Archive for the ‘journalists killed in Honduras’ Category

 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.

Advertisements

Violence in post-election Honduras could affect U.S. migration patterns, activists say

Claudia Mendoza (left) and Joaquin Mejia (right) were in Washington, D.C. to give an overview of post-election Honduras. (Photo: Esther Y. Lee)

Claudia Mendoza (left) and Joaquin Mejia (right) were in Washington, D.C. to give an overview of post-election Honduras. (Photo: Esther Y. Lee)

WASHINGTON, D.C.– The violent aftermath of the Honduran presidential election — triggered by allegations of electoral fraud — has led to serious human rights abuses, Honduran advocates said Thursday, strongly advising the Trump administration not to deport immigrants back to a country repressed by deadly government security forces.

At an event sponsored by Alianza Americas, a transnational network of immigrant organizations, two Honduran-based speakers shared their on-the-ground perspective of the dangers they have faced after President Juan Orlando Hernández’s reelection. Joaquin Mejia — a lawyer and human rights advocate who works as a commentator at the Jesuit radio station Radio Progreso — expressed concern over the legitimacy of his country’s presidential elections and indicated that his life was at risk for openly criticizing Hernández and the military police. The Honduran constitution has since the 1980s explicitly enforced a one-term presidential limit. Hernández sought to change the constitution to ban term limits. Claudia Mendoza — a freelance journalist who has worked with Univision — also pointed out at the event the “shameful” silence by the Honduran news outlets to suppress news about the brutality at the hands of the country’s military police.

Mejia and Mendoza both noted that violent clashes between opposition supporters and the military police have led to the deaths of dozens of activists, hundreds of injuries, and thousands of detentions. Into January 2018, the Honduran government reportedly used security forces to tamp down protests using tear gas, batons, and live ammunition, according to a Latin American Working Group Education Fund report, brutally stiffing press freedom and imposing curfews in post-electoral Honduras. In the face of mounting violence following Hernández’s reelection, the U.S. embassy accepted the country’s election results, despite misgivings by the Organization of American States (OAS) which called for a presidential election do-over.

Mejia has been advocating for a fair electoral process and said he was “hopeful” that the Honduran youth would turn out for future elections. He also wants the U.S. government to stop deporting people back to a country beset by violence and forced displacement. As of February 9, the U.S. government has deported 2,279 people to Honduras, according to Consular y Migratorio de Honduras (CONMIGHO) data. CONMIGHO receives USAID funding and is affiliated with the Honduran Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores y Cooperación Internacional. Tens of thousands of Honduran Temporary Protected Status (TPS) recipients may also be at risk of deportation if the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) fails to renew their statuses by July 5, 2018.

Many people are driven to flee their homes for another city in Honduras because of ongoing threats and assassinations, as the Latin American Working Group Education Fund graphic below shows.

(Photo by Latin America Working Group Education Fund)
(Photo by Latin America Working Group Education Fund)

Mejia himself has faced a constant barrage of threats because of his stance against the Hernández government.

“From the time I worked at Radio Progreso to when I came here yesterday [on a three-city visit to the United States], I’ve had threats against my family,” Mejia said at the event, his voice going up an emotional lilt before he spoke again. “There is absolute impunity of crimes committed by the police.”

“You can see an increase of the forced displacement of the people because of the violence,” Mejia told ThinkProgress after the event. “Even though officially, there’s been a decrease in the rate of homicides in Honduras, it’s a mistake to see the reduction of violence in Honduras only in the perspective of murdered people because we have to see it in other types of violence like robbery, extortion, and other elements we have to take into account in that kind of violence.”

From the U.S. perspective, Honduras is so dangerous that the U.S. State Department has advised U.S. citizens to “reconsider” travel to the country on account of crime with some areas seeing “increased risk.” The federal government has also advised against traveling to Gracias a Dios, an isolated area where infrastructure is weak. Travelers who go there won’t get help since “U.S. government employees are restricted from traveling to the area.”

JOAQUIN MEJIA WAS IN WASHINGTON, D.C. TO GIVE AN OVERVIEW OF POST-ELECTION HONDURAS. (Photo: Esther Y. Lee)
JOAQUIN MEJIA WAS IN WASHINGTON, D.C. TO GIVE AN OVERVIEW OF POST-ELECTION HONDURAS. (Photo: Esther Y. Lee)

When asked his position on the Trump administration’s efforts to make it very difficult for people to seek humanitarian relief — like asylum or refugee status — on claims of fraudulent interviewees being “coached” to make up lies about Honduras, Mejia shook his head.

“The Trump administration has this theory about immigrants, but at the same time it’s supporting a regime that’s provoking a political situation that is going to provoke an increase in the immigration to the U.S., Spain, Costa Rica, and an increase in asylum and refugee seekers,” Mejia said. The United States has long had an over-sized influence in the country, investing hundreds of millions of dollars in security assistance to help fund elite military and police units, The Guardian reported. As the publication explained, these units have helped push down Honduras’ murder rate, but the country is still one of the most violent places in the world.

“I don’t know what’s happening in the government of the United States, but if they really want to stop immigration, the logical thing is to support democracy in our country,” Mejia added. “But they are supporting a regime that is authoritarian, using the military force to attack those who are opposition and denouncing electoral fraud. This will provoke increased immigration to the United States.”

Mejia fears that mass deportation from the United States would trigger more instability at a time when Honduras has yet to resolve widespread doubts over electoral irregularities.

“Those people deported from United States — what they’re going to face is a very complicated situation – a political crisis and instability,” Mejia said, explaining that there are no programs in place that he knows of that would help resettle deported immigrants. “And I’m sure what they’re going to do is try to go back to the United States. They left the country because that violence and that instability but now they’re going to find the same instability, same violence.”

Beyond the scale of U.S. immigration policies, Mejia and Mendoza have noticed a troubling trend in Honduras that affects every resident. As a journalist Mendoza has observed other press coverage being too favorable towards the Hernández government or has presented no criticism of the brutal oppression. News coverage of the large-scale protests “emphasize property damage and not human life,” she said.

“The press should have been critical, but [their articles] looked like press releases from the government,” she said according to an English translation from an in-ear interpreter present at the event. “La Prensa and El Heraldo are theoretically independent but there is no criticism.”

Mendoza pointed to the death of Kimberly Dayana Fonseca, a 19-year-old who went to look for her brother during anti-government protests and was killed with a bullet to the head on the first night a curfew was put in place in the country. Military police shot live rounds into the crowd, but the prosecutor’s office “tried to blame” her death on a tear gas canister, the Miami Herald reported in January.

“Sadly, the press is taking a lot of the military line,” Mendoza said. “We are in a country where there is no freedom of press… we have one line and it’s the government’s line.”

Berta Cáceres’s name was on Honduran military hitlist, says former soldier

A unit trained by US special forces was ordered to kill the environmental activist who was slain in March, according to an ex-member who now fears for his life

One human rights expert said: ‘This … reinforces calls that the US must withdraw military aid from Honduras where there’s been a bloodbath since the 2009 coup.’
 One human rights expert said: ‘This … reinforces calls that the US must withdraw military aid from Honduras where there’s been a bloodbath since the 2009 coup.’ Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

 in Mexico City

Berta Cáceres, the murdered environmental campaigner, appeared on a hitlist distributed to US-trained special forces units of the Honduran military months before her death, a former soldier has claimed.

Lists featuring the names and photographs of dozens of social and environmental activists were given to two elite units, with orders to eliminate each target, according to First Sergeant Rodrigo Cruz, 20.

Cruz’s unit commander, a 24-year-old lieutenant, deserted rather than comply with the order. Cruz – who asked to be identified by a pseudonym for fear of reprisal – followed suit, and fled to a neighbouring country. Several other members of the unit have disappeared and are feared dead.

“If I went home, they’d kill me. Ten of my former colleagues are missing. I’m 100% certain that Berta Cáceres was killed by the army,” Cruz told the Guardian.

Cáceres, an indigenous Lenca leader who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 for a campaign against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, was shot dead in her home in March. Before her murder, she had reported 33 death threats linked to the campaign and had warned international human rights delegates that her name was on a hitlist.

Berta Cáceres campaigned to preserve her people’s environment, threatened by a hydroelectric project.
 Berta Cáceres campaigned to preserve her people’s environment, threatened by a hydroelectric project. Photograph: Tim Russo

According to Cruz, Cáceres’s name appeared on a list given to a military police unit in the Inter-institutional Security Force (Fusina), which last summer received training from 300 US marines and FBI agents.

Five men have been arrested for her murder, including Maj Mariano Díaz Chávez, an active-duty major in the Honduran army. Díaz had previously participated in joint US-Honduran military operations in Iraq, and is reported by local media to be a graduate of the elite Tesón special operations course which is partly taught by US special forcesDiaz was a military police instructor when arrested, but has since been given a dishonourable discharge.

Annie Bird, director of the group Rights and Ecology which documents human rights abuses in Honduras, said: “Cruz’s testimony suggests death squads are targeting political opposition, but the justice system is so broken, and directly controlled by figures implicated in corruption, that there is no one [in Honduras] who can credibly investigate.”

The Guardian interviewed Cruz several times by telephone and video call, and spoke with several people – academics, community leaders and activists – who have interviewed Cruz and confirmed his identity and military background.

Cruz enlisted in the army in December 2014, and after three months of basic training, was transferred to the 7th Battalion of the military police, which was created in 2013 to replace a civilian police force mired in allegations of corruption and abuse.

He completed two gruelling specialist training camps, including the Tesón course, where he received instruction from foreign military advisers including Americans, Colombians and instructors who spoke a foreign language which Cruz could not identify. Last year, the Tesón course became the subject of intense controversy when footage emerged showing a trainee being forced to eat the head of a dog.

During his training, Cruz was hospitalized twice with dehydration, but he completed the course and in October last year, Cruz and 15 other men from his battalion were picked to serve in the Xatruch taskforce – one of two multi-agency forces in Honduras deployed on specialist counter-narcotics and anti-gang operations.

The Xatruch force covers the Caribbean coast, which has become an important way station for drug cartels smuggling cocaine from South America to the US. The second taskforce, Fusina, operates nationwide.

In mid-December, Cruz’s commander gathered his subordinates after a Tuesday evening football match and showed them several sheets of paper with names, photographs, addresses and phone numbers of each target. One list was assigned to their unit; the second to a similar unit in Fusina.

“The lieutenant said he wasn’t willing to go through with the order as the targets were decent people, fighting for their communities. He said the order came from the joint chiefs of staff [and] he was under pressure from the Xatruch commander to comply,” Cruz said.

A few days later, the lieutenant left the base and has not been seen since.

It was not the first time Cruz had seen the lists. A few weeks earlier in Punta Piedra, a town on the Caribbean coast, similar sheets of paper had fallen out of his commander’s vest in the jeep which Cruz drove.

“I only had them in my hand for 20 or 30 seconds but I recognised some faces as leaders from the Bajo Aguán [region]. I didn’t say anything,” Cruz said.

The Bajo Aguán region – where the Xatruch taskforce is based – has been the setting for a string of violent land disputes between powerful palm oil magnates and local farmers. More than 100 people, mainly peasant activists, have been killed, many at the hands of state or private security forces.

Among the names on the hitlist seen by Cruz was that of Juan Galindo, an activist who had fled the region after receiving threats, but was murdered in November 2014 after returning home from exile to visit his sick mother.

Cruz also recognised Johnny Rivas and Vitalino Álvarez, high-profile members of the United Peasant Movement (Muca). Both men were among 123 activists in the Bajo Aguán named by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2014 as requiring urgent protective measures.

Peasant activist Vitalino Álvarez: ‘The rumours are I’m now top of that list.’
 Peasant activist Vitalino Álvarez: ‘The rumours are I’m now top of that list.’ Photograph: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

Álvarez, 52, who has survived four assassination attempts since 2010, said: “There’s been a systematic strategy to eliminate the most belligerent social leaders. Since they killed Berta, the rumours are I’m now top of that list.”

Human rights groups have condemned US support for Honduran security forces amid mounting evidence implicating police and military in systematic abuses. In April, activists warned Congress that death squads were targeting opposition activists, much like they did during the “dirty war” in the 1980s.

The US has given Honduras an estimated $200m in police and military aid since 2010 as part of its efforts to stem organised crime and undocumented migration, according to defence and state department figures. In addition, Honduras shares the $750m Alliance for Prosperity fund approved by Congress last year for Central America’s violent Northern Triangle.

Both aid packages include human rights conditions, but neither has been restricted, even though the state department’s most recent human rights report says that “unlawful and arbitrary killings and other criminal activities by members of the security forces” remain one of the country’s most serious problems.

Neither the Honduran defence ministry nor the US state department responded to repeated requests for comment by the Guardian.

After Cruz’s lieutenant deserted in mid-December, the other members of his unit were redeployed separately. Cruz worked for about 10 days with the commander of the Xatruch taskforce.

During this brief deployment, Cruz said he was woken up in the middle of the night to transport black plastic bags to the River Tocoa, in Bajo Aguán, where colleagues emptied out human remains over the bridge.

He also described seeing a “torture room” near a military installation in the town of Bonito Oriental. “I didn’t see anyone but there was fresh blood, a hammer, nails, a chain and pliers in the room.”

Shortly afterwards, Cruz and his colleagues were all sent on extended leave. Now increasingly anxious for his own safety, Cruz fled, crossing the border illegally as his identification documents were still with the army. He is now in hiding and his family have reported that military policemen have questioned their neighbours over his whereabouts.

Lauren Carasik, director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Western New England University, said the US must stop turning a blind eye to the lawlessness.

“This is disturbing smoking-gun evidence which reinforces calls that the US must withdraw military aid from Honduras where there’s been a bloodbath since the 2009 coup.”

Violence in Honduras increased dramatically after a military-backed coup in July 2009 forced President Manuel Zelaya from power. Environmental campaigners bore the brunt of the repression after the new rightwing government licensed hundreds of mega-projects, including mines and hydroelectric dams in environmentally sensitive areas. At least 109 activists were murdered between 2010 and 2015, making Honduras one of the world’s most dangerous countries for environmental defenders.

A growing number of US politicians have expressed concern over the situation.

In August 2015, 21 members of Congress wrote to the secretary of state, John Kerry, raising specific concerns about US support for Fusina, which has repeatedly been accused of human rights violations.

Last week, the Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act in Honduras – which would suspend US security assistance until human rights violations by security forces cease – was introduced to Congress by Representative Hank Johnson.

“We provide millions of dollars in security assistance to Honduras but these same forces have been found to attack and kill environmental, labour and human rights activists like Cáceres without any effective response from the authorities,” said Johnson.

Cáceres’s daughter, Bertita Zúñiga, said Cruz’s testimony strengthened the family’s calls for an independent international investigation to find the intellectual authors.

“This shows us that death squads are operating in the armed forces, which are being used to get rid of people opposing government plans. It shows us that human rights violations are state policy in Honduras.”

Journalists demand justice for 22 colleagues murdered in Honduras

Journalists and defenders of free expression gathered in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, on Monday to demand justice for the 22 journalists who have been murdered in the country since 2014.

“We demand the investigation and trial of those responsible for the deaths of those journalists,” said Wendy Funez, a representative of the Freedom of Expression Committee (C-Libre), during a protest outside the attorney general’s office.

The demonstrators placed coffins at the entrance to the office in memory of the 22 journalists killed during the lifetime of the current government, headed by President Juan Orlando Hernandez.

In those cases, 91% of the murderers continue to enjoy impunity, said C-Libre director and former prosecutor Edy Tabora.

The committee has called for the creation of a specialised unit to investigate “aggression against freedom of expression.” Tabora said there had been 218 attacks against journalists in Honduras in 2015.

Since the 2009 US-backed coup that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya, 59 journalists have been murdered in Honduras, reported TeleSUR. Four have been killed in 2016 and 12 were killed in 2015.

Yet, in April 2015, the Honduras National Congress approved the “journalist protection law”, which included measures such as providing police protection when a journalist receives a threat.

The law also planned the creation of a centre to monitor threats. Nothing has come of it.