US agents on deadly Honduran military operation
May 16, 2012 -- 5:19 PM
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials said Wednesday that their agents were working with Honduran military forces aboard a helicopter during an anti-drug operation in which several people were reportedly slain.
Human rights organizations and Honduran news media say at least four people were killed and several more were wounded when forces aboard the helicopter fired on a boat Friday night in eastern Honduras.
"We were there in a support role, working with our counterparts," DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden said in Washington.
U.S. government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because their statements had not been authorized, said Honduran law enforcement did not initiate the shooting, but rather returned fire after being attacked. The officials said the DEA agents did not fire.
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.
The shooting took place on the Patuca River in northeastern Honduras in a region known as Gracias a Dios. National newspapers in Honduras quoted local officials as saying the victims were diving for lobster and shellfish.
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 dealers.
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 Camp 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.
George Withers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, which promotes human rights and democracy in the region, said his organization is concerned that DEA agents are frequently embedded with police and military throughout Central and South America for counter-drug operations. He said it's disconcerting to have Latin American military forces engaged in police work.
"We have seen over the years that whenever the military interfaces with the populace, incidents of human rights abuses go way up," he said. "We're concerned that the U.S. is encouraging the use of the military for police work."
In a written statement, the Committee of the Families of the Disappeared of Honduras, a human rights organization, said that "the so called Honduran authorities have the ethical and political duty to demand from the U.S. Department of State an explanation and a public apology, and to punish those responsible."