The US Drug Enforcement Administration has come under fire in the Central American nation of Honduras where agents, actively participating with local police officers in rural patrols, formed part of a team that was involved in an attack on a small ferry boat that left four people dead and several wounded.
The pre-dawn raid on May 11 in the Ahuas sector in the Gracias a Díos department is under investigation by Honduran authorities. Wounded survivors said they were traveling on the Patuca River when helicopters appeared at around 3am and began shooting at them without any provocation.
The DEA has said that its agents were on board the helicopters chasing a ferry boat full of traffickers but did not actually fire their guns. Rather, it was the Honduran police who began shooting after being shot at first from the ferry boat, the DEA has stated.
The US government is cooperating with Honduran authorities in the ongoing investigation, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said on Tuesday.
Last Thursday, she denied that any US personnel had fired their weapons. "We were involved in purely supporting and advising. The units that we support are comprised primarily of the host country's - in this case, Honduran - law enforcement officers. They were trained; they were vetted, as part of this program we work on together."
But the mayor of Ahuas said that the helicopters fired at a second small ferry boat, killing four, including two pregnant women.
I had to stay in the water for some time because they kept shooting"
"I had to stay in the water for some time because they kept shooting," Lucio Adán Nelson told the Associated Press. Nelson, who was hit in the arm and back, explained he was returning home from a visit to see his mother when the helicopters appeared. The boat was carrying 53 people.
The residents of the Caribbean coast of Honduras belong to the indigenous Mosquita community. The NGO Ecos de Mosquita said that one of the passengers of the ferry boat was able to photograph the helicopter that was carrying the DEA.
"There was an incident, where there was shooting and people were killed and wounded," said Honduran Police Chief Ricardo Ramírez without going into further detail, according to the Tegucigalpa daily La Liberator. On Tuesday, President Porfirio Lobo fired Ramírez for allegedly not firing a police officer accused of the kidnapping and murder of radio journalist Alfredo Villatoro, who was found dead on May 15.
In Washington, Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, acknowledged that the helicopters used in the incident belonged to the department's anti-drug program.
"They were piloted by Central Americans. In this case, my understanding is that they were piloted by the Guatemalan military and some contract pilots who are temporarily deployed to Honduras," she said.