TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — 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 U.S.-bound cocaine. Now reverberations from the controversial drug raid are being felt from the sultry jungles of Central America to Capitol Hill.
Last week's Drug Enforcement Administration-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. It reportedly ended with two pregnant women and two men dead.
Honduras National Police Chief Ricardo Ramirez del Cid says supporting DEA agents stayed in the airborne helicopters throughout during the May 11 raid and he claims that he doesn't know if anyone died.
Numerous local officials said four people diving for lobster and shellfish were killed and that they were not involved with drug trafficking.
"These innocent residents were not involved in the drug problem, were in their boat going about their daily fishing activities ... when they gunned them down from the air," Lucio Vaquedano, mayor of the coastal town of Ahuas, said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
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."
In Honduras, furious local residents burned government offices the day of the raid.
"For centuries we have been a peaceful people who live in harmony with nature, but today we declared these Americans to be persona non grata in our territory," the leaders of five indigenous groups said in a press statement.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday that DEA agents were working with Honduran police aboard the helicopter.
"We did not use force, no U.S. personnel fired any weapons. We were involved purely supporting and advising," said Nuland.
She 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.
When asked about the shooting, U.S. Embassy official Matthias Mitman in Tegucigalpa provided a written statement saying that "the U.S. assisted Honduran forces with logistical support in this operation" as part of efforts to fight narcotics trafficking.
Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann said Thursday there's a distinction between the criminal justice system and a war.
"DEA agents are never permitted to be involved in the killing of innocent people, whether or not they are in pursuit of criminal suspects. 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," he said.
The State Department says 79 percent of all cocaine smuggling flights leaving South America first land in Honduras, and the U.S .has been working with the Honduran military to stop the drug traffickers. The Miskito region, where the shooting took place, is where those landings are centralized, officials say.
"We have a problem in the Miskito Coast because the community turns out en masse to defend the drug traffickers because of their situation, living in structural poverty," Honduran President Porfirio Lobo said Thursday.
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.
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 said Wednesday that neither troops nor equipment from the base were involved in Friday's incident.
Martha Mendoza reported from Santa Cruz, California. Associated Press writer Alberto Arce in Tegucigalpa contributed to this report.