By Roz Dzelzitis—Executive Director/Producer. May I Speak Freely?
Editor's Note: This comprehensive review of the news on Honduras brings us up to date on the ongoing crisis, Washington's efforts to normalize the illegal coup that was executed on June 28, 2009 - and the work of the Resistance against the illegal regime now in place under fraudulent presidency of Pepe Lobo. We are indebted to the folks at May I Speak Freely* for their work in compiling this highly detailed and well-documented report.
- Les Blough, Editor
Honduras News in Review—March 2010
- March deadliest month ever for Honduran journalists
- Murders of resistance members continue
- Violence against campesinos in land disputes widens
- State Department issues annual human rights report on Honduras
- Custodio releases "whitewashed" human rights report
- Inter-American Commission issues statements on violence against resistance movement
- NGOs issue statements decrying human rights violations in Honduras
- Resistance takes steps to move agenda forward
- Clinton announces aid restoration, urges recognition of new government
- Congressional Republicans introduce bill to restore normal U.S.-Honduras relations
- Congressional subcommittee holds hearing on Honduras
- Inter-American Development Bank releases funds
- OAS debates Honduras return
- Otto Reich meets with Lobo
- Expert questions conditions for Honduran truth commission
- Former top military named head of state media
- Former finance official held in case
- Argentina commemorates 30,000 disappeared during Dirty War
- More news in brief
1. March deadliest month ever for Honduran journalists
Five journalists were killed in Honduras in March, more than ever before in a single month. On March 1, gunmen shot and killed student journalist Joseph Ochoa as he was driving journalist Karol Cabrera home. Cabrera, who had drawn notoriety for anti-resistance reporting for state-owned TV Canal 8, was injured but survived. Her daughter, Nicolle Rodríguez Cabrera, was murdered on Dec. 15 of last year as she was riding in her mother's car. Cabrera reportedly had been receiving death threats and was under police protection, but at the time of the attack the security personnel were at her home guarding her children. Meanwhile, Ochoa's mother has accused Cabrera herself of having ordered the hit on her son.
On March 11, David Enrique Meza Montesinos, a radio and TV journalist in La Ceiba, was also gunned down by unidentified gunmen who followed his car. Montesinos was an advocate of the poor through his reporting. While police don’t have information on suspects, they theorize that the murder was a reaction to Montesinos’ recent investigative reporting on drug traffickers and other irregular occurrences in La Ceiba. Reporters without Borders reported that the journalist had received threats from drug interests several months back.
On March 14, Nahúm Elí Palacios Ortega, news director for Aguán TV, became the latest casualty, receiving 30 gunshot wounds when assailants opened fire on his car. Ortega had testified before the OAS’s Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression after his channel was shut down following the June 28 coup. The news organization subsequently asked for special security measures to protect Ortega, as he had been threatened for his reporting. Together, these deaths sparked a protest in San Pedro Sula, where reporters and their allies demanded justice and an end to violence.
On March 26, Bayardo Mairena and Manuel Juárez, two reporters from the eastern province of Olancho, were shot and killed while they drove into the town of Juticalpa. All five crimes, as well as the July 2009 murder of reporter Gabriel Fino Noriega (see July 2009 HNR) remained unsolved.
José Alemán, reporter for Radio America and El Tiempo, meanwhile, has been forced to flee the country following a number of threats, including a break-in and attempted murder. The National Commission for Human Rights in Honduras has asked the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to protect reporters in the country. Lewis Amselem, U.S. alternate representative to the OAS, joined the commission in condemning the violence and asking Honduras to investigate the murders and protect journalists.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has published several reports on violence against journalists in Honduras and urged Honduran authorities to investigate these murders. Following publication of a new report on the rising number of murdered journalists around the world, UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova condemned the attacks on Honduran journalists.
2. Murders of resistance members continue
Francisco Castillo, best known for housing environmental activist Father Andrés Tamayo during his stay in Tegucigalpa last fall, was murdered on March 17. Castillo, who worked for Miguel Facussé until the coup, had been heavily persecuted following his help of Tamayo, to the point that Codeh asked the IACHR to extend him protection, which it did in early January.
High-school teacher and resistance member José Manuel Flores Arguijo was shot in the back and killed in front of his students on March 23. According to school administrator Luis Sosa the state security apparatus committed the murder. “Who else could it have been?” he asked in an interview. Official reports link the murder to the Mara 18 gang. Witnesses say Flores had gone to the back of the school to ask alleged gang members to leave the premises, where they were loitering on the roof of the school’s cafeteria. Flores was a member of the National Popular Resistance Front and a former director of the College of Secondary School Teachers.
3. Violence against campesinos in land disputes widens
On March 9, masked men kidnapped Ramón Ulises Castellanos and Miguel Sauceda, two campesinos from the El Naranjo community in Atlantida department, from their own homes, killing them and leaving their bullet-riddled bodies on the side of the road. The six assailants, dressed in black vests and ski masks, broke into the men’s homes at dawn. The wife of one of the victims said the jacket of one of the men displayed the initials "DNIC," which stands for "National Directorate of Criminal Investigation," a unit of the national police.
On March 16, the body of Freddy Antunez was found in the nearby department of Yoro. The young man had been kidnapped along with the son of Aguán labor leader Mauro Gonzáles on March 2.
On March 17, José Antonio Cardoza and José Carías, leaders of the Brisas cooperative branch of the Honduran Forestry Development Corporation (Cohdefor) in Carbonales, Bonito Oriental, were murdered over another unresolved land dispute derailed by the coup. The two men had been receiving death threats from the purported landowner, Carlos Diaz. Oscar Cruz, director of the National Field Workers Headquarters testified to Committee for Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared (Cofadeh) that the two were scheduled to meet the following day with representatives of Diaz, implying the landowner was behind the murders. Twenty-five families have occupied these lands—previously owned by Cohdefor—for four years.
The Platform for Human Rights reported that the violence against the campesinos of Lower Aguán, who were forcefully ejected at the beginning of the year (see January and February HNR), has been backed by a disinformation campaign in the media, sponsored by landowners Miguel Facussé, René Morales and Reynaldo Canales. The platform called for a quick resolution to all land disputes.
4. State Department issues annual human rights report on Honduras
The U.S. State Department released its annual report on the state of human rights in Honduras on March 11. The report substantiated reported murders of human rights defenders, resistance members and media entities, abuses by security personnel and media crackdown, among violations related directly to the June 28 coup, citing the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights delegation report, Casa Alianza, Amnesty International, and Honduran governmental and nongovernmental organizations.
5. Custodio releases "whitewashed" human rights report
In his annual report to the national congress, Honduran Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodio presented a picture of the events of last year starkly at odds with other human rights reports. According to the San Pedro Sula daily Tiempo, which obtained a copy of the confidential report submitted to congress March 4, the report dedicates only seven of its 123 pages to the events following the overthrow of President Manuel Zelaya. Custodio's report claims that civilian deaths occurring at resistance demonstrations after the coup could not be classified as human rights abuses—despite having been defined as such in reports by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the U.N. Hight Commission for Human Rights, and the U.S. State Department—and that the facts "have not yet been clarified." It also deemed many charges of forced disappearance to be false. Custodio blamed "external actors" for the clashes that erupted during the political crisis, and the crisis itself he blamed on Zelaya.
Andrés Pavon, president of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights, declared the final report “whitewashed,” saying that the regional offices had documented cases of military and police wrongdoing, which then “got a make-up job in the central office.” Marvin Ponce, congressional vice president, concurred, saying it was unheard of that the U.S. State Department would report clearly on the many abuses brought onto members of the resistance, while “Custodio’s report justifies all these indignities.” Ponce went further, saying, “Custodio should resign of his own accord, but we will be scrutinizing this report to see if it’s possible to force him to step down.”
6. Inter-American Commission issues statements on violence against resistance movement
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a statement March 8 condemning the violence against resistance members during the month of February (see February HNR), including the murders of resistance members Vanessa Zepeda Alonzo, Julio Funez Benítez, and Claudia Maritza Brizuela; the murder of Dara Gudiel, teenage daughter of a reporter sympathetic to the resistance; the kidnapping of five members of a family active in the resistance, including one who had reported being raped by four military men at an early resistance rally on June 29.
On March 23, the commission heard a report from the Center for Justice and International Law, the lawyers against the coup front, the Committee for the Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture victims, and Cofadeh regarding the ongoing violation of human rights in Honduras after the coup and repression of those in the resistance. The commission issued a statement asking the Honduran government to adopt urgent measures to guarantee human rights and condemning the illegal searches and personal threats committed against resistance members and their families, as well as journalists who report on resistance activities. It also requested access to enter the country once again, to follow up its previous human rights report.
7. NGOs issue statements decrying human rights violations in Honduras
The Washington Office on Latin America spoke out on the recent killings of journalists and urged "a thorough investigation that brings the perpetrators to justice." The statement concluded, "WOLA warns that continued human rights violations and pervasive impunity will undermine the government's capacity to rebuild trust in democratic institutions and embolden perpetrators of political violence."
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch, wrote an open letter to Honduran Attorney General Luis Alberto Rubí regarding recent attacks on members of the resistance and the press, calling for a quick investigation of the events. He warned that not doing so would “generate a chilling effect that would limit the exercise of basic political rights in Honduras.”
The Committee for the Protections, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture Survivors issued a 66-page report documenting torture and ill treatment of resistance members.
8. Resistance takes steps to move agenda forward
The National Popular Resistance Front (FNPR) announced on March 9 that it would hold a national referendum on a constitutional assembly, carrying out what deposed president Manuel Zelaya could not. Slated for June 28—exactly one year after the original referendum that cost Zelaya his post—the referendum is one of the chief objectives of the FNPR in its struggle to create a more representative democracy in the country.
From March 12 to 14, the FNPR sponsored a “refounding Honduras” conference, at which participants issued a manifesto affirming, among other things, their continued resistance against the coup and rejection of the Lobo government, and their right to hold a referendum and commitment to installing a constituent national assembly. The conference included working groups addressing issues such as gender inclusivity, environmental issues and economic systems.
9. Clinton announces aid restoration, urges recognition of new government
During a six-country tour of Latin America aimed at repairing U.S. relations in the region, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on March 4 that the United States would be restoring more than $30 million in nonhumanitarian aid to Honduras. Clinton drew some criticism during her trip, as she praised the new government of President Porfírio "Pepe" Lobo and failed to recognize ongoing repression and rights violations while urging countries to normalize relations with Honduras.
"We think that Honduras has taken important and necessary steps that deserve the recognition and normalization of relations," Clinton said at a news conference in Costa Rica. "Other countries in the region say that they want to wait a while. I don't know what they're waiting for, but that's their right to wait." Countries including Brazil and Argentina have held back from embracing the new government.
A letter that nine Democratic members of Congress sent to Clinton a day before her announcement of aid resumption was apparently disregarded. In it, they urged her, in a meeting planned for March 5 with Lobo, to "send a strong unambiguous message" that the restoration of financial assistance would be contingent on effort by the Honduran government to respond to the human rights situation.
Human rights NGOs including the Center for Justice and International Law and the Washington Office on Latin America also sent a letter to Clinton on March 4, expressing concern over ongoing human rights violations and asking Clinton to use her meeting with Lobo to urge the Honduran Truth Commission to "carry out a thorough and independent study of all abuses."
10. Congressional Republicans introduce bill to restore normal U.S.-Honduras relations
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) introduced a bill March 18 "expressing support for democracy in Honduras and restoring normal relations between Honduras and the United States." The bill is co-sponsored by representatives Connie Mack (R-Fla.), Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), all of whom, along with Rohrabacher, were vocal Congressional supporters of the June 28 ouster of President Manuel Zelaya and subsequent de facto government of Roberto Micheletti. The bill lists as its primary aim the resolution of "unresolved expropriation claims" by U.S. citizens against the government of Honduras, urging the U.S. State Department to take action to assure that the new Lobo government acknowledges and settles these cases. (In a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommitee on the Western Hemisphere [see story below], also on March 18, committee chair Rep. Eliot Engel [D-N.Y.] expressed similar concerns, noting that "companies have been expropriated or driven out of business and U.S. owners never compensated.") The bill also calls on "responsible nations to restore normal relations" with Honduras, expresses support for the immediate restoration of U.S. aid, urges the State Department to review new visa applications submitted by members of the former Micheletti government "without prejudice of an applicant's previously revoked visa." The bill has been referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Committee on the Judiciary.
11. Congressional subcommittee holds hearing on Honduras
A March 18 hearing by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere regarding “Next Steps for Honduras" focused on the establishment of a truth commission, Honduras' readmission to the OAS, recent targeting of journalists and the LGBT community, and the resolution of expropriation claims by U.S. business owners in Honduras. There were no Honduran witnesses, nor was the perspective of Honduran rights groups or the Honduran Resistance represented at the hearing.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Craig Kelly reiterated that "Honduras has come a long way since the coup" and that the Lobo government is making credible progress towards reconciliation.
Scant time was spent on human rights topics, but Subcommittee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) circulated a letter that he and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) had written to U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens the day before, urging him to “work with the government of recently inaugurated Honduran President Pepe Lobo to curb violence against the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.” Llorens swiftly responded, assuring the representatives that he was taking action on the issue. Committee members did also indicate concern over the murder of Honduran journalists over the last month, but did not spend time examining the ongoing pattern of repression.
Rep. Connie Mack (R.-Fla.) insisted that “what happened in Honduras was not a coup” and seemed to have a misunderstanding of the facts, repeating erroneous analysis that has been widely criticized. Many called on the new Lobo government to investigate cases of “companies that have been expropriated or driven out of business and U.S. owners never compensated.”
Vicki Gass, of the Washington Office on Latin America, made several recommendations for U.S. actions in her testimony: “Take strong steps to end human rights violations,” including investigating abuses to strengthen weak institutions; “establish a truth commission in conformity to international standards,” including the authority to independently investigate and charge individuals; and “establish ongoing, decentralized communications” with stakeholders.
Although Gass set out stringent standards for a truth commission, many Honduran groups oppose the process and maintain that such a commission will not be transparent and just under the current conditions (see February HNR).
Earlier in the month the committee had held a hearing on “U.S. Policy Toward the Americas in 2010 and Beyond.”
12. Inter-American Development Bank releases funds
Following the U.S. announcement of aid restoration to Honduras, the Inter-American Development Bank announced on March 16 that it would be releasing $500 million in aid that had been held up since last year’s coup. With this announcement, the bank joins the International Monetary Fund, which has already announced $160 million in new aid, the World Bank, and the Central-American Economic Integration Bank in recognizing the legitimacy of the Lobo government.
13. OAS debates Honduras return
Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes on March 15 called for Honduras’ reinstatement in the Organization of American States, saying President Lobo had “the majority backing … and therefore is the legitimate president.” However, OAS President Manuel Insulza, in his first press conference since being reelected to his post, said, “I would personally like to see Honduras return, but the will of the member states is that certain objectives are met.” Among the objectives he referenced was the formation of a truth commission.
14. Otto Reich meets with Lobo
On March 5, hours before he was supposed to talk with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Honduran President Pepe Lobo met with former Republican diplomatic official Otto Reich in an unannounced private meeting. Reich, who had last year been accused by the Venezuelan ambassador to the Organization of American States, Roy Chadderton, of orchestrating the Honduran coup, subsequently issued a weak denial outlining what he “would have advised” had he been the coup’s architect, all steps which, he admitted, were taken. For a time, Reich served on the Board of Visitors at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas. The details of the meeting were not disclosed.
15. Expert questions conditions for Honduran truth commission
Romel Jurado, former member of the truth commission in Ecuador, on March 1 said that the naming of Eduardo Stein, former vice president of Guatemala, and Vicente Fox, former Mexican president, undermined the credibility of a Honduran truth commission to address the events of the June 28 coup and its aftermath. Saying that the biggest asset of any truth commission is the integrity of its commissioners, Jurado said the appointments were "not advisable," citing "shadows of partiality" cast by the two men. He also said that presently Honduras doesn't meet the necessary conditions for establishing a commission.
16. Former top military named head of state media
On March 9, former joint chief of staff and lead coup general Romeo Vásquez Velásquez was named head of the Honduran National Telecommunications Company (Hondutel). Removed from the top military post 13 days earlier by President Lobo, Vásquez Velásquez made no bones of his willingness to hire military personnel into the state’s media entity, saying, “They are ordinary, everyday citizens, like everyone else.” The Center for Justice and International Law criticized the president’s move, noting that the military under Vásquez took an active role in suppressing media outlets. “President Lobo's decision to reward [Vásquez Velásquez] with this appointment sets a bad precedent and puts in doubt his commitment to democracy and human rights,” the organization said in a published statement. It called on Lobo to revoke the nomination.
17. Former finance official held in case
José Antonio Borjas Massís, former vice minister of finance under deposed president Manuel Zelaya, was ordered free on bail in a case of mismanagement of funds involving 30 million lempira (about $1.6 million). César Salgado, former director of the Honduras Social Investment Fund, whose funds are at issue; Rebeca Santos, former finance minister; and Enrique Flores Lanza, former ministro of the presidency, are also implicated in the case. The three are living abroad, having refused subpoenas claiming they could not get a fair trail.
18. Argentina commemorates 30,000 disappeared during Dirty War
More than 25,000 people flooded the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires on March 24 to commemorate the 34th anniversary of the military coup that launched the seven-year Dirty War during which more than 30,000 people were disappeared. Almost 27 years since Argentina's return to democratic rule, the country has begun to embark on human-rights trials. At least eight are under way, with dozens of military, police and civilians accused of murder, torture, kidnapping and disappearance. Still, progress is slow; at the march, human rights groups expressed concerns about delays in legal proceedings, resistant judges, and a shortage of resources for the justice system.
19. More news in brief
According to a report by National Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodio, Honduras had the highest murder rate in Central America last year, with 66.8 for every 100,000 inhabitants, and its murder rate has been increasing steadily over the past several years.
Cofadeh issued a statement expressing concern for the safety of Rebeca Becerra Lanza, former minister of culture and a survivor of state-sponsored repression during the 1980s, who has reported being followed by strangers in motorcycles who threatened her with guns.
Delia Mejía, reporter for Voz de Oriente radio station, reported receiving threats against herself and fellow resistance reporter Félix Molina on her cellphone after she gave the number out on air as a contact point for Resistencia, a resistance-sponsored show that airs nationally on Radio Globo which spreads the word on movement activities.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navy Pillay released a March 3 report on "human rights in Honduras since the coup d'etat on 28 June 2009," which "analyses the provisions and measures taken during the state of emergency, raising concerns about the procedures used to impose them, their legality and proportionality, and their impact on the human rights situation." Pillay asked on March 15 for a full investigation into human rights violations in Honduras.
The new proposed budget for Honduras includes a 23 percent increase in the defense budget, including military and police.
An Australian citizens writes about her visit to Honduras last year in Foreign Policy in Focus.
From Mar. 13-20, a fact finding delegation sponsored by the Bay Area Latin America Solidarity Coalition, and led by Andrés Thomas Conteris and Dale Sorenson, traveled to Honduras to meet with leaders of the resistance and others. A detailed delegation report is forthcoming in May, including summaries of meetings with U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens; at the Forum for the Refounding of Honduras; with Dr. Juan Almendares, Director of the Center for Victims of Torture and their families; with political prisoners in La Ceiba; with campesino members of the MUCA; with Afredo Lopez of the Coco Dulce (Faluma Bimetu) Radio Station that suffered an arson attack in early Frebruary; with the director of El Libertador, Jhonny Lagos, and journalists from Radio Globo, among others.
Source: May I Speak Freely? (media for social change)