No Hay Forma: Violence and Impunity in Honduras

By | November 4, 2014 at 12:50 pm | No comments | Blog | Tags: , , ,

In October 2014, PEN Canada sent its programs coordinator and Writers in Prison Committee Chair to investigate solidarity-building initiatives in Honduras. In January 2014, PEN’s joint report Honduras: Journalism in the Shadow of Impunity, had identified solidarity among journalists as one of the key steps in the fight against impunity. In this piece, originally published in the Embassy newspaper, WiPC Chair Jim Creskey reflects on the violence and poverty he encountered in Tegucigalpa.

Men with guns

After spending one week in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa I can easily understand why governments call out their heavily armed military and police to deal with a crisis of public safety. I can also see that putting men with guns in the streets can lead those same governments to pretend that they have addressed complex problems that cry out for deeper, long-term solutions. PEN Canada program and communications co-ordinator, Brendan de Caires, and I went to Honduras this month to look for ways to support journalists in protecting themselves against the murders that make honest reporting there one of the most dangerous activities in the world.

Journalists in Honduras are threatened, assaulted and murdered in great numbers. At least 44 have been killed since 2003. But they are not alone. It is even more dangerous to be a lawyer in Honduras. More than 70 of them have been killed since 2010. Were they killed because of their work or were they murdered for personal reasons or in simple robberies? Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world. This might make the point of why a person is killed seem moot but it’s far from that. Finding out why the people responsible for public information are being killed in such great numbers is crucially important to the future of Honduras. It would be to any country.

During the time that we were in Honduras, interviewing journalists, government officials and NGO workers, the killing of lawyers continued. Two public prosecutors, both women in their 30s, were gunned down in the streets of San Pedro Sula, the country’s second-largest city. A few days later a defence attorney, a 35-year-old woman, was killed in a hail of bullets as she drove her car near a park at 5:30 p.m. in a town a few hours from Tegucigalpa.

Many of these murders are reported in the pages of the Tegucigalpa newspaper El Heraldo, and on its websiteThe paper’s executive editor, Carlos Mauricio Flores, welcomed us into his newsroom during our visit. He has had to install security guards with metal detectors at the entrance to protect his staff. But that protection doesn’t extend past the doors of his newspaper office. He showed us a survey of Tegucigalpa journalists—not just from his own paper, from other print, TV and radio outlets—about security.

When journalists were asked if they felt free to report on corruption, narco-trafficking and organized crime, 62 per cent said an outright “no.” Another 30 per cent reported “un poco,” a little, and only two per cent said “yes.” As it turned out, we were privileged to meet some of that courageous two per cent of journalists on our visit—but more of that another time.

What is the likelihood there will be a competent police investigation of a murdered journalist—not necessarily to solve the case but simply to discover if a journalist was murdered because of his or her profession? The answer was “No hay forma.

Fear on the streets

It didn’t take long for me to learn that one doesn’t walk the streets of Tegucigalpa absentmindedly. There were times when I wished I had eyes on the sides of my head like a songbird, to constantly scan for potential predators. After a while the fear moved out of the foreground. But it never completely disappeared. Diplomats posted to Honduras and many of the other people we met told us that they never walked around outside of gated communities. Their outdoor lives were lived behind seguro, safe signs, in walled-off neighbourhoods and compounds. It wasn’t that they seldom walked in the city, they never did.

It is a kind of imprisonment. The upper classes are imprisoned in their safe zones and cars, the poor, which account for the majority of the country’s population, are imprisoned in a virtual war zone. We were told it is a place where children who resist gang extortions are murdered, public-school girls are often raped and storekeepers and cab drivers are forced to pay weekly extortion fees.

We conducted more than a dozen interviews about murders of journalists, on the chances for building some solidarity among journalists for their protection and on the Honduran government criminal libel laws. That last item is a legal arrangement dating back to colonial times, which holds over journalists the threat of imprisonment if they allegedly defame a person of influence. It creates a permanent pressure for self-censorship over reporting that might involve the rich and powerful. But far more common than prosecutions for criminal defamation are the murders. Several people emphatically told us that the murder investigations of any victim, not just journalists, were almost always thwarted by the absence of a reliable police investigative process.

Police are paid little in Tegucigalpa. They are forced to buy their own bullets and guns, and often work in police stations that lack even a bathroom. They themselves are, of course, frequent and often successful targets of corruption. We would ask the same question of many of the people we spoke with. What is the likelihood there will be a competent police investigation of a murdered journalist—not necessarily to solve the case but simply to discover if a journalist was murdered because of his or her profession? The answer was “No hay forma.” There is rarely, if ever, the capacity for a thorough investigation—no process, no method. Nothing.

When I saw that the muzzle of the rifle was pointed in the direction of the little boy it gave me a shiver that ran up my spine despite the humid 27 degree C weather.

Police on the streets

It’s not surprising that lawyers who are public prosecutors, judges and public defenders are also the frequent targets of killings. Seeking justice requires courage in Honduras. In response to the hailstorm of violence the Honduran government put more armed military police on the streets.

One Honduran writer we spoke with, sadly lamented this dominance of what he called “men with guns.”

“They will never solve the problem,” he said.

In Tegucigalpa, the sight of men holding large and menacing automatic weapons was commonplace and casual. One Sunday afternoon I walked down a busy commercial pedestrian mall, something like Sparks Street in Ottawa, at lunch hour. Children were playing on the pavement. I remember one little boy, about five, who was playing with a remote-controlled car. Beside him a soldier was standing casually chatting with a man who looked like he might have been the boy’s father. The soldier was holding a large automatic weapon pointed downward at an angle. When I saw that the muzzle of the rifle was pointed in the direction of the little boy it gave me a shiver that ran up my spine despite the humid 27 degree C weather.

Seeing similar weapons on the streets of Ottawa last week made me thankful, and hopeful, that they would never be treated as a commonplace sight in Canada. At the same time, I felt my chest tighten up with anxiety over the people of Honduras. It is impossible to know Hondurans without learning to love their warmth and sincerity. This country, which has a population about the same as Quebec, is full of decent people who deserve something much better.

Not all of Honduras is a war zone. There are small towns and rural villages that remain peaceful. But the biggest cities and many other places in the country are ruled by violence. Given the great depth and complexity of the problems that beset the country, the weak Honduran government is barely able to cope.

When El Heraldo asked mainstream journalists what might help improve their security, only 20 per cent said that the government and its politicians could help.

When journalists were asked to identify the “enemies of journalism,” they answered:

• 43 per cent organized crime

• 24 per cent corruption

• 15 per cent corrupt police and military

• five per cent other government officials

• five per cent groups of powerful people

• four per cent politicians

• four per cent leftist groups

It is pure and simple terrorism when journalists are regularly killed, when courageous prosecutors are assassinated, and when ordinary citizens, often children, are murdered if they refuse to pay extortion or allow themselves to be recruited into gangs and criminal organizations.

Canada’s role

Even with good intentions from its own government, it seems impossible that Honduras could ever find peace without generous help from its wealthy neighbours and trading partners, neighbours like Canada. Once on the ground in a place like Honduras it soon becomes obvious that so-called boots on the ground, “men with guns,” solve little and often make things worse by making the rule of law an even more remote possibility.

It is pure and simple terrorism when journalists are regularly killed, when courageous prosecutors are assassinated, and when ordinary citizens, often children, are murdered if they refuse to pay extortion or allow themselves to be recruited into gangs and criminal organizations.

Politicians and others bandy the word “terrorism” around in Canada like it was some kind of commodity to be spent whenever the opportunity arises. But Honduras is experiencing daily terrorism in every respect—in this hemisphere, in a democracy, on America’s and Canada’s doorstep.

If we don’t act responsibly, those walls that rich Hondurans live behind to protect themselves from terror will only spread to our own borders and beyond.

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