TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — 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 destination for illicit flights carrying cocaine from South America, U.S. officials said Sunday.
The incident marked the first time that 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 areas of the country, 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 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 and said their arrests and seizures reflect "a great example of positive US-Honduran cooperation," although he said the loss of life was unfortunate.
The incident took place in the area of Brus Laguna, about 12 miles (20 kilometers) away from Ahuas, the site of the May 11 shooting, 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.
The operation was similar to the May 11 raid, according to a U.S. official who wasn't authorized to speak on the record. The previous operation involved four helicopters, two in the air and two that landed. The previous operation included Guatemalan contract pilots and Honduran police and military, with the DEA working as advisors.
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.
The helicopters tracking the flight early Saturday saw about 40 people transporting drugs from the plane, the official said. They were intercepted by law enforcement about a half mile from the landing strip, where the seizure, arrests and shooting took place. Most of the 40 people scattered.
The DEA said it would not release the name of the agent who killed the suspect.
"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," Posivak said. "The suspect subsequently died at the scene. There were no other injuries or fatalities."
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.
"It's very important that in less than 24 hours, the Honduran authorities sent an investigation team to the area," he said.
Investigations also continue into the May 11 Ahuas shooting, with confusion remaining about what actually happened. Badequano said some of the bodies were exhumed Saturday to study what kinds of bullets killed them.
The State Department says 79 percent of all cocaine smuggling flights leaving South America first land in Honduras. Last year, with U.S. help, the Honduran government stopped more than 22 metric tons of cocaine in Honduras and adjacent waters, nearly four times more than in 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 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," Pine said Sunday. "It's absolutely not appropriate for U.S. law enforcement to be killing other people in other countries."
Other seizures occurred May 6 in the Mosquitia region and on June 13 in Olancho state, where a joint U.S.-Honduran operation pursued a plane and found it crashed with both pilots dead. Agents seized 90 pounds (41 kilograms) of cocaine from the scene.
Martha Mendoza reported from Santa Cruz, California.