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Updated 06/03/2008

Honduras News in Review—April 2008

1. Hunger strike ignites national anticorruption movement
2. Corruption protest march turns violent
3. As hunger strike lengthens, prosecutors fall ill
4. Human rights advocate murdered
5. Union leader murdered
6. Indigenous group asks for government protection in wake of murders
7. Investigative reporter’s life threatened
8. Supreme Court head receives death threats
9. El Porvenir penitentiary massacre trial begins
10. Groups seeking wide-ranging reforms stage national strike
11. Ranking army officials implicated in arms looting
12. EU talks bring little progress on international court, human rights
13. Anticorruption council and Cáritas branch open documentation center

1. Hunger strike ignites national anticorruption movement

On April 7, four public prosecutors set up tents on the ground floor of the Congressional building and started a hunger strike to protest alleged corruption within the government. Their particular concerns include "shelved" cases related to corruption charges against various government officials, the unjust reassignment of colleagues who were "too successful" in working other corruption cases, and reprisal firings for similar motives. The protest has gained strength, with no fewer than 30 hunger strikers (some reports put the number at 40 as of April 30) continuing to call for an end to corruption, with a list of demands that has grown to include an independent audit of the Public Ministry and calls for the removal of Attorney General Leonidas Rosa Bautista and Adjunct Prosecutor Omar Cerna. The strikers include prosecutors, religious leaders, the sister of the minister of the presidency, and members of civil society.


There have been numerous attempts at negotiation between the strikers and Public Ministry officials, including attempted talks to be mediated by Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodio and National Anticorruption Council Coordinator Juan Ferreira. The first round of proposed talks was squelched by protesters because all of their demands weren't on the table, and it finally broke off when the protesters added the firing of the two top Public Ministry officials, Rosa Bautista and Cerna, to their stipulations. On April 22, the Public Ministry attempted to discredit the strikers, claiming that 90 percent of corruption claims have been solved. Addressing 16 cases detailed by the strikers, officials listed specific steps that had been taken in each case, saying that these were running their normal legal course.

President Manuel Zelaya came out in favor of the protesters on April 24, himself calling for the firing of Cerna. This has led unnamed critics to accuse the strikers of lending their cause to the president, who, according these critics, would like to name someone from his own party to the post; the strikers have denied this charge. On the same day, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez also put his name behind the strikers’ cause, although he does not support the firing of the ministry’s top officials. The cardinal asked all parties to return to the negotiating table, saying, “This climate of uncertainty [and] nervousness is not good for Honduras.” Rodriguez, along with the head of the Evangelical Brotherhood, Pastor Oswaldo Canales, expressed concern that this incident might aid elements that seek to destabilize the country.

On April 27, the striking prosecutors took a renewed approach to talks, confident that Congress would consider their proposal for an independent review board. Zelaya also urged them to go back to the negotiating table. The negotiating team working representing the strikers—composed of COFADEH Director Berta Oliva; Evilio Reyes, an evangelical church pastor and one of the strikers; Father German Cálix; and political liberal Jorge Yescas—worked throughout the weekend on a proposal to bring to the Congressional delegation brokering the talks. Meanwhile, Supreme Court President Vilma Morales said that any resolution that Congress passes in regard to this matter is legally binding to all parties. On the same day, strikers called on supporters to join in a solidarity fast and peaceful march on April 29. During that announcement, striker Jari Dixon Herrera called strike a success, saying, “This is no longer a struggle between prosecutors; it’s a struggle of the people.” [El Heraldo, 4/12/08; El Heraldo, 4/14/08; El Heraldo, 4/15/08; Revistazo, 4/16/08; Hondudiario, 4/18/08; La Prensa, 4/20/08; El Heraldo, 4/21/08; La Prensa, 4/22/08; Revistazo, 4/22/08; La Prensa, 4/23/08; El Heraldo, 4/23/08; El Heraldo, 4/23/08; Hondudiario, 4/23/08; Hondudiario, 4/23/08; La Prensa, 4/24/08; La Prensa, 4/24/08; El Heraldo, 4/24/08; La Prensa, 4/26/08; La Prensa, 4/27/08; La Prensa, 4/28/08; La Prensa, 4/28/08; El Heraldo, 4/28/08; La Prensa, 4/28/08; La Prensa, 4/29/08; La Prensa, 4/29/08; El Heraldo, 4/30/08; Hondudiario, 4/30/08]

2. Corruption protest march turns violent

The April 29 protest march called by hunger-striking prosecutors turned violent as it neared the Congressional building. The march was attended by over 5,000 people from evangelical churches, Lenca indigenous groups, and labor, women’s, human rights and student groups as well as other members of civil society. The violence erupted between students of rival schools who had been turned out by their teachers to support the civil action. They burned tires in the streets and fought amongst themselves, throwing stones near the government building. As there was virtually no police presence—police in riot gear arrived late—the violence got out of hand, with several innocent bystanders injured by flying stones. Secretary of Education Marlon Brevé expressed disappointment in the actions, and said he would be contacting the schools in question to conduct an investigation.


Despite the disorder, spirits among the organizers were high. “This mobilization has grown unexpectedly, and if we maintain citizen pressure in defense of … correct application of the law and in attacking corruption and impunity, we will emerge triumphant,” said Mauricio Velasco, president of the Pro-Justice Association of Honduras. Acknowledging the breadth of those assembled and broader issues that they faced, striker and Honduras Prosecutors Association President Víctor Fernández addressed the protesters gathered at the Congressional building, saying, “Twenty-three days without eating is not enough [to do away with] decades of the people’s hunger.” [El Heraldo, 4/29/08; Revistazo, 4/29/08; Revistazo, 4/29/08; El Heraldo, 4/30/08]

3. As hunger strike lengthens, prosecutors fall ill

Víctor Fernández, president of the Honduras Prosecutors Association (AFH), and Prosecutor Eduardo Diaz were taken to hospital on April 22 and 24, respectively, after having taken part in the hunger strike since its inception on April 7. AFH treasurer Soraya Morales and board member Elmer Santos Diaz, who had also participated in the strike since its start, fell ill and were hospitalized on April 21. An AFH press release noted that the two suffered hunger-related symptoms, Morales from an increase in blood-sugar levels and Santos from decreased blood pressure. Morales returned to the strike the next day, saying, “At the hospital, they told me to go home, but I came here, because this is my home.” Santos is the only hospitalized striker who has been unable to return to the Congressional building, where the strikers set up camp. Speaking from his hospital bed, however, he affirmed his commitment to fight for this cause until they have achieved their goals. Strike critic and government antagonist Robert Carmona, vicepresident of the Arcadia Foundation, said that this “relay race” technique was to be expected, and called it a farce. [Revistazo, 4/21/08; Hondudiario, 4/21/08; Hondudiario, 4/22/08; El Heraldo, 4/23/08; La Prensa, 4/26/08; El Heraldo, 4/28/08]


4. Human rights advocate murdered

On April 2, Luis Gustavo Galeano Romero, an educator and promoter for the Tocoa, Colon departmental delegation for the national human rights commission CONADEH, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting while he rode his motorcycle in town. Iberoamerican Ombudsman Federation President Omar Cabezas Lacayo called for an immediate and exhaustive investigation into the act, which members of civil society fear will go unpunished. CONADEH Commissioner Ramon Custodio urged caution among employees, adding, “We don’t know the motive; we can’t do anything for the moment except grieve and demand an adequate investigation into this violent act.” Galeano was coordinator for CONADEH’s Social Audit Program in Colon, charged with auditing and overseeing the work of municipal entities to ensure their fiscal transparency. [La Prensa, 4/3/08; El Heraldo, 4/6/08; Hondudiario, 4/4/08]


5. Union leader murdered

Near midnight on April 23, Altagracia Fuentes, secretary general for the Honduran Workers’ Federation, and two companions were shot and killed in their car as they neared the city of El Progreso. Since she was found with over $4000 in U.S. and foreign currencies, police doubt that robbery was the motive. Witnesses said the car carrying the assailants had been following Fuentes's car for some time, leading investigators to believe that she was being specifically targeted. The two other victims were another labor leader, Yolanda Sánchez, and their driver, Juan Bautista Aceituno. According to the preliminary police report, six armed and masked men assisted in the crime. Seven witnesses in a nearby car were shot at when they approached to help; three of them suffered gunshot wounds. Fuentes was previously the head of the Honduran Free Workers Syndicates Central Federation, where she was at the forefront of several workers’ rights victories. The Honduran Workers' Union was the first labor union in the country. [La Tribuna, 4/24/08]


6. Indigenous group asks for government protection in wake of murders

After two members of his tribe—one only 12 years old—were killed within the last month, a representative of the indigenous Tolupán community, José Santos Sevilla, has stepped forward to ask the government for protection against future violence. The victims, José Mastul, 20, and Geovanny Banegas, were killed reportedly because they formed part of a group of youth dedicated to reclaiming the tribe’s lands. The tribe chief, Julio Soto, meanwhile, has gone into hiding, and parents are afraid of sending their children to school in light of the youth’s death. Sevilla also said that there had been unauthorized police raids on tribe members’ homes. [El Heraldo, 4/3/08]


7. Investigative reporter’s life threatened

In the predawn hours of April 18 in Santa Rosa de Copán, Carlos Roberto Chinchilla, an investigative reporter and director of the Canal-12 news station, received his second death threat in three days. The threat was delivered via a verbal message left with colleagues who were bound and gagged outside the station by two masked and armed men, who warned that Chinchilla and his cameraman, Marlon Dubón, had five days to get out of town before they would be killed. The first threat was found inside the station on April 16 in the form of a note cut out from newspaper and signed “attentively, your enemies.” Chinchilla has been threatened before, but said, “Now things have changed, which is why we went to the police,” among other authorities. He and his cameraman and their families are now under police protection. In 2007, Chinchilla received death threats from an organized crime syndicate, Los Hidalgos, after he helped expose their crimes in a report that led police to recover stolen cars and other property. Shortly after the recent April 16 threat, Chinchilla received a call from Rafael Hidalgo, the kingpin of Los Hidalgos, saying that he was not involved this time around. Santa Rosa de Copán was the site of another reporter’s death: Germán Antonio Rivas was murdered four years ago as he left his news office. His killers, although known, are fugitives from the law and have not yet been brought to justice. Chinchilla spoke to the Committee for Freedom of Speech, which denounced these threats. [Hondudiario, 4/19/08; La Prensa, 4/21/08]


8. Supreme Court head receives death threats

On April 10, Vilma Morales, president of the Honduran Supreme Court, acknowledged that her life had been threatened following the contentious suspension of a traffic-control measure supported by President Manuel Zelaya. Her security detail has been increased. It is not clear if the threat was due directly to the temporary suspension of the measure, which will be reviewed over the next few months. Meanwhile, Human Rights Commissioner Ramon Custodio called for precautionary measures to be taken. Fellow justice Suyapa Thuman Conde also spoke out for Morales, saying that a timid judge should not be a judge. She voted with Morales to suspend the measure, and also has had a security detail since she was threatened several years ago. “We judges aren’t exempt,” she said. “As judges and magistrates, we are always exposed to this type of reprisal; we must have courage.” The measure, known “Hoy no Circula,” would limit the number of cars driving within cities on any given day. Critics say that such a measure isn't appropriate for Honduran cities, which don't offer adequate public transportation, and that it would place an undue burden on the poor. [La Prensa, 4/11/08; El Heraldo, 4/12/08]


9. El Porvenir penitentiary massacre trial begins

A trial began on March 31 in the case of the El Porvenir massacre, which occurred during the suppression of a riot at the penal farm on April 5, 2003. Thirty-four people—former police, tourism police and armed-forces officers and prisoners—are being tried for the murder of 60 gang members, five common criminals and three visitors. The trial, marked by numerous procedural delays, is set to last 45 days because of the large number of defendants. If found guilty, the accused would be subject to 20- to 30-year prison sentences for murder or attempted murder. The oral arguments being used in this trial are unusual in Honduras and have attracted a large crowd of law students and spectators, along with the victims’ relatives, to watch the proceedings. Numerous expert witnesses are expected to testify and nearly 150 pieces of evidence will be presented. Some of the initial testimony came from medical examiners who said that at least six of the victims were burned alive. Joaquin Salinas, president of the Committee for Families of the Massacred, said that these crimes were committed with cruel intent. [El Heraldo, 3/31/08; La Prensa, 4/1/08; La Prensa, 4/11/08; background: HNR, 4/13/06; HNR, 5/18/06]


10. Groups seeking wide-ranging reforms stage national strike

On April 17, a multilateral group including all the major labor unions, farm workers’ groups, teachers’ unions, and community organizations mounted a nationwide strike and march, dubbed by some the “March Against Neoliberalism.” The protesters united under the National Coordinator for Popular Resistance, whose members were slated to present a 12-point agenda for change to President Manuel Zelaya and his ministers. The agenda included setting strict price controls on food staples, providing free public education at all levels, stopping the privatization of drinking-water services and state companies, establishing public policy that protects migrants, repealing the current mining law, and strictly complying with agreement 169 of the International Workers Organization, which declares indigenous rights. The president failed to show up at the last minute, leading the protesters to cancel the meeting, as they considered those who were available to meet unable to solve their grievances. Over 3,000 people marched in Tegucigalpa, and more in at least 20 other locations around the country. Some took control of bridges and public roadways, which led to confrontation with police and armed forces, who used teargas and nightsticks to subdue the crowd; the protests were reportedly otherwise peaceful. The previous day, Zelaya had reportedly sent out military troops to the country's principal cities in anticipation of the strike, a show of force that raised concern for human rights groups including the Committee of Families of the Detained-Disappeared in Honduras. [El Heraldo, 4/15/08; Hondudiario, 4/15/08; Revistazo, 4/17/08; COFADEH press release, 4/16/08; La Prensa, 4/17/08; El Heraldo, 4/17/08; El Heraldo, 4/17/08]


11. Ranking army officials implicated in arms looting

After a report by the El Heraldo newspaper brought to light the trial of an army lieutenant charged with looting the army’s munitions supply, Congress on April 10 called for a hearing with Security Minister Jorge Rodas Gamero, a retired army colonel. Lt. Selvin Javier Castro Zelaya is accused of checking out 21 M-203 grenades for a training exercise and not returning them; the officer claimed he lost them. Sixty-one such grenades were found, along with 17.7 kilos of heroin, on a drug-trafficking boat in Mexico. Castro is also being charged separately for theft and possible international trafficking of Low antitank weaponry. Claiming his innocence, Castro's legal team is trying various legal maneuvers to obtain his release, including pointing fingers at another lieutenant and several army captains. The army, meanwhile, has acknowledged the looting took place, and has asked El Heraldo for their sources so that they may investigate the case more thoroughly. The army denies reports from international news agencies that Honduran arms have turned up in illegal-arms raids in Colombia. Roberto Micheletti, president of Congress, had called for Rodas Gomero to appear within 15 days of the resolution. [El Heraldo, 4/11/08; El Heraldo, 4/15/08]


12. EU talks bring little progress on international court, human rights

The International Criminal Court and human rights were at the center of discussions at the third round of Association Agreement talks between Central American countries and the European Union, which took place from April 14 to 18. The countries have been discussing the agreement—which covers a range of issues, including not only free trade but also issues of democracy, human rights, governance, justice, security and development—since April 2007. At this latest meeting in San Salvador, the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, a group made up of 2,500 human rights groups from around the world, asked that the EU keep inclusion in the court as a precondition for the agreement. To date, Honduras and Costa Rica have ratified the Rome Statute, which created the court, but El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua have not. In the end, the precondition for ratification was left out of the agreement at the talks, which advanced several topics including education, gender and freedom of expression, but did not make much headway in the area of human rights, according to the EU’s ambassador to Central America, Francesca Mosca. “We can’t expect [Central American countries] to be members of the ICC before finalizing the agreement,” she said in a press conference after the round of talks was over, “[but] it’s important to us to recognize the ICC as an important court, one that plays an important role in the world.” [Hondudiario, 4/4/08; Hondudiario, 4/4/08; Proceso Digital, 4/16/08; El Heraldo, 4/21/08]


13. Anticorruption council and Cáritas branch open documentation center

On April 11, the National Anticorruption Council and the Choluteca chapter of the humanitarian aid agency Cáritas inaugurated a transparency and documentation center in that southern town. The center’s purpose is to compile information on transparency, social and financial audits, and reports on national transparency and anticorruption issues. The center is also indented to educate and act as a resource for students and civil-society organizations in the region. Additionally, the center will aid investigations and support those bringing corruption charges to light. [Hondudiario, 4/12/08]


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