Hunt for trafficker terrorizes Honduran villagers

AHUAS, Honduras (AP) — A fearsome rattle of gunfire from the sky. The roar of helicopters descending on a tiny, Honduran town. And the sound of commandos speaking in English as they battered down doors and detained locals in the hunt for a drug trafficker.

Villagers say the drug bust that left four passengers of a riverboat dead after helicopters mistakenly fired on civilians continued into the predawn hours when commandos, including some they think were Americans, raided their town.

Heavily armed Honduran police in at least two helicopters landed and took off numerous times while agents searched homes and detained several people in the village on the banks of a river deep in Honduras' Mosquitia region, named for the Miskito Indians. In the end, enraged residents torched the home of the town's suspected drug trafficker in retaliation for the fatalities on the river.

One chopper landed in front of Hilaria Zavala's home at about 3 a.m. and the six men who got out kicked down her door. She said a "gringo" threw her husband on the ground and put a gun to his head demanding to know about a trafficker named "El Renco."

"They kept him that way for two hours," said Zavala, who owns a market near the main pier in Ahuas. "They asked if he was El Renco, if he worked for El Renco, if the stuff belonged to El Renco. My husband said he had nothing to do with it."

The shooting started after midnight, when Honduran national police tracking a cocaine shipment after it had been unloaded from a plane and onto a boat near the village were fired upon, authorities say. The officers returned fire, mistakenly shooting at a passenger boat, killing four people and wounding four more.

Celin Eriksson 17, whose cousin Haskel Tom Brooks Wood, 14, died in the boat, was waiting on the dock for his family before the shooting when he saw a white truck and about 50 men coming from Ahuas. He hid because he knew they were traffickers, but saw them load bundles into a boat. When the helicopters appeared, the men ran. He said he heard no gunshots coming from the ground. The boat with bundles went drifting by itself down the river.

The commandos who came off the helicopter handcuffed him, Celin said, and put a gun to his head. Some spoke to him in English, which he also speaks.

"If you don't talk we'll kill you," the boy said he was told. "Where is El Renco? Where is the merchandise?"

He said they made him walk along the river bank with them to find the boat with the bundles. Then they left him, handcuffed. He found a neighbor who broke the plastic handcuffs with a machete and saved them to prove to authorities that he had been detained by commandos.

The May 11 shooting and subsequent raid raises questions about what role, if any, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents who were on the helicopters played in the events described by villagers. The DEA has repeatedly said its agents on the mission, which included two U.S. helicopters, acted only in an advisory role to their Honduran National Police counterparts and did not use their weapons.

DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden, when asked to respond to the villagers' story, said Monday night that there were no DEA personnel in the village.

The U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa referred all questions about the operation to Honduran authorities. The State Department said last week that the helicopters used in the operation were piloted by Guatemalan soldiers and contract pilots who are temporarily deployed to Honduras. It did not identify the contractors' nationalities.

Jose Ruiz, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees the U.S. military in Honduras, said there were no American troops there.

"We can confirm there were no U.S. military personnel or U.S. military assets involved in anyway. Our joint task force occasionally supports DEA, but they had no personnel or equipment in that particular mission," Ruiz said.

Honduran Security Ministry spokesman Hector Ivan Mejia said he had no information about the raid reported by residents.

Several villagers, however, told The Associated Press that some of the masked agents were gringos.

"They spoke in English among themselves and on the radios," said Zavala, whose husband was held at gunpoint. "They had brought a computer and they put in the names of everyone and sought identification for everyone."

On the shore near the main pier for Ahuas, Sandra Madrid cowered in her home from the bursts of gunfire coming from overhead. The manager of the village's main river transportation company said it lasted 15 minutes. "I've never seen a machine like that," Madrid said of the helicopter. "I've never seen a shootout like that."

About an hour later, the machines landed in her front yard. Neighbor Mariano Uitol said about 40 men in total got out. "They told everyone to get inside and don't anyone leave."

The commandos seized a neighbor's boat and gasoline to travel down the river, Madrid said, taking Hilaria Zavala's teenage nephew to guide them. He had been waiting on the dock for his mother in the shot-up passenger boat.

Witnesses said the agents made several trips carrying sacks and loading them onto the helicopters that took off and landed repeatedly over the next two hours.

An investigation by Honduran military based in nearby Puerto Lempira concluded that the agents fired on the civilians by accident, said Col. Ronald Rivera Amador, commander of the Honduran Joint Military Task Force-Paz Garcia.

He said the task force conducted only part of the investigation and sent its findings to the Joint Task Force Gen. Rene Osorio. Mejia said a Honduran federal prosecutor is leading the investigation.

The isolated savannah and jungle region of northern Honduras has been a drug-running area for decades. But cocaine shipments increased dramatically in the last few years as authorities cracked down in Mexico and other parts of the main drug routes from South America to the United States. The U.S. State Department says 79 percent of all cocaine smuggling flights leaving South America land in Honduras.

Ahuas Mayor Lucio Baquedano, who said all the shooting victims were innocents, said that there is a drug trafficking cell in his town and that the number of clandestine landing strips is not only increasing, but getting closer to populated areas and putting more uninvolved people at risk.

He said the traffickers who used to operate in more isolated spots now seek shorter routes to the river, where boats take the illicit cargo to the Caribbean coast.

The strip where the agents detected a landing on May 11 is less than 2 miles (3 kilometers) from the village, Baquedano said.

"The cell that operates in town is very powerful and up to now has had no opposition," he said, adding that he can't stop them. "We had meetings and I told them that the landing strips shouldn't be so close to town. Now we know the consequences when the strips are close to people."

Members of the U.S. Congress and human rights groups have been ramping up their criticism of U.S. spending in this small Central American country of 8 million people, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world and alarmingly low conviction rates.

The State Department is required to vet the Honduran National Police to make sure they have not committed gross human rights violations, or it can withhold U.S. assistance. It has not been withheld, despite a demand from 87 members of Congress to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a year ago asking for further investigation.

The State Department's most recent human rights report on Honduras is a scathing 18 pages that describe unlawful killings by police and government agents.

In the region surrounded Ahuas, impoverished families earn money by helping load and unload cocaine, a well-known problem noted by government officials from President Porfirio Lobo to the local police chief, Filiberto Pravia Rodriguez.

Pravia said he heard the helicopters in the middle of the night but did not go out until soldiers knocked at his door about 5:30 a.m. He and a judge tried to go to the river, where soldiers said there were two bodies in the water, but they were met by an angry crowd waving machetes and clubs and carrying cans of gasoline.

"I was lucky I could run," he said.

Several hours later, the crowd turned its wrath on the home reportedly owned by El Renco. They burned his home and those of three of his friends.

"The family and friends of the victims burned the homes because of the narcos," Zavala said. "This whole mess was their fault ... because of them, we all had to pay."


Associated Press writer Alberto Arce reported this story in Ahuas and Katherine Corcoran reported from Tegucigalpa. AP writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Martha Mendoza in Santa Cruz, California, contributed to this report.