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Updated 12/18/2009

Rights Abuses Persist in Wake of Honduran Elections

Repression continues unabated following Honduras’ U.S.-recognized Nov. 29 elections, according to human rights groups and other observers on the ground in Honduras.

A report, slated for release Dec. 17, by the Honduran Women’s Rights Center and other rights’ groups documented at least 235 separate human rights violations—the group had to stop counting—during the 10-day period immediately before and after election (Nov. 25-Dec. 5). Cited abuses included illegal searches of alleged resistance members’ homes, illegal detentions, police and military surveillance of resistance members, voter deterrence efforts in resistance-heavy neighborhoods, and five confirmed resistance-related deaths.

Women’s Rights Center director Claudia Herrmannsdorfer said members also reported an increase in generalized militarization on the streets, with previously unseen equipment including armored Humvees with mounted Galil machine guns, the sights of which were actively following suspected resistance members as they made their way through the streets.

After a 10-day visit to Honduras during the election period, Amnesty International issued a call on Dec. 3 for an independent investigation of human rights abuses in the country since the June 28 coup.

Javier Zúñiga, head of the Amnesty delegation, drew attention to one of many issues with the military and police conduct during his visit, saying, "Not only did police use gas against peaceful protesters and in enclosed buildings, doctors were not given information about the chemical substances used in the cans to enable them to treat victims properly."   

Additional reports since that time period confirm Herrmannsdorfer’s feeling about the level of repression. On Dec. 5, masked gunmen forced their way into the offices of pro-resistance newspaper El Libertador, sequestering employees in a bathroom while they searched personal and company property. A camera and a production computer containing the paper's forthcoming edition in its entirety were stolen.

El Liberatador Director Jhony Lagos reported having seen police vehicles, as well as vehicles with dark-tinted windows and no license plates casing out the publication’s offices—which had been secretly relocated because of previous threats—for a week prior to the invasion.   

The Organization of American States Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, less-than-forcefully echoed by the U.S. Embassy in Honduras, denounced the El Libertador action, as well as consistent local and national jamming of Canal 36’s main news program, Así se Informa, as inconsistent with Article 13.1 of the American Convention on Human Rights, of which Honduras is a signatory.

On Dec. 6, five men—Isaac Coello, Roger Reyes, Kenneth Rosa, Gabriel Parrales and Marco Vinicio Matute—were shot and killed by unknown gunmen in a moving car. Wendy Reyes was also injured in the incident and taken to the hospital.

According to a neighbor who requested anonymity for security reasons, the victims "were active members of the resistance, having organized the committees in the Honduras and Victor F. Ardón neighborhoods to recruit neighbors to the resistance cause." El Libertador reported that double-cabin pickups, such as the one that reportedly had been observing the victims the night of the murders, have been seen frequently following resistance members.

On Dec. 11, activist Corrales García was found decapitated 30 miles east of Tegucigalpa, according to Human Rights Defense Committee (Codeh) Director Andrés Pavón. García had been detained by five men in official National Criminal Investigation Directorate uniforms and armed with machine guns, and he showed signs of being tortured.

The week’s bloodshed culminated on Dec. 12, when GLBT activist Walter Trochez was shot in the chest by a motorized assailant and died in the hospital a few hours later. Amnesty International reported that Trochez, who had taken an active part in the resistance, had contacted the agency after escaping an attempted kidnapping attempt on Dec. 4, during which he was interrogated about resistance members and beaten.

On Dec. 16, four hooded men captured two members of the United Peasant Movement of Aguan and took them away in a dark vehicle without plates. Rights group Committee for Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared said it fears for their safety while in custody and further intimidation and harassment of indigenous leaders.

Although the level of repression since the elections has remained consistent with what was happening before Nov. 29, there are signs that the tactics are working. “The goal of terrorizing [the populace] has been achieved,” Herrmannsdorfer said, citing as an instance feminist groups with which she had previously collaborated that have shut down their operations in fear of retaliation.

“You don’t see the mass [street] mobilizations that you did before the elections,” she continued. “You can attribute part of that to the holiday season, but people are scared—that’s the biggest difference.”

A former government official, who is not affiliated with any political party and requested anonymity, said that the repression occurring today is reminiscent of that which occurred in the 1980s, but is “more subtle in some ways.” In contrast to the '80s, he said, it is more likely today that the those who carry out the most severe violence are not part of the armed forces or police but hired guns (sicarios) carrying out acts of violence and intimidation—including kidnapping and assassination—at the behest of powerful individuals both inside and outside of the government.

Herrmannsdorfer echoed those sentiments, saying that targeted repression today is more disguised, since some of the actors are not police or military agents. But she also noted that there is currently a far greater level of militarization—generalized rather than targeted—than in the past, which she attributed to the fact that today's resistance movement is far more broad and unified than the social movements of the '80s.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has done little to acknowledge or respond to ongoing repression, even as it is executing a new outreach campaign redefining Latin American and human rights policy. Recent statements by the State Department have hailed the Honduran election a success, with many points of their analysis far more optimistic than that of popular groups and rights defenders.

“The Obama administration has been disturbingly reluctant to comment on the extremely serious human rights abuses and violations of civil liberties taking place in Honduras," Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the NGO Latin America Working Group, said. "While the U.S. Embassy in Honduras has posted a statement on its website, the State Department itself remains practically mute. Having brokered the deal in which elections went forward without a reinstatement of the democratically elected government in the interim, even for a brief period, the State Department has an absolute obligation to press the incoming Lobo administration for a full restoration of the civil liberties and human rights that have been so seriously eroded."

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has indicated a desire to "be on the side of the Honduran people" and for a continued U.S. involvement, but has been unclear on specifics.