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Updated 08/01/2008

Honduras News in Review—July 15-31, 2008

Para títulos en español con sus enlaces correspondientes ver al fondo de la página.

1. Police officers convicted of murdering two environmentalists are now fugitives
2. Murdered environmentalist’s family murdered
3. Argentinean “dirty war” commander sentenced to life in prison
4. Outgoing U.S. ambassador sparks controversy over topic of government corruption and intimidation
5. Officials worry publicly about “narco-state”; U.S. allocates funds to fight drug trafficking
6. Women’s rights group publish blacklist of politicians
7. Women-only bus service starts
8. Poverty reduction funds feared misspent
9. Poorest pay most for water in Honduras
10. Other news in brief…
11. MISF News: D.C. film screening kicks off effort to raise awareness of Honduran gang issues among policy makers

1. Police officers convicted of murdering two environmentalists are now fugitives

Less than a month after being convicted, three police officers found guilty of murdering two environmentalists fled captivity and are currently at large. Most press outlets reported the initial flight of Juan José Talavera and Linton Omar Cáceres on July 21 as having taken place at the 115th Brigade military installation, where government convicts are sometimes held. The facility has no means with which to secure against escape. However, Father Andrés Tamayo, of the Olancho Environmentalist Movement (MAO)—for which the victims worked—insisted in a July 22 interview with Radio Globo that the former policemen were never transferred to that location, instead staying at the Catacamas, Olancho police station, where they had formerly been stationed. He called for an immediate investigation, because he said he was “unsure whether they escaped or were let escape." Two days later, on July 24, a third of the four convicted ex-cops fled, supposedly from the same place. MAO spokesman Moisés Gradis said, “This is a clear message to the people and to environmentalists, telling us that force rules and justice doesn’t apply to them,” referring to the police, the military and the logging industry, whom he accuses of being in cahoots to plunder the forest for their own profit. The four ex-cops were slated for sentencing on Aug. 15, after which time they would have been moved to a federal prison to serve their sentence. [El Heraldo, 7/22/08; Revistazo, 7/22/08; Revistazo, 7/25/08; past story: HNR, 1/9/07]

2. Murdered environmentalist’s family murdered

On July 21, Shamir Guifarro Ramírez, Henry Arturo Chacón and Nelda Ochoa—the son, father-in-law and mother-in-law of murdered environmentalist Mario Guifarro—were followed out of the town of Juticalpa, ambushed and murdered. Guifarro Ramírez was the only witness to his father's murder on Sept. 15, 2007 in the mountains of Patuca, the nearby region where he was marking out the boundaries of a forest preserve. There are no suspects in either murder. Juticalpa is in the eastern province of Olancho, where other environmentalists have been threatened and murdered. [La Tribuna, 7/22/08]

3. Argentinean “dirty war” commander sentenced to life in prison

Eighty-one-year-old Luciano Menéndez, former commander of the Third Army Corps, a major branch of the Argentine military during the "dirty war" in which thousands were tortured and killed in clandestine detention centers, was sentenced to life in prison on July 24 the kidnapping, torture and murder of four political activists in 1977. Known as the “Hyena of La Perla,” Menéndez ran La Perla, one of three major detention camps during the military junta dictatorship of 1976-1983. The sentence will be carried out in prison—not under house arrest, as has previously been the case for convicts over the age of 70—a fact considered historic by the victims’ lawyers. Menéndez continues to justify his actions, saying they were "appropriate measures" in "a war to save the country from communism." In the early 1980s, as Honduran military leaders were mounting their own war against communism, Armed Forces Chief Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martínez advocated the "Argentine method" and invited Argentine military advisers to instruct Hondurans in tactics including surveillance, kidnapping, torture and the operation of clandestine detention centers. [La Prensa, 7/25/08; CNN, 7/25/08; background info: MISF, "Cold War Pawn: Honduras in the 1980s"]

4. Outgoing U.S. ambassador sparks controversy over topic of government corruption and intimidation

U.S. Ambassador Charles Ford’s non-answer response to a question about government corruption in a newspaper interview on July 21 sparked a strong reaction from Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. In an interview with El Heraldo, Ford avoided answering a direct question about the Honduran government asking him to be quiet on the issue of corruption. He answered, “Perhaps the best I can do, without stepping over diplomatic boundaries, is not answer that question directly. What I can say is that in my three years’ experience here, I have come to know a bit of the ways of intimidation… Of the ways of trying to intimidate someone so they won’t talk.” Zelaya responded the following day with a nationally televised tirade, demanding that the ambassador "not talk about us." Zelaya attributed the outgoing official’s remarks to “the belligerent attitudes of my government”—referring to a 2007 visit to Washington where he asserted Honduras merited the same level of respect as the United States and Europe—and said he apologized if his statements "made the ambassador feel intimidated." On July 28 the Honduras government, through Secretary of State Edmundo Orellana, demanded an explanation for the ambassador’s statement, as well as that of French Ambassador Laurent Dominati, who warned on a news and opinion television show the prior week about the possibility of Honduras becoming a narco-state. Orellana said that if he didn’t get a satisfactory answer from the embassy, that he would contact the U.S. State Department. Ford left his post, as scheduled, on July 28 in order to take up a new assignment in Washington, D.C. as advisor to the U.S. Army’s Southern Command. [El Heraldo, 7/21/08; El Heraldo, 7/22/08; El Heraldo, 7/22/08; El Heraldo, 7/29/08]

5. Officials worry publicly about “narco-state”; U.S. allocates funds to fight drug trafficking

Óscar Álvarez, former security minister, on July 22 expressed his fear that Honduras could become a “narco-state” if the country doesn’t take measures to counter this threat. “Honduras is a logical waypoint in the transit of drugs to the United States and Europe,” he said, pleading that President Manuel Zelaya bring this issue into the public discourse and address it head on. Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodio, who has repeatedly warned the public about this issue, surmises that the reason Zelaya and other top officials don’t act on the issue is the close connection certain police departments already have with drug traffickers. He reaffirmed his concern about three known drug cartels that have already infiltrated the national police force. “There is talk about certain municipalities close to the Guatemala border that are already part and parcel of [their] drug operation,” he said. The United States on June 30 passed a law, dubbed the “Merida Initiative,” that allocates approximately $65 million to combating drug trafficking and violence in Central America and the Caribbean, but it is contingent on countries establishing law-and-order reforms as well as transparency and oversight of police functions. Critics of the initiative, however, are concerned that it emphasizes the creation of specialized anti-drug units and other crime-fighting units while ignoring the need for institution-wide reform. "Experience suggests that specialized units... are easily undermined or corrupted unless they are developed in the context of a broader process of institutional police reform. The Merida Initiative needs to take this fact into account," the Washington Office on Latin America said in a memo on its Web site. [El Heraldo, 7/23/08; La Tribuna, 7/28/08; WOLA memo, 3/19/08]

6. Women’s rights group publish blacklist of politicians

On July 21, the Visitación Padilla Women’s Movement for Peace unveiled a list of candidates for political office for whom, for various reasons, they’re urging their members and others not to vote. On the list are Cortés Wenceslao Lara, a Liberal Party congressman with numerous domestic-violence charges against him as well as a “zero efficiency” rating from Democracy Without Frontiers; Nationalist Congressman Oswaldo Ramos Soto, who spoke against the gender equality rules in the new electoral law, denigrating women in the process; and Enrique Ortéz Sequeira, Liberal Party candidate for Congress, who has a 225,000 lempira (U.S. $12,000) alimony backlog, which he pled to have reduced to 165,000 (U.S. $8,700) and still hasn’t paid. Lara spoke out against the group, claiming that his wife and her lawyer blackmailed him in their divorce proceedings and that the allegations are without proof. [El Heraldo, 7/22/08]

7. Women-only bus service starts

On July 23 a pilot program for women-only buses launched in Tegucigalpa. Co-sponsored by the Honduras National Autonomous University and the outlying suburbs of El Carrizal and La Sosa, the two hourly services will have two female police officers on board and will be escorted by police vehicles during the dawn and evening shifts. Roughly one of every six female university students is attacked while riding a bus, prompting the university to take this step. If the program is successful, “we hope to extend it to the entire city,” said Tegucigalpa Mayor Ricardo Álvarez. Only one of the buses will be driven by a woman, as the mayor said they couldn’t find another female driver. Bus drivers are typically threatened with death if they don’t cooperate with the gangs that typically carry out bus attacks, to whom they must also pay extortion fees, according to National Council on Transport President Jorge López. [La Prensa, 7/24/08]

8. Poverty-reduction funds feared misspent

On July 20 Mauricio Díaz, coordinator for the Social Forum of Foreign Debt in Honduras (Fosdeh), voiced his fears that funds intended to alleviate poverty under the Poverty Reduction Strategy (ERP) might be misspent due to lack of oversight and transparency. About 1.2 billion lempira (U.S. $63.5 million) out of the Finance Ministry’s 6.7 billion lempira (U.S. $354.5 million) 2008 income will come from ERP funding, but with no budgeted spending plan, Fosdeh fears its misuse. Díaz said that when the National Congress approved the 2008 budget, it gave the Ministry of Finance discretionary power to allocate surplus funds—a responsibility that should fall under the domain of the legislative branch. Although Congress has delegated discretionary spending power in the past, this case is unusual in that no budget is attached to it. “It’s worrisome that the executive branch can freely and supposedly legally spend that money on whatever it likes,” Díaz said. [La Prensa, 7/21/08]

9. Poorest pay most for water in Honduras

A recent World Bank survey on water prices in Central America revealed that affluent residents of central Tegucigalpa pay the lowest prices in the region while poorer outlying communities pay the most. The discrepancy is due to the lack of plumbing that reaches the often geographically isolated and economically disadvantaged communities, which are forced to walk up to several miles to buy water from private providers for up to 100 lempira (U.S. $5) per cubic meter, though the average is 10 lempira (U.S. $.50). This is equivalent to water prices in industrialized nations, which have much higher average incomes. Water service in Tegucigalpa averages 1.5 lempira (U.S. $.08) for the same quantity. The study shows that outside the capital, only 5 percent of the population enjoys cheap public water; 65 percent pay private companies exorbitant prices, while the remaining 30 percent get their water from rivers, streams, lakes and ponds. The problem, at least in part, is that the National Service of Aqueducts and Sewers (SANAA) can’t afford to expand on the cheap rates it charges. “What’s happening is that the poor are subsidizing the rich,” said President Manuel Zelaya, as he pledged to modify rates. Privatization, or at least municipalization, has been discussed as a solution, with entities like the IMF, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank insisting on it as a contingency for infrastructure funding. Some politicians are wary of this route, arguing that water is a basic human necessity, not a marketable commodity. Jorge Méndez, SANAA general manager, says the work toward alleviating this situation should have started 12 years ago, citing a number of different dam projects that could at least solve the problem in the capital. [ConexiHON, June 1-15, 2008]

10. Other news in brief…

On July 16, a Miami judge offered Milton Jimenez, former Honduran chancellor and current legal counsel to President Manuel Zelaya, a deal whereby his sentence for resisting arrest on June 13 would be suspended if he agrees to an anger-management course and a $50 donation to a local charity [La Prensa, 7/17/08; past story: HNR, 6/15-30/08]. COFADEH says it had reported the previously described detention cistern in Villa Vieja to the Ministry of Security and Internal Affairs, the Public Ministry and the Public Prosecutors’ Office nearly two years ago, when it learned that prisoners were being transferred there for torture before being sent to state prisons [Envio Honduras, 7/14/08; past story: HNR, 7/1-14/08]. On July 27 policemen shot and killed José Mártir Galeas, a farm laborer, in his own home while allegedly resisting arrest for an unknown offense, with no explanation by police or the prosecutor whom they accompanied [El Heraldo, 7/28/08]. The Civil Alliance for Mining Law Reform, a group of 150 civil-society organizations, pled with Congressional President Roberto Micheletti on July 27 to amend the stalled reform bill to ban open-pit mining, a provision whose current absence would likely make the entire bill constitutionally suspect [Revistazo, 7/28/08].

11. MISF News: D.C. film screening kicks off effort to raise awareness of Honduran gang issues among policy makers

A film screening and book reading hosted by MISF Media on July 22 in Washington, D.C. marked the launch of an effort to bring issues of gang violence in Honduras to the attention of policy makers. Honduran filmmaker and MISF Associate Producer Oscar Estrada screened his new film, "El Porvenir," about the 2003 massacre of 69 people, mostly gang members, at a Honduran prison, and anthropologist Adrienne Pine read from her book, "Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras." Estrada and Pine then led a discussion that included Honduras' "mano dura" (iron fist) policies, modeled after the controversial anticrime policies of New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani; the practice of extrajudicial killings, which some Hondurans have come to support as a means of gang-violence prevention; Honduran government corruption and judicial weakness that allows for impunity for extrajudicial killing; and U.S. deportation policy that often forces youth into gangs as their only chance for survival upon returning to Honduras. More than 50 journalists, representatives of NGOs and government agencies—including USAID, the World Bank and the Honduran Embassy—and others working on issues of U.S. policy and gang violence in Honduras attended the event, which provided an opportunity to hear Honduran perspectives on the issues. Rodolfo Pastor de María y Campos, the Honduran Embassy's minister of political affairs, attended the event and said he was "relieved to see civil society reacting and getting involved" to solve these problems. The event was co-sponsored by the Washington Office on Latin America and the National Center for Refugee and Immigrant Children. Additional screenings are being planned for people working on policy issues such as gang prevention, police reform, conflict management and other security issues in Central America.

1. Fugados tres policías asesinos de ambientalistas
[El Heraldo, 7/22/08; Revistazo, 7/22/08; Revistazo, 7/25/08; past story: HNR, 1/9/07]

2. Ultimada familia de ambientalista asesinado [La Tribuna, 7/22/08]

3. Ex-comandante argentino de guerra sucia pasará vida en prisión [La Prensa, 7/25/08; CNN, 7/25/08; background info: MISF, "Cold War Pawn: Honduras in the 1980s"]

4. Embajador Norteamericano empieza polémica al partir [El Heraldo, 7/21/08; El Heraldo, 7/22/08; El Heraldo, 7/22/08; El Heraldo, 7/29/08]

5. Oficiales preocupados por posibilidad de narco-estado [El Heraldo, 7/23/08; La Tribuna, 7/28/08]

6. Mujeres activistas divulgan lista negra de políticos [El Heraldo, 7/22/08]

7. Comienza servicio de bus para mujeres [La Prensa, 7/24/08]

8. Temen mal uso de fondos de reducción de pobreza [La Prensa, 7/21/08]

9. Los mas pobres pagan mayores precios de agua [ConexiHON, June 1-15, 2008]

10. Milton Jiménez a curso para controlar la ira [La Prensa, 7/17/08]

11. Por denuncia de Cofadeh, Fiscalía descubre que en postas policiales torturan [Envio Honduras, 7/14/08]

12. Policías matan un campesino en La Paz [El Heraldo, 7/28/08]

13. Sociedad civil exige a Micheletti apruebe prohibición de minería a cielo abierto [Revistazo, 7/28/08]


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