The activists are on a solidarity tour organized by the Chicago-based La Vos de los de Abajo organization, which is investigating human rights violations and the social and political conditions in the country, including its dubious distinction of having the world's highest murder rate.
At the time of today's incident, the La Voz delegation was investigating a combined raid by over 500 private security, national police and army last Sunday, Sept. 9 which killed Hector Navarro, aged 69. The raid was part of the violent eviction of a campesino group from land claimed by big land owner Miguel Facusse on the Los Laureles plantation.
Witnesses from the surrounding neighborhood told the delegation that the armed men ordered them to go into their houses during the raid. They then fired tear gas cannisters into the homes and broke down doors looking for any campesinos who may have fled into some of the homes. There were 34 people arrested, including many youth. Early the next morning, Navarro, who had been resting in a hammock in his backyard, died of apparent excessive tear gas inhalation.
During today's incident, as the La Voz delegation was standing well outside the plantation land waiting to interview more neighbors, five masked guards approached, some pointing their weapons at the La Voz delegation. They shouted threats and one guard said, "This is your last warning," and then fired a rifle. Video and still pictures of the incident are available at http://youtu.be/AbOgsm8qQE4 and http://tinyurl.com/hondurasguns
"That we were not shot at directly is probably only because most of us appear to be North Americans," said Vicki Cervantes, co-coordinator of the La Voz delegation. "Hondurans don't have that same protection, which explains the rampant political violence in this country."
"Today we visited three campesino encampments in Aguan and people at each of them emphatically requested that we stop U.S. aid to the Honduran military and police," said Alexy Lanza, another co-coordinator of the La Voz delegation. "Yesterday at the Garifuna land encampment in Vallecito we learned of the murder the same day of Aguan campesinos Herman Alejandro Maldonado and Ivis Ortega (Ortega was gravely wounded, and lingered before dying this morning).
After the shooting incident at Los Laureles, the delegation filed a formal complaint against the security guards at the police station in Tocoa. Delegation member Sarah Sommers of the Cleveland InterReligious Task Force on Central America stated that one of the police officials who took the complaint, Wilfredo Bautista, who is in charge of investigating murders in the Aguan Valley, told the delegation, "that even we [the police] can't go into that plantation; there [sic] are very bad people. We can't investigate because we can't go there; we might get killed."
"It is disturbingly clear who is in charge in the Aguan," said Cervantes. "Police and military carry out raids on behalf of the big landowners like Miguel Facusse and essentially say that they can't control heavily armed private guards who shoot and kill at will."
Besides Cervantes, Lanza and Sommers, members of the La Voz delegation include Lois Martin, Tucson and a member of No Mas Muertes, an organization dedicated to preventing the deaths of migrants crossing the deserts in the border region; Sidney Hollander, an activist with the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America; human rights activists Mary Dean and Greg McCain, formerly of Chicago and now of Colon, Honduras; and Andy Thayer, a Chicago-based anti-war activist and co-founder of the Gay Liberation Network.
Constructing Central America's Newest "Death Squad Democracy"
By Andy Thayer
Morning, 9/13/12 -- My first day in Honduras last week was also my first in a truly "Third World" country, though from what I've seen, portions of Russia and the Appalachians could give it a run for the money. Of the nine people on our delegation, I'm easily the least traveled in this part of the world, having never gone farther south than New Orleans. Plus I'm monolingual.
That said, I've done my best to read up before getting here, have had ready access to good translations, plus a surprising number of the campesinos are bilingual. Last night I spoke with a man who was part of a land occupation near Progresso. He looked to be in his seventies and had been deported a few years ago. A few days earlier we spoke with a man who was part of a land occupation, who had badly burned his foot while working in Florida. He told us that his boss told him he couldn't work anymore and then he was deported. One can't escape the impression that migrant workers are disposable people to the U.S., to be employed when young and healthy, then dumped back on impoverished countries when they're no longer useful.
Honduras is the third poorest country in the Western hemisphere. After Mexico, it is the largest source of migrants from Central America to the U.S. Due to the frequent attacks on migrants, a road from Tegucigalpa to the Olancho in the north has been dubbed the "Highway of death." And then they have to traverse Guatemala and Mexico, where Central American migrants are particular marks for thieves, kidnappers and drug lords hoping to use them as mules, followed by the deadly desert crossing at the U.S. border. One of our delegation, Lois Martin, reported that thus far this year there have been close to 200 bodies found in the Tucson border patrol sector alone.
With all the death and violence facing them if they migrate north, one might wonder why people might choose to leave Honduras. The frequency that you see people here wearing clothing in the patriotic colors, blue and white, with little Honduran flags adorning them, rivals the displays at U.S. party conventions. In practically every conversation where the issue came up, people insisted that they don't want to leave, but often had no choice.
The violence at home has truly gone off the charts since the 2009 U.S.-supported coup. As many have noted, Honduras is now the murder capital of the world -- 86 per 100,000 people, a rate nearly five times Mexico's.
Some of the Honduran government's attempts to reign in the violence are laughable in their stupidity, and in this are reminiscent of Chicago's - last summer, some aldermen proposed removing nets from basketball hoops as a remedy for the city's gang violence. In Honduras, to address a spate of murders by pairs of men riding motorcycles to bump off their targets, a few months ago the government passed a law banning pairs of men riding motorcycles. The response? The murders went co-ed, with male/female pairs doing the dirty work.
Of course, the "solution" treats a symptom and not any of the causes. Many of these are purely political murders, bumping off those who don't take kindly to their elected president being deported at gunpoint. Many more combine the social and the political, people who are struggling for land or workers' rights, victims of the rich who feel emboldened by the coup regime to use state power and the myriad of private armed guards to bump off people whom they find to be inconvenient.
And then there's the violence of passion and of dire poverty, encouraged by the extreme violence of the state. As Counterpunch.org contributor Laura Carlsen put it, "The impunity with which common criminals, powerful transnational interests, and elements of the state violate the most basic principles of society with government complicity or indifference derives from the fact that the government itself is erected on the violation of those principles. The crisis in human rights and violence - as deep as it is - is but a symptom of a greater evil. When the 2009 coup was allowed to conserve power and seal itself off from prosecution, it immediately undermined governance, rule of law, and the social compact. Honduras' constitutional crisis has now become a prolonged social and political crisis."
And we'd be remiss if we left the Honduran government's mentor out of this. As Mariam Herrera, an Afro-Honduran woman told me yesterday, "The politics of this country are shitty. The laws are shitty, and everybody violates them. Half the Congress violates the laws." Do you hold the United States responsible for part of that? "Yes, because the guns come from the United States. Honduras don't manufacture guns, we have machetes. Guns - they come from the United States."
Today we will attempt to visit the scene of a shooting of two campesinos by the employees of Miguel Facusse, the largest landowner and one of the wealthiest men in the Honduras. Herman Alejandro Maldonado was killed and Ivis Ortega was gravely wounded. They were working on the plantation (finca) of Panama, in the Aguan valley of northern Honduras. This brings the number of murdered campesinos in the Aguan Valley to 79 since the U.S.-supported coup in June 2009.
With the government and the rich deeply unpopular in most quarters and yet apparently committed to holding power regardless of human cost, all activists here fear that the violence will escalate in the run up to primary elections this November, and national elections in November 2013. If we are not going to complicit in this, it is essential that North American activists loudly demand that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton cease their "human rights" blather, and stop arming Honduras's death squad government.
NB An hour ago we learned that Ivis Ortega died of his wounds.
Andy Thayer is part of a Sept 6-16 solidarity delegation organized by La Voz de los de Abajo. He will be producing a short film about Honduran LGBT activists. He can be reached at LGBTliberation@aol.com