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Opinion

Honduras drug raid: The State Department has some explaining to do

The controversy surrounding a May 11 predawn anti-drug operation in Honduras that left four people dead is growing. And so are question about the role of American forces in that firefight. U.S. counter-narcotics efforts in Honduras now include special U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the New York Times has reported.

The DEA’s role in the May 11 operation has come under scrutiny after differing accounts emerged in recent days. American and Honduran officials have said DEA agents were aboard a helicopter that was pursuing a canoe carrying drug traffickers. The U.S. agents were there only in an advisory role. And both countries have said DEA agents never fired a shot. Rather, it was Honduran security forces that shot after coming under fire. The problem is the mayor of the town where the operation took place offers a different account, telling reporters that the helicopter shot at a a second canoe that carried four people, including two pregnant women, who had no ties to drug smugglers.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland attempted to explain the role of American forces during a press briefing Thursday. The explanation, however, seems in need of some explaining.

QUESTION: OK. All right. So can -- if no one else has anything on that, can you tell us exactly what the State Department’s role in this incident in Honduras involving the DEA was?

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NULAND: Yeah. Just find my things here. So as you know, we support counter-narcotics interdiction not only in Honduras but throughout the Central American area. We do this through our program SICA, the Central American Integration System. So under the program that we use, we obviously strictly adhere to U.S. law. In this particular operation on May 11, the U.S. DEA was involved only in a supporting role. We did not use force. No U.S. personnel fired any weapons. We were involved purely supporting and advising. The units that we support are comprised primarily of host country -- in this case, Honduran -- law enforcement officers. They were trained, they were vetted, as part of this program we work on together.

QUESTION: Well, does that mean that they advised them to open fire on a canoe carrying civilians with a pregnant woman and --

NULAND: Well, I highly --

QUESTION: Well, I don’t understand -- you say they’re in an advise and support role. So what did they advise and support? Did they --

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NULAND: Well, again, I --

QUESTION: Did they tell -- did they say, hey, this looks like a good target; shoot it?

NULAND: Well, first of all, as I understand it, the Honduran authorities are taking -- 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.

With regard to the precise actions in an advisory role that the U.S. folks played, I can’t speak to that. I’m going to send you to the DEA for more on that, but --

QUESTION: OK, but they were --

NULAND: But my -- but the point I wanted to make here is that our guys don’t fire in these operations. They didn’t in this one. With regard to the preplanning of the particular operation, I’m going to send you to the agency that was in the lead.

QUESTION: OK. There were State Department personnel or equipment involved? Yes or no?

NULAND: State Department personnel involved in this particular --

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QUESTION: No, I understand that State Department helicopters that are down -- or some kind of -- some type of State Department aircraft are in Honduras, and I don’t know; I’m asking if they were at all involved in this?

NULAND: We do have two helicopters supporting the Honduran National Police Tactical Response teams. The helicopters are titled to the State Department as part of our narcotics and law enforcement program, our INL program. They were piloted -- they’re piloted by Central Americans. In this case, my understanding is that they were piloted by the Guatemalan military and some contract pilots who are temporarily deployed to Honduras. So again, this is part and parcel of a program that we do bilaterally with each country, but that is also regionally constructed across Central America.

QUESTION: Well, OK. Let me just -- let me get this straight then. So these -- the helicopter or helicopters that were involved in this incident are actually owned by the State Department?

NULAND: Correct.

QUESTION: But they were being flown by Guatemalans?

NULAND: Correct. And contract pilots.

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