Honduras’ Human Rights Crisis

After controversial election, country rocked by violence, including brutal deaths of anti-coup resistance members.

Jeremy Kryt

A protester is hit by a rubber bullet shot by police during riots near the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on September 23, 2009. (Photo by Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images)

TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS – The military-backed, de facto government of Honduras had hoped that the November 29 presidential election would quell a political standoff that had lasted for more than five months. But, just over two weeks later, it doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. The vote itself was marred by fraud and deception, and many countries in the world have refused to recognize its legitimacy. 

The democratically-elected president, Mel Zelaya, remains besieged in the Brazilian Embassy, surrounded by hundreds of troops and riot police. Repression by authorities continues, and the country has endured a dramatic spike in violence, with mass shootings and robberies becoming even more prevalent. 

But the circumstances surrounding the violent assassination of two anti-coup resistance members in recent days has sent out fresh shockwaves, calling up grim memories of the death squads that roamed Honduras a generation ago. 

Two activists murdered, as violence rises in capital

On December 11, the decapitated body of Corrales Garcia was found about 50 kilometers east of the capital of Tegucigalpa, according to a report by the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras. Garcia was last seen in police custody, after being picked up December 5 in a mass raid against nonviolent resistance members near the capital.What’s going on in the country is a low-density attack strategy,” said Andres Pavon, president of CODEH. The authorities aren’t assassinating the masses, they’re killing selected individuals, or small groups of people. In that way it’s very much like the [nineteen] eighties,” Pavon said.

The other case involved the death of Walter Trochez, 27, a well-known resistance member and gay activist, who was shot twice in the chest on Sunday evening in downtown Tegucigalpa. Trochez, who was HIV-positive, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting while on his way home from distributing AIDS awareness literature. Witnesses reported the motorcycle involved was a police model, and that the men wore police uniforms.

Amnesty International fears that Walter’s killing may be a sign of worse abuses to come in the atmosphere of political instability and fear that has prevailed since the coup d’état in June,” stated the world’s foremost human rights organization, in a press release this week that confirmed Trochez had been previously targeted for his human rights work.

Gilda Velazquez, director of Refuge without Limits, another human rights group in the capital investigating the recent executions, said that Trochez had survived a kidnapping attempt by masked gunmen on December 4, who had interrogated him as to the whereabouts of other resistance leaders.

According to those who were kidnapped with the beheaded Garcia, they too were abused and interrogated while imprisoned. Criminal Investigation Division (DIC) uniforms and vehicles were also reported in each case.

The police want to break up the neighborhood resistance cells,” Velazquez said, because the resistance is building political citizenship in these poor neighborhoods. And that scares the authorities. They’re terrified of the people experiencing that kind of empowerment.”

The Criminal Investigation Division (DIC) declined to comment on either case for In These Times, but Adolfo Reyes, 42, an intelligence officer with the National Police, agreed to discuss the rise in violence in general.

The crime wave is the work of common criminals, nothing more,” said Reyes, speaking via cell phone from San Pedro Sulu, Honduras’ largest city. Reyes maintained that whoever was killing resistance members was doing so for private, not political reasons. There are many gangs. There are many drug traffickers. Who knows what kinds of things these dead people were involved in?”

According to CODEH, more than 40 people have been murdered in the capital of Tegucigalpa in the last two weeks – with 15 deaths coming just over the weekend. Pavon isn’t ready to dismiss police involvement.

There is no doubt in our minds the deaths of Garcia and Trochez were political assassinations,” said Pavon. It is also instructive to note that in the police report Garcia was shot in the head, but his head has not yet been found.”

Basic rights cancelled’

The coup against Zelaya last June 28 – which occurred the same day that the first-ever national referendum in the nation’s history was scheduled to take place – sparked a powerful but peaceful, nationwide resistance movement. Hundreds of thousands have marched and rallied in near-daily demonstrations for months, demanding the democratic referendum, as well as Zelaya’s restitution.

But the massive outpouring of popular support has been met with equally severe police repression. Since the coup, more than 3,000 people have been beaten and detained, hundreds more wounded, and at least 28 members of the resistance have lost their lives at the hands of police, soldiers and political assassins, as authorities seek to crack down on nonviolent anti-coup forces around the country. (On December 16, Human Rights Watch called on the government to investigate murders of gay, lesbian and transgendered Hondurans, citing a a crisis of intolerance.” To download a report by the group Red Lesbica Cattrachas detailing murders of LGBT Hondurans since the coup in June, click here)

The military takeover itself has led to a severe economic crisis, as foreign governments slash investment and aid programs. Small businesses have been particularly hard hit, and according to official sources, Honduras has lost more than 100,000 jobs since June. 

Even before the coup, Honduras was both the poorest and most crime-ridden country in Central America. But, according to Javier Zuniga, the head of Amnesty International’s recent fact-finding mission to Honduras, conditions are much worse now.

We can see the consequences of the coup on the population, their physical integrity, and their liberty,” Zuniga told In These Times, during an interview in Tegucigalpa. People have witnessed the killing and wounding of their compatriots. They’ve seen others arrested, detained, and accused of crimes of opinion.”

Zuniga explained that, according to international standards of human rights evaluation, the Micheletti regime in Honduras was in serious violation of all protocols.

Almost all basic rights have been canceled [in Honduras],” he said. The right of expression. The right not to be maltreated or tortured. The right of a free press. The freedom of movement. The freedom of association. All of these rights are essential.” 

Putschists drive poverty, poverty drives crime 

Zelaya had initiated a series of humanitarian and environmental reforms that won him the affection of much of the population, but angered business and military elites who have traditionally ruled the country,” said international human rights expert Dr. Juan Almendares, speaking at his clinic in the capital. 

The referendum scheduled for the day of Zelaya’s ouster would have allowed a nonbinding opinion poll of the populace, according to Almendares, who attended the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and won the coveted Humanitarian Award in Washington D.C., in 2007

The military-installed puppet President Roberto Micheletti has declared the intention of this poll was to install Zelaya as a Hugo Chavez-like dictator,” Almendares said. But there was no mention of this in the referendum itself, and neither Zelaya nor his followers have ever suggested such a thing.”

Another local human rights expert, Noemy Peres, co-founder of the Committee for Families of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), said the rise in violence was linked directly to the post-coup increase in poverty.

The de facto government has canceled Zelaya’s reforms, like social security and financial aid for students, as well as bonuses for the poor. So, as poverty goes up, so does crime and violence. But it is not something this government wants to recognize,” said Peres, who claimed that in more than 20 years of human rights work, she had never seen a wave of violence like this.”

Resistance leader Juan Barahona echoed this sentiment. This city is like a war zone,” Barahona told In These Times at the conclusion of a march of several hundred through the heart of the capital. Fifteen dead in just one weekend. That is worse than Afghanistan, or Iraq. If 15 people die in Iraq over a weekend, it is very big news. But down here? Nobody cares.” 

'People have witnessed the killing and wounding of their compatriots,' said Javier Zuniga, head of Amnesty International's recent fact-finding mission to Honduras.
Dictatorship denial-pathology’

Despite the violence in the streets, a political solution still seems remote.

The illegal regime continues to act illegally, violating the rights of many Hondurans, including those of President Zelaya,” Grahame Russell, co-director of Rights Action, a Connecticut-based human rights organization that monitored the recent elections, said via e‑mail. Zelaya’s detainment in the Brazilian embassy violates his civil/​human rights,” Russell added. 

A deal to release Zelaya seemed to have been worked out last Wednesday, December 9, when the military-business junta offered the beleaguered president safe passage to the airport, and Mexico sent a plane to fetch him. But at the last minute the de facto regime changed its mind, demanding that Zelaya sign a letter abdicating the presidency before being allowed to leave. The president balked at the new terms, and the plane was not allowed to land.

The coup-plotters are afraid of Zelaya because he has the support of the people,” said Barahona. They are scared that this alliance will produce social changes, social advances, that they can’t hold back.”

Others point out the putschists can have little practical fear of Zelaya’s escape, since his previous time outside the country proved ineffectual at mounting international opposition.

I think it is naked dictatorship denial-pathology at play, at the highest levels of the regime,” wrote Russell, noting that Micheletti had presented a fake resignation letter from Zelaya to the Honduran Congress during the original coup.

Liberal Party Congressman Javier Valladares, who is also Micheletti’s chief of staff, said an official protocol for requesting political asylum must be followed.

He can’t be allowed to leave the country as president,” Valladares said, because the only president here in Honduras is Roberto Micheletti.”

Russell called the government’s demands absurd.” Now they need a forced letter that will be by definition illegal,” he said, because they need to keep telling themselves that they are democrats abiding by the rule of law.”

The rule of law was invoked frequently during the elections on November 29, when the entire country was militarized and voters were routinely strip-searched at polling places. Although only a minority of the Honduran electorate voted, the Supreme Electoral Tribune deliberately deceived observers and the press, inflating voter turnout in order to garner international legitimacy. 

The newly-elected president, Porfirio Lobo, has spoken publicly about brokering a political reconciliation, both internally and abroad, but many countries have vowed not to recognize the flawed elections. Human rights experts have condemned the militarized conditions, and expressed doubts that a free and fair vote could have taken place.

It’s common sense,” said Amnesty International’s Zuniga. When there is oppression and violence, when the people know nothing of the candidates because the media has been censored – how can free elections possibly take place?” Zuniga said.

Resistance awakened by coup?

Both Corrales Garcia and Walter Trochez, the two brutally murdered resistance members, have already become martyrs, their names and stories traveling all over the world via email.

Refuge Without Limits director Velazquez, who visited Garcia’s body in the morgue, believes Garcia was beheaded partly to hide signs of torture, but also as a metaphoric gesture.

This regime can kill whoever they want with impunity. Decapitation is symbolic of cutting our thoughts off,” said Velasquez, who spoke with medical examiners as part of her investigation. It’s the same thing that happened in the nineteen-eighties, where they beheaded people because they had different political thoughts, and were labeled extreme leftist.” 

Random arrests, like the one in which Garcia was rounded up, are a common feature in the poor barrios surrounding the capital. But intellectuals have also been targeted: Rebeca Becerra, a popular Honduran poet who has spoken out against the coup regime, was incarcerated last week, along with her eight-year-old daughter. Meanwhile mass shootings continue, the morgue is full of bodies, and even pro-coup journalists have been targeted by execution squads.

According to Micheletti-appointed Secretary of State Dr. Valerio Gutierrez, the regime is only acting in self defense. We are only doing what any country would do. We’re protecting private property.” Gutierrez also said the international press was to blame for not painting a more flattering picture of the coup regime. Journalists have a responsibility to be balanced,” he said. We want the people in the United States to know that everything is fine down here. Democracy is still full of life in Honduras,” said the doctor. 

Others disagree.

I see a very dark future for Honduras,” said Dr. Almendares, who accused President-Elect Lobo of being politically tied to the military-junta that seized power in June. Unless these illegal acts are overturned, the people will continue to be oppressed. Free speech will continue to suffer. Young people will continue to die.”

At least some experts believe it’s unlikely the power structure will shift anytime soon.

The regime has most of the raw power inside the country (money and guns) and they have the weight of the USA on their side, plus a few other governments,” wrote Russell of Rights Action. That, all together, adds up to the regime staying in power, illegally to be sure…”

But, according to resistance leader and Zelaya confidante Juan Barahona, the anti-coup movement isn’t ready to roll over just yet. We will struggle for Zelaya’s return. And we will struggle for the Constitutional Assembly,” Barahona said. But we’ll do so in peace.”

Echoing the words of several other resistance organizers, Barahona said that, in some ways, the putschists’ actions have actually benefitted the opposition.

We were wrestling against the right-wing power structure,” said Barahona, but the movement was scattered and without unity. But once the wolves…took over the government – then the people could see who their enemies truly were.”

Barahona cited the sudden immersion of women, minority groups, and young people into politics, as advantages stemming directly from the military takeover.

Of course they didn’t mean to do it,” Barhona said. But through their own greed, the putschists have awakened an even greater resistance.”

For a complete list of Jeremy Kryt’s stories from Honduras, go here.

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Jeremy Kryt is a Chicago-based journalist.
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