Bullets flew as U.S. helicopters swooped toward a river boat. Honduran national police rappelled to the ground and locals scattered after loading close to 1,000 pounds of cocaine. Now reverberations from a drug raid that locals say killed four innocent people are being felt from the sultry jungles of Central America to Capitol Hill.
Last week's DEA-supported predawn raid on the banks of a remote Honduran river began when U.S. drug agents and Honduran national police tracked an airplane loaded with cocaine as it entered the country from South America, Honduras National Police Chief Ricardo Ramirez del Cid said in an interview Thursday.
Ramirez said his officers were in four helicopters when they came under fire from the boat. They fired back and then descended on ropes to the river after the shooting stopped. By the time they got there, they only found a boat full of cocaine. He said they didn't know if anyone died. There were no people, dead, alive or injured.
Numerous local officials, including Mayor Lucio Vaquedano of the coastal town of Ahuas, said four people, including two pregnant women, were killed. He insisted they were diving for lobster and shellfish when were killed and that they were not involved with drug trafficking.
Congressman Howard Berman said Thursday that if the reports that innocent people were killed are true, the U.S. should review this part of its assistance to Honduras.
"I have consistently expressed deep concerns regarding the danger of pouring U.S. security assistance into a situation where Honduran security forces are involved in serious human rights violations," said the California Democrat. "The problems are getting worse, not better, making such a review all the more urgent."
There were many versions of what happened in the early morning May 11 and by the end of the day Thursday, the DEA wouldn't confirm many details.
The DEA never fired during the operation, acting only in an advisory role, both the U.S. and Hondurans said. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said she didn't know if the DEA told the Hondurans to fire back.
"As I understand it, the Honduran authorities are doing a broad investigation of this incident to evaluate what exactly happened and how it happened," she said in a briefing Thursday. "I think we need to let that go forward."
The U.S. has assisted with drug operations in Honduras since the 1970s, but activity has increased in the last few years, officials and statistics indicate. As the Mexican government has cracked down on drug cartels, transport of cocaine has shifted to areas like Honduras' Miskito Coast, a remote jungle along the Caribbean that is isolated, hardly policed and populated with poor people willing to load and unload illicit cargo to make money.
The State Department says 79 percent of all cocaine smuggling flights leaving South America first land in Honduras.
Ramirez gave one version of the operation, saying U.S. and Honduran agents were monitoring the ground from four helicopters in a region known as Gracias a Dios, about 300 miles (500 kilometers) from the capital of Tegucigalpa along the coastal border with Nicaragua. It is known as the Mosquitia for the indigenous Miskito that have lived in the region for centuries.
Honduran forces have conducted numerous operations in the area and have a policy of not attacking when the plan lands, because it is quickly surrounded by families who unload the drugs, Ramirez said.
"They're not drug traffickers," he said. "They're just local residents who do the work because they get paid."
Honduran President Porfirio Lobo said Thursday that it's a huge problem along the country's Caribbean coast.
"The community turns out en masse to defend the drug traffickers because of their situation, living in structural poverty," he told reporters.
Honduran police only intervene, Ramirez said, when the drugs are being transported to their next destination.
In this case, he said drugs had been loaded on the boat and were headed down a muddy waterway when people in the boat fired on the helicopters. Honduran police fired back, Ramirez said, then descended on ropes from helicopters after the shooting stopped to confiscate the drugs. He would not say how many agents were involved in the operation.
Ethan Nadelmann who runs the pro-legalization group, Drug Policy Alliance, criticized the DEA's involvement in a fatal attack, even if U.S. agents didn't shoot.
"DEA agents are never permitted to be involved in the killing of innocent people, whether or not they are in pursuit of criminal suspects," he said. "What happened in Honduras appears to have crossed the line - an action that was not approved by the U.S. Congress - and is, ultimately, unethical."
The DEA has a Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team based in Honduras, one of five in the region, according to congressional testimony. By the end of 2011, 42 Honduran law enforcement agents had been vetted to work with the DEA, according to State Department reports.
Nuland said the State Department has two helicopters in Honduras involved in missions carrying members of Honduras' National Police Tactical Response Team. And she said the aircraft were piloted by Guatemalan military officers and outside contractor pilots.
Last year, with help from the U.S., the Honduran government stopped more than 22 metric tons of cocaine in Honduras and adjacent waters, nearly four times more than 2010, the State Department has said. Although U.S. military helicopters and personnel from Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras have been involved in previous seizures, U.S. Embassy officials that neither troops nor equipment from the base were involved in last week's incident.
Martha Mendoza reported from Santa Cruz, California. Associated Press writers Alberto Arce in Tegucigalpa contributed to this report.