U.S. officials are demanding answers after learning soldiers trained, vetted and equipped by the U.S. government chased down and killed a teenager in Honduras, where the U.S. is already withholding tens of millions of dollars in police and military aid over concerns about human rights violations.
Ebed Yanes, 15, was killed the night of May 26 after driving through a military checkpoint. His father, Wilfredo Yanes, a mild-mannered organic food supplier, tracked down the soldiers, eventually uncovering an allegedly high-level attempt to hide evidence. Further, his quest led to new information reported this week that the unit in question was supported by the U.S.
"The incident with Ebed Yanes was a tragedy and we urge the Honduran government to assure the perpetrators are brought to justice," State Department press adviser William Ostick said Wednesday.
Ostick said U.S. Ambassador Lisa Kubiske in Honduras had discussed the case with the Honduran special prosecutor for human rights and the country's armed forces shortly after the May incident and "encouraged them to investigate the case fully."
The U.S. had vetted the unit, and then provided it with a Ford 350 truck that was used to chase the teen from the checkpoint. Under U.S. law, all foreign units who receive military or police assistance are vetted before receiving any equipment or training.
Ostick said the U.S. expects individuals and units receiving U.S. support to have "the utmost respect for human rights throughout their careers." He said the U.S. government is helping the Honduras strengthen its internal affairs and insists that officials accused of wrongdoing be investigated.
The vetting begins at the U.S. Embassy, where individuals or units nominated for training or assistance are entered into an internal State Department database, called the International Vetting and Security Tracking system. They check governmental, nongovernmental and media reports on human rights abuses. In some cases the embassy also runs the names through local police and government offices for critical information. Embassies sometimes interview victims when there are indications that government forces have been involved in a gross human rights violation.
Earlier this year, the U.S. began withholding funds from Honduras after reports alleged that a newly appointed national police chief had ties to death squads. U.S. law prohibits assistance to foreign military units that violate human rights with impunity.
Ebed's death, officials said, is not a new trigger for withholding funds, but instead yet another disturbing incident raising concerns in the U.S. government about support for the current Honduran police and military. Other issues include the killings of human rights activists, journalists and opposition lawyers.
Until now, U.S. officials have not specified how much money is being withheld, but on Wednesday a State Department official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter said the withholding may reach $50 million, including $8.3 million in counter-narcotics aid, and $38 million under the Central America Regional Security Initiative.
That amounts to about half of all U.S. aid to Honduras for 2012, including humanitarian assistance.
"This is one of a number of killings involving members of Honduran security forces that Senator (Patrick) Leahy is asking the State Department about," David Carle, a top aide to Leahy, said in an email.
Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who is chairman of the Senate's State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations Subcommittee, has put a hold on some of the U.S. aid for Honduran military and police forces until his questions are answered.
Three soldiers have been charged in the case, one for murder. It is a violation of Honduran law to shoot at people who do not pose a threat.
The U.S. sent the leader of the squad, Josue Sierra, to cadet leader training last year at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly the School of the Americas, a Defense Department institute at Fort Benning, Georgia. Sierra was allegedly the first to fire at Yanes, according to court reports, and was in charge of the truck. He has been charged with attempting to cover up a crime and violating official duties.
Lt. Col. Reynel Funes, who allegedly ordered the soldiers to cover up evidence by swapping out their weapons at the armory, attended the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, in 2006 and the then-School of the Americas in 1984. Funes was being interrogated by prosecutors this week, along with two top military colonels, Juan Giron Reyes and Jesus Marmol Yanes. None have been charged.
In addition to withholding money from Honduras, the U.S. military has stopped sharing radar information with the Honduran air force after learning that suspected drug flights were being shot down.
Honduran historian Rodolfo Pastor said the responsibility lies at the highest levels.
"For years we have been saying Honduran soldiers and policemen are murderers," he said. "In the end, it is their officers and the highest civilian officials who have ordered murder and justified covering them up who are truly responsible."