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December 2020 Honduras Coup Update

by Sydney With Honduras Friday, Feb. 05, 2021 at 8:46 AM

This December 2020 saw council police kill a car washer in a war against the poor majority. Also assassinated was a peasants' organiser and a journalist whose work is driven by social conscience. A number of peasants and human rights defenders were judicially persecuted and arrested, including one peasant who was denied bail. Meanwhile, as applications for bail came from political prisoners and prisoners accused of assassinating Berta Caceres, with wishes to be home for Christmas, courts show whose side they are on in who is granted bail and who isn't.

December 2021 Honduras coup update

Council police killed car washer in a brutal eviction

On 2 December 2020, early in the morning, by Rio Blanco river in San Pedro Sula, council police brutally evicted people who were on the road washing people’s cars to make a living, and in the process, the council police fired at and assassinated 24 years old Rafael Hernández. This eviction would have been ordered by council mayor Armando Calidonio. 70% of the Honduran population work informally in one way or another, like Rafael. This killing shows how the Honduran state treats the informal workers, the news had treated this news as if nothing had happened. The humble workers attacked are from areas that have just been ravaged by the hurricanes in November.

La Paz – police arrested one peasant leader, and subsequently, another peasant leader was assassinated, several lives continue to be in danger

On 12 December 2020 in the morning, in La Paz, indigenous/campesino organisations Víctor Vásquez and José Santos Vigil were arrested by national police and locked up in La Paz cells, with people kept in the dark initially about what charges the police were going to press; the pair had appeared in court already two weeks before that with other charges that were dismissed in court. But, this time, they were charged with ‘forced displacement’ and denied bail after a 6 hours hearing. Victor is on the General Coordination of MILPAH Independent Lenca Indigenous Movement of La Paz, and accompanied the struggle of Nueva Esperanza Campesina Base, to which José Santos Vigil belongs. The incident the charges came from involved a woman who was apparently caretaking in a property having expressed having felt threatened by the pair. Their lawyer Medina argued that such a charge of forced displacement is inadmissible as the woman wasn’t working where she lived and did not have title for the land. Not only is forced displacement an extremely serious charge implicating 6 years of imprisonment, it exists in principle to prevent the forced displacement by companies against peasants and indigenous communities, not to criminalise peasant and indigenous organisers. In reality the courts and governments should be charged with forced displacement for systematically displacing indigenous and peasant people. An appeal had been submitted, but Víctor continued in prison all this time.

When court hearings were in process, people protested outside the court in solidarity with Víctor Vásquez and José Santos Vigil, one of the people at the protest on 16 December 2020, was the staunch 60 years old activist Félix Vázquez, who was also the Secretary General of Rural Workers Union UTC. Félix Vásquez had been receiving death threats against himself and his family for some time, such that he had spoken less with his adult children for security reasons while caring for his younger children. On 26 December 2020, ten days after attending the protest, at about 8.30pm, four hooded men armed with 9mm firearms and machetes kicked open his family’s kitchen door and broke into his home and shot Félix dead in front of his children. Two of his adult aged children who lived apart and were not home recalled what happened; Gerson was in tears as he recounted how he was on the phone speaking with one of his younger brothers, talking for half an hour already, when suddenly he heard the phone drop, and heard screaming in the background, ‘you could hear they were bashing them, that they said things to them, screamed at them, and I just froze.’ Gerson called his younger brother Félix Benicio Vásquez who was also not at the family home when it happened, to tell Félix Benicio what he knew. A surviving family member who was there said, ‘they put a weapon at my head, I asked them to give me time to ask God to forgive me and they ordered me to shut up.’ The authorities knew about the death threats as he had been reporting them for some year now, but they took no action to protect him. He had also been preparing another document to speak up about recent death threats against himself, his family, Víctor Vásquez and Apolinario Vásquez. In it, he named the persons who gave the death threats, and wrote that the death threats were made because the three defenders oppose concessions of mining, hydroelectricity and logging. Their lives are in danger. People said, ‘we knew that Felix was in the social struggles for land, life and persons; the people didn’t know anything, and through the forums and workshops that he gave people were motivated and grew the capacity to talk, defend and be free’. His children especially spoke of how he always tried his best to help marginalised poor peasants; one of his children said he told his father to lay low and take some distance from the struggle to be safe, to which Félix answered that he would fight to the last minute of his life, and that was what he did. Even on that boxing day afternoon he was in a meeting with el Fondo Cafetero. He had also been organising against the El Jilguero hydroelectricity dam that would affect the water source of 300 indigenous families across several communities. His family, traumatised, travelled to Tegucigalpa to the morgue to wait for their dad’s body. It was the afternoon of 27 December when Felix’s body was given to the family for the family, friends and community to say goodbye to him. Félix was planning to run as a reserve parliamentarian for the region in the coming year. His children loved and admired him as someone who helped those in need and who gave his life for the peasants. Félix’s spouse also died the year before so the children are left without parents. His son demands that the authorities investigate the case, that it doesn’t remain in impunity the way the vast majority of cases of people killed for speaking the truth are.

Human rights defender also in La Paz arrested

On 14 December 2020, police arrested Ermin López in Muyen, Chinacla, La Paz. Nobody knew where he was taken nor why he was being arrested. Ermin belongs to the human rights network REDHIL-PAZ, and because of his human rights work, he had been constantly receiving threats in different areas of the La Paz province.

Arrest against peasant of Bajo Aguan

On 9 December 2020, police intercepted and arrested Francisco Ramírez when he was travelling through Talanga city on his way to Tegucigalpa. He has been arrested before, back on 15 November 2010, as part of the Guadalupe Carney community’s land recuperation process, when military agents and private guards evicted the community in recuperation, committing a massacre killing five peasants in the process and attacked and arrested others including Francisco. He was charged with usurpation, and only in May 2020 did the charge get dismissed against him. When news of this second arrest was told to Cofadeh human rights organisation, Cofadeh tried contacting the police station which did not answer their call; it then sought a writ of Habeas Corpus for Francisco, to know his whereabouts and the condition he was in. After that, Cofadeh learnt that Francisco was being transferred under custody to Trujillo, and Cofadeh proceeded to monitor his transfer and pressure for his release.

Police arrested and tortured indigenous youths

Indigenous leader Salvador Zuñiga said that on 12 December 2020, his nephew and brother, Hipolito Zuñiga and Manuel Zuniga, were travelling to Pimienta to buy molasses when they were stopped by police, required to show their documents, and when police saw that the documents were all in order, police proceeded to accuse them of speeding and told them to pay a fine. The pair refused to pay a fine since they did not speed. Hipolito began recording this interaction on his phone, and police pulled out pepper spray and attacked both in the eyes and at other body parts, attacking also the spouse of one of them, and proceeded to arrest both and took them to the Pimienta police headquarters. Hipolito and Manuel were locked up and tortured for hours by police before finally being released.

Another journalist with social conscience assassinated

On 19 December 2020 in Culmí, Olancho, in the afternoon, unidentified attackers on a motorcycle gunshot wounded 59 years old journalist Pedro Arcángel Canelas, who was taken to a nearby hospital, but did not survive. Pedro was the head and owner of Radio Bambi 97.9FM ‘The Voice of Culmí’, and was a well known voice in the region with social conscience, critical of and opposing abuses and corruption of the state. Before Radio Bambi, he lead a 90 minutes news program of Radio Catacama for many years.

Court decisions on political prisoners

Rommel Herrera, young teacher, was politically imprisoned since 31 May 2019 accused of burning tyres at the entrance of the US Embassy during the protests of the health and education sectors demanding access to free and quality health and education for everyone. He was also accused of US.7 mmillion in damages. Initially locked up in La Tolva maximum security prison with then political prisoners Edwin Espinal and Raúl Alvarez (Raúl was stabbed on the streets in November 2020), he had now for months been detained in Mario Mendoza psychiatric hospital as he became depressed and suicidal in prison. On 3 and 4 December 2020, a court process resumed with a solidarity process outside (which also faced militarisation by riot police). It was determined from the examination of available evidence that Rommel could not have set the tyres on fire nor damaged the cameras since footage shows people who are not him undertaking these actions. They saw him placing tyres there, so charges of aggravated burning and damages were dissolved, but replaced with complicity to the aggravated burning, with sentencing hearing resuming on 15 January 2021, with a potential prison sentence of 4-8 years. Lawyers are working to appeal the decision and his mum is hopeful about the appeal. Rommel’s dad was hard struck by the decision to rule him complicit in aggravated burning, having waited so long to take Rommel home and having his heart set on that that day was the day. The following days the human rights organisation was advocating for Rommel to be released on bail to home with his family and be treated as an outpatient, while US Embassy was asking the courts for him to be returned to La Tolva maximum security prison, and the prosecutors sought for him to remain detained at Mario Mendoza psychiatric hospital.

Similarly, on 19 December 2020, lawyers were advocating for the eight political prisoners, defenders of Guapinol and San Pedro rivers, to be given bail and be home with their families having been locked up for between 15 and 24 months. This request was denied by judge Zoe Guifarro of Tocoa court. The defence appealed this decision and demanded that it be reverted within 24 hours. Despite the offer of a bail payment, judge Zoe Guifarro consolidated that decision saying that they needed to be locked up because of the danger of them reassociating with the ‘criminal group’ (the protest camp group to protect the rivers), even though she had herself ruled out the crime of illicit association in their case. That day, families, friends and people of social movements gathered outside Tocoa court calling for freedom for the political prisoners inside. There was an image of a woman with a small girl, each holding a sign, the woman’s saying, ‘freedom for Guapinol’, and the child’s saying, ‘freedom for my papi’. A fast in solidarity with the political prisoners began on 21 December 2021 with Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno fasting in protest and solidarity, calling on the court decision to be reverted. While the families had to ‘celebrate’ Christmas without their loved ones, the court did go on holiday, saying they will not even admit the appeal until 6 January 2021.

Killers of Berta Caceres get bail

On the other hand, on 17 December 2020, the Constitutional Hall of Honduras had given bail to 10 persons accused of the assassination of indigenous leader Berta Caceres, allowing those accused of assassination to go home and be with their families for Christmas.

Profiling at protest

Cofadeh human rights organisation have since 1982 held monthly demonstrations at the Plaza of the Disappeared, and just begun to resume doing socially distanced and masked demonstrations after having continued virtually for 9 months because of COVID-19. On 4 December 2020, like in many previous demonstrations, a security agent who patrols the park was present taking photos of protesters. When one protester asked why he was taking photos, he simply made fun of the protester instead of answering. Something similar happens in most demonstrations there. Those who go usually have lost a loved one to the dictatorships, sometimes a very long time ago. One family was there because their mother had recently died and she always came to this protest so they were coming in her place, in memory of her. A cofadeh spokesperson who lost her brother said, ‘we are not intimidated’.

Covid-19 update for December 2020

On 18 December 2020, it was reported that 41 Health Care Workers at Leonardo Martinez Hospital (San Pedro Sula) including 9 doctors were infected with COVID-19. This occurred in the context of the region being especially hit hard by Eta and Iota hurricanes, and at the same time, the government was reactivating the economy despite the steady spread of COVID-19.

December 2020 saw an extra 14,510 confirmed cases bringing total confirmed cases to 122,763. There were 223 COVID-19 deaths during December 2020, bringing the death toll to 3141. News came out that the Honduran state pays US1 for each PCR swab using tax money – another sign of the kind of business deals the government makes, and the limited number of tests carried out given that about 30% of those tested test positive, making confirmed cases numbers far lower than actual numbers of infected persons.

Hurricane recovery snippets

On 1 December 2020, the El Poy border continues to be totally militarised, and much humanitarian aid were still not allowed to pass through to Honduras.

Meanwhile, nearing Christmas, the people in the coffee growing regions of El Paraíso continued to work hard repairing roads to be able to distribute coffee harvests from 2020. State and politicians had been absent from these road repair efforts.

Tolupan indigenous people have been amongst peoples heavily impacted by Eta and Iota, having lost most of their corn and beans crops, and all the while continuing to be heavily persecuted for defending forests with death threats and a couple of unexplained killings just in December, against Moíses Castro who used to be involved in organising to defend forests, and against Adan Medina of the La Canderlaria tribe. Many others receive death threats for defending forests.

Organising continues

People continued to struggle, for example in Arizona Atlantida, where an open assembly was organised on 28 December 2020 observing social distancing measures and mask wearing to be covid-safe. In the assembly it was decided first and foremost to oppose any new concessions for mines or hydroelectric dams in the region, and that the Jilamito river is not to be negotiated under any circumstances. They will not allow Ingelsa to dam it, it is water source of 16 communities. Secondly, for the dams already up and running, they demanded that these companies invest resources to recover losses that people suffered with the recent hurricanes, and pay appropriate taxes in general to the council. They also asked electoral candidates to sign a pact to respect the people’s decision.
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