Threats to Honduran human rights defenders persist as â€œlawyer for the poorâ€ is murdered
On Dec. 4, 2006, around 10 a.m., Dionisio DÃaz GarcÃa was sitting in traffic on his way to court in Tegucigalpa. A lawyer for the Christian social justice organization Association for a More Just Society (ASJ), DÃaz GarcÃa was involved in very public and contentious lawsuits against private security companies for labor rights violations. He had become a champion of exploited workers and earned the name â€œthe lawyer for the poorâ€ for his willingness to work without pay.
Yet his work also attracted enemies, and he had recently been the target of intimidation and death threats. As DÃaz GarcÃa approached the Supreme Court of Justice, two masked men on a motorcycle approached his pickup truck and shot him at close range in the head and in the chest. The 43-year old husband, father and activist died instantly.
DÃaz GarcÃa represented hundreds private security guards in complaints against 13 private security companies. He was able to reach agreements outside of court in all of his cases, with the notable exception of Delta Security Services and Seguridad TÃ©cnica de Honduras (SETECH), two companies owned by American Richard Swasey. Among the security firmsâ€™ clients are five state institutions.
The case against Delta Security Services and SETECH began in July 2004 when security guards came to the ASJ offices with complaints of unjustified salary deductions, refusal to pay overtime, incomplete payments, and 12- to 24-hour shifts without food or water. ASJ investigative journalists published an article about the case in the organizationâ€™s online magazine, Revistazo.com, in December 2004.
After nearly a year of failed negotiations between ASJ, the security companies and the Labor Ministry, ASJ filed a lawsuit against Delta Security Services and SETECH for labor rights violations. Delta Security retaliated by launching a defamation campaign against ASJ. A Delta Security representative claimed on a Radio America program that ASJ had stolen one of their security vehicles. DÃaz GarcÃa later appeared on the same program bringing legal documents showing the vehicle was seized by the court.
On Oct. 4, 2006, SETECH filed a defamation lawsuit against two ASJ journalists, Dina Meza and Robert MarÃn GarcÃa. The lawsuit was declared inadmissible by the court on Nov. 1, 2006.
As the public relations and legal battles reached a fevered pitch, a more serious issue arose when, in fall 2006, harassment against DÃaz GarcÃa and other ASJ personnel began. On Aug. 25, the ASJ office received anonymous threatening phone calls, including one from a person who said, â€œYou donâ€™t know who you are messing with.â€
Swasey and eight other Delta-SETECH employees came to the ASJ office on Sept. 19 and demanded entrance to the office in order to speak with DÃaz GarcÃa. Some in the party took pictures of the exterior of the office. DÃaz GarcÃa refused to meet with the group, saying the problems would be settled in court. Intimidation against ASJ personnel increased after this encounter.
ASJ personnel, including DÃaz GarcÃa, Meza, MarÃn GarcÃa, Claudia Mendoza and Rosa MorazÃ¡n, were followed, received threatening messages and had their photographs taken by unknown persons. ASJ believes that Delta-SETECH hired private investigators to follow the activists.
In October, threatening messages were posted in a reader-response section of the ASJ Web site, including the message, in Spanish, "â€¦ In the end justice takes its own path, which the ASJ people have crossed, knowing that they will be killed for the evil actions they are responsible for." Another disturbing threat came on Nov. 27, just a week before DÃaz GarcÃaâ€™s assassination. One of his colleagues received a text message, in English, that said, â€œThe life of Dionisio GarcÃa could be in danger!!! Take care, loock [sic] for someone closer to your enemies!!!"
The harassment has not stopped with DÃaz GarcÃaâ€™s death. Just three days after his murder, ASJ Board Chairman Carlos Hernandez received a text message in English saying, "You are the next because you are the heat [sic; head]." Human rights groups have called for government protection of ASJ personnel.
DÃaz GarcÃaâ€™s death heralds a worrisome climate for human rights defenders. Within one month of his death, three other lawyers and two environmental rights activists were killed in Honduras. Even as human rights groups clamor for adequate investigations into the recent spate of assassinations, the specter of impunity looms large. The security companies have vehemently denied any part in DÃaz GarcÃaâ€™s death, and limited resources and corruption within the Honduran police pose challenges to tracking down his killers.
There is hope, however, in the flood of national and international pressure on the state of Honduras to investigate the crime, punish those responsible and take steps to protect those still under threat. On Dec. 20, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requested that the Honduran government adopt measures to protect the lives and safety of ASJ journalists, lawyers and other personnel. The Inter-American Commission asked that the government report on the measure it adopted within 15 days; it is not yet known if the government submitted the report or what steps it will take.
What you can do
The ASJ continues to urge the government to protect the lives of its staff and board members, to investigate DÃaz GarcÃaâ€™s murder, and to take action against security companies that violate labor rights. Go to the ASJ Web site to send letters to Honduran government and U.S. Embassy officials.
For more information
ASJ Web site, Dionisio DÃaz GarcÃa pageÂ
Revistazo.com articles about security companies and Dionisio DÃaz GarcÃa (Spanish)
Amnesty International Report; Dec. 12, 2006
International Freedom of Expression Exchange report; Dec. 6, 2006
â€œCIDH pide medidas cautelares urgentes para personal de organismo D.Humanos.â€ Terra/EFE; Dec. 21, 2006
â€œHonduras News in Review.â€ MISF; Jan. 9, 2007
â€œIn Honduras, Defending Human Rights Is a Dangerous Occupation.â€ MISF