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 started in April and in little more than two months has caught more than half the number of illegal drug flights intercepted previously over 18 months.
The mission, called Operation Anvil, is run with six U.S. State Department helicopters that were moved from Guatemala to northern Honduras 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.
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 that don't have the restrictions on 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. Operation Anvil targets illicit flights.
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 the boat fired first and they 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 Hondurans and the DEA have intercepted four flights under the operation in little more than two months. That compares with seven flights from mid-2010 to the end of 2011. The U.S. official said there are about 100 flights of suspicious origin coming into Honduras every year. Authorities are notified of them by U.S. Department of Defense air trackers nearly every couple days.
The weekend raid was a "great example of positive U.S.-Honduran cooperation," said U.S. Embassy spokesman Stephen Posivak in Tegucigalpa.
The official said the new operation could become a model for the region.
"It's because of what we're doing with the new assets," he said. "We have a dedicated team there 24-7... They're here for a period of time to see how effective they are."
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 Gracia 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 as 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 ripe with corruption, with some calling it one of country's main organized crime operations.
Since international crackdowns on drug trafficking began in Mexico and the Caribbean, Central America has become the crossing point for 84 percent of all U.S.-bound cocaine, according to statistics compiled by Joint Task Force-Bravo, a U.S. military installation in Comayagua, Honduras.
Non-commercial air and sea shipments of cocaine to Honduras have risen dramatically since 2006, when less than 10 percent of the U.S.-bound cocaine went through the country then. By 2011 the portion had jumped to more than 30 percent. Honduras has been the main landing point for such drug flights from South America since 2009.
The U.S. is nearly doubling 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. 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 Arnoldo 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 as a result, as a lot of the funds come from the Central America Regional Security Initiative, about $100 million a year for efforts across the region. The state helicopters, for example, are an official allocation 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 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) 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 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 advisors.
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.