TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras -- A U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who killed a suspected drug trafficker during a raid in a remote region of Honduras was part of an aggressive new enforcement strategy that has sharply increased the interception of illegal drug flights.
The mission, called Operation Anvil, is run with six U.S. State Department helicopters, as well as a special team of DEA agents who work with Honduran police to move more quickly and pursue suspicious flights, according to a U.S. official in Honduras who couldn't be named for security reasons.
In little more than two months since the operation started, it has intercepted four flights. That compares to only seven from mid-2010 to the end of 2011 – less than one every two months.
The U.S. official said about 100 flights of suspicious origin come into Honduras every year.
With the new operation, Honduran and U.S. drug agents follow every flight they detect of unknown origin and work with non-U.S. contract pilots who don't have the restrictive rules of engagement that the U.S. military do.
The area of Brus Laguna, where the DEA says an agent shot a drug suspect as he was reaching for his gun Saturday, is part of the remote Mosquitia region that is dotted with clandestine airstrips and a vast network of rivers for carrying drugs to the coast.
Saturday's incident marked the first time that a DEA agent has killed someone in Central America since the agency began deploying specially trained agents several years ago to accompany local law enforcement personnel on all types of drug raids throughout the region, said DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden.
A May 11 raid by Honduran police with DEA advisers, also under Operation Anvil, killed four people and wounded four others, whom locals said were innocent civilians traveling the river at night. Honduran and DEA officials have said people on the boat fired first and the lawmen were acting in self-defense. The DEA said none of its agents fired their guns in that incident.
Operation Anvil also netted cocaine shipments on May 6 in the Mosquitia and June 13 in Olancho state, totaling more three quarters of a ton of cocaine in about two months.
The weekend raid was a "great example of positive U.S.-Honduran cooperation," said U.S. Embassy spokesman Stephen Posivak in Tegucigalpa.
But the aggressive tactics have come under fire from human rights groups and some political interests in Washington, especially since the May 11 attack.
The Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras filed a complaint in May with the regional prosecutor in the Gracias a Dios region where the attack occurred, claiming human rights violations by Honduran and U.S. authorities. The group's investigation concluded that the dead and wounded were innocent civilians.
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 Barack 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."
Operation Anvil is part of an overall increase in U.S. efforts in Honduras, where drug trafficking and murder rates have spiked in the last year or so. With 82 murders per 100,000 people, the U.N. lists Honduras as the most dangerous country in the world. Its national police force is rife with corruption, with some calling it one of country's main organized crime operations.
International crackdowns in Mexico and the Caribbean have pushed drug trafficking to Central America, which is now the crossing point for 84 percent of all U.S.-bound cocaine, according to Joint Task Force-Bravo, a U.S. military installation in Comayagua, Honduras.
It says Honduras is now main landing point for such drug flights from South America.
The U.S. is increasing its DEA personnel in Tegucigalpa from four to seven, the U.S. official said. Another eight to 10 agents are stationed in the north as part of the Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Teams, known as FAST, to train Hondurans and work on the State Department helicopters, all Huey II aircraft based in the coastal city of La Ceiba, according to a state department report. They are rotated among three so-called Forward Operating Bases in Puerto Castilla, El Aguacate and Mocoron bases near remote drug-running regions.
The U.S. also recently established a full Narcotics Affairs Section in the embassy for the first time and is seeking its first extradition of an accused Honduran drug lord, Carlos Arnold Lobo, under a constitutional amendment passed by Honduras in January allowing its nationals to be extradited to the U.S.
The U.S. Embassy could not immediately say how much more is being spent in Honduras because much of the funding comes from the Central America Regional Security Initiative, about $100 million a year for efforts across the region. The State helicopters, for example, are officially allocated to Guatemala even though they're now working in Honduras.
U.S. officials, including with the DEA, have done background checks and have trained 42 Honduran national police to work on drug-trafficking cases alongside DEA agents and U.S. military at Joint Task Force-Bravo.
Until April, the DEA and Hondurans had relied mainly on Joint Task Force-Bravo helicopters to chase illicit flights. But because of the rules of engagement for the U.S. military in Honduras, they could only fire back to protect themselves and their equipment, and not to protect the DEA or Honduran police who can come under fire in the field.
"These helicopters are different in that they're not U.S. pilots and they have the ability to fire in self-defense and in the protection of ground elements, where JTF Bravo, they're limited in rules of engagement," the U.S. official said.
The 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, Posivak said. He said six other people were arrested later on suspicion of aiding the smuggling operation.
The incident took place about 12 miles (20 kilometers) from Ahuas, the site of the May 11 shooting, according to Ahuas mayor Lucia 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 another 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, and included Guatemalan contract pilots and Honduran police and military, with the DEA working as advisers.
People in 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.
Investigations also continue into the May 11 Ahuas shooting, with confusion remaining about what actually happened.
Associated Press writer Martha Mendoza contributed to this report from Santa Cruz, California.