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Dangerous detention for six Americans in Honduras after weapons charges

By Carmen Gentile and Ben Brumfield, CNN
updated 6:59 AM EDT, Sun June 1, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Detainee reports shots fired in direction of the Americans
  • The men work for an undersea salvage company
  • Police boarded their ship and arrested them
  • A colleague fears that they are not being properly fed

(CNN) -- Six Americans who were salvaging goods from the bottom of the sea off the coast of Honduras have sat in a jail there for over three weeks as officials have charged them with illegal weapons possession.

On May 5, after the ship pulled into port in Puerto Lempira, police came aboard, arrested the crew and confiscated the vessel, according to a Facebook statement from Aqua Quest, the Florida company the men work for.

The ship's captain said from jail that the weapons on board were for personal protection against pirates.

"It's suicide not to carry them," said one of the detained Americans, Robert Mayne, in a phone interview from the jail.

Squalor and danger

The men do not have access to good sanitation and are not being properly fed, said Michael McCabe, a crew member who was not detained.

"The inmates only ever eat beans and rice. I'm told it's one spoon of each, and that's it," he said after visiting them.

McCabe has tried to purchase additional food for them, but some of it has been stolen, he said.

The detainees' squalor turned to terror, when gunfire erupted around them on Friday, according to Mayne's account.

"Fighting breaks out every few days here," he said. "One prisoner beat another with a stick with a nail in it." But this was the first time shots were fired their way.

Legal allegations

Aqua Quest alleges in its statement that authorities boarding and searching the ship circumvented proper legal procedures. The company said Honduran officials had the legal possibility of dealing with the weapons without imposing detentions.

The official charge is illegal possession of firearms detrimental to the internal security of Honduras, according to a court document. The caliber of the weapons and the fact that one is semiautomatic also seems to bother authorities, who have termed them "commercial."

Illegal arms regularly flow through Honduras, and drug traffickers transit cocaine from Colombia through the Central American.

Mayne and Aqua Quest are adamant that their weapons were for personal use and not for resale on the black market.

Diplomatic efforts

State Department spokesman Noel Clay, who confirmed the detention, said Saturday that "there is no greater priority for us than the welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad."

The U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa has been monitoring the case and providing consular assistance. Consular officials last visited the crew on May 19.

A lawyer in Honduras familiar with the case says the men could face up to 16 years in prison.

U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, R-Pennsylvania, has attempted to intervene on the men's behalf.

"I have been working with American officials and other contacts to expedite the detainees' release. I have formally written to the Honduran Ambassador to the United States requesting his personal engagement to swiftly resolve the situation," he said in a statement.

Crew's business

Aqua Quest International salvages precious cargo from sunken vessels underwater beds, according to its website. That can range from valuable ore to historic artifacts.

The crew in Honduras was tasked with removing valuable mahogany logs from the nearby river bed in the impoverished eastern municipality of Ahuas. The goal was to clear the waterways to ease the way for boats in an area where there are few roads, the company said.

The wood, remnants of decades of logging in that region, commands a high price on the open market, the company said. Profits from its sale was to be shared with locals for infrastructure and social programs.

CNN's Tara Kangarlou and Hamdi Alkhshali contributed to this report.

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