“The boat was just transporting people and some cargo. They were coming to town to spend Mother’s Day,” said Serene Trapp, a cousin of Candelaria Trapp, 45, a pregnant single mother of six who was allegedly killed in a burst of gunfire from a helicopter. “I know all the people on the boat,” Serene Trapp said in a phone interview. “None of them were smugglers.”
News of the firefight, along with allegations of the four deaths, led local residents to torch several houses and demand that U.S. drug enforcement agents leave the area, according to the mayor.
The gun battle took place Friday along the muddy Patuca River, near the northeastern town of Ahuas, as Honduran forces assisted by U.S. advisers in four U.S. helicopters sought to seize a load of cocaine being moved from an illicit jungle airstrip to a waiting boat.
“First the narcos opened fire, and later the DEA helicopters were searching the area, and they fired with their guns at the boat with civilians, thinking maybe they were the narcos,” the mayor of Ahuas, Lucio Vaquedano, said in an interview.
Vaquedano said that several bodies had been recovered and that the boat the civilians were allegedly aboard was pocked with large bullet holes, which he said police told him were from a .50-caliber gun, the kind used by a door gunner on one of the U.S.-supplied helicopters. “It was easy to get confused because there were two boats, and the narco boat didn’t have lights and the civilian boat was running with its lights on,” he said.
Ahuas is a town of 1,500 people, many of them members of indigenous Miskito tribes, in the state of Gracias a Dios.
U.S. officials said Thursday that at least “several” DEA agents had served as advisers during the raid but that the American officers, while armed for self-defense, did not fire their weapons.
The U.S. officials, representing law enforcement agencies, and diplomats who have been briefed on the mission also cast doubt on the allegations that innocent people were killed during the 2 a.m. mission, though they said an investigation is ongoing. The U.S. officials said it was not unusual for local authorities to work with smugglers and also said they wondered why innocent civilians would be on the water in the middle of the night.
With congressional approval and in coordination with the State Department’s Narcotics Affairs Section, the DEA has sent advisory support teams to train and coordinate anti-drug operations with units of the Honduran National Police. These military-style
which use U.S. intelligence, radar tracking of illicit flights and U.S. helicopters, seized 22 metric tons of cocaine last year — a record amount — but they have also generated controversy, as human rights advocates criticize the further militarization of the drug wars.