Into the heart of Father Melo, Jesuit priest and journalist whose life is threatened in Honduras

Posted: July 7, 2019 in Caravans of Migrants, journalism in Honduras, Padre Melo - Ismael Moreno sj
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Into the heart of Father Melo, Jesuit priest and journalist whose life is threatened in Honduras

Melo Moreno SJ, Director of Radio Progreso and ERIC (photo credit Iván Benítiz)

Iván Benítez   July 03, 2019

 

Uncle Ismael! Uncle Ismael! “Maria opens the door of the house and throws herself at the waist of her uncle, who has come to visit the family. The girl clings to his hand and pulls him. The house is located at the foot of a majestic jungle mountainside. Ismael enters the room and looks for the back of his mother who is sitting in a wheelchair. He hugs her from behind. Doña Lita, who is blind and treasures almost a century of life, takes the hand of her son and brings it to her face. Then he goes to the room where his younger sister, Ines, is bedridden due to a degenerative illness. He kisses her repeatedly on the cheek. She does not move or speak. He places the palm of his hand on her forehead and remains silent. Silences that scream! Ines has been his confidant since childhood.

 

Melo with his mother Doña Lita and sister Raquel (photo credit Iván Benítiz)

In the family Melo is not just “Ismael Moreno Coto”, the journalist and Jesuit priest threatened with death for denouncing the violations of human rights that are committed daily in his country. In grade school as often happens a nickname was given by others – “Melo” and later it became “Melito! Melito!” as high school classmates scoffed. At that time it was hurled as a mockery of one from a lower class. Today, on the contrary, he feels identified with the nickname. When he was a child, in his city of El Progreso­ there were two high schools: that of the poor and that of the rich. The municipal government awarded two scholarships for the best students and Melo won one. Later as a young man he lived in Mexico City, where he studied Philosophy, and then, in El Salvador, he studied Theology. Since 1995 he has dedicated himself to journalism, and today, at 61, this round-faced man with a gray mustache, deep circles and a contagious smile, sometimes mischievous, has become one of the main opposition leaders in the country. He is rooted in the peasantry. In Honduras 60% of the population live below the poverty line, with more than four million in extreme poverty.

Scrambled eggs with corn tortillas

Ismael Moreno Coto, known as Padre Melo, is the most visible head of Radio Progreso and the “Reflection, Research and Communication Team” (ERIC), a Jesuit institution that opposes big business projects that threaten the rights of indigenous people, and investigates and challenges government corruption. He sits in front of a microphone and denounces the human rights violations committed in his country every day. He travels to a hidden village in the

Melo being offered coconut water (photo credit Iván Benítiz)

mountains to listen to the peasants, and then leads a protest march against the government in his city. Melo has travelled to the United States and Europe to receive international awards for the defense of the freedom of expression. But he is more comfortable visiting the sick in hospitals in his city, or sitting with team members in the courtyard of their home sharing a beer wearing casual shorts and his flip flops.  He collaborates with the most prestigious media outlets at an international level, while being very present to care for his mother, Doña Lita or his sister Inés. (Inés died two weeks after this report was written.) With equal ability he prepares an intellectual discourse for any scenario in the world, but he is equally comfortable rolling up his sleeves in the kitchen while preparing some scrambled eggs with corn tortillas for his friends. Melo can be timid while at the same time be capable of a few jokes, familiar, solitary, unpredictable and often unpunctual. It is characteristic of his commitment to life and simplicity, while remaining a staunch enemy of double standards and false praise that can be directed towards him. Melo does not feel like a superhero in such a dangerous country in Central America: Honduras had the second highest per capita number of murders: 3,682 in 2018 or 40/100,000. (Insightcrime.org)

The 5 men of Honduras

March of the Torches, Melo walking with his people in El Progreso (photo credit Iván Benítiz)

According to the Forbes list of 2018, five people in Honduras accumulate the equivalent of the minimum annual salary of two million of their population. “Honduras remains hostage to a small group that rubs shoulders with the richest people in the world,” says Melo. “225 are in control of all economic and political decisions. And this is what causes the origin of the migrant caravans.” Of the nine million inhabitants, one million live outside of the country and six million live with precarious futures in health and housing. “Honduras possesses the conditions of wealth which would enable its people to live with dignity, for this generation and the next, but the small handful of people who concentrate the wealth have created a triple alliance with which they protect themselves” Melo continues. “There is a triple alliance formed by a corrupt political bureaucracy, an entrepreneurial elite and multinationals. And whoever touches this triple alliance is threatened with a premature death. That’s why they threaten to kill us”. “A triple alliance” he stresses, “protected by the United States, organized crime and the military.”

March of the Torches, weekly protest march in El Progreso (photo credit Iván Benítiz)

For the past two months (May and June), another social and political crisis has been detonated in Honduras as the threat of “privatization initiatives” in education and public health care has alarmed the population. “In reality, this crisis is nothing more than the accumulation of conflicts that are rooted in the coup d’état of 2009, the illegal and fraudulent elections of November 2017, the corruption, the impunity and the links of President Juan Orlando Hernández with drug trafficking” clarified Melo’s team (ERIC) this week. “The social and political pressures continue to rise, and the escalation of repression and systematic violation of human rights is very serious”, they have warned. To all this is added the government plan to “criminalize” Human Rights defenders. Diario de Navarra has had access to a document in which the government puts Father Melo in the spotlight, pointing him out as one of the “political leaders behind the planning of marches, riots and looting” with the express aim according to the document to “disaccredit” him.

15 days at Melo’s house

It is very difficult to keep up with Melo’s pace on any day. On May 2, for example, Melo himself is the one who picks up a journalist from Diario de Navarra at the San Pedro Sula airport. That morning, on the way to the city, Melo is obviously showing concern about something. “They want to prosecute Radio Progreso and me. They want to do it anyway”, he says, before arriving at his house, located on the very edge of a neighborhood controlled by gangs. “In ten years nothing has ever happened to me, even the neighbors tell us if there are strange people hanging around”, he reassures, pushing the gate. A mango tree full of fresh fruit welcomes the new guest.

Melo in the broadcast cabin of Radio Progreso (photo credit Iván Benítiz)

The next day, Friday, May 3, which happens to be “Freedom of the Press Day”, Melo opens his eyes at five o’clock. Even though it is still night, he comes down from his room dressed in blue and white, with flip-flops and a cream-colored brimmed hat. He limps due to a sharp pain that accumulates in his joints, the same illness that afflicted his younger sister. Melo walks towards the entrance gate, opens the padlock, always facing the threat of the night, and in an invisible gesture sweeps the darkness. Then he drives to the radio station. It is a habitual trip, deceivingly simple, with an underlying of risk. Two surveillance cameras record everything. At about one o’clock in the morning shots were heard not far away. And three hours later, a daily ritual is repeated as three agents of the National Police park their vehicle in front of the Jesuit residence, and then emerged to take a selfie with their assault rifles.

Melo’s fingers are tough as leather. They stretch and contract as they stroke the steering wheel on the way to the station. A current of pain flows like an internal torrent. Pain, he describes while circulating, which helps him to remember at every moment the suffering of the people. Any motorcycle that stops near the windows of the car is reason for some discomfort. Melo tries not to show his nervousness. With the arthritis he suffers, the pain bombards from the inside.

Freedom of the press

Senator Tim Kaine (secord from left) from Virginia with Jesuits in El Progreso 2016

A slight smile escapes Melo when speaking about freedom of the press. “To exercise freedom of expression in our situation is a permanent task. Here in Honduras, we celebrate this day while living in a country that is at the service of the elite. Freedom of expression as a right of the press has ceded to a demand to be at the service of the strong. We cannot say that we enjoy freedom of expression. Freedom of expression becomes a huge challenge and an affront to adverse conditions. We risk our lives and risk our personal safety and that of our team.”

The car winds through the empty streets of the city of El Progreso. At this early hour it is already 25 degrees Celsius (77 F). “Since 2009, after the various threats that we have had, we were accepted by the Inter-American Commission to merit precautionary measures,” Melo continues. “Each year these measures have been renewed, and ten years later we continue to merit these measures. The State has the obligation to implement protection measures for people at risk”. “To do this”, he clarifies, “the State sends to our home a police patrol at nine o’clock at night and at four o’clock in the morning. But it happens that the police themselves are contaminated by organized crime. Therefore, they fulfill a double function. Ostensibly they protect us, but in reality they watch and control us. I do not think they’re going to kill me. What they are now seeking is to discredit us. They try to connect me to one issue or another. That’s why they watch us, videotape us and even listen to our conversations.”

Armored crystals

Recipients of the RAFTO Norwegian [Alternate Nobel) Award

At 5.15 am, the gate to Radio Progreso opens. A security guard, who does not carry a weapon, watches the entrance. The silence of the empty streets is left behind. The priest places his fingerprint on the door security system so that he and the journalist visitor can enter. The station is protected by bulletproof glass. Melo opens the palm of his hand and leans against the wall. He must climb the stairs sideways, pulling his body up the stairs. They walk through a first room, a small library which exhibits a book edited by the Rafto Foundation that awarded Melo in 2015 the prize for the “defense of freedom of expression”. This was a huge international recognition which recognized “the legitimacy of millions of Hondurans and Hondurans who yearn for a real and profound change in the social, political and economic situation that affects us as a society.” The Foundation highlighted in 2015 “that justice and the reason for this popular clamor to stop once and for all the thousands of abuses suffered daily by the peasantry, the indigenous peoples, the Garífuna communities and rural towns and communities in the face of the voracity of the interests of extractive and transnational companies in Honduras.” Since 1987, the Rafto Foundation has recognized and awarded human rights and democracy advocates, including people who later received the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Good morning, God gave us this day”

Melo in his office (photo credit Iván Benítiz)

Once in the radio booth, Melo embraces the morning announcer, Letty, with a “good morning sister”. He takes off his hat and sits in front of the microphone and the bulletproof window. It is 5.30 am: “Good morning, God gave us this day!” is the morning greeting and the name of the program. After the half hour program, Melo shut himself in his office until seven in the morning. He then returned home for breakfast. Yami, the woman who helps with household chores, had prepared breakfast.

Caravan of Migrants – refugees from the violence and poverty in Honduras

In the same house there are two young men in formation to be Jesuits, Aquiles and Jerson, and Father Martín, a Guatemalan who works on the audiovisual content of the web. The five take their breakfast at the kitchen table: scrambled eggs, fried plantain, fresh cheese and avocado, always with aromatic Honduran coffee. They talked about what’s happening. Melo joked with the young men. At one point, Jerson spoke about a 7-year-old boy who died in the Rio Grande, on the border with the United States. “He was trying to cross with his uncle on a raft … That child was my neighbor in my community …”, he commented, obviously distressed. “I still remember when he hugged me one last time and spoke to me in English. His parents had emigrated two months before and he was happy because he was going to meet them again.”

“If the migrant is not your brother, God is not your father”

Martín and Jerson decide to visit the grandparents of the little boy, little Ezequiel, in the community of Nueva Esperanza. They will take the opportunity to record an interview for the radio. Melo nods. As director of the radio station, he is aware of the risk faced by his team of reporters. Some leave home in the morning wondering if they will return alive. This is admitted by one of the threatened journalists, Gerardo Chevez, father of four children, who has been assaulted twice by the police. A patrol of the National Police also appears at his home at dawn. This is the daily reality of working for the teams of Radio Progreso and the Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC.)

 

 

 

“You will be the next”

The martyrs of the UCA

Since childhood Melo has had to learn to deal with death before its time. His father, a peasant leader, was murdered in 1974 in a violent robbery that Melo “suspects” had other objectives. Melo also knew Ellacuría, his thesis professor. The Basque Jesuit was killed by the Salvadoran army in November 1989 along with five other priests of the same order and two women employees of the Central American University (UCA). Melo had a warm friendship with the woman who cooked for the Jesuit community and her daughter. He had just invited them to spend Christmas at his family house in El Progreso.

The news of this brutal assassination caught Melo while he was in the mountains, celebrating a mass with a peasant community. Upon receiving the news, Melo first went to his family home to be with his mother. He sought Doña Lita’s embrace, her consolation, and he cried. Doña Lita, then, whispered to her son: “You will be next. Have courage.” Those words of his mother cemented the strength that today holds firm. Years later after these words from his mother, in 2016, Berta Cáceres was murdered. She was an indigenous woman leader who opposed the government’s “extractive” model of development. Berta had received numerous death threats because she could not be bought by the corporations and political parties. Berta Cáceres knew what she faced.

Melo and Berta Caceres in Rio Blanco (photo credit Lucy Edwards)

Thus, whenever Gerardo Chevez, one of the main investigative journalists from the radio station, picks Melo up at the airport or accompanies him from one place to another, Melo somewhat jokingly reminds Gerardo: “Roll down your window so the gunmen do not confuse us and kill you instead.” At a protest in Rio Blanco three years before she died, Berta asked Father Melo who of the two would first be assassinated. “Who will go first, Melo, you or me?”

Carlos Mejía – murdered in 2014 Marketing Manager of Radio Progreso

 

 

 

 

On April 11, 2014, Carlos Mejía, who was the marketing manager for Radio Progreso, was murdered. Mejía was in theory also protected with mandated precautionary measures by the “Inter-American Commission on Human Rights” because of the threats he had received.

 

Lesly, a 32-year-old journalist with 12 years of experience with Radio Progreso, admits that “the situation is very complicated.” She recognizes that “we are an easy target if you do not work in a corporate environment. But it is also rewarding. Melo tries to project honesty and dignity. We have to break so many molds in this country. It demands a very strong commitment.”

 

One night, returning in his car from San Pedro Sula to El Progreso after visiting a hospitalized friend, the journalist from Diario de Navarra asked: “Melo, how would you describe yourself?” After a long silence, he replies: “I have lived through three wars in Central America: Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. That is why, because I have lived through these wars that I defend peace.” As the journey and the conversation continued, Melo allowed some memories to surface to seek the answer to the question.

Melo visiting Chabelo Morales at the prison of El Porvenir Chabelo, a farmer from the Aguan, was a political prisoner and released with the legal support of ERIC (photo credit Phil Little)

 

He remembered those years when he as a Jesuit priest accompanied the peasant indigenous population, in the midst of a genocide conducted by the Guatemalan army which had been trained by the Israeli military. The military burned to the ground the peasant villages. On one occasion the military had them surrounded in the middle of the forest. “It was Christmas. We did not have food. We had not eaten for days. But on Christmas day someone managed to break through the siege and brought us some soda crackers. Carefully these were sliced ​​and distributed equally in tiny portions. Then, I discovered the meaning of Christmas.”

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