A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent has shot and killed a suspected drug trafficker during a raid in a remote northern area of Honduras known as a landing spot for illicit flights carrying cocaine from South America, U.S. officials said Sunday.
It is the first time a DEA agent has killed someone during an operation since the agency began deploying specially trained agents several years ago to accompany local law enforcement personnel on drug raids in Latin America, said DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden.
Saturday's raid was the fourth operation in two months in a stepped-up U.S.-Honduran effort to fight drug trafficking in the sparsely populated Mosquitia region, where flights from Venezuela land on dirt airstrips and locals are paid to transport the illegal cargo to boats headed to the Caribbean. A similar raid on May 11 killed four people, whom locals claimed were innocent civilians traveling the river at night. Honduran police said the victims were in a boat that fired on authorities. The DEA said none of its agents fired their guns in that incident.
This weekend's operation occurred around 12:30 a.m., when a U.S. agent and Honduran National Police arrested four suspects and seized 792 pounds (360 kilograms) of cocaine, said U.S. Embassy spokesman Stephen Posivak in Tegucigalpa. He said six other people were arrested later on suspicion of aiding the smuggling operation.
Posivak said several people were unloading cocaine from an airplane at a remote landing strip when the law enforcement agents swooped in on helicopters. He said the U.S. agent opened fire after the suspect reached for a gun in a holster, and the suspect died at the scene. Three of the men arrested were part of the ground crew, Posivak said, and the fourth was piloting the small plane loaded with cocaine. He said their nationalities are not yet clear.
Posivak confirmed that the law enforcement agents were working in State Department helicopters. Posivak stressed that their arrests and seizures reflect "a great example of positive US-Honduran cooperation."
The incident took place about 12 miles (20 kilometers) away from Ahuas, the site of the May 11 shooting, in the area of Brus Laguna, according to Ahuas mayor Lucio Baquedano. No one from the town was involved, Baquedano said, adding that at least 11 clandestine airstrips sit between Ahuas and Brus Laguna.
Ministry of Security spokesman Ivan Mejia said Sunday that that the Honduran government has sent police, a judge, a prosecutor and medical examiners to the scene to investigate. DEA investigators are assisting, Posivak said.
DEA agents in Honduras are bound by Justice Department rules of engagement, which only allow them to fire weapons if their or someone else's life is in danger. Posivak said that appeared to be the case on Saturday.
"During the operation, a fifth suspect attempted to engage the police team with a firearm and was shot by a DEA agent in self-defense," he said. "The suspect subsequently died at the scene. There were no other injuries or fatalities."
The State Department says 79 percent of all cocaine smuggling flights leaving South America first land in Honduras. 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.
The stepped-up operations have been criticized by Honduran human rights groups, U.S. activists and some on Capitol Hill.
American University anthropology professor Adrienne Pine, who studies Honduras, sent a letter signed by 40 Honduran scholars and former government officials, and supported by 300 academics in 29 countries, to President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this month, demanding the U.S. cease support for the Honduran military and police.
"It's really troubling," she said Sunday. "It's absolutely not appropriate for US law enforcement to be killing other people in other countries."
Other seizures occurred earlier in May in the Mosquitia region and on June 13 in Olancho state, where a joint U.S.-Honduran operation pursued a plane and later found it crashed with both pilots dead. Agents seized 90 pounds (41 kilograms) of cocaine from the scene.