Attacks on human rights defenders, journalists, and others exercising their right to free speech in Honduras have increased in the first months of 2019. Below are some selected incidents illustrating a trend toward a continued closing of space for dissent.

Demonstrators Protesting Restructuring of Health and Education Systems Shot at by Police

After the Honduran Congress passed the Act to Restructure and Transform the Healthcare and Education System, demonstrations erupted across Honduras on April 29. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Honduran branch of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a statement condemning the violence and noting that at least three people had been injured in Tegucigalpa. One of those, Jose Humberto Duarte, a 54-year-old teacher from Yoro, was shot and seriously injured by a man wearing plain clothes who mixed among the police before and after firing the shots. The IACHR and OHCHR in their April 30th statement said they had seen videos available on social media and on television that show armed men who were not wearing uniforms in the city center, near sites where security forces had been deployed. The OHCHR and the IACHR asked Honduran authorities to launch prompt, expeditious, and impartial investigations into that violence and to adequately report to the Honduran people the results of those investigations.

Jairo Alberto Flores Lopez, a municipal police officer in Tegucigalpa, has been arrested and charged with attempted murder for the shooting of Jose Humberto Duarte. He is being held without bail.

The OHCHR and the IACHR “stressed that the State of Honduras must protect at all times the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of thought and expression, and also the right to participate in the management of public affairs and to stand up for rights. Both institutions note the suspension of legislative decrees that has been announced concerning the Act to Restructure and Transform the Healthcare and Education System. The OHCHR and the IACHR call for further debate on proposed healthcare and education reforms and ask that such debate involve broad social groups, which is crucial for a well-functioning democracy as well as to protect human rights.”

The Coalition Against Impunity, composed of forty-five civil society organizations, in a May 1st communique reported that during the protests, security forces arrested at least eight persons, including three university students, two of whom were beaten by police while they were detained. Three minors, aged 16, 14, and 12, were also illegally detained, according to the coalition.

COFADEH Office Teargassed

According to press reports, police and military threw tear gas bombs at the offices of the Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), a human rights organization which had opened its doors to people protesting the privatization of education and health. COFADEH asked the High Commissioner to intercede so that the organization could freely exercise its work as a human rights organization, offering protection to people who needed it. 

Young Protester Shot and Killed in Choluteca

Wilfredo de Jesus Moncada, 17, was shot to death on April 10 during a protest in the southern city of Choluteca. He was reportedly fired on by National Police forces passing in vehicles and was hit twice, once in the head. He was hospitalized but died of his wounds. The protests, held for over a year now every Wednesday and Saturday, are a show of opposition to the presidency of Juan Orlando Hernandez, corruption, and human rights violations. The National Police in a communique stated that they are forming a special commission to investigate Moncada’s death. During his funeral on April 13, police reportedly threw teargas at the procession. According to ACI-Participa, a human rights group monitoring incidents in Choluteca, a witness to the shooting who identified himself as such at the wake has been followed by armed men wearing ski masks and driving a white Toyota Hilux.

Journalist Murdered, Others Attacked in Choluteca

According to the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the World Organization Against Torture and the International Federation for Human Rights, attacks against human rights defenders in the south of Honduras have intensified. The Observatory in a March 26 statement denounced five attacks in less than a month, including the murder of journalist Carlos Gabriel Hernández. Hernandez was shot six times as he returned to his home in the city of Nacaome, in the Valle department, on March 17. He hosted a program on a privately-owned local television station called <i>The People Speak</i> and reportedly had been critical of local officials and congressional representatives. In 2018, Hernández had reported to Honduras’ National Protection System that he was at risk, but he had not received any protective measures. The Observatory statement mentions a “systematic campaign of attacks” against human rights personnel associated with ACI Participa, which is monitoring human rights violations in the area. As she was monitoring weekly protests held in Choluteca, duly identified by her vest as a human rights worker, Nivia Vargas was surrounded, insulted, threatened, sexually assaulted, and beaten by a group of thirty men linked to the National Party. She had protective orders granted by the National Protection System, but had no effective protective measures in place. On February 27, Melissa Hernández, a journalist, was covering the weekly protests in Choluteca and José Gudiel, wearing a vest identifying him as a human rights observer, was monitoring the protests when National Police officers insulted them and then fired tear gas directly at them. Police have also reportedly fired live ammunition at protesters in Choluteca in recent weeks. The Committee for Free Expression (C-Libre) has registered three attacks on journalists by the security forces in Choluteca in April alone. Reporters without Borders dropped Honduras’ ranking this year to 146, meaning of the 180 countries ranked, Honduras is in the bottom twenty percent in terms of press freedom.

Journalist Arrested at his Workplace Faces Ten Years for Defamation

Journalist David Romero was arrested on March 29 by Military Police and an elite US-trained police division known as Tigres, who broke down the door to the radio station he directed, Radio Globo.  Romero had been accused of defamation after denouncing alleged crimes committed by a politician linked to the National Party. Romero took refuge in the station a few days before his arrest, after the Supreme Court in January unanimously upheld a 2016 conviction and a warrant was issued for his arrest. On March 21, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which granted precautionary measures on behalf of Romero,requested that Honduras not act on the Supreme Court ruling until the commission had decided on the petition filed on the case. According to the Committee to Project Journalists, in a March 26 statement, the Honduran government said the case was not a freedom of expression issue. After the arrest, the commission condemned Romero's detention and urged the government to reconsider. In a tweet, the Inter-American Commission said it “reproves the decision of Honduras regarding journalist David Elner Romero, a beneficiary of protective measures by reason that he is in a grave and urgent situation as far as the exercise of his freedom of expression.”  Even the Human Rights Commission of Honduras (CONADEH), a Honduran government agency, demanded that Romero be protected. The CONADEH Commissioner stated on March 25, “In the exercise of our constitutional faculties and attributions of guaranteeing the respect for the right to life and physical integrity of the human person, we are asking for security measures to prevent eventual irreparable harms against journalist David Romero.”  The streets around Radio Globo were blocked by security forces and businesses were closed for two days before the Tigres ((Intelligence Troop and Special Security Response Groups), who are supposed to be working against naroctrafficking and gangs, went ahead with his arrest. The Committee to Protect Journalists’ South and Central America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick stated, “Instead of enforcing outdated laws criminalizing defamation, authorities in Honduras should focus on improving conditions for the press and ensuring all journalists are able to work freely.”

Opposition Leader Convicted of Defamation

Opposition politician María Luisa Borjas was accused of defamation and found guilty in late January of allegedly injuring with her words Camilo Atala, whom she named as the intellectual author of the murder of activist Berta Caceres in a complaint she filed with CONADEH. Borjas, a retired police commissioner who also named a number of other powerful people as involved in the murder, was sentenced to two years and eight months in prison. 

Journalist and Labor Leader Flee into Exile

After an official with the Technical Agency of Criminal Investigation (ATIC) told journalist Edgar Francescoly Serrano Portillo that they knew of a plan to murder him, he left Honduras in late March, headed for the United States, according to reports. Labor leader Waldin Banegas also fled Honduras recently after receiving death threats. He is the president of the labor union Sitrastar in El Progreso, Yoro.  

Tolupán Indigenous Activists Murdered

On February 25, in the municipality and department of Yoro, Salomón Matute y Juan Samael Matute, father and son respectively, were shot to death in the early morning as they headed out to work. Both were members of Tolupán tribe in the community of San Francisco de Locomapa. They both were well known for their history of defending their ancestral rights over the territory as well as the natural goods within it, from mining and timber interests. They were going to work in the fields when they were reportedly attacked by individuals identified as René and Melvin Córdova. Most of the members of the Tolupan tribes in the Locomapa sector are members of the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ), a human rights organization that has accompanied them in their struggles. Through MADJ’s efforts, thirty-seven members of this indigenous community received protective measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Beneficiaries of these measures included Salomón and Juan Samael Matute. As the human rights organization ACI PARTICIPA points out, the murders of these defenders is not an isolated incident. Ricardo Soto Fúnez, María Enriqueta Matute, and Armando Fúnez Medina were killed in August 2013; Luís de Reyes Macía was killed in April 2015; Eracio Vieda Ponce was murdered in July 2015; and in February 2016 Santos Matute, the son of Salomón Matute, was killed. All of these murders remain unpunished.

Campesinos Affiliated with CNTC Suffer Attack

According to the Honduras Solidarity Network, campesino groups affiliated with the National Center of Rural Workers (Central Nacional de los Trabajadores del Campo - CNTC) in the San Pedro de Tutule area of La Paz were attacked and beaten by police and armed civilians on April 14. Live ammunition and tear gas was used against the unarmed campesinos. Many people were reportedly injured by beatings and suffered respiratory problems as a result of the tear gas. Since Sunday, April 14, two campesino leaders from the CNTC in La Paz have received serious death threats: Sebastian Reyes, General Secretary of the CNTC for the La Paz region and Luis Calis, member of the National Executive Board of the CNTC and a renowned leader in the campesino and Lenca indigenous communities in the region.

Protester Shot as National Police and Cobras Use Live Fire in Eviction

On April 24, National Police officers and Cobras, a special operations unit of the police, reportedly used live fire against protesters opposing the imposition of a hydroelectric dam on the Petacón River in Reitoca, a municipality in the department of Francisco Morazán. As police evicted the protesters from their camp, one protester was hit by a bullet and injured. Last year Military Police injured two in Reitoca as they opened fire on protesters. Since a twenty-year concession was granted to the Italian-owned and managed Clean Energy Generation Promotion Company (PROGELSA), communities in the area have reported irreparable damage to the water supply, endangering their right to health, water, and food.  The municipality decided in public forum last year to declare the area free of all extractive industries Protesters have since maintained a protest camp at the entrance to the construction site of the dam. 

Protesting Students Teargassed on Campus by Army Helicopters

On April 9, four army helicopters dispatched teargas throughout the campus of the National Autonomous University of Honduras, where students were protesting high gasoline and electricity prices and the closing of the National Professional Training Institute. This incident marks the first reported use in Honduras of army helicopters to drop teargas on protesters.

Honduran President Vows to Increase Number of Military Police

In March, President Juan Orlando Hernandez promised to double the number of Military Police from 5,000 to 10,000. Although this increase has not yet been confirmed or carried out, the intent violates past promises and runs contrary to recommendations made by the United Nations and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Office in Honduras has expressed concern about the normalization of the use of military forces for security functions that should instead be carried out by the civil police. María Soledad Pazo, representative of the UNHCHR office in Honduras, told Honduras media, “This is something we’ve been saying since we arrived, they can’t continue with a Military Police that are not trained in carrying out the tasks of Civil Police because the risk for human rights violations are high.” According to the UNHCHR’s report on post-electoral violence, at least sixteen of the protesters killed were shot by the security forces, the majority of them by Military Police. Although more than a year has passed, the one Military Police officer to be charged with murder was arrested only recently, in March. In an April 23 tweet, the Public Ministry of Honduras said the authorities within the Military Police were blocking investigations.

UN Reports Signal Concern About Criminalization, Failure to Demilitarize, and Impunity

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, on March 20 presented the annual report on Honduras. “Impunity,” she said, “remains a very serious concern, including for human rights violations. There has, for example, been little progress concerning the prosecutions and trial of members of the security forces for the human rights violations committed in the context of protests following the elections in November 2017. ” She expressed regret that “the comprehensive National Political Dialogue, intended to overcome the crisis of November 2017, concluded in December 2018 without any formal agreement. ” She called for further steps to “demilitarize public order and to develop a professional and accountable civilian police force that is properly vetted and trained.” There could be a further deterioration of the human rights situation, she said, unless accountability for human rights violations is promptly pursued and there is movement on the reforms in the social, economic, justice and security sectors.

While she commended the efforts to establish a Special Prosecutor for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, Media Workers, and Persons Responsible for the Administration of Justice, she said the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights “continues to observe a pattern of criminalization of human rights defenders, including indigenous, peasant, and environmental activists.” She pointed to the necessity of developing strong, human rights-based policies to address root causes of migration, given the links between violence, insecurity, involuntary displacement, and the country's high levels of poverty, inequality, and exclusion. She suggested that these policies should address the right to work, to education, to adequate health care, and to be protected from violence.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, visited Honduras from 29 April to 12 May 2018 and in February released his report. Among his findings, he learned that defenders “continue to identify the national police, the military police, and the armed forces as the main perpetrators of human rights violations and attacks against defenders.”  He also found that women defenders of land and territory, as well as other rights, were the most at risk of attack: The Special Rapporteur has identified women land activists and defenders of the rights of indigenous peoples, the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender and intersex persons, and the rights of women as the persons who are the most likely to be attacked and at the highest risk in Honduras. In the last three years alone, he said, twenty-nine attempted murders of such women have been recorded, and six women have been killed.