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Human Rights Developments

      Hondurans continued during 1991 to suffer grave human rights violations at the hands of the police and military, including murder, torture, illegal detention, threats and harassment. A decade of elected civilian government has failed to address these abuses. Insurgent groups claimed credit for several political assassinations or attempted assassinations during the year, despite a partially successful government effort to encourage their conversion into a peaceful political opposition.

      There were no disappearances in 1990 or 1991, marking a possible end to a cruel practice carried out by government forces during the 1980s. However, the government's failure to provide an accounting for scores of disappearance victims over the past decade or to bring to justice any of the perpetrators among the security forces, accommodates the fear that those who resorted to this practice in the past may feel free to do so again should they deem it necessary. Although serious and well-documented abuses by the army in 1991 led to the initiation of judicial proceedings against several military men, including officers, none yielded trials or convictions, leaving the military's well-guarded impunity for human rights abuses intact.

      Implementation of a harsh economic austerity program during the year deepened social tensions and inspired widespread labor actions and peasant invasions of land. Labor leaders reported receiving anonymous death threats, and one labor conflict was violently repressed by the army. In late October, soldiers seeking to oust striking miners who had occupied the El Mochito mine in the department of Santa Bárbara killed one miner and wounded twenty others at the U.S.-owned mine, according to the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH). Press reports indicated that miners injured at least three military men with stones after the army fired on the miners.8

      Rural violence increased significantly in 1991. The provinces of Santa Bárbara, Cortés and Yoro were the scene of massive land invasions in the month of May; in response to one of these actions, on May 3, a group of soldiers and plainclothesmen in the employ of an army colonel massacred five peasants and wounded eight in the village of Agua Caliente, in the worst episode of rural violence since the 1970s.9 Another mass slaying _ this time of four peasants in the eastern province of Olancho _ was reported by the Honduran press to have occurred on November 2, allegedly at the instigation of an army colonel. Denying any official involvement, the police have detained eight suspects, two of whom later told a reporter that they had been severely tortured to extract confessions.10

      There was detectable change in the political climate in 1991, which tended to encourage respect for human rights, although the government of President Rafael Callejas failed seriously to address the nation's continuing human rights problems, such as the use of torture by the police and army, and violence against peasants engaged in conflicts over land. With the end of the contra war in Nicaragua, civilian politicians in Honduras have begun to seek a reduction in the dominant power of the military. They have found a new ally in the Bush Administration, which is pressing Honduras to reduce its budget deficit. Given the fiscal crisis and the lack of any security imperative, Washington views reducing military spending as an essential step to economic health. The army and the Callejas government have reacted angrily to suggestions of demilitarization, whether coming from members of the political opposition or the U.S. Embassy.

      The Callejas government in 1991 advanced a policy of national reconciliation that included an amnesty for "political and related common crimes" committed before July 24, 1991. The amnesty led to the release of thirteen prisoners held for politically motivated crimes; the torture by the security forces of several of these prisoners after their arrests in 1989 and 1990 was documented by Amnesty International in a report released in June.11 The amnesty also led to the release of some three hundred peasants charged with "terrorism" in connection with land invasions.

      While Americas Watch is not opposed to amnesties intended to foster national reconciliation, we oppose applying amnesties or pardons to parties _ be they members of government or insurgent forces _ who are responsible for gross violations of human rights, such as extrajudicial execution, disappearance and torture. The amnesty as enacted covers not only members of the military accused of crimes against the state, such as rebellion and sedition, but also those accused of crimes against civilians, including homicide and assault.12 It thus makes official the de facto impunity enjoyed by the military for more than 140 disappearances and hundreds of acts of torture committed since the early 1980s. Americas Watch considers the inclusion of these crimes in the amnesty law to be a breach of Honduras's duty to prosecute gross violators of human rights. It is one more signal to the armed forces that they may torture and murder without fear of punishment.

      Political assassinations continued in 1991 and, as in the past, the government made no serious effort to investigate or prosecute them. Some were part of the rural violence described above, as were the murders of peasant activist Moisés Castillo, who while handcuffed was allegedly pushed in front of a speeding truck by his arresting officers on February 19,13 and indigenous leader Vicente Matute, who was shot dead along with his companion, Francisco Guevara, on September 30. Testimony given to CODEH suggests that the shooting of Matute and Guevara was arranged by a family engaged in a land dispute with an indigenous tribe in the department of Yoro. Matute was apparently trying to settle the land dispute, and had twice been threatened by individuals connected to the family. In addition, on December 9, a high-ranking peasant leader, Manuel de Jesús Guerra, was shot dead; according to the National Confederation of Rural Workers, he was involved in solidarity work with the electrical workers union, which is engaged in a bitter labor dispute with the government.

      Two of Honduras's minute insurgent groups _ the Morazán Patriotic Front (FPM) and the Cinchoneros _ claimed credit for several political killings and assassination attempts during the year. As has been the tradition in the case of assassinations committed by government forces, political assassinations attributed to the guerrillas have not led to prosecutions, even when the victims were members of the military. Among the guerrillas' apparent victims in 1991 were Sergeant José Blas Peña Paz, shot dead in his garage on May 26; cattle rancher Pablo Padilla García; and Raúl Arnulfo Suazo Madrid, a right-wing university activist. Little is known about the violent left-wing opposition groups. They appear to be deeply divided and, according to credible sources, possibly infiltrated by the military. Often insurgent communiques claiming credit for attacks are followed by others denying it. For example, the FPM originally claimed responsibility for the slaying on October 4 of Suazo Madrid, but subsequently denied involvement. Similarly, the Cinchoneros claimed credit for the May 25 assassination attempt against Roger Eludin Gutiérrez Rosales _ a former Cinchonero leader who had recently returned from exile and renounced the armed struggle _ only to deny responsibility a week later and instead blame the armed forces. According to CODEH, the family of cattleman Padilla García, whose June 20 assassination was claimed by the Cinchoneros, has denied that the guerrillas were responsible.14

      The murder on July 22 of Marco Tulio Hernández, the son of a human rights leader and an activist himself, also remains unresolved. Although the gunman was quickly apprehended, he has changed his story several times, leaving his motive in doubt. Nonetheless, Americas Watch is aware of no evidence linking the security forces to the murder of Hernández, although the victim _ who had been living in Italy _ told a relative before his death that he had been warned to "be careful" by an immigration official when he returned to the country on June 14. Still, the authorities do not appear to be actively pursuing the case. Although the gunman has named an accomplice, he has not been apprehended.

      A far larger number of killings occurred without any apparent political motive. As CODEH noted in its report on the first six months of 1991:

Contrary to what occurred in the 1980s, when we denounced a greater number of violations committed against persons belonging to the organized political opposition to the government, a conscientious analysis of the current violations reflects that this is no longer the case. Rather, any citizen who is not to the liking of a military officer is open to having his or her fundamental rights violated with impunity.15

CODEH reported sixty killings between January and September 1991 as "abuses of authority." One example, the murder of seventeen-year-old student Riccy Mabel Martínez, shocked the nation and fueled a growing anti-military sentiment. It also riveted attention on the question of whether civilian or military courts should have jurisdiction over human rights crimes.

      On July 13, Martínez visited the army's First Communications Battalion to ask two officers _ Colonel Angel Castillo Maradiaga and Captain Ovidio Andino Coello _ to release a friend of hers who had been recruited at the base. Her body was found hours later, reportedly unclothed and with the genitals and other organs cut out. Both military and civilian courts claimed jurisdiction over the crime, a recurring conflict in Honduras. Both claimed to have the Constitution on their side.

      The relevant articles of the Constitution state that military courts have jurisdiction over military crimes, except "[w]hen a civilian or a retired member of the military is implicated in a military misdemeanor or felony," in which case civilian courts have jurisdiction.16 The military has interpreted these articles to give its tribunals jurisdiction over all crimes by the military, including those in which a member of the military (including the police, which operate under military command) commits a crime against a civilian. However, many respected Honduran attorneys consulted by Americas Watch, including current Attorney General Leonardo Matute Murillo, interpret these articles to give civilian courts jurisdiction over cases in which a civilian is the victim of a crime by a member of the military or police. The trying of military offenders in military courts, where a lack of impartiality has guaranteed gentle treatment of defendants in crimes against civilians, is one of the foundations of impunity for human rights violations in Honduras.

      After unprecedented public pressure for prosecution, including a public statement by U.S. Ambassador Cresencio Arcos, the army wiggled out of the dilemma in the Martínez case by dismissing the accused officers. This had the effect of ceding jurisdiction to the civilian court while averting a Supreme Court decision on the matter _ a precedent which army officers apparently feared. The accused officers are now in pretrial detention at the disposal of the Second District Court in Tegucigalpa. However, a conviction is by no means assured, as several witnesses have failed to respond to court citations, apparently out of fear. Although the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) conducted a forensic analysis of samples of blood, hair, semen and urine purportedly collected from the suspects with samples found on or near the victim's body, there are widespread suspicions that the military or the government's medicolegal department may have tampered with the evidence.17

      In the Martínez case, the civilian judge aggressively defended her court's jurisdiction. In many other cases, however, civilian judges have chosen to avoid the risk of taking on the military. For example, a civilian court neither investigated nor challenged military jurisdiction when, on June 9, an intoxicated senior officer, Colonel Erick Sánchez, allegedly shot and seriously injured an unarmed man in a restaurant in the coastal town of La Ceiba. The victim, Gustavo Fúnez Rodríguez, remains paralyzed from his injuries. A military tribunal acquitted the influential officer. Linda Rivera, the attorney for the victim, has complained to the Supreme Court about the civilian tribunal's passive posture.18

      There appears to have been no letup in the use of torture by the police, largely because of the authorities' consistent failure to punish those responsible. CODEH reported 119 cases of torture between January and September 1991. The police, most often the National Directorate of Investigations (DNI), regularly torture both political and common-crime suspects to obtain confessions. Methods used include severe beatings, suffocation with a rubber hood called the capucha, and application of electric shocks. In response to public complaints about torture, President Callejas promised to restructure the DNI, but has made no visible progress.

      Often torture is used to extract confessions, as was the case with five civilian suspects detained by the police in connection with the murder of five individuals in the village of El Bálsamo, Yoro, on August 18. The five men had apparently been on patrol with police agents on the night of the killings. The police later arrested and beat them until they confessed to the slayings. They were released by a judge on September 11. A police spokesman eventually acknowledged that the men had been severely beaten. A DNI agent, Elmer Burgos, was consigned to a military court because of the ill-treatment.

      In September, upon U.S. prompting, the Honduran police instituted an Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR), which is supposed to process civilian complaints about police behavior. The initial information provided by the office is insufficient to determine whether it is addressing human rights violations. Police commander Colonel Guillermo Paredes announced to the press on October 29 that the OPR had investigated ninety cases of alleged corruption or abuse of power by police agents, and that unspecified sanctions had been imposed on fifty-two police agents. Neither the names of the offending officers nor the abuses for which they were said to have been disciplined have been made public. As best as could be ascertained, no officer has been criminally punished for committing acts of torture.

The Right to Monitor

      Domestic human rights monitors in the past have faced open hostility from the Honduran military and the U.S. Embassy. Under Ambassador Arcos, the Embassy has adopted a more positive attitude. However, domestic rights activists still occasionally face official harassment and anonymous threats. On July 18, police in the village of Támara, in San Pedro Sula, detained Marcelino Martínez, a CODEH representative, for a little over twenty-four hours. The police threatened him and tried to force him to sign a document saying he had refused to show them his identity card. It is unclear whether this ill-treatment was related to Martínez's human rights work. In addition, several activists affiliated with the Committee of Families of the Disappeared reported being subject to telephone threats, harassment and surveillance during 1991.

      Much of the credit for increased consciousness about human rights in Honduras goes to Honduran journalists, some of whom have covered human rights cases quite seriously, such as the murder of Riccy Mabel Martínez and the massacre of five peasants in Agua Caliente. One reporter who over the years has consistently published news unfavorable to the military told Americas Watch that her house was constantly watched and that she had received many anonymous telephone threats. Two other radio reporters covering the Martínez case reportedly received death threats and warnings to cease their coverage.

      International human rights groups did not experience problems in monitoring Honduras in 1991. The government responded to reports issued in 1991 by Americas Watch and Amnesty International with fierce criticism of both groups, but placed no obstacles in the way of a subsequent visit by Americas Watch. The government has also remained open to dialogue with Americas Watch about human rights issues.

U.S. Policy

      U.S. policy has changed so radically in Honduras that the Embassy, not long ago seen as the strongest defender of the Honduran military, is now seen as one of the military's tougher critics. While just three and a half years ago protesters attacked and set fire to part of the U.S. Embassy compound, in 1991 demonstrators gathered at the site to praise Ambassador Arcos after he publicly called for a thorough and "transparent" investigation into the murder of Riccy Mabel Martínez. While he took no public position on the question of jurisdiction, Arcos is said to have privately urged civilian leaders to stand up to the military, according to The Miami Herald.19 In addition, as noted above, the Embassy provided forensic assistance from the FBI.

      Although Ambassador Arcos's public statements have been couched in diplomatic language, and have for the most part refrained from directly blaming the armed forces for violent abuses, they have been received as slaps in the face by a political-military establishment long accustomed to blind acceptance of its abuses by Washington. The possibility that Arcos might be declared persona non grata was publicly discussed by top Honduran officials in October, after he was quoted in the press discussing the need to reduce the budget deficit in Honduras and expressing irritation over the medicolegal department's handling of the forensic evidence in the Martínez case.

      Yet, while Honduran authorities may find the Embassy's comments on human rights cases to be overly meddlesome, we find U.S. policy still too indulgent of human rights violations. Diplomatically worded criticism notwithstanding, Washington continues to provide Honduras with substantial sums of military and economic aid as well as training and equipment for the Honduran police. The Administration has not used the influence that flows from this aid as leverage for human rights improvements. In fiscal year 1991, Honduras was allocated $30 million in military aid, up from $20 million in 1990. In addition, Washington will provide $1.1 million for military training, $60.9 million in economic support funds, and $51.8 million in development and food aid. The Bush Administration also forgave $430 million worth of loans owed by Tegucigalpa to Washington. For fiscal 1992, the Administration has requested $20.2 million for military aid and training for Honduras.

      In 1990, Americas Watch hailed the State Department's decision to cancel Honduras's participation in police training under the State Department's anti-terrorism assistance plan because of police brutality and torture. This sanction has ended, according to the State Department, because Honduran officials have indicated a willingness to address abuses by the police. Yet we see no signs that the Honduran police has stopped torturing detainees, nor have we seen evidence of police officers convicted for such abuses. Under these conditions, we find unjustified the renewal of police assistance, even for such programs as anti-terrorism assistance, which focuses on airport security, and criminal-investigations training, which is supposed to decrease reliance on coerced confessions in favor of the use of physical evidence.

The Work of Americas Watch

      On June 6, Americas Watch issued a newsletter, "Honduras: Torture and Murder by Government Forces Persist Despite End of Hostilities," which received wide coverage in the Honduran press. Although President Callejas rejected the conclusions of the report _ principally, that his government had not, after more than a year in office, exercised the political will to end abuses _ the subject of human rights was brought to a high level of public attention and remained there for several weeks with the release a short time later of a report by Amnesty International reaching similar conclusions.

      To follow up on the report, an Americas Watch representative traveled to Honduras in October, meeting with officials of the Honduran government and U.S. Embassy, as well as human rights activists and attorneys. In addition, Americas Watch corresponded with the Callejas government throughout the year on specific cases of human rights violations.

      Americas Watch participated in the successful litigation against Honduras before the Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Court of Human Rights in which the Court found Honduras responsible for the disappearance of a student and a teacher in 1981 and 1982 respectively.20 To date, the Honduran government has failed to comply fully with the Court's rulings concerning damages to the victims' families. In June, Americas Watch asked the General Assembly of the OAS, which was meeting in Santiago, Chile, to recommend that Honduras comply fully with the Court's orders. Honduras managed to derail the debate, but in the process told a representative of a nongovernmental organization that full payment was under study.

Inter Press Service, "Honduras: U.S. Mining Company Suspends Operations," October 26, 1991.

See Americas Watch, "Honduras: Torture and Murder by Government Forces Persist Despite End of Hostilities," June 6, 1991, pp. 4-5. The government's Agrarian Reform Institute (INA) had given the land in dispute to the peasant group known as El Astillero in 1977, but a corrupt agrarian reform official illegally sold it nearly a decade later to the army colonel, Leonel Galindo. Although the peasants had petitioned INA for the return of the land, the agency had taken no action at the time of the massacre.

Inter Press Service, "Alleged Killers Denounce Police Torture," November 19, 1991.

Amnesty International, Honduras: Persistence of Human Rights Violations, June 1991, pp. 20-22.

Articles 215 & 216, Title VI, Chapter I, of the Military Code.

See Americas Watch, "Honduras: Torture and Murder," p. 5.

CODEH, Informe: Violaciones a Los Derechos Humanos en Honduras, Enero - Junio 1991, Tegucigalpa, p. 9.

CODEH, Informe, Enero - Junio 1991, p. 5 (translation by Americas Watch).

Articles 90 and 91, Constitution of the Republic of Honduras (translation by Americas Watch).

The FBI did not collect the samples. It simply analyzed those provided by the medicolegal department of the Ministry of Health and reported its findings to the judge. The U.S. Embassy was later surprised to learn that the medicolegal department had sent different samples for a private forensic analysis and provided a separate forensic report to the judge. According to press reports, this forensic report exonerates the defendants. (Cristina González, "Honduran justice system called into question," Latinamerica Press, November 14, 1991, p. 5.)

"Embajada de Estados Unidos indaga sobre el juicio contra coronel Erick Sánchez," Tiempo, November 7, 1991.

Christopher Marquis, "In Honduras, outrage grows over a murder," The Miami Herald, August 11, 1991.

See News from Americas Watch, "Honduras" Inter-American Court of Human Rights Wraps Up First Adversarial Case," September 1990; Juan E. Méndez and José Miguel Vivanco, "Disappearances and the Inter-American Court: Reflections on a Litigation Experience," Hamline Law Review, Summer 1990; and News from Americas Watch, "Honduras: Torture and Murder," pp. 10-11.

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