In May, on the other side of the country, Honduran national police rappelled from U.S. helicopters to bust drug traffickers near the remote, tropical Honduran village of Ahuas, killing four allegedly innocent civilians and scattering locals who were loading some 450 kilograms (close to 1,000 pounds) of cocaine into a boat.
The incident drew international attention and demands for an investigation when the DEA confirmed it had agents aboard the helicopters advising their Honduran counterparts. Villagers spoke of English-speaking commandos kicking in doors and handcuffing locals just after the shooting, searching for drug traffickers.
Six weeks later, townspeople watched in shock as laborers exhumed the first of four muddy graves. At each burial site, workers pulled out the decomposing bodies of two women and two young men, and laid them on tarps.
Forensic scientists conducted their graveside autopsies in the open air, probing for bullet wounds and searching for signs the women had been pregnant, as villagers had claimed.
Government investigators concluded there was no wrongdoing in the raid. In the subsequent months, DEA agents shot suspects in two separate incidents, and the U.S. temporarily suspended the sharing of radar intelligence because the Central American nation's air force shot down two suspected drug planes, a violation of the rules of engagement. Support was also withheld for the national police after it was learned that its new director had been tied to death squads.
As the new year begins, Congress is still withholding an estimated $30 million in aid to Honduras, about a third of all the U.S. aid planned for this year.
But there are no plans to rethink the strategy.
Scoggins, the Defense Department's counter-narcotics manager, said operations in Central America are expected to grow for the next five years.
"It's not for me to say if it's the correct strategy. It's the strategy we are using," said Scoggins. "I don't know what the alternative is."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Dario Lopez aboard the USS Underwood in the Caribbean, Garance Burke in San Francisco, Frank Bajak in Lima, Peru, and Alberto Arce in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, along with Romina Ruiz-Goiriena in Guatemala City.
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