LA CEIBA, Honduras – Lucio Adan Nelson dozed on a riverboat ferrying him home from a visit with his mother when helicopters appeared overhead and started shooting. He and about a dozen other passengers traveling in the middle of the night jumped into the water for cover.
The young Honduran man was hit in the arm and back, but says he couldn't seek help.
"I had to stay in the water for some time because they kept shooting," he said Sunday from a hospital bed.
Honduran police, who with DEA agents were aboard U.S. helicopters for an anti-drug operation, have said they were shooting at drug traffickers who fired first from a boat in the Patuca River in the remote Mosquitia region near the Caribbean coast.
Local officials say four innocent people died in the incident May 11. Honduran police say they can't confirm that, saying the anti-drug team didn't find any casualties after the shooting but only an empty boat with nearly a half ton of cocaine.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents never fired during the operation, acting only in an advisory role, both U.S. and Honduran officials say.
Honduran military intelligence is investigating, but no one has talked to Nelson, 22.
He could hardly speak from the pain Sunday, more than a week after the shooting, as he recovered in the hospital in La Ceiba where he was flown for treatment.
Elsewhere in the hospital lay 14-year-old Willmer Lucas Walter, who had a hand amputated because of injuries from the shooting.
The Honduran teenager's mother, Sabina Romero, said she was too angry to speak about what happened.
"Here nobody is going to talk because they will kill you," she said. "The only help we need here is from doctors, not from reporters."
Nelson's uncle, Dany, 32, helped tell the story for his nephew, who speaks mostly Miskito, the language of the indigenous who have lived in the isolated region for centuries.
Nelson has been awaiting surgery to put pins in his lower arm.
He and Willmer were flown from Ahuas, a community of less than 2,000 people, by the Moravian Church, said Dany Nelson, a health technician who works for the Honduran government on malaria prevention.
They both arrived unaccompanied and with IV bags attached to their arms, said Luis Savillon, the taxi driver who picked them up at the airport.
Nelson said he was returning to Barra Patuca, a community of about 6,000 on the Caribbean coast, after visiting his mother in a tiny river community when the shooting occurred about 3 a.m. He managed to pull himself ashore alongside Willmer, and waited there until the helicopters left.
He said he never saw any police on the ground. National Police Chief Ricardo Ramirez del Cid has said officers rappelled to the spot from the helicopters after the shooting.
Nelson said he and Willmer started walking in the dark and came upon a house. A woman there walked with them to the clinic in nearby Ahuas. Dany Nelson said he was called by the clinic at 5:30 a.m.
Initial reports from local officials said the people killed by the shooting were diving for lobster and shellfish.
Honduran and U.S. officials have voiced doubts about whether people with legitimate business would be traveling the river at night in a heavy drug-trafficking area. President Porfirio Lobo said many in the impoverished indigenous community transport the cocaine that comes in on illicit airplanes from South America to its next destination on the coast.
The State Department says 79 percent of all cocaine smuggling flights leaving South America first land in Honduras.
Ramirez said the national police spotted a plane that night, and the helicopters were monitoring people taking bales of cocaine from the plane to a boat on the river when their aircraft were fired on. He said the national police policy is not to attack planes when they are being unloaded because of the possibility that civilians will be hit.
Dany Nelson said boats are the public transit of the river, running people from tiny communities to larger towns such as Barra Patuca and Brus Laguna. Ahuas is about 18 miles (30 kilometers) as the crow flies from Barra Patuca, but at least double or triple that distance on the winding river. It takes four hours between major points and the boats often travel at night to avoid the heat and to carry workers to their jobs early in the morning, he said.
"The boats make a lot of stops between communities. There are no roads here. The river is our highway," he said. "If the government wants us to stop traveling at night that would keep us from working. We know the criminals travel at night, but so do workers. Those helicopters have technology to tell the difference between a criminal and a worker."
Honduran military intelligence is investigating, said Col. Joaquin Arevalo, a military spokesman. He referred The Associated Press to two Honduran commanders at the Caratasca Naval Base and a U.S. Joint Task Force installation in Mocoron in the heart of the Mosquitia. The area, which is near the Nicaraguan border, saw heavy U.S. military presence in the 1980s when the U.S. was backing Contra rebels fighting the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua.