Archive for March, 2018

 https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2018/03/20/activists-go-underground-un-reports-excessive-force-honduras
Aquilina Guerra is released on Feb. 26 after she was charged, fraudulently say supporters, with “storing weapons of war.” Photo by Louis Bockner.

In the months since the widely criticized elections in November, threats and harassment against social and political activists have ramped up in Honduras, according to the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights.

The report, “Human Rights Violations in the Context of the 2017 Honduran Elections,” published on March 12, outlines how the parameters of the state of emergency ordered by President Juan Orlando Hernández in the days following the elections were too broad and imprecise, “leading to massive and indiscriminate arrests, resulting in limiting the right to peaceful assembly and association.”

The report documents cases of extrajudicial murders committed by police, illegal house raids and threats and harassment against journalists and social and political activists since the end of November 2017 within “the context of a political, economic and social crisis inherited since the 2009 military coup.”

The U.N. report confirms what social movement organizers and civil society groups on the ground have been saying for weeks. On Feb. 26, the Center for Justice and International Law and the Coalition Against Impunity in Honduras, made up of 58 civil society organizations, denounced the Hernández government at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights Public in Bogota. They cited widespread “repression and militarization exercised against the Honduran population during the past months.”

In addition, the organizations charged that “the government has implemented other practices to identify and sanction opposition, resulting in house raids, improper searches and the improper use of criminal law to criminalize social protest.” They offered evidence of acts of repression at close to 200 peaceful protests and over 1,200 instances of illegal detention, torture, extrajudicial murder, internally displaced people, threats and intimidations.

The U.N. report documents cases of extrajudicial murders committed by police, illegal house raids and threats and harassment against journalists and social and political activists.

The north coast of Honduras is rich in natural resources sought by powerful mining and other development interests, resisted by local people. A series of violent attacks like those outlined in the U.N. report and at the I.A.C.H.R. have targeted community members who have been organizing to defend their rivers and mountains.

According to the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (M.A.D.J.), on Jan. 22, in the days leading up to the inauguration of President Hernández, Ramón Fiallos was targeted and shot by police at a protest in Arizona, Atlantida.

Six hours later, following another protest nearby, Geovany Diaz, a 35-year-old father of five and member of M.A.D.J. was executed by Honduran police who shot him 40 times after dragging him outside of his home at 4 a.m., according to family members who spoke to America on Jan. 26.

“It’s logical to see that the reason for these murders is their struggle,” said a source from the Jesuit Reflection, Research and Communications Team, who has been closely following the cases. Mr. Fiallos was a well-known community leader who was working to protect the Jilamito River from a proposed hydroelectric project. In Pajuiles, where Mr. Diaz lived, the community has spent a year protesting proposed mining and hydroelectric projects.

Luis Garcia, a longtime friend who had worked for years with Mr. Fiallos, saw the violence happen. “Luis knew he could be next,” said Osman Orellana, a community health promoter at the Claret BioHealth Centre in Arizona. “He was in the last roadblock when they murdered Ramón.”

In the weeks after the killing of his friend, Mr. Garcia felt the pressure mount as community leaders across the country were targeted and arbitrarily detained. “He told us that in the last two weeks an unknown car had been circling his house,” said Mr. Orellana. “Different organizations and the parish told him it would be best to leave the country.”

In the past, Mr. Garcia had received death threats for his activism, and he ignored the advice to leave. This time he did not. He left Honduras on Feb. 21—the next day, the national police raided his home.

“The police arrived at my parent’s house at 5:30 a.m. with a search warrant in my father’s name,” said Luis Garcia Jr., in an interview with America on Feb. 25. “But he’s outside of the country because of the same persecution. My mom didn’t leave because we didn’t think she would have anything to worry about.”

In the past, Mr. Garcia had received death threats for his activism, and he ignored the advice to leave. This time he did not.

After they raided the house without finding the elder Garcia, the police took his wife, Aquilina Guerra, into custody in nearby Tela. “They told her that she wasn’t being detained. They were bringing her in for something they had found outside her house,” said her son. “And then they took out the bag.”

Ms. Guerra is a 57-year-old housewife and a former catechist and cook for the Our Lady of Pilar parish in Arizona. She spends most of her days caring for her grandkids and making food for her family. Inside the bag that the police produced, which Ms. Guerra claims to have never seen before, were small cans of gunpowder, a container of gas and some empty soda bottles.

Arriving in Tela, the police alleged that Ms. Guerra was making Molotov cocktails; she was charged with storing weapons of war. The police took her picture in front of the weapons and then distributed it through social media, a common tactic to shame and discredit citizens and one that can have deadly outcomes.

“Luis Garcia is considered a leader of the social movement, and the investigation was directed at him,” said Carlos Reyes Torres, a lawyer who works with the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice. “Not finding him, they took whomever they could find.”

Mr. Reyes Torres spoke outside the courthouse in Tela on Feb. 26, during Ms. Guerra’s preliminary hearing. “The fact that the public prosecutor is charging her with storing weapons of war shows that state institutions consider us to be at war.”

The day before Ms. Guerra’s preliminary hearing on Feb. 26, parishioners at Our Lady of Pilar Church called out for the local communities to peacefully walk the streets of Tela to demand justice for her and the others whose acts of resistance have been criminalized since November. Outside the jail where she was being held, they celebrated Mass for the more than 200 people who came to show their support.

“The church is called to be prophetic,” said the Rev. Victor Camara, who heads up the social ministry of the Diocese of La Ceiba, during the Mass. “Those who believe are called to denounce injustice, and we are here from the church to show the church will not be silenced. Although some remain silent, we will not. We are conscious. We are in solidarity with Aquilina, her family and the hundreds of brothers and sisters that are being criminalized and who have suffered the murder of loved ones…. May God hear the cries of the Honduran people who have suffered so much.”

The following day, over 100 people gathered outside the courthouse singing, praying and denouncing Ms. Guerra’s arrest. After eight hours of hearings and deliberations, the judge presiding over the case ruled that there was not sufficient evidence to continue the case against Ms. Guerra.

“It makes you want to cry—to see justice being served,” said the Rev. Javier Hernandez, the parish priest at Our Lady of the Pillar Church. “I think the public pressure from those here has strength. Prayers, the Eucharist that we shared yesterday, people asking God for justice. God is listening, listens to his people clamoring for justice for those who have been criminalized.”

“I feel very happy seeing my community here, how I love them and how they love me,” said Ms. Guerra outside the courthouse following her release. “I feel so happy to feel free. I never could have imagined this experience, but God has always been with me. It’s been painful to see my people suffer. This is a political persecution simply for supporting the movement. My husband and I have supported poor, humble people. I never expected this. But thanks to God, I’m free and I’m going home.”

On March 11, the M.A.D.J. charged that military personnel were roaming through the community of Florida, Atlantida, searching for Waldina Santos, a key organizer to mining resistance in the area. Ms. Santos was at both the march and Mass to support Ms. Guerra and helped organize the busloads of people who came to stand outside the courthouse to show their support.

Although many remain detained in Honduras, and others like Ms. Santos are living in fear for what could be next for her and her family, the small victory in Ms. Guerra’s case offers hope to many who feel helpless given the current political situation. “May this not only be for Aquilina but for so many who have been criminalized and who are being persecuted and unjustly jailed,” said Father Hernandez. “May this be a new beginning for peace in Honduras.”

Jackie McVicar

Jackie McVicar has accompanied human rights social movements and land protectors in Central America for more than 10 years.

Walking with victims of violence in Easter light

By Phil Little

http://www.prairiemessenger.ca/18_03_21/Melo_18_03_21.html

DEFENDING HUMAN RIGHTS — Jesuit Father Ismael Moreno, known nationally and internationally as Padre Melo, is seen with longtime friend Berta Caceres, a Lenca environmental and human rights defender. Berta was assassinated on March 2, 2016. credit: Lucy Edwards

Editor’s note: Nothing is more destructive of Easter faith than to ignore the problems of the poor in our midst, the scourge of violence in all parts of the world. The following story is a powerful example of the power of the resurrection. Father Melo’s commitment to the church and the poor reveals the Easter light of Christ.

Two months ago the readers of The Prairie Messenger (01/17/18) were introduced in an article by Michael Swan to the situation of a Honduran Jesuit priest, Ismael Moreno, known nationally and internationally as “Padre Melo.” He is one of many Jesuit priests around the world who live on the edge because of their discipline, their high intellectual standards, and their commitment to the church and the poor.

I met Father Melo in 1988 when he came to study in Toronto and since then a bond of friendship and love has connected my family to him. In 2013 Father Melo invited me “to accompany” him in Honduras, which means to walk with him or to shadow him in his travels. The theory behind accompaniment is that the presence of a foreigner is a hindrance to would-be assassins employed by the state or by someone from the oligarchy.

Father Melo, like many Hondurans, knows the pain of violent death among friends and family. His parents, Pedro and Angela were poor campesino farmers. Father Melo’s father, Pedro Moreno, was the president of a farmer’s co-operative that was under siege by foreign investors who wanted to buy land to grow sugar cane. Pedro urged the poor farmers to stick together and not to sell. It was Melo who, at the age of 13, discovered his father’s mutilated body in the office of the co-operative. Shortly afterward the farmers started to sell off their parcels and become part-time workers on the sugar hacienda.

Angela, known as Doña Lita, carried her first pair of shoes for many kilometres to her wedding so as not to get them dirty. Her husband farmed until his murder and Lita worked hard producing tortillas and other items to support the family. Melo would have had financial difficulty to continue in high school and he had thought about getting a job to help support the family. However, he got the highest grades in Grade 8, which won him a scholarship to the private Jesuit school that mostly catered to the rich of El Progreso.

His keen intellect kept him at the top of his class throughout high school. Melo’s ambition was to go into law or the Jesuits to work for the poor. He remembers a day when Jesuit Father Padre Guadalupe was visiting the family and Pedro said to his young son, “If you want to be a priest, be like Father Guadalupe or don’t bother.”

Padre Guadalupe was an American missionary who became radically aligned to the struggle of the poor farmers, particularly the banana workers in the northern plantations of the Standard and United Fruit companies. In 1983 Padre Guadalupe was captured by Honduran and U.S. troops and after being tortured he was thrown alive over the jungle along with other political prisoners.

On Nov. 16, 1989, an elite American trained murder squad of the Salvadoran army entered the campus of the Catholic University and killed six Jesuit professors and the two women housekeepers. Those Jesuits were professors of Father Melo when he was in training as a seminarian. When Melo’s mother, Doña Lita, heard of the assassination of the Jesuits, whom she knew personally, she summoned Melo to her side and, having him kneel beside her, she told him to have his affairs in order because if he was to be faithful to his calling they would come some day for him.

So why do they want to kill Padre Melo today? Honduras is a failed and corrupt narco-state. It is ruled by a military dictatorship, many of whom were trained at the infamous School of the Americas. The American embassy calls the shots in Honduras as it has up to six military bases in the country, including the largest airport in the country. The country just went through a fraudulent electoral process, which has confirmed the most corrupt in society as the government: an alliance of military, embassy, oligarchy and drug cartels. Padre Melo is director of an independent radio station, “Radio Progreso,” and a human rights centre, “ERIC.” Of the most dangerous careers in Honduras are law, journalism, and environmental defence.

Father Melo is perhaps the leading figure in the Catholic Church in the area of human rights and interpreting the “signs of the times” (Vatican II). Politically he is non-aligned, but his political astuteness is widely sought by many sectors of society. I have accompanied Melo to meet with sociology professors, with teachers groups, with women indigenous campesina groups, with youth groups, with leaders of co-operatives and labour unions, with political groups and even with groups of clergy. They all look for the same thing. “How can we understand what is happening in Honduras?” they ask. Melo has that rare ability to speak to any group at their level, to engage them in meaningful dialogue and shared wisdom.

During my most recent five-week trip this year, Melo was called to the capital city of Tegucigalpa to meet with three United Nations representatives who had come to Honduras on a fact-finding mission. They spent the entire day in conversation, just with Padre Melo. He is often called upon to meet foreign delegations and commissions such as the O.A.S.-sponsored MACCIH — “Support Mission to Combat Corruption and Impunity in Honduras.” In 2015 Padre Melo was awarded in Norway the “RAFTO” award, sometimes called the “Alternative Nobel.” There have been numerous other awards given to Father Melo and the twin apostolates he directs: Radio Progreso and ERIC.

Since the military coup of 2009, documented in the video La Voz del Pueblo (https://ignatiansolidarity.net/la-voz-del-pueblo/), the Jesuit mission has been under attack by the military dictatorship. One radio manager, Carlos Mejia, was murdered in 2014. More than 16 of the Jesuit’s staff have received credible death threats, the most recent in late February 2018.

In 2013 Father Melo was at a road blockade supporting an indigenous Lenca community in their resistance to an illegal hydroelectric project that would deprive the farmers of their source of water. Along with him was Berta Caceres, a Lenca environmental and human rights defender and a longtime friend of Father Melo. Berta in 2015 received the prestigious Goldman environmental award, which her supporters celebrated thinking this international recognition might give her some protection. At the Rio Blanco blockade, an American woman who at that time was accompanying Padre Melo took a photo of Melo and Berta together. Berta smiled at Father Melo and said, “Who of us will they kill first?” Berta was assassinated on March 2, 2016.

In my trips to accompany Melo I know he has quietly saved lives. I have gone with him to a federal prison to visit political prisoners. His legal team advocates not only for persons dealing with political and human rights issues, but poor people wrongly imprisoned.

In Honduras there is no other prominent Catholic Church official who speaks out against the corruption, the violence, the fraudulent electoral process, and the high “femicide” rate. The combined teams of Radio Progreso and ERIC did a full-year campaign about violence against women. It was followed by an intensive national program promoting Pope Francis’ environmental encyclical, Laudato Sì. Father Melo openly supported the Movement of the Indignant — a national protest against the bankruptcy of the Social Security Health Program — because the dictator drained the funds for use by his own political party.

Father Melo has lived with death threats for most of his priesthood. He has been kidnapped more than once. People around him have been killed. He cannot be bought, although there have been efforts internationally and nationally to compromise him with financial support. As Father Melo once explained, “First they try to be nice and ingratiate themselves with praise and admiration. Then they try to buy your support. If that doesn’t work they try to ridicule you or criticize your work. When that doesn’t work they move to criminalize you or paint you as a traitor to the country. Then they kill you.”

Little is a retired teacher living on Vancouver Island. Born in Alberta, he went to university in Ottawa. As a member of the Oblate congregation he went to Peru as a missionary from 1972 to 1980. Returning to Canada he married and taught in the Toronto Catholic school system for 26 years until retirement.