NYT finally talks to victims

...and surprise! Comes up with a decent report. My question: Who cares if only Hondurans fired? Even if that were true, it's been made clear by official statements (and common sense, for anyone who knows anything about U.S.-Honduran relations) that U.S. officials were calling the shots. It's like saying no one above Lynndie England was responsible for Abu Ghraib. It's saying "We didn't kill those innocent people, we just ordered the hit." That's their argument? Anyway, click on title for NYT original:

From a Honduras Hospital, Conflicting Tales of a Riverside Shootout
By DAMIEN CAVE
Published: May 18, 2012

AHUAS, Honduras — Lying in a sagging hospital bed with a gunshot wound in each leg, Hilda Lezama tearfully described what she considered the worst night of her life on the river she has known since she was a girl.

It was just before 3 a.m. a week ago when she, her husband and their 11 passengers finally returned home to this remote river town after a six-hour boat trip, traveling at night, she said, “to avoid the strong sun.”

The passengers had just begun to climb onto land with items bought in larger towns upriver, when, they said, suddenly the air above seemed to explode. Four American helicopters then appeared overhead. Gunfire pierced the water and land.

“We were all so scared,” Ms. Lezama said. “I was hit” — she pointed to one bandaged leg — “then again, then a boy was shot right next to me.”

The boy was Chalo Brock Wood, 14, who had come home with new clothes, said his mother, who was also a passenger and saw him drift into the water and die. Two pregnant women were also killed, along with a man from a town to the north, according to three witnesses, who said that five people were wounded in what they discovered later was a joint Honduran-American antidrug raid.

American officials have told reporters that the boat passengers were probably participating in the intense trafficking of illegal drugs that is known to take place here. Official accounts described how gunfire came from Ms. Lezama’s boat, leading Honduran police officers on the ground and in one of the helicopters to fire back, killing what these officials described as two traffickers. The authorities later seized 1,000 pounds of cocaine from another boat at the landing.

But residents and officials in this poor town tell a different story, and an official report, scheduled to be issued on Saturday by the Honduran Army, has also concluded that four innocent people were killed.

“It’s terribly sad,” said Col. Servio Arita, the Honduran military officer who led the investigative team, which interviewed survivors of the episode on Thursday. “It was an error.”

Who is responsible for that error will continue to be the subject of dispute, here and among government officials from Honduras and the United States.

Colonel Arita — whose investigation did not include interviews with the Honduran authorities involved in the operation — said that many residents here told him they believed that American agents played at least some role in the shooting because they saw them get off one of the helicopters that landed after the brief firefight. Ms. Lezama said that the agents she saw, including one who spoke Spanish, looked afraid. “They knew what had happened here,” she said.

Still, she added, it was impossible to know who fired the fatal shots. “We were facedown on the ground,” Ms. Lezama said. “How could we see anything?”

Honduran and American officials continue to insist that only the Honduran authorities fired. The Honduran foreign minister, Arturo Corrales, said during a routine trip to Washington on Friday that his nation’s minister of security confirmed that the initial inquiry had shown that “our police responded,” not the American agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s commando squad.

He also continued to challenge the version of events offered by villagers, noting that the exchange of fire occurred when “it was totally dark, in a place that is not a fishing spot.” He added: “It’s in the jungle. It is very hard to believe that at 2 a.m., in the jungle, the people in a boat that is beside another boat with 400 kilograms of cocaine were fishing.”

In fact, Ms. Lezama and her husband say, they were not fishing, as the mayor initially suggested — they were returning from a daily trip in which they dropped off lobster fishermen at the Caribbean coast, coming back with passengers picked up at several spots along the river.

“We’ve been doing this for 25 years, day and night,” Ms. Lezama said. Her husband and other relatives, surrounding her as she lay in bed, nodded. They and other town residents confirmed that the family business had been making the trip for years.

And the spot in the river where the shooting occurred is not as isolated as Honduran and American officials have suggested.

“The Patuca River is like a highway; it’s always full of traffic from the village,” said Mayor Lucio Baquedano. Indeed, on Friday afternoon the landing where witnesses said the shooting occurred looked like a taxi stand: about 20 long, skinny boats bobbed in the brown water. A gray Yamaha motor hung from the back of one carrying families east to Brus Laguna, a larger town where Ms. Lezama’s boat usually stops. In another sat a red bike, while in a third, a man carried a hunk of freshly cut wood as long and wide as his leg.

Near the end was Ms. Lezama’s blue boat. A half dozen gunshot holes could clearly be seen.

“What worries me is that if there are more drugs moving along that river,” Mayor Baquedano said, “more of our people are going to be attacked.”

He and a local lawmaker, Mylo Wood, have called for a thorough investigation into the role American agents may have played and why the helicopter fired on a boat full of innocent passengers.

Both men said they would be satisfied if the army report concludes the shooting killed innocent residents. But they said they did not trust their government or that of the United States to tell the whole truth.

In a hospital hallway, Clara Wood was stiff with tension after the death of her son. She said that she was not sure who was to blame, but that someone needed to be held responsible. She fell into tears. “He was just a boy,” she said. “He was just a boy.”

Thom Shanker and Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from Washington, and Mario Gutiérrez from Ahuas.