State Department officials say the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has opened an investigation into a drug raid in a remote Central American jungle where local authorities say four people were killed.
"There's an ongoing government investigation by the government of Honduras into this matter. And I'm also aware that there's a separate DEA investigation," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Friday.
DEA agents were working side by side with Honduran counterparts in helicopters during a predawn operation May 11 that authorities have said was tracking a cocaine shipment as it was unloaded from a plane and onto a boat. Officials say the boat was near a pier, and beyond that lay a small cluster of homes.
There are various versions about what happened, and details are disputed.
Someone fired on the law enforcement agents first, and Honduran officers returned fire, a DEA official told The Associated Press on Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigations are continuing.
Local police chief Ariel Bonilla has said that in his investigation, he was told the law enforcement agents fired first. He said he found they mistakenly shot at a passenger boat, killing four people and wounding four more. The helicopters later landed at a nearby village, where residents say law enforcement agents knocked down doors and handcuffed locals in a search for a drug trafficker.
The DEA official said DEA agents never fired their guns during the entire incident, and expressed skepticism about who and how many people were killed. The official said the DEA had yet to see verified names or information about funerals.
According to family members, doctors at the nearest hospital, local officials and police investigators in Honduras, the victims included two men, Wilmer Lucas Walter, 14; and Enerson Martinez Martinez Henriquez, 21; and two women, Juana Jackson Ambrosio, 28; and Candelaria Pratt Nelson, 48. Ambrosio and Nelson were both pregnant, their relatives said.
The AP saw locations where family members said Walter and Ambrosio were buried and saw their names in a government death registry. Nelson and Henriquez were from a neighboring community and family members said they took the bodies home to be buried.
AP also interviewed three people who said they suffered bullet wounds in the incident. They told AP they were sleeping in a passenger boat and awoke to the noise of helicopters. They said all the drug traffickers got away.
U.S. law enforcement officials say Honduras has become a key transfer point for South American drug traffickers, who land planes loaded with tons of cocaine and move the drugs into boats on its journey north.
In March 2011, and twice in last month, gunfire broke out while DEA agents were working with Honduran national police intercepting traffickers, the DEA official said Tuesday.
The shooting on May 11 sparked demands among human rights activists for the U.S. to pull its law enforcement agents out of the country.
The DEA official said the incident has not prompted his agency to make any changes in its strategy, and it will continue to deploy so-called Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Teams in Latin America and Afghanistan. The FAST teams, each made up of 10 agents, were first created for work in remote areas of Afghanistan, but are very effective at supporting police in remote parts of Central America as well, he said.
The DEA official said the teams typically fly in on State Department helicopters and land near landing strips or piers while drugs are being moved. The U.S. agents' role is primarily to help local police on the ground communicate with each other and to feed them information from overhead surveillance. In addition, the DEA agents can offer medical support, the official said.
Although the DEA has not said whether agents got off the helicopters on May 11, the DEA official said they usually do.
"Remember, the two biggest things were the communications and the medical support. We can't do that sitting in a helicopter," the official said.
The official said DEA agents are armed during these operations, under an agreement with the Honduran government. U.S. Justice Department rules of engagement allow them to fire only if they believe someone's life is in danger. The agents on these missions also have advanced lifesaving training, and saved a Honduran police officer's life last year after he was shot in his groin.
Associated Press writer Martha Mendoza reported this story from Santa Cruz, California, and Alberto Arce reported in Tegucigalpa. AP writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
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