculiarity of the situation as a whole. What vested interest does the United States have in the Honduran drug cartel and why does an Advisory Support Team have the right to use firearms in a foreign country?
FAST is the DEA’s second iteration of a military-style enforcement group. Originally created to combat Taliban-linked opium traffickers in the Afghanistan war zone, it expanded to Latin America in 2008 in an attempt to limit transnational drug smugglers. While intended to support other country’s national authorities, according to the inspectors general’s report of the Honduran case, DEA agents “made critical decisions and directed the actions taken during the mission.”
The United States’ cliched stereotype as the world’s “big brother” could not be further exemplified by the DEA’s foreign involvement. Beginning in 1949 with one of the DEA’s predecessor agencies, the United States Bureau of Narcotics, American agents were sent to Turkey and France to reduce the production of heroin, which the French illegally exported to the United States. By 2002 the DEA operated with fifty-eight foreign countries under the basis that “the trafficking syndicates responsible for the drug trade inside the United States do not operate solely within its borders,” according to the DEA’s website.
The Influence of the DEA Versus Foreign Drug Enforcement
Drug trafficking persists as a problem of global proportions, and while the United States has the world’s largest agency to combat illegal drug activities, no other country has found it necessary to have a drug enforcement agency with the same degree of global influence. The United Kingdom has no centralized drug prevention agency and relies on its National Crime Agency to handle drug related crimes. China has a branch of its Ministry of Public Security (MPS) designated as the Narcotics Control Bureau, which “takes allegations of drug related corruption seriously,” according to the US Department of State. Unfortunately China’s drug-related corruption that does exist is not reported due to the country’s government-controlled press. Moments that could not escape the world press include the arrest of Zhou Younkang, former member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee and Minister of Public Security, and “corruption at the provincial, prefecture, and country level outside of Beijing also continues to pose a problem for the central government,” according to State Department reports.
The DEA’s apparent attempt to cover the actions of its agents in Honduras reveals a problem in the United States opposite to that of China. Instead of facing difficulties tracking illicit actions within the country, the widespread involvement of the DEA across the world leaves the US central government in the dark about the details of the DEA’s international involvement. This has resulted in possible corruption as shown by the DEA’s attempts to remain secretive in their foreign involvement by refusal to willingly give the Honduran video footage to the public.
Russia also spearheaded a war on drugs within the country in 2003 with the creation of the Federal Drug Control Service of Russia (FKSN), an organization that grew to include forty thousand employees in an attempt to reduce the number of Russians using illegal drugs, which was then four million. However, this organization quickly led to corruption. According to NYU professor Mark Galeotti, author of a recent study on nationalism and drug policy in Russia, gangs paid off FSKN officers, thereby counteracting any efforts put forth by the organization. In April of 2016, Russian President Vladimir Putin dissolved the FSKN and moved the agencies responsibilities to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and leaving the country without an organization specifically dedicated to enforcing drug laws.
The Need for a New Approach for Drug Enforcement
Aside from the DEA’s reasoning foreign involvement necessary due to foreign exportation of drugs into the United States, the amount of drug trafficking that affects the United States in comparison to the immense scope of the DEA is vastly disproportionate to other country’s actions to stop the use and trafficking of illegal drugs. For instance, opiate production is highest in Afghanistan and the drug is imported predominantly by Western, Central, and Southeastern Europe. The United States comes in third among countries with the highest quantity of seized amphetamines behind Near and Middle East/Southwest Asia (20.3 percent) and Central America (12.7 percent), accounting for 6.5 percent of the world’s amphetamine trafficking.
This statistics are not meant to detract from the reality that the United States undoubtedly has a drug problem. The United States has the world’s highest percentage of illicit drug usage. However, given that the United States only accounts for a fraction of the world’s drug trafficking, the task of reducing drug-related deaths and drug usage should not become the sole responsibility of the United States DEA. This issue does not stem from other country’s dependence on the United States to help with their drug trafficking problems, but rather the American ethos of taking care of the world’s problems.
The DEA’s efforts remain noble, but perhaps misplaced. Seemingly boundless energy is placed into the trafficking side versus the social side of drug related problems. Drugs are illegal due to their ability to cause death and deteriorate the human body and mind, and while if no drugs existed then it would be impossible to use them, a social infrastructure that opposes drugs deserves investment. Rather than training DEA agents to take on military actions or solve other countries’ drug circulation problems, direct resources devoted to drug-use prevention and rehabilitation in the United States are necessary.
Emma Dyer is a first-year Biology and Political Science major. Last summer she interned for Centro Desarollo Integral in Costa Rica as a support group leader and English teacher for women formerly or currently involved in prostitution. On campus Emma runs for the varsity Cross Country and Track teams. She enjoys photography and always starts the day with coffee and the Times.