Honduras: DEA agent kills in Miskito Coast narco raid

A US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent shot a man to death in Honduras during a raid on a smuggling operation in the wee hours of June 23, the US embassy announced. The man who was killed had been reaching for his weapon, and the agent fired in self-defense, the statement said. The incident marks the first confirmed time a DEA agent has killed during an operation since the agency began deploying teams to Latin America over a generation ago.

Embassy spokesman Stephen Posivak told the New York Times the incident began when a suspected trafficker’s plane landed at a strip south of the village of Brus Laguna (Gracias a Dios department). A surveillance aircraft observed about 40 people unloading cargo and taking it to a staging site in nearby woods. Four State Department helicopters, carrying both Honduran police officers and members of the DEA’s Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team (FAST) were dispatched to the site, and intercepted the shipment. They arrested four people, and recovered several weapons and about 360 kilograms (792 pounds) of cocaine. Posivak said during the operation agents told a group suspects to surrender. Four of the suspects did so and were arrested, but a fifth reached for a sidearm. The US agent shot him before he could fire.

Another six were arrested in a later sweep of the area. The nationalities of the arrested men have not yet been determined. The incident took place about 12 miles (20 kilometers) away from Ahuas, site of the controversial May 11 joint raid by DEA and Honduran forces that left four villagers dead. (NYT, AP, June 24)

US Congressional aides review video of Ahuas raid
US Congressional staff have now reviewed aerial surveillance video footage of the May 11 raid—which the New York Times refers to as a “shootout” (despite the fact that witnesses only report fire from one side). The footage shows a long, dugout boat ramming a smaller canoe carrying Honduran and US agents—and a seized cocaine shipment—followed by a “brief but furious round of gunfire.”

It had not previously been reported that the incident began with one boat ramming a second one. But the video has evidently satisfied Congressional staff members that the DEA agents on the scene did not fire their weapons. The video was taken from a US Customs and Border Protection P-3 surveillance plane, and was reviewed by the New York Times through a confidential source.

The footage shows that minutes after the cargo was loaded onto the dugout at a communal dock, four helicopters appeared, dropping flares, and Honduran and US agents roped to the ground. The presumed smugglers scattered, abandoning the boat, which began to drift. Three figures identified as two Honduran police and one DEA agent boarded the boat. One, identified as a DEA agent, moved to the back and began working to get the outboard motor started. As the P-3 and the helicopters circled, a similar but larger river craft approached, with several passengers onboard. This boat rammed one end of the first craft. In the moments before contact, there are flashes which US officials called indications that the occupants of the larger boat had fired. After the ramming, a flurry of shots from the boat carrying the agents is seen.

The mayor of Ahuas told Honduran reporters and later repeated to the Times that helicopters had been pursuing a boat with smugglers when the agents opened fire on another boat carrying villagers who were fishing, killing four, including two pregnant women. Disputing the mayor’s version, US and Honduran officials said that after the agents had landed and taken control of a boatload of drugs, a second boat approached and fired upon them. They said the Honduran police and a helicopter door gunner returned fire and the second boat withdrew.

Hilda Lezama, with bullet wounds in both legs, identified herself as the owner of the boat full of passengers. She and her husband were running a river taxi service, bringing 11 passengers on a six-hour ride from the coast, traveling at night to beat the heat. Just before 3 AM, they reached the shore and passengers started to climb onto land when four helicopters appeared overhead and they came under fire, she said. Reached by telephone June 22, Lezama denied her river taxi rammed the other boat, and reiterated that all the passengers on her boat were innocent. “I didn’t see the boat with drugs on it,” she said. “The police told us that afterward. We didn’t see any collision or anything.” (NYT, June 22)

Honduran Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla said that the agent who killed the man at Brus Laguna had also been involved in the Ahuas raid. He also said the shooting was in self-defense, adding: “I recommend to the population of La Mosquitia that they do not continue supporting the criminal bands; the authority is going to continue working in this zone, we are going to continue with our duty…under the law, to safeguard lives.” (El Heraldo, Tegucigalpa, June 24)

See our last posts on Honduras, the Miskito Coast and Central America.