Terrorizing the Anti-Fraud Resistance: Human Rights Abuses Committed by US and Canadian-Funded State Security Forces in Honduras

PART ONE: COFADEH Report, Disappearances, Arrests & Criminalization

Protests and road blockades continue around the country. The Opposition Alliance has called for actions throughout the month of January, specifically January 6th (today) in the area of San Pedro Sula. Thousands of Hondurans came out to greet Salvador Nasralla in the streets of several cities and towns in northwestern Honduras yesterday including in El Progreso, Agua Blanca Sur (just outside of El Progreso to the south), Quebrada Seca, San Pedro Sula, Choloma, Villanueva, and other small towns and cities in the region. Nasralla attended several of these mobilizations and stopped to visit some of the families of the people that have been assassinated in the protests by state security forces.

Many of these towns and cities organized very effective protests and road blocks in November and December and faced or are still facing the harshest forms of repression. Various points of protest on the major highways in the region reported various types of repression over the last two months: live bullets fired against anti-fraud protesters in the streets; raids targeted at specific houses or whole neighborhoods; state security forces entering neighborhoods in the middle of the night with lists of people to arrest or find; disappearances; assassinations committed by paramilitary groups and death squads believed to be connected to the state; trumped up charges and criminalization; among other tactics used to incite terror in the population.

Yesterday, the Convergence Against Re-election held a press conference in the office of the Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras (COFADEH). Family members of anti-fraud protesters that have been assassinated or injured participated in the conference, together with union leader Carlos H. Reyes, the General Coordinator of COFADEH, Bertha Oliva, and Father Ismael Moreno (Padre Melo). The communique (in Spanish) from the press conference can be found on the HSN’s Facebook page. One particularly important part of the communique clarifies a misreported understanding of the violence occurring throughout the country and highlights the significant imbalance of power between unarmed protesters and state security forces:

“[t]he imposition and implementation of the electoral fraud to complete the re-election of Juan Orlando Hernandez in violation of the rule of law and the Honduran Constitution, places us again, before another coup d’état. This has provoked the indignation and protest of an unprotected and defenseless population whose weapons are chants, rocks, sticks, burned tires, and trees dragged across roads, against strong repression by the State armed with tanks, tear gas, live bullets, manipulation of the media and that fulfill the orders of a regime strengthened with the recognition of foreign governments that with their decision, favor the grave violation of human rights.”

According to COFADEH, 30 people have been assassinated between November 30 and December 28, 2017, 14 of which have occurred in the northwestern region of Honduras. There are other numbers of assassinations that have been reported other than what COFADEH has published as of December 28th. Some are reporting assassinations as high as 37 or 40 people. The discrepancy between other reports and numbers published by COFADEH have to do with different methodologies of designating assassinations as politically or election crisis-related; incidents that have occurred since COFADEH published their data; the difficulties of confirming and investigating cases; and the fear associated with public denunciation of abuses by family members and friends of the victims.

List prepared by COFADEH. 

List prepared by COFADEH. 

COFADEH map 28 de dic.jpg
COFADEH breakdown of abuses.jpg

According to COFADEH, 21 of the 30 assassinations were committed by the Military Police of Public Order (PMOP). Its important, especially for US and Canadian citizens denouncing the role of North American governments that fund and train Honduran state security forces, to note that although the involvement of the Military Police has been extremely violent and somewhat distinct from other state security forces, the National Police and the Honduran military have also committed various abuses including assassinations and torture. During the alleged work stoppage by the National Police, there are reports that police were involved in torture (including waterboarding), shooting live bullets, and at least one assassination in Agua Blanca Sur, just south of El Progreso. These reports are not unique to just one area of the country either. Giving the impression that the Military Police are the only force committing abuses is limiting the extent of the involvement of various branches of the government including the Ministry of Defense (which commands the Military and the Military Police) and the Ministry of Security (which commands the Police) in the systematic violation of the rights of protesters and the general population. There have been hundreds of detentions and charges laid against protesters, bystanders, and citizens that have been arbitrarily arrested but that have no involvement in protests at all. This demonstrates how various branches of the State are contributing to the violence and fear being used against the entire Honduran population since, and before of course, the November 26 elections.

Independent journalist, Sandra Cuffe made an interesting point about the on-going repression against the Honduran population since the electoral crisis and fraud. Cuffe tweeted on December 26, “Today marks exactly one month since the Nov. 26 elections in Honduras. In the past 30 days, more than 30 people have been killed in the context of the ongoing political crisis. In comparison, in the 30 days following the 2009 coup, there were 5 documented political killings.”

Since there are so many cases of injuries, assassinations, disappearances, persecution, detentions, and criminalization processes, here is part one of a broader summary of some of the major human rights concerns and cases:

Disappearances and Death Squads

There are reports of at least three disappearances of individuals that were last seen being taken away and detained by Military Police. The case of Manuel de Jesus Bautista Salvador (22 years old) is better documented than the other two cases involving disappearances which occurred in the Lopez Arellano neighborhood in the northern city of Choloma allegedly on December 6th. The HSN or Honduran human rights organizations will put out more information about these other two cases from the Lopez Arellano in the coming weeks.

There have been other reports of disappearances where individuals were detained by Military Police or National Police and not seen again until their dead bodies were found. There are two separate cases in the San Pedro Sula region where young men were picked up by unmarked cars and their bodies both turned up the day following their disappearances with signs of  torture. One young man was strangled with his shoe laces. The other man’s body was found with his head shaved, tips of his fingers cut off (likely to avoid identification via fingerprinting) and all of his teeth had been pulled out. These are clear examples of death squad killings intended to generate fear and target individuals involved in any sort of resistance or protests against the government. In at least two cases of disappearances, when family members have gone to the police and state institutions in search of their loved one, the police have told them that the person they are searching for will be released in 6 months to one year and do not give any information as to their whereabouts, reasons for detention, status, location, etc. 

Manuel de Jesus Bautista has been missing over a month after he was arbitrarily arrested by Military Police on December 3. According to the legal complaint filed by Bautista’s family: “he left the house and headed towards the local store to buy food to cook. Since then he hasn’t turned up anywhere. According to what I’ve been told by the neighbors, my brother along with a friend came across the Military Police who immediately started to beat them up. They let my brother’s friend go but my brother, to this day, hasn’t turned up.”

Manuel de Jesus Bautista, disappeared on December 3 in Naco, Cortes. Photo by: Unknown. 

Manuel de Jesus Bautista, disappeared on December 3 in Naco, Cortes. Photo by: Unknown. 

His family and local human rights defenders have searched everywhere for him and a lawyer presented a Habeas Corpus on December 24. The search for Bautista continues. As one human rights defender wrote about the search: “I was looking almost all day yesterday for the young man from Naco, disappeared by the Military Police since December 3. He was 22 years old and for 3 continuous years worked with the Lear Corporation in Naco. He had his entire life ahead of him. We lost him. The more we strived to find him, we couldn’t, not in the police stations, military battalions, hospitals, not even amongst the cadavers in both morgues. There is no trace of him. The only thing we found was a unrecognizable, decapitated cadaver impossible to identify because of how badly the person was tortured.”

Arrests & Criminalization

There have been several arrests carried out during mobilizations, in neighborhoods around the country where protests have been based, and in communities days after well-attended actions were carried out to denounce the electoral fraud. A spokesperson for the Inter-Institutional Task Force known as FUSINA told the Honduran media that 501 people were detained nationwide just on Saturday, December 2 during the state of exception, and 96 people were charged as a result. On the same day, the Honduran national police reported that of all people detained in northern Honduras, 33 people were sent to the new maximum-security prison “El Pozo” and 24 to a jail in El Progreso, Yoro.

These statistics and numbers were from earlier in December and fewer detentions have been reported since, but they give an idea of arrests and criminalization processes that are underway as a result of the anti-fraud protests and the State’s backlash against protesters.

The types of detentions overviewed above are allegedly a result of the violation of the state of exception (being on the street after 6 pm after the permitted hours outlined by the state) and also, are arrests made of people in the vicinity of anti-fraud protests. These types of arrests continue to occur, but the Honduran state is also arbitrarily arresting and charging people in communities where the resistance and protests are the strongest and/or where police stations were burned or destroyed, usually following the murder of an anti-fraud protester or bystander. 

US-trained, funded, and vetted TIGRES elite police force at a road blockade in Tegucigalpa. Photo by: Honduras Solidarity Network

US-trained, funded, and vetted TIGRES elite police force at a road blockade in Tegucigalpa. Photo by: Honduras Solidarity Network

One of the most worrisome cases of targeted persecution and criminalization is an on-going legal case against 11 people from the community of Pimienta in the northern department of Cortes. On December 26, 14 people from Pimienta were arrested in a joint military-police operation that began at approximately 3 am in the morning. 3 people were later released. Residents of Pimienta told the Honduras Solidarity Network that the raids and arrests were carried out by the Intelligence Troop and Special Security Response Group (TIGRES) – an elite police unit that is trained, funded, and vetted by the US government. When asking individual TIGRES officers who they report to, at least four in different occasions have told the HSN that their Commander(s) is in direct contact with the US Embassy. In the raid in Pimienta, the TIGRES were accompanied by the Directorate for Police Investigations (DPI) which is also trained by the US government.

According to a family member of one person arrested: “They began surrounding the house at 3 am, we were sleeping when they arrived but we started to hear noise. They began to bang on the door and they yelled ‘we have a search warrant’ – they were the TIGRES and the DPI. We were really scared and he [one of the men arrested] opened the door and they told him “we have a search warrant” and he responded, “ok, you can look, we have nothing to hide in this house” and then they pulled him out of the house, handcuffed him, and put him into the patrol car. I was getting dressed when they arrived and they told me after pulling him out of the house, that they were searching the house and that I could be present. I responded, “of course I’m going to be here, this is my house and we have nothing to hide. You can search wherever you want.” They started to search, they left a big mess in the house, they were looking for something, they even looked under the beds, the pillows, they wanted to find weapons or drugs, but they didn’t find anything. So when they finished messing up the entire house … my kids were so scared, they are under 6 years old. They treated us like we are big criminals, pointing at us with their weapons and when they finished searching everything, they asked me to come and sign something. They told me that they didn’t find anything – drugs, weapons, absolutely nothing, the house was clean. And so I said, ‘so if there are no weapons or drugs, why are you arresting him?’ They told me ‘Because we have to investigate.’ And so they took him where they had all the other people they detained. And now they are saying that they arrested them all together. That is a lie! They came and took him out of the house. And now they are accusing him and many in the group of things they did not do.”

Other people reported significant damage to their houses like broken-down doors, and violent searches and arrests carried out in the early hours of the morning in front of small children. Some residents said that they were never shown any search warrants. Others reports that some of the people arrested had nothing to do with the protests and have no idea why they are being targeted.

Initially 14 people were arrested in Pimienta on December 26th during the early morning raids. After a legal hearing, 3 people were released and the 11 remaining accused were sent to the new maximum-security prison known as “El Pozo.” Their heads were shaved for some unknown reason and family members were denied entry to see the prisoners.

Some of the 11 people arrested in Pimienta, Cortes as retaliation against the local population. The men are waiting outside the courthouse in San Pedro Sula for their initial legal hearing. Their heads were shaved and they were sent to a new maximum-security prison modeled off US-style prisons. Picture by: Unknown. 

Some of the 11 people arrested in Pimienta, Cortes as retaliation against the local population. The men are waiting outside the courthouse in San Pedro Sula for their initial legal hearing. Their heads were shaved and they were sent to a new maximum-security prison modeled off US-style prisons. Picture by: Unknown. 

On December 29, the initial hearing was held in San Pedro Sula. All are being accused of property damage, arson, and two of the 11 people, illicit association. In the initial hearing, the judge ordered the accused to be jailed while waiting to the next hearing that has not been scheduled. Since the December 29th hearing, 10 people are being held in the same maximum-security prison, forced to sleep on the floor, and facing threats that they will be disappeared.

Residents in Pimienta and human rights defenders accompanying the case believe that the community is being targeted because of incidents that occurred during protests and road blocks on December 20th near the community. Pictures circulated on social media of individuals, known to be police officers, sitting on the ground, without their clothes on and with their hands tied behind their backs. Guns, cell phones and police uniforms are scattered on the ground around them and people, likely protesters, many with their faces covered are standing around them.

According to witnesses, people involved in blocking the main road close to Pimienta in protest of the electoral fraud, confiscated and carried out citizen arrests of individuals who were sitting in an unmarked vehicle taking pictures of the protesters. The arrest and charges laid against the 11 people from Pimienta are believed to be related to the arrests of the individuals – later discovered to be police after their vehicle was searched – as retaliation and an attempt to “set an example” for similar incidents throughout the country. The police station in Pimienta, like in at least 6 other areas in Honduras, was burned, according to community residents, in protest of the number of assassinations committed by state security forces against anti-fraud protesters.

There are several other cases of criminalization of people arbitrarily detained by state security forces and accused of arbitrary crimes. Two men in El Progreso – Gustavo Adolfo Caceres Amaya and Johnny Andres Salgado Fuentes were arrested on December 21st in different parts of the city of El Progreso and neither were very active in the anti-fraud protests. On December 25th, three more people were arrested in El Progreso and are being accused of incidents related to the burning of a police station during anti-fraud protests. In addition, two more young men were arrested in El Progreso on December 29th, accused of being responsible for the death of a police officer Maikin Enoc Ramirez who suffered a head injury during an anti-fraud protest in December. 

The arbitrary arrests and criminalization of individuals from towns and cities around the country are believed to be a strategy to incite fear and discourage people from protesting. There have been several reports including in neighborhoods in Tegucigalpa and Sambo Creek on the north coast, that state security forces enter the communities with lists, sometimes in the early hours of the morning, with lists of people that they are seeking to arrest and target. 

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PART TWO of Human Rights Summary Coming Soon And Will Provide Case Examples of Assassinations, Injuries, and Defamation Campaigns Against Anti-Fraud Protesters and Community Leaders.