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Hunt for trafficker terrorizes Honduran villagers

Associated Press Modified: May 22, 2012 at 8:31 pm •  Published: May 22, 2012

AHUAS, Honduras (AP) — A fearsome rattle of gunfire from the sky. The roar of helicopters descending on a tiny, Honduran town. And the sound of commandos speaking in English as they battered down doors and detained locals in the hunt for a drug trafficker.

Villagers say the drug bust that left four passengers of a riverboat dead after helicopters mistakenly fired on civilians continued into the predawn hours when commandos, including some they think were Americans, raided their town.

Heavily armed Honduran police in at least two helicopters landed and took off numerous times while agents searched homes and detained several people in the village on the banks of a river deep in Honduras' Mosquitia region, named for the Miskito Indians. In the end, enraged residents torched the home of the town's suspected drug trafficker in retaliation for the fatalities on the river.

One chopper landed in front of Hilaria Zavala's home at about 3 a.m. and the six men who got out kicked down her door. She said a "gringo" threw her husband on the ground and put a gun to his head demanding to know about a trafficker named "El Renco."

"They kept him that way for two hours," said Zavala, who owns a market near the main pier in Ahuas. "They asked if he was El Renco, if he worked for El Renco, if the stuff belonged to El Renco. My husband said he had nothing to do with it."

The shooting started after midnight, when Honduran national police tracking a cocaine shipment after it had been unloaded from a plane and onto a boat near the village were fired upon, authorities say. The officers returned fire, mistakenly shooting at a passenger boat, killing four people and wounding four more.

Celin Eriksson 17, whose cousin Haskel Tom Brooks Wood, 14, died in the boat, was waiting on the dock for his family before the shooting when he saw a white truck and about 50 men coming from Ahuas. He hid because he knew they were traffickers, but saw them load bundles into a boat. When the helicopters appeared, the men ran. He said he heard no gunshots coming from the ground. The boat with bundles went drifting by itself down the river.

The commandos who came off the helicopter handcuffed him, Celin said, and put a gun to his head. Some spoke to him in English, which he also speaks.

"If you don't talk we'll kill you," the boy said he was told. "Where is El Renco? Where is the merchandise?"

He said they made him walk along the river bank with them to find the boat with the bundles. Then they left him, handcuffed. He found a neighbor who broke the plastic handcuffs with a machete and saved them to prove to authorities that he had been detained by commandos.

The May 11 shooting and subsequent raid raises questions about what role, if any, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents who were on the helicopters played in the events described by villagers. The DEA has repeatedly said its agents on the mission, which included two U.S. helicopters, acted only in an advisory role to their Honduran National Police counterparts and did not use their weapons.

DEA spokeswoman Dawn Dearden, when asked to respond to the villagers' story, said Monday night that there were no DEA personnel in the village.

The U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa referred all questions about the operation to Honduran authorities. The State Department said last week that the helicopters used in the operation were piloted by Guatemalan soldiers and contract pilots who are temporarily deployed to Honduras. It did not identify the contractors' nationalities.

Jose Ruiz, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which oversees the U.S. military in Honduras, said there were no American troops there.

"We can confirm there were no U.S. military personnel or U.S. military assets involved in anyway. Our joint task force occasionally supports DEA, but they had no personnel or equipment in that particular mission," Ruiz said.

Honduran Security Ministry spokesman Hector Ivan Mejia said he had no information about the raid reported by residents.

Several villagers, however, told The Associated Press that some of the masked agents were gringos.

"They spoke in English among themselves and on the radios," said Zavala, whose husband was held at gunpoint. "They had brought a computer and they put in the names of everyone and sought identification for everyone."

On the shore near the main pier for Ahuas, Sandra Madrid cowered in her home from the bursts of gunfire coming from overhead. The manager of the village's main river transportation company said it lasted 15 minutes. "I've never seen a machine like that," Madrid said of the helicopter. "I've never seen a shootout like that."

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