While the number of homocides has dropped in Honduras, the number of human rights defenders killed, according to UN Special Rapporteur Michel Forst, has increased dramatically over the past few years. In the months before the November 2017 presidential election, the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) in Honduras documented violence, intimidation and threats targeting human rights defenders. The OHCHR also documented surveillance, photographing, computer theft, and continued stigmatization of defenders’ work, including by high-level government representatives.
In the coming weeks, the U.S. State Department will decide whether to certify that Honduras has met a number of conditions required for the release of full funding under the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act. One of these conditions is that Honduras is taking effective steps to protect the ability of human rights defenders, opposition party members, journalists, and other civil society activists to work without interference. The U.S. State Department is likely to claim that Honduras is complying; never has the State Department done otherwise. But international human rights experts and Honduras’ own governmental human rights office, CONADEH, have consistently found that the work of human rights defenders and other civil society activists has been impeded in Honduras, often directly by government agents. Various international organizations have called out the U.S. government's continued certification of Honduras as a direct interference into the work of defenders and civil society activists who are facing egregious levels of violence for the work that they do.
Restriction and Violation of Rights Following the Election
The OHCHR has documented 22 deaths of civilians in the post-electoral context. At least 16 of these were shooting deaths resulting from the use of excessive force by state security forces during protests. The OHCHR raised the possibility that some of the death amounted to extrajudicial killings, given that the security forces made deliberate use of lethal force and shot a number of protesters or passersby in the head or in the back as they attempted to flee. A UN report on the post-electoral violence makes clear that “the data provided does not capture all human rights violations that occurred during the electoral context, but presents the cases documented by OHCHR.” It points to factors that impeded documentation, including “limited cooperation by some state institutions,” and names the Attorney General and the Ministries of Defense and Security among those. As the IACHR notes, hundreds of people were injured in the post-electoral violence and more than a thousand were detained, many of whom were subjected to ill-treatment. The security forces also illegally raided homes.
The Coalition Against Impunity, which registered 35 members of civil society killed in the post-electoral period, includes in its tally civil society activists murdered following participation in protests, in what appeared to be targeted killings. For example, on December 26, 2017 at 8:00 PM, law student Julio Alexander Fúnez Guillén, 19 years old, was killed by a single bullet to the heart fired by men wearing ski masks who were passing by on a motorcycle. He had been working as an officer for the LIBRE Party at electoral table 00550 in the Ramón Rosa School and had organized the protests at the Río Danto, in la Ceiba. Seth Jonathan Araujo, a member of the Antifraud commando in the neighborhood of Modesto Rodas Araujo in Comaygüala, was abducted at 8:00 PM on December 4, 2017. He had been taking part in a demonstration that night to show support for the Cobra police force, which were refusing to participate in the repression. His body was found the following day with signs of torture. One forced disappearance was also reported. Jesús Bautista Salvador was last seen in the custody of Military Police on December 2, 2017 in Naco, Cortés.
In implementing a state of emergency from December 1 to December 9, suspending fundamental human rights, the Honduran government obstructed the work of human rights defenders and restricted the freedom of other civil society activists. Imposing a night-time curfew, the government ordered the removal of all protesters, including peaceful protesters, from all private or public property, including roads, streets and bridges occupied by demonstrators, thereby affecting the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. The rights to liberty and security of these civil society activitists and opposition party members were also affected. Those violating the curfew were arrested and held at military bases. In the view of the OHCHR, the state of emergency resulted in mass and indiscriminate arrests and had the effect of discouraging participation in protests. The curfew made it impossible for human rights defenders to document the treatment and circumstances of those arrested and held. The lack of such monitoring may have facilitated the ill-treatment and torture of a number of civil society activists who were detained.
Live Fire: A New Normal
Special Rapporteur Michael Forst cites with concern the “recent and ongoing excessive use of force by National Police and Military Police in the repression of demonstrations.” Since the inauguration of Juan Orlando Hernandez in January, the use of live ammunition against protesters has continued. For example, Military Police fired on protesters opposing the imposition of a hydroelectric dam in Reitoca, Francisco Morazan on January 30, 2018, injuring two people, one seriously. National Police shot at protesters in Choluteca on March 27, leaving three with bullet wounds. In the northern town of Toyos police reportedly opened fire on protesters on May 4, as they demonstrated support for residents of Pajuiles who had rejected a hydroelectric dam. After three members of the Miskito indigenous group were shot and killed on May 19 by soldiers patrolling in the Gracias a Dios province, three minors protesting at a military base the following day were fired on and wounded. And on July 27, National Police riot squads fired on protesters blocking a road in Cortes.
While a mechanism to protect human rights defenders, journalists, and justice operators exists, the mechanism offers protection currently to only 198 people. Many of those covered by the measures report that they are inappropriate to their situations, inadequate, and ultimately ineffective. After a recent visit to Honduras, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst concluded that, in spite of the mechanism, “the vast majority of human rights defenders in Honduras are not able to operate in a safe and enabling environment.” According to Forst, the hundreds of human rights defenders he met expressed a profound mistrust in the National Protection Mechanism, and its main protection response, namely police type measures, since “defenders still identify national (and military) police as the main perpetrators of human rights violations, abuse and attacks against them.” Furthermore, the mechanism is underfunded, with an allocation of only .00018 percent of the Human Rights Ministry’s total budget.
Defenders at Risk
Journalists continue to be killed for their critical analysis on the political context and for exposing human rights violations and perpetrators. Journalists have faced harassment, intimidation, and violence at the hands of the army and police for filming or covering protests, in particular during the post-electoral crisis and in relation to student demonstrations, prompting Honduran advocates to file a complaint with the Public Ministry in August. The governmental human rights commission CONADEH reported more than 60 violations against journalists in 2017, including threats, attacks, displacement, and murders. CONADEH refers to threats and attacks by nonstate and state actors, including agents of the security forces. A number of journalists, according to CONADEH, have gone into exile. At least 4 journalists were murdered in 2017, according to civil society organization C-Libre.
In December, the tower and atenna of Radio Progreso, a community station known for its independence and defense of democracy, was sabotaged, losing as a result its signal in the central region of the country. C-Libre has recorded 15 attacks on photojournalists since January 2017. For example, on January 27, reporter Kevin Castillo, of Televisión Televida in Choluteca, was beaten by soldiers and his camera was broken as he attempted to cover a demonstration. Attacks on journalists by state security forces have continued in recent months. On February 13, Silva was attacked by a knife-wielding assailant as he reported live in front of the Mario Mendoza Hospital in Tegucigalpa. He was able to dodge the knife. According to a note on the channel’s website, the assailant had been listening to another channel, on which the secretary of the Council of Ministries, Ebal Díaz, said the Alliance of Opposition Against the Dictatorship was linked to gangs. Prior to that attack, he had been beaten by soldiers on January 12, along with journalists Rony Martínez and Pedro Amador, as they covered repression against members of the Alliance of Opposition Against the Dictatorship, near the Presidential House. On March 25, in the city of Choloma, Military Police beat journalist Carlos Wayne and obstructed his work as he was transmitting live for the digital journal megared, reporting on a demonstration. Special police known as Cobras and Tigres, along with the Military Police, arrived and demanded his cell phone and told him to erase what he had recorded. They also took his vest that identified him as a member of the press. In addition to beating him, they reportedly shocked him with a cattle prod, leaving him trembling all over. On July 29, a squadron of Military Police guarding the Marriot Hotel in Tegucigalpa blocked journalist Cesar Silva, of UNE-TV, from entering to attend a meeting convened by the Inter-American Commission’s rapporteur on free speech. The rapporteur himself had to intervene. A day later, Silva was blocked from covering an event at the Secretariat of Health. On August 1, a journalism student at the Autonomous University of Honduras, Kency Gissel Grandez Duron, who was doing an internship with the online newspaper Conexihon, produced by the Committee for Free Expression (C-Libre), was beaten in the head, teargassed, and kicked by police while she covered a student demonstration. The police threatened her and took away the cellphone she was using to record events. In the protest, a number a students and a human rights defender were shot and injured by police using rubber bullets. The previous week, police attacked and jailed cameraman Engel Padilla, of Channel 11, as he covered events in the San Miguel neighborhood of Tegucigalpa. Cameraman Emilio Flores was also attacked by police at the demonstration, who demanded his camera and, when he refused, beat him on the back with clubs.
Lawyers and others working in the field of justice remain at risk. At least five lawyers have been murdered in 2018. Carlos Hernández, for example, an attorney for the mayor of Arizona, was assassinated April 10 in his law office in the municipality of Tela. He had been providing legal defense to the mayor of Arizona, Arnaldo Chacón, who is charged with unlawfully occupying property belonging to the government and to the Generación Eléctrica (INGELSA), which is responsible for the construction of the Río Jimalito hydroelectric project. On June 5, 27-year-old lawyer Norma Saraí Romero was shot in front of her father and son whose whereabouts are still unknown. According to CONADEH, between 2010 and 2018, 130 legal professionals were murdered, an average of 15 a year.
The government is also failing to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transexual activists. In the last ten years, at least 295 members of the LGBT community in Honduras have been killed, 11 of whom were human rights defenders. In 2017 alone, 34 LGBT people were killed. In 2018, 7 killings had been reported by May. Organizations working on behalf of the LGBT community, such as PBI-accompanied organization Arcoiris, have come under particular attack. In 2017, human rights groups in Honduras recorded 35 security incidents suffered by the organization’s members, including assaults, following, threats, beatings, and one murder. In December the organization reported two attempts to break into their office in Tegucigalpa. Members of Arcoiris have faced attacks on 13 occasions in 2018. Included among the incidents reported are robbery, assault, and sexual abuse. The organization also suffered an additional attempted break-in, and two of their security cameras were stolen. According to the U.S. State Department’s 2017 report, NGOs focusing on the right to sexual diversity report that the PMOP and other elements of the security forces have harassed and abused LGBTI persons. In 2018, the attacks extended even to those who provide protection: around midnight on January 30, Military Police reportedly shot and killed Jose Castellanos, a National Police officer charged with guarding the offices of the Association for a Better Life (APUVIMEH), an LGBT organization in Tegucigalpa which had protective orders from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
In Honduras, 39 documented instances of violence against union members were recorded in 2017. At least one union member was killed. Many of those targeted were organizing unions or seeking collective bargaining agreements in the agro-industrial palm oil sector in Colón, according to a report by the Anti-Union Violence Network. The report found that 51 percent of the alleged perpetrators are public officials, including Military Police and municipal authorities. In March 2018, two days after the report was released, union leader Isela Juárez, who has received death threats for her worker rights activism, was followed in a high-speed chase by two men on motorcycles before she took refuge inside the San Pedro Sula City Hall. On March 9, Chiquita workers were violently evicted at dawn on their seventy-first consecutive day of being on strike. Security forces reportedly fired live ammunition at people and used teargas against them, wounding a number of workers and their children.
As Special Rapporteur Michel Forst notes, “Honduras remains one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America for human rights defenders, especially for those who stand for rights relating to land, territory and the environment.” For the last decade, according to Global Witness, Honduras has been the most dangerous country in the world per capita for land and environmental defenders. Recent months have brought an intensification of attacks. The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) has reported 9 attacks on its members in 2018 as of August. Members of the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ) have suffered 18 attacks in 2018, including 3 murders. On January 1, for example, Wilmer Paredes, active with MADJ, was shot 13 times while riding home on his motorcycle. He had been beaten and subjected to electric shocks by police at a protest two weeks earlier. Because he was being followed and apparently surveilled, the director of MADJ asked the National Protection Mechanism to issue protection for Paredes. The protection was denied. On January 23, 2018, MADJ activist Geovanny Diaz Carcamo was dragged out of his house by men in police uniforms and executed. Diaz had participated in political protests after the elections at the beginning of the year and was especially involved as an activist at an encampment of protesters resisting the imposition of a hydroelectric dam in Pajuiles, in the municipality of Tela, Atlantida. In one of seven attacks suffered by members of the National Committee of Countryside Workers (CNTC) in 2018, Luis Pacheco was killed on May 8 in Olancho, shot by unknown persons as he was walking from his fields to his house. The CNTC believes that the murder is linked to his leadership in the regional CNTC.