Friends, as you know, I recently participated in an Emergency Faith Delegation organized by SHARE El Salvador and other US organizations who were responding to a request from Jesuit Priest, Ismael Moreno, for international accompaniment in the days leading up to the inauguration of de-facto president Juan Orlando Hernandez. Below you can find some reflections of my experience, which was also shared with members of Canadian parliament. Please respond to the Urgent Action to help protect Edwin Espinal's life here.
Register for a webinar and report back with Karen Spring and I next Thursday, February 15 here.
Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cheryl Hardcaste, NDP International Human Rights Critic at email@example.com
Michael Levitt, Chair, Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development at Michael.Levitt@parl.gc.ca
Last week I traveled to Honduras as part of an Emergency Faith Delegation at the request of Honduran priest Father Ismael Moreno. Fr. Moreno, belovedly known as Fr. Melo, is the head of Radio Progreso and ERIC – a Jesuit centre for reflection, research and communications. Both Radio Progreso and ERIC have been attacked and defamed over the years for their outspoken voice against human rights violations in Honduras, corruption by the State, and most recently, for denouncing the constitutionally illegal elections that took place in November 2017. Following the widely acknowledged fraudulent elections, Radio Progreso, ERIC and its staff and collaborators have received an increase in threats, violence and intimidation, including death threats, public defamation, as well as having their radio towers brought down as an attempt to silence their voice.
I have worked and lived in Latin America for the past 14 years. As coordinator of the Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network between 2006 and 2017, I accompanied primarily Indigenous Maya communities as they sought to rebuild after the Internal Armed Conflict and seek justice for crimes perpetrated during the Guatemalan Genocide. A big part of my work was also leading delegations with Canadians to learn more about the history of Guatemala and the region and also to understand the role we as Canadians continue to play across the spectrum – from supporting the training of human rights legal teams and state prosecutors, to lobbying for and supporting Canadian mining companies using force to displace communities and quash peaceful resistance to unwanted development schemes. I accompanied witnesses of the Genocide trial in 2013 against former dictator Rios Montt, saw first-hand the repression against thousands of protestors who were against the signing of the US-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in the early 2000s and participated in clarification missions to communities where massacres and land evictions in recent years have taken place as a way repress people who are organizing to protect their land.
Despite 14 years of on-the-ground experience in Guatemala, a country well-known for State corruption and impunity, and violent attacks against human rights defenders and Indigenous communities trying to protect their territory, I was not prepared for the extreme violence and systemic repression I experienced in Honduras last week. In 2009, I traveled to Honduras following the coup d’etat at the time of the elections. I was asked to be an observer and was sent to the region of Tocoa and the Aguan Valley, where State repression against organized farmers, supported the private security of land owners, had reached a crisis. Leaders had been killed, others detained by the State, in an attempt to silence communities and any kind of dissidence with the leadership that had taken power following coup. At that time, the Canadian Conservative Government, through Minister Kent, touted the November 2009 elections as free and fair and congratulated Porfirio Lobo Sosa, from the National Party, as the newly elected president despite calls from across the Americas, and the world, to not acknowledge the elections taking place within the context of a coup. In addition to supporting Lobo Sosa, the Canadian government helped pave the way for a series of arbitrary constitutional reforms, led by then-Congressional leader Juan Orlando Hernandez.
The following year, I traveled with an international human rights team from Guatemala to Honduras to monitor the situation in the country. We heard about the ongoing repression against communities and how the National party was using its power to increasingly militarize the State, spending hundreds of millions of dollars building up armies and police forces to quell opposing voices in a country where more than 6 million inhabitants live in poverty.
When I received the invitation to participate in the recent Emergency Faith Delegation, I responded immediately. In the less than a week that I was in the country, I witnessed first-hand:
Combined military, police and military-police units working together to violently repress peaceful opposition to the Juan Orland Hernandez government. I saw police looting and stealing valuable possessions as a way to harass and intimidate community members. I witnessed the arbitrarily detention of 3 youth who were later released when our delegation arrived at the local police station.
Two members of our delegation were with former opposition Congressman Bartolo Fuentes when his home was ransacked by uniformed police; his brother-in-law beaten and his son and mother-in-law had guns pointed to their heads. Mr. Fuentes has long been victim of defamation attacks and is supposed to have protective security measure provided by the Honduran state to ensure his safety.
I visited the widow of Geovany Dias, from Pajuiles, Atlantida department, two days after the 35 year old father of five had his home broken into by uniformed police at 4am. He and his older sons were beaten and Mr. Dias was dragged to the side of the road by the police and shot more than 40 times in the head and torso. His mother and brother, both witnesses of the murder, as well as all members of this family, run serious risk of being violently targeted in the aftermath and out of fear, the family has not laid any official complaint. Mr. Dias was killed on the side of the road less than 200 meters from where a permanent police post is supposed to be providing security for the community. Mr. Dias’ murder was part of the tactic of terror that the Honduran state is implementing throughout the country to maintain control through fear.
I was tear gassed along with members of ERIC and Radio Progreso in the community of Echiberri, Santa Rita. The few journalists documenting and reporting on State violence have been targeted by the Juan Orlando Hernandez government as a way to quell opposing information from surfacing. This week, the Honduran government introducing laws to quell dissent through social media, one of the few ways that communities are able to share their experiences and speak out against State violence. Following the complete militarization of the State, which has taken place over the past 9 years, and especially after the formation of the President’s Military-Police units, having State control over all forms of media and freedom of expression is certainly a strong characteristic of any dictatorship.
On the day that Mr. Hernandez assumed power, I witnessed the military police throw tear gas inside of people’s homes at 6am. Many people were still sleeping when they came running out; including an elderly woman of a 100 years old and babies turning blue being held by their mothers. Much of the repression and serious injuries have involved gas attacks on people who are in their homes, leading Hondurans to say, “Here, you don’t even have to get out of bed to be attacked.” There is no justification for using excess gas to evict communities from peacefully protesting; there is even less for attacks against people in their homes sleeping.
At a peace vigil, our group was surrounded by two water canyons, 4 sharp shooters watched us steadily from the roof of the US Embassy and more than 500 military and police units were brought in to intimidate and be ready to repress those mourning the more than 40 people who have been killed since the November elections and the constant fear that anyone denouncing state fraud and corruption feels. At the same time, it was a sad display of just how fearful the Juan Orlando Hernandez government is that truth about what is happening in Honduras will get out.
I write today to urge the Canadian government to take immediate action to stop the political violence at the hands of the Honduran state, including the illegal detention of protestors and extra-judicial murders by the State, most recently just this past Monday. Contrary to a travel advisory released by the Canadian government in mid-January, the pro-democracy demonstrations in Honduras are not violent. They are peaceful protests with the Honduran state taking violent action against those brave enough to stand up against a fraudulent government. It is your responsibility as a diplomatic partner of Honduras to condemn the election fraud and violence that has ensued to allow Juan Orland Hernandez to assume power.
I also write in particular regarding the case of Edwin Espinal, a well-known community and human rights activist arrested on January 19 on trumped up charges who is currently being illegally detained in a military prison. Edwin’s life is in serious danger. He is not allowed to see family or friends, national and international press have been denied entry to see him and his lawyers have had only very limited access since his detention. Edwin’s partner, Karen Spring, is a Canadian human rights worker who has been working to support Honduran communities for close to 10 years. Karen and I worked together in Guatemala and her integrity and endless struggle to work for justice in Central America is second to none. Karen herself has been defamed by the Honduran government and she also faces risks for continuing to denounce injustice and corruption, well documented by Honduran and international human rights organizations. I urge you to use all possible channels to secure the release of Edwin Espinal and the dozens of other Hondurans who are being framed and wrongfully accused.
I also write to urge you to respond to the human rights crisis in Honduras with compassion by offering refuge to those whose lives are in risk. We are currently part of creating a refugee crisis in Honduras and you should be well aware of the role this country has in creating situations of profound uncertainty where people are not able to live. The Canadian embassy should be meeting frequently with human rights organizations on the ground to accurately and adequately monitor the situation and take actions to end the violence. Amnesty International recently wrote:
The Honduran government is deploying dangerous and illegal tactics to silence any dissenting voices in the aftermath of one of the country’s worst political crisis in a decade, including preventing lawyers and human rights activists from visiting detained demonstrators.
Honduras seems to be on a very dangerous free fall where ordinary people are the victims of reckless and selfish political games. Evidence shows that there is no space for people in Honduras to express their opinions. When they do, they come face to face with the full force of the government’s repressive apparatus.
I believe that Canada wrongfully supported the re-election of Juan Orland Hernandez – and I think that it knew that it should not give that support, which is why it quietly did so through a Tweet on the afternoon of December 22. Canada is continuing with business as usual in Honduras and putting people’s lives at risk. The impunity with which the Honduran government and its security forces, as well as other now corrupted government agencies, are operating is due to the political support it has received from countries like Canada and the USA who have legitimized widespread violence.
Following the Guatemalan genocide, a UN Clarification Mission attributed 93% of the violations – including more than 200,000 people killed and thousands more displaced and disappeared - to state forces and related paramilitary groups. It was a war against the people, not between people. Thirty five years later, Canada is standing on the wrong side of a new war, this time against the people of Honduras.
I urge you to contact Minister Freeland and Canadian Ambassador Hill to work to end the repression in Honduras before it’s too late. The sense of helplessness was repeated over and over again with the people I met; they have done nothing wrong but they are being attacked and killed for wanting democracy and justice to prevail. Canada must not continue to back the Juan Orlando Hernandez government or the military apparatus currently controlling the country.
I await your response,