AHUAS, Honduras (AP) — The gunfire from a U.S.-backed Honduran anti-drug mission that appears to have targeted civilians by mistake wasn't the only terror that night more than a week ago, villagers say. They describe heavily armed commandos storming into homes and manhandling residents, and they think American agents joined in.
After the shooting killed four passengers on a riverboat and wounded four more, the masked agents landed their helicopters in this community of wooden shacks on stilts near the river and began breaking down doors, hunting for a drug trafficker they called "El Renco," villagers told The Associated Press on Monday.
Witnesses referred to some of the agents as "gringos" and said they spoke English to each other and into their radios.
Hilaria Zavala said six men kicked in her door about 3 a.m., threw her husband on the ground and put a gun to his head.
"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 fatal shooting and raid on May 11 enraged villagers, and some joined up in a machete-wielding mob that late that morning burned down the houses of four families, including one believed to belong to the man known as El Renco, Ahuas Police Chief Filiberto Pravia Rodriguez said.
Pravia said he tried to talk the mob into stopping its rampage but had already had to run for his life earlier when angry residents turned on him as he went to investigate the deaths.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has repeatedly said its agents who were on the helicopter mission 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. Honduran Security Ministry spokesman Hector Ivan Mejia said he had no information about the raid reported by residents.
Police said the helicopters were following a load of cocaine that had been unloaded from a plane and was being transferred to a boat on the river when they were fired on from the ground. They shot back in self-defense.
In a wide bend of the heavily traveled Patuca River, passengers on a small riverboat said they were awakened by gunshots raining from a helicopter and all 12 dove into the water for cover. The AP counted 20 bullet holes in the boat they were traveling in, some with bloodstains and large enough to put a finger through. It was unclear what happened to the boat that national police say was the target of the attack and on which officers found a half ton of cocaine.
Hilda Lezama was hit by a bullet that passed through both her legs, leaving a wound the size of a large hand on her right leg. The owner of the passenger boat, part of a family business transporting divers, she said the helicopter fired in the dark, then turned on a spotlight, then turned it off and continued to fire.
"Why didn't they turn on the light before they started shooting?" she said. "They saw us and they continued firing."
On the shore near the main pier for Ahuas, Sandra Madrid cowered in her home from the bursts of gunfire coming from overhead. She said it lasted 15 minutes. "I've never seen a machine like that. I've never seen a shootout like that," said Madrid, who manages the village's main river transportation company.
Then about an hour later, helicopters landed in her front yard. Neighbor Mariano Uitol said about 40 men in total got out, adding, "They told everyone to get inside and don't anyone leave."
The commandos seized a neighbor's boat and gasoline to travel down the river, Madrid said, taking Hilaria Zavala's teenage nephew to guide them. He had been waiting on the dock for his mother in the shot-up passenger boat.
Witnesses said the agents made several trips carrying sacks and loading them onto the helicopters that took off and landed repeatedly over the next two hours.
An investigation by Honduran military based in nearby Puerto Lempira concluded that the agents fired on the civilians by accident, killing four and wounding four, said Col. Ronald Rivera Amador, commander of the Honduran Joint Military Task Force-Paz Garcia.
He said the task force conducted only part of the investigation and sent its findings to the Joint Task Force Gen. Rene Osorio. Mejia said a Honduran federal prosecutor is leading the investigation.
The isolated savannah and jungle region of northern Honduras, known as the Mosquitia for the Miskito Indians who have lived there for centuries, has been a drug-running area for decades. But cocaine shipments increased dramatically in the last few years as authorities cracked down in Mexico and other parts of the main drug routes from South America to the United States.
The State Department says 79 percent of all cocaine smuggling flights leaving South America first land in Honduras.
Members of the U.S. Congress and human rights groups have been ramping up their criticism of U.S. spending in this small Central American country of 8 million people, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world and an equally high rate of impunity.
Everyone has openly spoken about the problem of impoverished families in the region earning money by helping load and unload cocaine, from President Porfirio Lobo to the local police chief, Pravia.
The chief said there is little he can do to confront traffickers from his four-person post where officers get around on bicycle and foot.
"I have 30 bullets. Here at least 50 to 100 men gather (for drug shipments), with the best weaponry, new and with bullets," he said. "If we see them or know what they are doing, what we do is go away or get back into the post. We cannot do anything against them."
Pravia said he heard the helicopters in the middle of the night but did not go out until soldiers knocked at his door about 5:30 a.m. He and a judge tried to go to the river, where soldiers said there were two bodies in the water, but they were met by the angry crowd waving machetes and clubs and carrying cans of gasoline.
"I was lucky I could run," he said.
Several hours later, the crowd turned its wrath on the four houses.
"The family and friends of the victims burned the homes because of the narcos," Zavala said. "This whole mess was their fault ... because of them, we all had to pay."