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Updated 01/22/2007

Threats to Honduran human rights defenders persist as “lawyer for the poor” is murdered

On Dec. 4, 2006, around 10 a.m., Dionisio Díaz García 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), Díaz García 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 “the lawyer for the poor” 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 Díaz García 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.

Díaz García 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 Técnica de Honduras (SETECH), two companies owned by American Richard Swasey. Among the security firms’ 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 organization’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. Díaz García 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 Marín García. 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 Díaz García and other ASJ personnel began. On Aug. 25, the ASJ office received anonymous threatening phone calls, including one from a person who said, “You don’t know who you are messing with.”

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 Díaz García. Some in the party took pictures of the exterior of the office. Díaz García 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 Díaz García, Meza, Marín García, Claudia Mendoza and Rosa Morazán, 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, "… 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 Díaz García’s assassination. One of his colleagues received a text message, in English, that said, “The life of Dionisio García could be in danger!!! Take care, loock [sic] for someone closer to your enemies!!!"

The harassment has not stopped with Díaz García’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.

Díaz García’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 Díaz García’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 Díaz García’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 Díaz García page 

Revistazo.com articles about security companies and Dionisio Díaz García (Spanish)

Amnesty International Report; Dec. 12, 2006

International Freedom of Expression Exchange report; Dec. 6, 2006

“CIDH pide medidas cautelares urgentes para personal de organismo D.Humanos.” Terra/EFE; Dec. 21, 2006

“Honduras News in Review.” MISF; Jan. 9, 2007

“In Honduras, Defending Human Rights Is a Dangerous Occupation.” MISF