- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 22, 2012

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 Mrs. 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.

Chief Pravia said he tried to talk the mob into stopping its rampage but already had had to run for his life when angry residents turned on him as he went to investigate the deaths.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration repeatedly has 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 Ms. 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.”

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