TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS – Despite the intense repression that has plagued Honduras since the military-backed coup in June – including random beatings and sexual assaults by cops and soldiers, and the gassing and shooting of peaceful demonstrators – there is still one case that stands out above the rest, unique in its grisly details and implications.
For many in the pacifist, anti-coup resistance movement, the story of the detention, torture and killing of a young protester named Pedro Munoz in July has become a powerful inspiration to continue the struggle. For others, it is a grim reminder of the lengths the coup regime will go to as it struggles for hegemony.
“The police put this man through agony before they killed him – that was done to send a message, about the price of involvement in the Resistance,” said Mery Agurcia, the human rights case worker in charge of the ongoing investigation into Munoz’s death, when we spoke in her office. “But, of course, nothing can be proven against those who did it. Since the coup, there’s no longer any kind of transparency in the government.”
The turmoil in Honduras began last June 28, when democratically-elected President Mel Zelaya was forcibly sequestered and exiled by the military, which traditionally serves the country’s economic elite. Zelaya had been pushing for political and economic reforms intended to combat poverty and promote democracy, but such amendments threatened the ruling class’s hold on power.
Since the coup, a nonviolent resistance movement has sprung up, uniting various sectors of Honduran society, and demanded civil rights amendments to the national charter of this impoverished but rapidly growing nation. (Zelaya slipped back into Honduras on September 21, but remains effectively imprisoned in the Brazilian Embassy.)
The de facto regime has imposed martial law several times, shuttering independent media and violently dispersing peaceful anti-coup marches and rallies. Human rights groups report that thousands have been detained, and hundreds more hospitalized for wounds received from soldiers and riot police. At least 17 people have died, including one 24-year-old construction worker turned hapless martyr, Pedro Magdial Munoz.
‘They want us to be afraid’
Mery Agurcia is a patient, humble woman, just entering middle age, who heads up the research department for the Committee for the Families of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH). “From here, I have two views of Tegucigalpa,” she said, looking out the window of her musty, cluttered, third-floor office on the day I came to talk about the Munoz killing.
“The rich are over there,” she said, pointing to the sprawling downtown, with its banks and hotels. “And over here are the poor,” she said while gesturing out the other window to a maze of crowded streets and ramshackle houses.
Agurcia said that Pedro Munoz’s mangled body was found nearly three months ago, after a resistance march near the town of El Paraiso, on the Nicaraguan border. COFADEH’s investigation is ongoing, but the Munoz case, with its implications that authorities were involved in torture, has already attracted international recognition.
Paolo Carozzo, former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), heard testimony concerning the Munoz incident while on a fact-finding visit to Honduras in late August. During a recent phone interview, Carozzo said he found the details of the young man’s death to be “moving and disturbing,” and that he had no doubt the authorities were responsible for his murder. “Whoever is controlling the state has to be limited,” he said, adding that, under current conditions, “most of the population of Honduras is being victimized.”
For many members of the resistance movement, Munoz has become a symbolic, even heroic figure. His name is often invoked during rallies, and his images of his face appear on placards and cardboard “coffins” which peaceful crowds carry in the street during daily marches.
“We all knew that [Munoz’s killing] was a warning to the rest of us,” said Gilda Batista, an anti-coup resistance organizer based in Tegucigalpa, the capital. “It’s something [the authorities] still practice, the way they tortured him. That’s why Billy Joya was brought in,” Batista said, referring to a top advisor of de facto Honduran President Roberto Micheletti with links to an 1980s-era death squad. “They want us to be afraid.”
A short-lived political life
According to those who knew him best, Pedro Magdial Munoz was a quiet, hard-working young man who liked to play football on the weekends and was hoping to marry his high-school sweetheart. He lived his whole live in the desperately poor barrio of San Francisco, located just outside the capital.
The barrio was always a harsh place, but the local economy worsened rapidly after the coup, as Zelaya’s anti-poverty initiatives were canceled by the far-right regime. Munoz – a thin, brown-eyed young man with a clear complexion – did not become politically active until Zelaya was kidnapped and exiled. He immediately joined the nonviolent resistance.
On Friday, July 24, Munoz traveled by bus with a group of friends to the Nicaraguan border to march in support of an earlier return attempt by deposed President Zelaya. When a combined force of riot police and soldiers attacked the unarmed marchers along a remote stretch of country road, Munoz and his friends were separated.
“Everyone was running and screaming. I ran too,” said Ernesto Cerna, a childhood friend of Munoz, and one of the last to see him alive. “The last time I saw Pedro, he looked to be unconscious, and the police were dragging him away by the shirt.”
Unwilling to abandon their companero, Cerna and the others spoke to police, who assured them Munoz would be released the next afternoon. The friends spent the night camped out near the road with some other demonstrators, although it was raining hard. Around dawn, when the rain stopped, a woman walked out from the road to urinate, and found the bloody body of Pedro Munoz sprawled in the low weeds.
“I knew it was him right away. Even before I saw him,” said Cerna, a nineteen-year-old who worked as a mechanic, until the economic backlash from the coup cost him his job. I met Cerna in the offices of COFADEH, and several times, as he spoke about that day in July, his memories left him speechless, sobbing. “As soon as they said a body had been found, I knew who it would be,” he said.
According to the coroner’s report, Munoz’s corpse showed signs of brutal and thorough torture. The young man’s right hand and fingers had been smashed, and his head, neck and torso were riddled with 42 carefully-placed puncture wounds, most likely from a bayonet. (The official coroner’s photos are also available on the Internet, but readers should be warned that the images are uncensored and graphic.) The cause of Munoz’s death is listed as “failure of vital organs and/or severing of the carotid artery.”
The only clues left by his assailants were footprints; tracks identified as belonging to military-style combat boots were found in the rain-freshened mud around the body.
‘He wanted a different Honduras’
Micheletti’s office did not respond to repeated phone calls for an interview, but an official statement issued by the regime has indicated there will be no government investigation into Munoz’s death. The police and military have both denied responsibility.
But Cerna said that’s hard to believe.
“Of course they would lie,” he said, again fighting back tears. “When I asked the commanding officer where Pedro was, the officer told me they would hold him for 24 hours. That at was at three in the afternoon. But his body was found at dawn the next day. So who else could have done it?”
A number of people I spoke to regarding the investigation also pointed out that, on the day Munoz was arrested, a strict curfew was in place after 3 p.m. Armed troops patrolled all the local roads that night, because the regime feared Zelaya’s imminent return.
“The troops and soldiers were the only ones to able to move around during the night,” said Agurcia, the COFADEH case worker. “How could someone have been out there torturing Pedro, without the patrols seeing it?”
Although there seems to be little plausible doubt that Munoz died while in the custody of Honduran authorities, there is some mystery concerning the motives behind the particularly brutal methods of torture used on him. Agurcia told me some eyewitnesses claimed Munoz was taking photos of an ambulance from El Paraiso, which was illegally ferrying tear-gas shells for the police. Munoz’s cell phone was found a short distance away from the corpse, but all photos had been erased.
Others tell still a different story.
“One very reliable witness testified that Pedro threw a stone, from about three or four meters away, that struck a soldier in the face,” said Agurcia. She believes that might account for the torture and violent death, as the Honduran military is infamous for such overblown retaliations.
But both Cerna, Munoz’s best friend, and resistance organizer Gilda Batista refute the notion that he hurled a stone. “Pedro was a calm man, a gentle man,” Batista said. “He wouldn’t have been throwing things.”
If a trooper was hit in the face with a rock, it couldn’t have been too serious a blow: there are no records of the military reporting even a minor casualty that day.
“We’ll probably never know the details,” admitted Agurcia, who maintains several bulging manila folders with documents and photos relating to the case. “[The police] killed my friend horribly, like an animal,” Cerna said, touching a small, hand-carved wooden cross Munoz had given him for luck on the same day he died. “But Pedro was a patriot who lost his life for his country. That is how I would like him to be remembered.”
Batista believes a mixture of outrage and compassion at Pedro Munoz’s intense suffering had helped unite the Resistance. “He wanted a different Honduras, a better Honduras. That’s why he died,” she said. “Sometimes, when I’m very tired, I remember the sacrifice he made, and it motivates me… When I want to rest, it keeps me going.”
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