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Updated 10/25/2006

In Honduras, Defending Human Rights Is a Dangerous Occupation

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Since 1995, the Center for the Prevention, Rehabilitation and Treatment of Victims of Torture (CPTRT) has an been an outspoken advocate for human rights in Honduras. The organization’s director, Juan Almendares, is a well-respected human rights leader, environmental activist and medical doctor. A former president of the Autonomous University of Honduras, Almendares was openly critical of U.S. involvement in the country in the 1980s and was subjected to persecution and torture by Honduran paramilitaries. Now he and his staff treat the physical and emotional wounds of torture survivors and advocate documentation and education as a means of torture prevention. But in Honduras, this can be a dangerous occupation.  

On Oct. 26, 2004, intruders broke into the office of CPTRT. Staff arriving at work the next day found documents destroyed, money and office equipment stolen, and threatening messages written on the walls. Books in Almendares’ office were arranged on the floor in the form of a cross, a symbolic death threat. The CPTRT office had been raided before, in May and December 2003, and in October and November 2005. Files and office equipment were destroyed or stolen and threats were left for employees. CPTRT workers were intimidated by unknown men observing the clinic, strange phone calls, and repeated attempts to break into the clinic. None of the raids has been adequately investigated, nor are such events uncommon. In fact, rights activists in Honduras are frequent targets of harassment, intimidation and even murder. 

Members of the Committee of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), which works to bring justice for Hondurans who were disappeared in the 1980s and ‘90s, have repeatedly received death threats, at times from callers claiming to be former members of Battalion 3-16, the most notorious military death squad in Honduras in the 1980s. In 1999, the sister of COFADEH Coordinator Bertha Oliva was kidnapped and threatened for two hours, then robbed and left on the street. In fall 2003, Oliva received a series of threatening phone calls, including one warning that her nine-year-old daughter would be killed.  

“During my 22 years as a human rights activist, I have endured many threats,” Oliva said. “There have been threats against me and my family as well as public campaigns to invalidate my work. They threaten you physically and they launch campaigns to attack your dignity. They intimidate activists and try to keep them scared and silent. Many activists don’t speak out of fear.” 

Staff of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH), another independent human rights organization, also have been subjected to attacks and intimidation since they began advocating for the detained and disappeared in the early ‘80s. In 1996, two clinics owned by Dr. Ramón Custodio, then CODEH president, were bombed, and in 1998, CODEH Regional Coordinator Ernesto Sandoval Bustillo was fatally shot in front of his office in the western province of Copán. Attackers raided the home of CODEH President Andrés Pavón Murillo in December 2003, and in May 2004, Pavón received several threatening phone calls and was under surveillance by unidentified men.   

Members of the office of the National Commissioner for Human Rights have been targets of intimidation since the creation of the government office in 1992. Leo Valladares Lanza, who was commissioner until March 2002, was targeted numerous times in apparent response to his speaking out against government corruption. In January 2002, Valladares and his deputy commissioner, Sonia Marlina Dubón, both received anonymous telephone death threats, which were thought to be linked to the commissioner’s investigations into official corruption. Shortly before the threats were made, Valladares also had released a report criticizing the control that government and economic interests have over the media.

Human rights organizations and activists aren’t the only targets of attack. According to recent U.S. State Department annual reports on human rights practices in Honduras, investigative journalists are often pressured to desist from reporting in depth on issues such as corruption within the government and are sometimes bribed to investigate or suppress certain stories. In recent years, several journalists involved with controversial investigations or publications have been targeted.

In April 2000, Julio César Pineda Alvarado, news director for Radio Progresso in San Pedro Sula, was shot at point-blank range. Pineda had been critical of police involvement and complicity in extrajudicial killings. Pineda survived, but he and his family were subsequently subject to further death threats and harassment. In November 2003, journalist Germán Antonio Rivas, the owner of a television news station, was shot and killed outside the station just before he was to present the evening news. In his news reports, Rivas had criticized a mining company responsible for leaking cyanide into the local water supply of Santa Rosa de Copán, which led to a government fine against the company. He had suffered an earlier attempt on his life in February 2003. 

In May 2004, Jhonny Lagos, a former journalist for the mainstream Honduran newspaper El Heraldo who had been censored repeatedly for writing about corruption, published the first edition of his independent monthly El Libertador. After publishing the first edition of the newspaper, he received several threatening phone calls, and a former colleague warned, “Jhonny, you are very young to die.” The threatening calls returned in November 2004, and Lagos was under surveillance by unidentified men in a truck suspiciously similar to official Honduran security force vehicles.  

Lagos said he believes he is being persecuted “for creating a space to express ideas freely, something Honduras does not yet have.” According to the 2004 State Department report on human rights, most of the Honduran news media is owned by a “small number of powerful business magnates with intersecting business interests, political loyalties and family ties.”  

Deforestation due to illegal logging and dam construction is a major issue in Honduras, and advocates for the environment have met with harsh reactions from those involved in forest destruction. In 2001, a local environmentalist in El Ocotal, Olancho, Carlos Roberto Flores, was killed after opposing the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the area, reportedly by security guards working for Energisa, the company building the dam.  

In 1998, environmental activist Carlos Antonio Luna López was murdered after he spoke against illegal logging. In a rare display of judicial strength, the Third Appellate Court of the Olancho Department, in May 2005, sentenced Jorge Chávez, a well-connected businessman whom Luna accused of illegal logging, to 24 years in prison for contracting two gunmen to kill the activist. The case is now before the Honduran Supreme Court.

In July 2003, three armed men shot and killed environmental activist Carlos Arturo Reyes, who was involved in protests of illegal logging in Olancho department. The murder came a day after COFADEH and the Environmentalist Movement of Olancho (MAO) held a joint press conference at which they protested the harassment, persecution and death threats made against 15 MAO activists, including Reyes. 

Several religious leaders opposing deforestation have also received threats. Jesuit priest and U.S. citizen Peter Marchetti was forced to leave the country in 2001 after gunmen entered his church and threatened his life. During the same year, Father José Andrés Tamayo was threatened on several occasions by the mayor of Salamá, Olancho, and men involved in the logging business told him to leave the country. He received similar threats in 2003.  

Campesino land-rights advocates have also been targets. Marvis Getulio Perez was shot dead in a crowded bus station in April 2004. Getulio was an active proponent of land redistribution for the poor. In the northern province of Atlántida the following month, security guards of Agro Oriental, a subsidiary of Chiquita Brands International, attacked six members of the Mártires de Guaymas  farming cooperative. Two of the men were shot and one, Cesar Virgilio Pinot, was killed. Edickson Robert Lemus was shot and killed on a bus on May 24, 2005. Lemus was a coordinator for the National Union of Farm Workers and was en route to visit a nearby farming cooperative that had been served with an eviction notice. He had received death threats prior to his murder. 

Indigenous and ethnic minority rights activists, many of whom fight to reclaim tribal lands, also have been subject to harassment, threats and murder. Indigenous and human rights groups claim men hired by large landowners are responsible for many attacks. In 1997, the popular indigenous land rights activist Cándido Amador Recinos was killed in the Mayan ruins at Copán. In the public aftermath of the murder, large landowners took out space in national newspapers suggesting his death was the result of intertribal conflict.


According to the 2003 State Department report on human rights in Honduras, 12 indigenous Tolupan were killed in 2002 after opposing illegal logging, and
“in recent years security officials and private landowners have been accused of participating in about a dozen killings of Lencas and Garífunas in conflicts over indigenous land claims.” Garífuna
 rights activist Gregoria Flores was shot and injured on May 30, 2005. Flores had been gathering testimony to present before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights concerning a land dispute case between ethnic Garífunas and developers.

In January 2003, Lenca community leaders Marcelino and Leonardo Miranda Espinoza were taken from their home in a violent predawn raid by 28 armed police officers and civilians wearing ski masks. The brothers were charged with the murder of Juan Reyes Gómez in an alleged land dispute. They were repeatedly tortured while in custody. Both were beaten, Leonardo was stabbed in the head and his head was submerged under water, cigarettes were stubbed out in their ears, and they were threatened with death if they didn’t sign confessions.  

The brothers each were sentenced to 25 years in prison in December 2003, despite glaring problems with the case. Ballistic evidence didn’t match up, and testimonies from local witnesses for the defense were ignored while statements from two prosecution witnesses, from distant towns, were given credence. After several appeals the case reached the Supreme Court, which cancelled the sentence in November 2004 and returned the case to an appeals court. However, charges against the police agents for torture and abuse of authority were dismissed despite medical evidence of physical abuse. The brothers remain in prison, awaiting a new trial, and have continued to receive threats of physical abuse.  

In recent years, Honduras has seen tremendous activity on the part of vigilante social-cleansing groups, which arbitrarily execute suspected gang members, criminals and street youth. Honduran human rights activists claim that neighborhood watch groups, as well as private security companies with ties to former military or police officials, are responsible, and that corrupt police and military personnel are involved or at least complicit in these executions.  

Human rights leaders who condemn vigilante activities are often subject to death threats and harassment. The murder of CODEH coordinator Ernesto Sandoval Bustillo, for example, came after the organization published a report condemning vigilante activities. COFADEH’s Oliva said, “The situation for human rights activists in Honduras today is similar to that of the 1980s. Then, they said we were all communists, and today they say we support the delinquents. Gangs are a problem, but killing them is not the answer.”   

Common to all these crimes against human rights defenders is the government’s failure to act against them. Police, who may often be involved or complicit in attacks, rarely investigate these crimes, and Honduras’ historically weak and often corrupt judiciary tends to favor the social and military elite and has yet to convict anyone of attacks on human rights activists.  

“Corruption is a serious problem in the government,” Oliva said. “They protect impunity and they protect their friends, but there is a strong intolerance against rights activists. Each moment the intimidation against us is stronger and the corruption is worse. It is a crisis in Honduras and if we don’t fix it now, none of us will be protected. The ‘90s were better for activists in Honduras, but today it is like the ‘80s and it is getting worse.”

 

For more information

“Human Rights Defenders on the Front Line: Central America and Mexico Update.” Amnesty International; Dec. 10, 1996. 

“Honduras: Justice Fails Indigenous People.” Amnesty International; Sept. 1, 1999. 


“Honduras: Further information on threats/fear for safety: Julio César Pineda Alvarado.” Amnesty International Urgent Action; June 23, 2000. 


“Perspective Series: Honduras Update on Human Rights Conditions.” Douglas Payne. INS Resource Information Center; September 2000. 


“Amnesty International Annual Report 2002: Honduras.” 


“Honduras: Fear for safety.” Amnesty International Urgent Action; Jan. 25, 2002. (Threats against Dr Leo Valladares Lanza,  National Commissioner for Human Rights, and Sonia Marlina Dubón, Deputy Commissioner) 

“Honduras: Fear for safety/death threats.” Amnesty International Urgent Action; Oct. 7, 2003. (Threats against COFADEH Coordinator Bertha Oliva de Nativí and her daughter) 

Barbara Chester Award 2003, for clinicians and healing practitioners for their work with survivors of torture, presented to Dr. Juan Almendares.  

“Amnesty International Annual Report 2004: Honduras.”
 

"Amnesty International Annual Report 2006: Honduras."

“Honduras: Fear for Safety.” Amnesty International Urgent Action; March 24, 2004. (Threats to members of the Mártires de Guaymas farming cooperative) 

“Honduras: Threats/intimidation: Andrés Pavón Murillo.” Amnesty International Urgent Action; June 8, 2004. 

“Honduras: 25 year sentence for indigenous activists.” Amnesty International; Nov. 1, 2004. 

“Honduras: Urgent Action — Human Rights Defenders’ Office Ransacked.” Rights Action; Nov. 4, 2004. 

Human Rights Practices for 1998, Honduras Country Report. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State; February 1999. 

Honduras. Country Reports on Human Rights Practices - 1999. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State; Feb. 23, 2000.  

“Honduras: Country Report on Human Rights Practices, 2003.” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State; Feb. 25, 2004. 

“Honduras: Country Report on Human Rights Practices, 2004.” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State; Feb. 28, 2005.
 

"Honduras: Country Report on Human Rights Practices, 2005." Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State; March 8, 2006.

Center for the Prevention, Rehabilitation and Treatment of Victims of Torture (CPTRT), in Spanish. 

Committee of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), in Spanish. 

Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH), in Spanish. 

National Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras (CONADEH), in Spanish.