The US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) has launched an investigation into a raid on a remote Honduran village that killed four people including two pregnant women. Four others were also injured in the operation in May.
In the waking hours of May 11, a group of indigenous villagers travelling by canoe in the Mosquita region came under helicopter fire. Four of them including two pregnant women and a child died.
US officials said the killings followed a sighting of men unloading cocaine onto a truck nearby. The US State Department-owned helicopters were sent to investigate.
"This is a really terrifying thing by US troops and US-funded troops…[US media only picked it up much later] otherwise we won't be hearing about [the raid], which is part of what's so terrifying…This is really, really, really scary that the US is not acknowledging that this happened."
- Dana Frank, a Honduras historian
Initially the US denied any civilians were killed, but later said Americans were only involved in a supporting role.
The DEA says it is investigating the killings in May.
Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokesperson, said: "In this particular operation on May 11, the US DEA was involved only in a supporting role. We did not use force. No US personnel fired any weapons. We were involved purely supporting and advising. The units that we support were comprised primarily of host country – in this case Honduran – law enforcement officers. They were trained, they were vetted, as part of this programme altogether...The Honduran authorities are doing a broad investigation of this incident to evaluate what exactly happened and how it happened. So I think we need to let that go forward."
According to US State Department estimates, 79 per cent or more than 3/4 of all cocaine-smuggling flights leaving South America land in Honduras – with the Mosquita coast as the major transfer point – on their way to Mexico and the US.
The US has been increasing its presence in Honduras, with three new military bases. Commando-style squads have been deployed from a team originally constituted to investigate drug traffickers in Afghanistan.
"This is supposed to be a law enforcement programme [within the State Department]. What kind of law enforcement gets to play judge, jury and executioner in a matter of minutes? This is summary justice, on injustice in this case."
- Sanho Tree, the director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies
The recipients of US funding and military support are the administration of Porfirio Lobo, the Honduran president, and the security services that facilitated his rise to power by overthrowing the democratically-elected Manuel Zelaya in 2009.
US corporations also have major investments in agriculture and mining there.
A few days after the incident The New York Times citing an anonymous US official reported an initial account of the raid.
Al Jazeera's request to interview the DEA and the US State Department on this topic was declined.
Inside Story Americas asks: What did happen that night near the Honduran village of Ahuas, and what is motivating US policy in Central America?
Presenter Shihab Rattansi discusses this with guests: Alex Main, the senior associate for International Policy at the Center for Economic Policy Research; Sanho Tree, the director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies; and Dana Frank, an expert on Honduras and a history professor at the University of California.
"What we're seeing is they [the US] are transferring both personnel and counter-insurrectionary methods from Afghanistan to Honduras and to Central America to deal with the drug problem in that way, and of course it's very questionable whether they've been successful in Afghanistan."
Alex Main, a senior associate for International Policy at the Center for Economic Policy Research
US MILITARY PRESENCE IN HONDURAS:
- The US has expanded its military presence in Central America, recently setting up three new bases in Honduras, a country which has seen one of the largest increases in US military aid.
- The new bases are located in Puerto Castilla on the country's northern coast, in El Aguacate in Central Honduras and in Mocoron, from which the May 11 raid was launched.
- The Soto Cano Air base, located an hour north of the capital Tegucigalpa, is one of the main hubs for operations under the US Southern Command.