Posivak said several people were unloading cocaine from an airplane at a remote landing strip at about 12:30 a.m. when the law enforcement agents swooped in on helicopters. He said the U.S. agent opened fire after the suspect reached for a gun in a holster, and the suspect died at the scene. Three of the men arrested were part of the ground crew, Posivak said, and the fourth was piloting the small plane loaded with the cocaine. He said their nationalities are not yet clear.
The operation took place in the same region as a May 11 raid that left four passengers of a river boat dead when helicopters mistakenly fired on civilians. DEA officials say U.S. agents did not fire their weapons during that incident.
The mayor of the town where that occurred, Ahuas, said the latest incident happened about 12 miles away in the area of Brus Laguna. Mayor Lucio Baquedano denied that any of his townsfolk were involved.
DEA investigators are assisting Honduran National Police in a review of Saturday's raid, Posivak said.
DEA agents in Honduras are bound by Justice Department rules of engagement which say they can fire their weapons only if their life, or someone else's life, is in danger. Posivak said that appeared to be the case on Saturday.
"During the operation, a fifth suspect attempted to engage the police team with a firearm and was shot by a DEA agent in self-defense," he said. "The suspect subsequently died at the scene. There were no other injuries or fatalities."
The State Department says 79 percent of all cocaine smuggling flights leaving South America first land in Honduras, and the United States has been working with the Honduran military to stop the drug dealers. Last year, with help from the United States, the Honduran government stopped more than 22 metric tons of cocaine in Honduras and adjacent waters, nearly four times more than 2010, the State Department has said.
Dana Frank, a historian at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has criticized U.S. involvement in Honduras, said the incident underscores her concerns.
"These DEA agents are collaborating with Honduran police who are known to be vastly corrupt," she said. "Obviously we need independent investigation of this and the previous incident."