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Updated 12/22/2007

The Quest for Justice: Efforts to Prosecute Honduran Human Rights Abusers


The quest to identify and bring to justice those responsible for the illegal detention, torture, disappearance and murder of civilians in Honduras during the 1980s has been slow and difficult. Over the past 20 years, many cases have come before courts—in Honduras, through the Inter-American system and, most recently, in the United States—charging Honduran military officers with responsibility for these crimes. However, legal technicalities, inadequate access to information, government corruption and lack of independence in the judiciary, and the continued power of the Honduran military have prevented any truly successful prosecution. It seems that many, particularly those who hold power in Honduras today, would prefer that Hondurans truly forget the era that they call “the lost decade,” even if it means that the perpetrators of past abuses live in impunity. While legal efforts have had limited success in putting culprits behind bars, they have served as a forum for telling the truth about abuses and have set important precedents.

First Steps in the Honduran Court System

Cases of disappearance first came before Honduran courts in the early 1980s as families of people who had been abducted filed petitions of habeas corpus, a legal procedure that tests the legality of an individual’s detention. The Honduran constitution guarantees the right of habeas corpus and requires judges to take immediate steps to end violations of personal security or freedom. These efforts were unsuccessful, however, because security forces refused to cooperate with investigating judges and witnesses feared giving testimony in the absence of guarantees for their safety. Many families persevered in their efforts at great personal risk. They were often aided by the nongovernmental groups Comité Para la Defense de los Derechos Humanos de Honduras (CODEH, Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras) and Comité de Familiares de Detenidos-Desaparecidos en Honduras (COFADEH, Committee of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared in Honduras).

One noteworthy case is that of Angel Manfredo Velásquez Rodríguez, who was abducted by armed men in civilian clothing in September 1981 and is presumed dead. Despite the country’s political climate of fear and silence, Velásquez’s  family challenged military impunity by bringing multiple legal actions before different courts. After filing three habeas corpus petitions that failed to produce results, Velásquez’s father and sister filed a complaint in the First Criminal Court of Honduras on November 1982. In April 1984, Velásquez’s sister and the family members of several other disappeared persons brought a second complaint against seven members of the Honduran Armed Forces for crimes including murder, torture and abuse of authority. However, these complaints failed to lead to the identification and punishment of those responsible for Velásquez’s disappearance. 

Petitioning the Inter-American System

In their search for justice, the Velásquez family, with help from CODEH, also turned to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, a body of the Organization of American States. On Oct. 7, 1981, they submitted to the commission a petition against the state of Honduras for the forced disappearance of Manfredo Velásquez. Other families of disappeared individuals filed similar petitions. Over the course of several years, the commission made numerous information requests to the Honduran government, many of which went unanswered. After a careful examination of the evidence that Honduras eventually provided to dispute the facts of the petition, on April 18, 1986, the commission found that "all evidence shows that Angel Manfredo Velásquez Rodríguez is still missing and that the government of Honduras ... has not offered convincing proof that would allow the commission to determine that the allegations are not true."

On April 24, 1986, the commission referred the Velásquez case and three other cases of forced disappearance to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the OAS tribunal in Costa Rica, to determine whether the government of Honduras had violated the rights to life, humane treatment and personal liberty that are guaranteed by the American Convention on Human Rights. The other cases involved two Costa Ricans, Francisco Fairén Garbi and Yolanda Solís Corrales, who disappeared in Honduras in December 1981, and Honduran school teacher Saúl Godínez Cruz, who disappeared in July 1982. These cases marked the first trials of a government in the Inter-American system and the first time a government was tried for the crime of disappearance. 

Although the Inter-American Court had instructed the Honduran government to guarantee protection for witnesses testifying in the proceedings, many received death threats and two key witnesses were killed. José Isaias Vilorio, a policeman who allegedly participated in Velásquez’s abduction, had been summoned to appear as a witness on Jan. 18, 1988 but was killed on a public thoroughfare in  Tegucigalpa two weeks before he could take the stand. Miguel Angel Pavón Salazar, a human rights activist and an alternate deputy in the Honduran Congress, was killed in San Pedro Sula on Jan. 14, 1988. He had testified before the court four months earlier. Other witnesses testified at great personal risk, among them Inés Consuelo Murillo Schwaderer, who herself had survived clandestine detention and torture. 

In July 1988 and January 1989, the Inter-American Court found the Honduran government responsible for the disappearances of Velásquez and Godínez, respectively. (In March 1989 the court ruled that Honduras was not responsible for the disappearances of Fairén and Solís.) These precedent-setting rulings laid out the court’s interpretation of the law regarding forced disappearances and included the determination that the Honduran Armed Forces had carried out a systematic practice of disappearance in the country from 1981 to 1984. The court found the Honduran government to be in violation of the rights to personal freedom, humane treatment and the right to life and ordered the government to pay compensation to the victims’ wives and children. The government began paying compensation to the families in the 1990s, but it has failed to observe a more broad-sweeping obligation defined in the ruling: “to investigate every situation involving a violation of the rights protected by the Convention [on Human Rights],” “to identify those responsible,” and “to impose the appropriate punishment.”

The Honduran Government Investigates

With the end of the Cold War and the easing of armed conflicts in neighboring countries, civil-military relations in Honduras began to shift. Gradually, civilian leaders asserted their authority and began to loosen the tight-fisted grip of military control. In 1992, in an effort to take full advantage of the political shift, families of disappeared individuals forged an alliance with Leo Valladares Lanza, Honduras’ first national commissioner for human rights. Honduran law specifies that the human rights commissioner is an advocate and spokesperson for Honduran citizens before other government officials. The commissioner is to investigate human rights abuses committed by Honduran authorities, including the military and police, and to present his or her findings so that corrective action can be taken. It was in this capacity that Valladares launched an investigation of forced disappearances in Honduras.

In December 1993 Valladares released a detailed report on his findings, based on information from the United Nations, national and international human rights groups, and directly obtained testimonies. The report, entitled “The Facts Speak for Themselves,” documented the role of the Honduran Armed Forces—particularly Battalion 3-16—in at least 184 forced disappearances, as well as numerous other human rights abuses, including illegal detention and torture. Significantly, it went a step further by giving an indication of responsible parties on a case-by-case basis. Its publication was historic because it marked the first official Honduran government acknowledgement of military and police participation in the disappearance of its own citizens. Before this time, the government persistently denied that these people had been detained. The commissioner called for judicial investigations to identify the individuals responsible for these past crimes and bring them to justice.

In January 1994 President Roberto Reina, a former president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, took office with a promise to follow up Valladares’ recommendations and to end impunity for human rights violations. A new Public Ministry was created to investigate and prosecute criminal cases, including human rights abuses. Attorney General Edmundo Orellana, head of the Public Ministry, received Valladares’ findings and pledged to make sure that those responsible for the documented violations were prosecuted. Building on these findings, Sonia Dubón de Flores, the special prosecutor for human rights of the Public Ministry, conducted further investigations.

The special prosecutor would face numerous challenges in the quest to bring military perpetrators to justice. It was not until 1993 that Honduran law had been  changed to allow military personnel to be tried in civilian courts, and the military still held enough power to defy arrest warrants and requests for information. Many officers whom the special prosecutor charged in detention and murder cases fled the country, others walked free on the streets of Honduras while authorities failed to enforce arrest warrants, and some fugitives who were on active duty even continued to receive their salaries via transfers to their bank accounts. Moreover, several of those alleged responsible for abuses continued to hold senior military or civilian positions, including Gen. Discua Elvir, who was chief of the Honduran Armed Forces in the mid-1990s.

Because disappearance is not a crime under Honduran law, prosecutors had to pursue admissible criminal charges such as illegal detention, kidnapping and murder. The courts, however, will not accept a murder case unless the victim’s body has been recovered and positively identified. Prosecutors and human rights groups therefore attempted to locate and identify the remains of victims listed in Valladares’ report. In 1994 and 1995, forensics teams—with the cooperation of the special prosecutor, Honduran authorities and human rights groups—conducted exhumations at sites believed to hold the remains of disappearance victims; 16 bodies were found and five were identified.

The Honduran Government’s First Case

On July 25, 1995, the Honduran government made a historic first attempt to try military officers for human rights crimes. Dubón de Flores filed charges of attempted murder and illegal detention against two active-duty and eight retired army officers—several of them former members of Battalion 3-16—in connection with the temporary disappearance of six university students in April 1982. This case was carefully selected as an important test of the civilian authorities’ power to hold the military accountable. Unlike cases of disappearance, in this instance the victims were all alive and willing to testify. With eyewitness accounts and positive identification of many perpetrators, there was less chance that this case would be thrown out for "lack of evidence" or similar technicalities, a common outcome of attempted military prosecutions elsewhere in Latin America.

Even this relatively clear-cut case proved difficult to prosecute because the accused officers stubbornly refused to appear before a civilian judge, citing amnesty laws enacted by the Honduran government between 1987 and 1991 as part of a so-called national reconciliation process. The laws granted unconditional amnesty for political crimes committed by both military officers and members of leftist groups during the 1980s, and lawyers for the accused officers argued that these laws protected them from prosecution. In October and December 1995 Judge Roy Medina of Honduras’ First Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for four of the 10 accused officers — Col. Alexander Hernández Santos, Maj. Manuel de Jesús Trejo Rosa, Col. Juan Blas Salazar Mesa and retired Capt. Billy Joya Amendola. Three went into hiding, including Joya, who fled to Spain; Salazar Mesa was already serving a 21-year jail sentence on a 1994 drug-trafficking conviction. (Salazar Mesa was one of the first military officers tried and convicted in a civilian court for a “common” crime.) Joya voluntarily returned to Honduras in December 1998 after receiving promises of special treatment. He was jailed but freed in August 2000 after a judge said there was not enough evidence to continue his detention.

In 1998, a criminal court judge ruled that Salazar Mesa was guilty of participating in the illegal detention and attempted murder of the students but qualified for amnesty and therefore could not be punished. The attorney general appealed, arguing that the amnesty laws were intended to apply only to political crimes, not to common crimes, such as illegal detention and murder. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that the amnesty laws were unconstitutional, agreeing with the prosecution’s argument that the laws were too vague and should not apply to common crimes. The court ruled narrowly in its interpretation of the amnesty laws, applying it only to the case of the six students. This leaves open the possibility that the amnesty laws can be applied to military defendants in other cases. Although the ruling should have opened the door to judicial proceedings against the 10 officers implicated in the case, little substantive action has yet been taken.  

In May 2003 Salazar Mesa was convicted on the lesser charge of illegal detention of two of the six students and was sentenced to four years in prison. The Public Ministry appealed the failure of the court to try him for attempted murder and for the detention of the other four students. Joya remains free on bail, and the courts have repeatedly denied the Public Ministry’s request to have his arrest warrant reinstated. In March 2003 the court issued arrest warrants for two retired colonels, Juan Evangelista López Grijalba (who is the subject of a civil suit in U.S. courts; see below) and Julio César Funez Alvarez, for the illegal detention of the six students. At the end of 2003, retired Gen. José Amílcar Zelaya Rodríguez, the owner of the property where the 1982 incidents occurred, was under house arrest under charges of complicity. At year's end, the case was continuing against Roberto Arnaldo Erazo Paz and Manuel de Jesús Trejo Rosa.

Subsequent Cases

After filing its initial case regarding the six university students, the government continued to bring charges against military officers as forensic investigations identified the remains of other disappearance victims. In October 1995 forensic experts positively identified the remains of Hans Albert Madisson López, a student who was abducted and disappeared in 1982. Murder charges were subsequently brought against Billy Joya, Alexander Hernández Santos, Army Chief of Staff Oscar Hernández Chávez, and Segundo Flores Murillo. One month later, the remains of Adán Avilés Fúnez, a Honduran farmer, and José Amado Espinoza Paz, a Nicaraguan citizen working in Honduras, were exhumed and identified in the southern city of Choluteca. CODEH filed charges of homicide, death threats, illegal arrest, theft and damage to property against 19 members of the armed forces, including Joya and several others who had been charged in the case of the six students. Arrest warrants were issued for 13 of the men in June 1996.

As with the case of the six university students, prosecution of these cases has progressed slowly and most of the charged officers have been acquitted because of “lack of evidence.” In one such instance, the courts acquitted Joya for the murder of Hans Madisson because the defense argued successfully that a DNA test that positively identified Madisson's remains was not admissible as evidence because of the probability of error—in spite of the fact that the government had returned the body to Madisson’s family for burial. The Public Ministry has to date been unsuccessful in its attempt to obtain further DNA testing to positively identify the remains. In regard to the crimes against Avilés and Espinoza, several of the men charged remain at large and the cases against others have been dismissed. The prosecution continues to appeal court decisions in these and other cases, and according to the U.S. State Department’s 2003 country report on human rights practices for Honduras, approximately 20 active and former military and police officials continue to face criminal charges in various courts for human rights abuses committed in the 1980s. 

In October 1999 one military officer was finally convicted of murder when a court found Lt. Marco Tulio Regalado guilty of killing Honduran Communist Party leader Herminio Deras in 1983. Regalado, along with Col. Alexander Hernandez and Capt. Rafael Canales Nunez, had been charged with Deras’ murder in July 1998; the other two remain at large. In March 2004 a court acquitted Regalado because it could not find “irrefutable” evidence to uphold his conviction. However, in June 2005 the Appellate Court of San Pedro Sula overturned the aquittal, affirming his guilt, and sentenced him to 12 years in prison.

Other Government Efforts to Obtain Justice

In November 2000 the Honduran government provided $1.6 million to compensate the families of 17 people who disappeared between 1981 and 1989. At a special ceremony marking the occasion, Honduran Foreign Minister Roberto Flores Bermúdez characterized the payments as an attempt “to repair the damage with the aim of allowing the relatives of the victims to have a dignified future with better options.” In contrast, the head of COFADEH, Bertha Oliva, insisted, “This does not close the book on the case of the disappeared … The government has promised to locate those responsible for these crimes, arrest them and bring them to trial." She was among those who received compensation because her husband, Tomás Nativí, disappeared in 1982 after soldiers violently took him from their home.

In early 2002 the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) facilitated a series of meetings between a hand-picked group of representatives of Honduran civil society and human rights organizations and members of the high command of the Honduran Armed Forces. These meetings culminated in a seminar on “Civil-military Relations in Honduras,” that was inaugurated by Honduran President Ricardo Maduro. At the seminar, the participants sought to define issues that warrant discussion between civilians and the military in the areas of human rights, citizen security, defense and democratic strengthening. At the end of the seminar, representatives of the government, the Armed Forces and the human rights community signed an agreement pledging to together conduct a critical and honest review of the human rights violations that occurred in the country during the ‘80s and ‘90s.

According to the text of the agreement, the purpose of the review is to construct “a historical truth that is illustrative so that confrontations between Hondurans of this gravity may never again occur.” In addition, all of the signatories made the commitment to begin a process, under UNDP auspices, that will allow “society and the Honduran state to identify and define how these efforts can be undertaken.” Although an advisory council with civilian and military members was named to determine the steps that would need to be taken to hold what some called a “Honduran Truth Commission,” the process abruptly ground to a halt.

Torture Survivors and Relatives of Disappearance Victims File Suit in U.S. Court

On July 15, 2002 the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Miami against former Honduran military intelligence chief Lt. Col. Juan López Grijalba, on behalf of six plaintiffs—Oscar and Gloria Reyes, abducted by soldiers in 1982 and tortured while held in clandestine detention; Ricardo and Zenaida Velásquez, the son and sister of Manfredo Velásquez; and two other anonymous plaintiffs who are suing on behalf of their disappeared brother. The plaintiffs allege that Grijalba “planned, ordered, authorized, encouraged, or permitted subordinates in the Honduran military and paramilitary forces to commit acts of torture, disappearance and extrajudicial killing,” and then helped to cover up the abuses. The lawsuit is based on two federal laws that allow U.S. courts to assess damages against perpetrators of serious human rights violations committed abroad. (For more information about these laws and how they are used to prosecute human rights violators, see “Fighting Impunity in U.S. Courts.”)  

López Grijalba’s presence in the United States became known in April 2002, when he was arrested by the Immigration and Naturalization Service for immigration violations. He had been living in the United States since 1998. The civil trial was scheduled to begin Oct. 18, 2004; however, less than a week before the start date, the federal judge postponed the trial. Meanwhile, an immigration judge had finally ruled on the immigration bureau’s deportation case and ordered López Grijalba deported. On Oct. 21, 2004, immigration agents escorted him on a plane bound for Honduras. The Center for Justice and Accountability and its plaintiffs continue to await the federal judge’s ruling. They hope for a judgement holding López Grijalba responsible for abuses by his subordinates and assessing a damages award against him.

For more information

“When a wave of torture and murder staggered a small U.S. ally, truth was a casualty.” (First of a four-part series.) Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. The Baltimore Sun; June 11, 1995. 

“Torturers’ confessions.” (Second of a four-part series.) Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. The Baltimore Sun; June 13, 1995. 

“A survivor tells her story.” (Third of a four-part series.) Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. The Baltimore Sun; June 15, 1995. 

“A carefully crafted deception.” (Fourth of a four-part series.) Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson. The Baltimore Sun; June 18, 1995.

“Testifying to Torture.” James LeMoyne. The New York Times Magazine; June 5, 1988.

“Death squad suspect deported from Miami to Honduras.” Ruth Morris. South Florida Sun-Sentinel; Oct. 22, 2004 

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

“’Disappearances’ in Honduras: A wall of silence and indifference.” Amnesty International; April 30, 1992

“Honduras: The Beginning of the End of Impunity?” Amnesty International; May 31, 1995

“Honduras: Continued Struggle Against Impunity.” Amnesty International; Feb. 26, 1996

“Honduras: Still Waiting for Justice.” Amnesty International; March 31, 1998

Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA)

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

National Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras

Text of the resolutions issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in the Velásquez, Godínez and Solís/Fairén cases.

Text of the judgments issued by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the Velásquez, Godínez and Solís/Fairén cases.

"Honduran couple details how they were tortured." Alfonso Chardy. The Miami Herald; March 17, 2006