MIAMI — Six Americans are stuck in a prison in Honduras after being arrested in early May on charges of attempting to smuggle weapons into the impoverished Central American country, known for international drug trafficking and gang violence.
The six men age 25 to 60 were the captain and crew of a Florida-based ship that was intercepted on May 5 by the Honduran Navy in a lagoon near the rural, eastern town of Puerto Lempira. Local police boarded the vessel and arrested the men, said Armida Lopez de Arguello, a Honduran attorney familiar with the case who has worked with the ship's captain but is not representing the men.
According to court documents, officials say the Americans brought two handguns, two shotguns and a semiautomatic rifle into the country without permission from the Honduran government. If convicted on charges including weapons smuggling, they could face up to 16 years in prison.
The captain of the ship, Robert Mayne, said the weapons on board are registered in the United States and he notified Honduran maritime authorities of them a month before their arrival in Honduran waters.
Mayne said he and his crew of salvage experts have an arrangement with local officials to retrieve valuable mahogany logs milled decades ago from a nearby river bottom. Profits from the recovery were to be split with the municipality for social projects, he said.
"We are just stunned by this," Mayne told USA TODAY in a phone interview from the prison in Puerto Lempira. "We came down here with the best intentions."
Mayne said carrying weapons on board is a common for ships traveling on high seas. "This is necessary practice," he said, noting he once brandished his handgun to ward off would-be pirates off the coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. "It's suicide not to have them."
De Arguello said she believes local authorities are misinterpreting the Honduran law.
"From my point of view, what is happening is a gross misunderstanding of the law in Honduras" by the police, the judge and the state prosecutor, she said, adding that the Americans are scheduled to have another hearing in mid-June.
Earlier this month, an official with the U.S. consular office in Honduras visited the American prisoners. The official, who declined to comment on the case, said the U.S. embassy would not appeal to the Honduran government for the Americans' release. He did not want his name used because of the case's diplomatic sensitivity.
John Kimball, who practices international maritime law and is a partner at the firm Blank Rome, said it is common for vessels traveling in international waters to have weapons on board to protect against piracy."The critical question is to know what kind of agreement they had with local authorities in the area where they were working," he said.
Efforts to reach the Honduran prosecutor for the case were unsuccessful.
Experts and human rights groups say the Honduran judicial system is rife with corruption.
"The judicial system in Honduras has been identified by the State Department as having serious problems," said Stephen Schnably, a law professor specializing in human rights in Latin America at the University of Miami, adding the courts and prosecutors "lack transparency" in their legal proceedings and are "outright corrupt."
Mayne and his crew, which includes Mayne's younger brother Michael Mayne, Nicholas Cook, James Garrett, Devon Butler and Steve Matanich, are being held in a rural detention center.
"It's a dingy, dark rooms with no circulation," said Michael McCabe, a documentary filmmaker who traveled to Honduras to chronicle the crews' effort to salvage mahogany logs and recently visited them in prison.
McCabe said the Americans have one toilet among them and pay $20 a night to make sure they are imprisoned together for safety instead of separate cells. The crew uses cinderblocks to keep fit and pass the time until early evening when they are locked into their cell for 12 hours.
"At night, the mosquitoes are just a nightmare for them," said McCabe.
Despite the rough conditions, Mayne said the experience has not deterred him from wanting to work with Hondurans.
"There are good people down here," he said. "We still plan on doing the project after we're released."