December 22, 2018
US Reiterates Support to Honduran Government
In a December 3 statement, the US embassy in Honduras said it would continue working “shoulder to shoulder” with Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez, as well as with private enterprise, the Honduran people, and civil society. The embassy message mentioned “important advances” during a year of “enormous challenges,” including the “strengthening of institutions, security, and the national dialogue.” Greater citizen participation in the struggle against corruption and impunity was another advance the embassy hailed.
Honduran Journalist Shot During Anniversary Protest
As they were commemorating the anniversary of last year’s contested elections, on November 26 Honduran protesters were fired on. Around 6:00 PM in Tecucigalpa, UNE TV reporter Geovanny Sierra was shot in the right arm as he was broadcasting live. The gunfire came from a National Penitentiary Institute bus. According to the Honduran government, protesters threw rocks and tried to free the inmates—a charge those present at the demonstration deny—and therefore, a Penitentiary Institute official opened fire. Geovanny Sierra was hospitalized, along with another man, who was lightly wounded. Despite several operations, Sierra reportedly has lost the use of his right arm. The Committee for Free Expression in Honduras, known as C-Libre, has issued a number of alerts this year related to attacks on UNE TV reporters.
No member of the security forces has been held accountable for last year’s violence, in which at least 30 people were killed. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, after visiting Honduras in August recommended that the state advance in its investigations to identify and sanction those responsible for the violence, assassinations, and ill treatment in the context of protests following last year’s elections. The UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights found that Honduran security forces had fired indiscriminately on protesters in the period following the elections, shooting a number in the back and in the head, in what the UN said may amount to extrajudicial executions.
Military Police Used US-Made M4s During Last Year’s Repression
The Military Police of the Public Order, which the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights has noted used excessive and lethal force to disrupt last year’s post-electoral protests, were using U.S.-made M4s, according to the Miami Herald. The M4 rifle is made only in the United States and, according to State Department sources interviewed by the Miami Herald, is not approved for sale to the Honduran Military Police. The Honduran government denied the Miami Herald’s request for a list of weapons used by military police officers and refused to answer questions about the M4s, citing “state secrets” laws and national security. The Herald found that the State Department specifically approved private sales of M4 carbine semi-automatic rifles and accessories to Honduras, in 2015 and again in 2017, of over $1 million dollars each. The first sale was to the Honduran Army and the second to the government. As the Miami Herald points out, the State Department must approve direct commercial sales licensing agreements that stipulate which government, military, or security force can possess US-made weapons of war. Honduran Military Police are not an approved recipient of [direct commercial sale] weapons,” said a statement the Heraldobtained from the State Department.
Honduran President’s Brother Arrested for Narcotrafficking
On November 23, Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernández was arrested by Drug Enforcement Agency officers in Miami for conspiring to import cocaine. Prosecutors allege that he is a large-scale drug trafficker involved for over a decade in receiving, processing, and distributing cocaine from such countries as Colombia en route to the United States. He is being held without bail in New York and has been charged in Manhattan federal court for drug trafficking, weapons charges, and making false statements to federal agents. According to the DEA, from 2004 to 2016, multiple drug-trafficking organizations in Honduras and elsewhere worked together, with support from certain prominent public and private individuals. These included Honduran politicians and law enforcement officials. For protection from official interference, and in order to facilitate the safe passage through Honduras of multi-hundred-kilogram loads of cocaine, bound eventually for the United States, drug traffickers paid bribes to public officials, including certain members of the National Congress of Honduras, according to DEA’s investigation. Hernandez is a former member of the National Congress of Honduras.
The Public Ministry in Honduras has begun to seize Hernandez’s assets, including a house, four cars, and five bank accounts. The Coalition against Impunity on December 17 reiterated its demand that President Juan Orlando Hernandez resign immediately, saying it was “alarming and suspicious” that with all the agencies of investigation and intelligence at his disposal, the president didn’t know that his brother was according to the DEA one of the most important narcotraffickers in Central America.
In Caceres Case, Seven Found Guilty; IACHR Calls for Cancelling of DESA Concession
On November 28, a Honduran court in Tegucigalpa convicted seven men of the murder of the Berta Caceres, a Lenca leader and an environmental and indigenous rights defender. Four of them were additionally found guilty of attempted murder of the Mexican human rights defender Gustavo Castro. Caceres, who led the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was shot dead in her home in March 2016. She had led protests and spoken out for years against the construction of the Agua Zarca dam, which threatens the traditional lands and water resources of the local Lenca indigenous communities. The concession of land for the project was granted by the Honduran government without full, informed, and prior consent of the indigenous peoples affected, as required by International Labor Organization Convention 169. Desarrollos Energeticos (DESA) was in charge of the project and planned to build the hydroelectric dam on the Rio Gualcarque, a river considered sacred by the indigenous Lenca peoples.
In its ruling, the court affirmed that the murder of the indigenous leader and human rights defender was planned and executed with “full knowledge and consent” by DESA executives. In the course of the five-week trial, state prosecutors, relying on text messages and geolocation from seized telephones, demonstrated that executives with the DESA hydroelectric corporation hired their former private security chief, retired military intelligence officer Douglas Bustillo, to coordinate Berta Caceres’ murder. As the Guatemala Human Rights Commission—part of the Legal Observer Mission of the trial—explains, DESA’s social and environmental manager, Sergio Rodriguez, used a network of paid informants to monitor Caceres’ movements. To carry out the murder, Bustillo recruited top-ranking special forces intelligence officer Major Mariano Diaz. A criminal cell Diaz managed included a young former soldier, Henrry Hernandez, who established a relationship with a band of paid assassins. Prosecutors argued that three paid assassins—Edilson Duarte, Oscar Torres, and Elvin Rapalo—comprised the tactical group that carried out the assassination, based on planning by Diaz, Bustillo, and Hernandez, and using information about Berta’s movements facilitated by Sergio Rodriguez. An eighth defendant, Emerson Duarte, Edilson Duarte’s twin brother, was also charged with murder but with little evidence to link him to the crime, he was acquitted.
Related to the conspiracy to murder Caceres, prosecutors described communications between three other DESA-linked individuals: DESA Security Chief Jorge Avila; DESA Financial Manager Daniel Atala; and DESA President David Castillo. Castillo is currently indicted and in detention awaiting trial for Caceres’ murder. Jorge Avila and Daniel Atala have not been arrested, nor have other members of the DESA Board of Directors who, according to members of the Legal Observer Mission, were frequently mentioned as participants in communications relevant to the murder, such as Pedro Atala Zablah, José Eduardo Atala Zablah, and Jacobo Atala Zablah.
COPINH reports that threats against community members who oppose DESA’s ongoing hydroelectric concession grew during the trial, forcing at least one Lenca leader to flee the region. The threats may have been fueled by a smear campaign directed against COPINH, according to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission. As evidence against their clients grew, a Washington-based law firm hired by DESA—Amsterdam Partners, LLP—published unsubstantiated accusations of violence by COPINH, putting the organization and its members at risk.
In a December 6 hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in Washington, DC, COPINH members laid out their concerns for their safety, and IACHR commissioners examined the government’s actions to comply with protective measures the IACHR had granted on the organization’s behalf. IACHR Vice President Esmeralda Troitiño, addressing representatives of the Honduran state, noted that “it is a basic fundamental requirement of penal trials to include the family, the victims. What reason does the Public Ministry give for excluding them and denying them access to information?” No representative of the Public Ministry (the equivalent of the Attorney General’s Office) was present to give an answer, a fact commented on by Rapporteur for Honduras, Joel Hernandez: “One fact that doesn’t help us advance—we would have liked to have a representative of the Public Ministry (fiscalia) here for a direct and immediate response about why they denied family and representatives access.” Although Attorney General Oscar Chinchilla reportedly was in Washington, he did not attend the hearing. Victor Fernandez, the lawyer for COPINH, said as many as twenty-five individuals may have been involved in aspects of planning Berta Caceres’ murder. COPINH leader Gaspar Sanchez pointed out that COPINH, Caceres’ family members, and their legal team are all facing increased attacks, surveillance, and intimidation by DESA. He also noted a defamation campaign, in which COPINH has been stigmatized as “anti-development.” The government of Honduras, as a protective measure for members of COPINH, has been required by the IACHR to issue a statement recognizing the importance of COPINH’s work. The government has not complied. Representatives of the Honduran state said they hoped to issue such a proclamation in the next few days.
IACHR Vice President Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño suggested the Honduran government cancel the concession of land on the river that had been granted to DESA: “Seeing the schemata of the people possibly involved, it’s fundamental to know how possible the revoking of the concession is—that concession that is impregnated with a history of violation of rights—to such a point, the assassination of a leader for struggle for her territory and the rights of her people.” IACHR President Margarette May Macaulay, addressing the Honduran state, said, “It is my humble opinion, and it is a legal one, based on my many years as a lawyer and as a judge of the Inter-American Court, that that concession was granted in contradiction of the jurisprudence which has been settled by the Inter-American Court and Commission, and to my mind the conclusion is that it is clearly in law null and void.” She went on to say that “the state should find ways and means of revoking that concession in order to bring you back into the Inter-American legal system.” In relation to the participation of the relatives she said, “I think this is vital for an actual conclusion that justice is being done, so it’s important for that request to be actually put in to practice.“ h1>>Members of Congress and UN Support Prosecution of Masterminds of Caceres’ Murder
Congresswoman–elect Ilhan Omar published a statement demanding the investigation and arrest of the intellectual authors behind Berta's assassination. It reads, in part, “Though the guilty verdict for seven of the eight defenders and how the trial has incriminated people among DESA’s leadership are encouraging, they do not approach true justice for Berta. That will only be possible when all the intellectual authors behind her assassination and its cover up are held to account, by following the money that has financed this killing to its likely origins in the highest strata of the Honduran elite. True justice for Berta would also include changes to the systems and policies that allowed for her assassination, to ensure Hondurans can peacefully organize to protect their land, water, and other resources without fear of violence.” Senator Patrick Leahy in a statement wrote, “Berta Caceres, a widely known and respected Honduran indigenous environmental activist, was disparaged, threatened, targeted, and ultimately murdered in her home by assassins more than two and a half years ago. Since then, we have witnessed an attempted cover-up by the Honduran police, an investigation fraught with irregularities, including reports of cell phone and ballistics evidence not analyzed, and a trial laden with delays involving eight defendants who almost certainly do not include the intellectual authors of this despicable crime. The murder of Berta Caceres was one of scores of killings of Honduran environmental and social activists and journalists in recent years. No one has been prosecuted or punished for any of those crimes – or countless others – in a country where corruption seems to permeate practically every crevice of society and government. These verdicts in the Caceres case, in which seven of the defendants were convicted and top officials of the hydroelectric company DESA were implicated, is one step, but only one step. Only when all those responsible are held to account – those who conceived of the crime and gave the orders, those who paid the assassins, and those who participated in the cover-up – will justice have been served for Berta Caceres.”
UN experts in a statement issued from Geneva welcomed the decision of the court in Tegucigalpa to convict the murderers of Berta Cáceres, but reiterated their concern that the masterminds of her murder remain at large. “While we acknowledge that the decision of the court is a positive development, we remain concerned that the intellectual authors and the financiers of the crime have still not been investigated, prosecuted and sanctioned,” the experts said. “We call on the Honduran authorities to ensure complete and transparent justice for Berta Cáceres.” The experts urged the authorities to provide effective protection for all human rights defenders in Honduras, adding that such protection is imperative for the work of land and indigenous human rights defenders, particularly environmental defenders and those working to protect land rights. They noted that attacks against human rights defenders—both in Central America and worldwide—often happen because they raise concerns about adverse human rights and environmental impacts of business operations, while States take little or no action to protect them.
Lawyer Assassinated in Front of Supreme Court
On the morning of December 3, attorney Reynaldo Barahona was gunned down outside the Supreme Court in Tecucigalpa. He had carried out some business in the Palace of Justice and was sitting at a nearby café, outside. The assassins had assault rifles. They were dressed in police uniforms and had their faces covered with hoods. National Police spokesman Edgardo Barahona said the first line of investigation is that the assassins were gang members. Reynaldo Barahona reportedly had requested protective measures from the National Protection Mechanism, without success. Barahona and several other lawyers reportedly had denounced last February that state intelligence agents were planning to assassinate them. The area around the Supreme Court is heavily guarded, but his assailants managed to escape.
Another lawyer escaped an assassination attempt. As the Human Rights Lawyers Network reports, on November 22, unknown assailants tried to murder a member of the network, Ely Portillo, outside his house at 7:30 in the evening, forcing him off his bicycle, beating him badly, and attempting to stab him in the abdomen. Portillo managed to call for help and neighbors came to his aid.
LGBT Activist Murdered
As Daniel Langmeier notes in his Honduras Daily, an English-language publication available from firstname.lastname@example.org, the Protection Mechanism also failed to protect the LGBTI activist Jonathan Rafael Escobar Cruz , who was murdered on November 8. Escobar Cruz, an activist with the LGBT organization Arcoiris, was gunned down in front of his house by four armed men.
Protester Shot and Wounded by Security Forces
On November 20 and 21, state security forces violently repressed a protest in Choluteca against Congress and its president, Mauricio Oliva, who comes from the region. Congress was holding sessions in the city as part of its ‘Mobile Congress” program. According to the Center for the Promotion and Investigation of Human Rights (CIPRODEH), an eighteen-year-old protester was shot in the left leg by a soldier and had to be hospitalized. Pastor Héctor Osorto denounced that members of the police force known as Tigres—funded by the United States—and members of the Honduran army fired at him as he attempted to speak at the protest.
Journalist Beaten During Arrest
Journalist Jairo Lopez was arbitrarily detained on November 10 by agents of the Police Directorate of Investigations (DPI). While detaining him, the agents, who were hooded, beat him in front of his wife and child. The agents drove him around for a couple of hours and took him through the city of Choluteca and then to the court in San Lorenzo Valle, where he was informed that they had a warrant for his arrest. He is a beneficiary of the National Protection Mechanism, and should be protected by the state.
Indigenous Defenders Injured in San Francisco Locomapa, Yoro
On December 18, two elderly members of the Tolupan indigenous group, in San Francisco Locomapa, were fired on and attacked with rocks by several individuals illegally felling timber in the territory of the tribe of San Francisco Locomapa. Both of the men attacked are members of the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ) and beneficiaries of protective measures issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Sergio Avila, former head of the tribe, and Porfirio Cordova were monitoring their territory in defense of the pine forests there when they were attacked. Porfirio Cordova was left with a serious head wound. MADJ appealed urgently to members of national and international agencies, especially Honduras’ National Protection Mechanism, which has the responsibility of enforcing IACHR protective orders.
For more information about Honduras and PBI’s work there, please see https://pbi-honduras.org/.