Human Rights Developments
The past year was one of transition for human rights in Honduras. The fair and free election of noted human rights defender, Carlos Roberto Reina, in November 1993 reaffirmed the stability of democratic processes in Honduras. The new administration made several efforts to guarantee constitutional rights and establish civilian authority over the security forces. Despite the Reina government's apparent interest in respecting human rights, violations continued to occur. Although a systematic campaign of abuse was not evident, forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, and torture persisted. Illegal detention and abuse of authority by the police and military continued to be common practices, and justice remained a scarce commodity in the inefficient and corrupt criminal justice system.
On December 29, 1993, the national commissioner for human rights, Leo Valladares Lanza, presented The Facts Speak for Themselves: The Preliminary Report on Disappearances of the National Commissioner for the Protection of Human Rights in Honduras, a landmark report surveying the disappearances of over 180 Hondurans and foreigners during the 1980s. The Valladares report was the first government acknowledgement of official responsibility for the pattern of disappearances of the previous decade. It cited members of the Honduran military and Nicaraguan insurgents operating in Honduras as responsible for the disappearances, and noted that Argentine and U.S. intelligence units were instrumental in training those responsible. The report also included a controversial military document that named the current chief of the armed forces, General Luis Alonzo Discua, as the commander in 1984 of Battalion 3-16, the infamous army intelligence division condemned by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights for its heinous acts. The Reina government promised to prosecute those responsible, assigning investigation of these cases to the Public Ministry's newly created special prosecutor for human rights.
On June 11, the new administration moved to establish civilian control over the security forces by dissolving the military-run National Investigations Directorate (DNI), notorious for its human rights abuses, and replacing it with the civilian Department of Criminal Investigation (DIC). The DIC's lack of economic resources and qualified recruits, however, delayed its functioning until the end of 1994, leaving the country without an investigative police unit. Most former DNI detectives, including many implicated in human rights abuses, were incorporated directly into the main police force (Fuerzas de Seguridad Publica, FUSEP), which remained under military control. Althought initial steps were also taken to transfer the merchant marine, immigration service, and anti-narcotics operations to civilian authority, little attention was devoted to removing FUSEP from military command and creating a professional, civilian force.
The armed forces not only retained control of the police, but also secured a sizable budget increase for 1995 and continued to promote former members of Battalion 3-16 implicated in disappearances and torture, despite public protest.
The Reina administration gained a moral victory with Congress's initial approval in May to suspend the military's brutal practice of forced recruitment, replacing obligatory service with a "voluntary, educational, social, humane, and democratic" corps. Recruitment had not yet been abolished by year's end, however, pending Congressional ratification in 1995. Meanwhile, the military announced its plans to conduct another nationwide campaign to conscript young men in October 1994, which most expected to be abusive.
Self-proclaimed death squads reappeared in 1994 for the first time in recent years. As common crime increased, FUSEP played an increasingly minor role in combatting delinquency, in what some saw as a deliberate attempt to destabilize the Reina administration. In this context, vigilante groups, such as the self-styled Civilian Squadron to Execute Thieves, claimed responsibility for the assassinations of several suspected criminals.
A clandestine cemetery containing six bodies was discovered in Jacaleapa, El Paraíso, in March, corroborating the Valladares report's conclusions on the disappearances of the 1980s and the existence of makeshift graves. The government, at the insistence of human rights organizations, invited foreign forensic specialists to conduct the exhumation. Although initial speculation by Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) and others that the bodies corresponded to victims of the military's systematic campaign of disappearances during the 1980s proved incorrect, the bodies bore signs of torture and summary execution. General Discua admitted the existence of additional clandestine cemeteries along the Nicaraguan border, claiming that the victims were casualties of the contra war. Another cemetery was discovered in July in El Paraíso, Copán, near the Guatemala border. At the time of this report the exhumation process had been interrupted awaiting the arrival of international forensic experts.
The weakness, inefficiency, and corruption inherent in the criminal justice system remained the largest obstacles to establishing the rule of law in Honduras. The Honduran government in December 1993 created the Public Ministry under the guidance of a civilian attorney general and a corps of special prosecutors in the areas of human rights, consumers' rights, women's rights, children's rights, ethnic affairs, the environment, and anti-corruption efforts. The Public Ministry, however, remained in the organizational stages almost a year after its establishment, lacking economic resources and qualified lawyers to staff its offices. Rather than diminishing, the judicial backlog grew as the National Human Rights Commission and other human rights groups referred cases to the Public Ministry for investigation and prosecution.
Judicial reform was attempted including the replacement of incompetent, untrained judges (jueces de paz) with those educated in the law (jueces de letras); the removal of corrupt judges; and the depoliticization of the judiciary. Little progress, however, was actually made during the year.
Likewise, a commission of Supreme Court justices, members of congress, and attorneys from the Public Ministry undertook an overhaul of the antiquated Code of Criminal Procedure. A final draft of the reform, however, was unlikely to be presented to Congress for debate until the beginning of 1995, at the earliest. Human Rights Watch/Americas pressed for completion and ratification of the new legal code to improve the currently inefficient criminal justice system.
One of the most pervasive violations of basic human rights in Honduras was the blatant denial of justice for the thousands of prisoners trapped in the inefficient and unjust Honduran penal system. Of the more than 6,100 prisoners throughout the country, fewer than 700, or 12 percent, had been sentenced. Additionally, hundreds of prisoners had not even been registered or otherwise officially recognized.
Two exceptionally appalling cases demonstrated the deplorable inefficiency of the Honduran judicial system during 1994. Gustavo Adolfo Sierra, arrested in 1975 for theft and acquitted six months after his detention, spent seventeen years in prison because his release order (carta de libertad) was never processed. A government commission "discovered" him in April 1994 and subsequently secured his release. Hector Antonio Mendoza spent four years in the Central Penitentiary awaiting trial. Once his case was heard, he was deemed innocent of all charges. In the interim, Mendoza contracted the AIDS virus in prison.
The past year also saw developments in earlier cases of human rights violations. On February 2, 1994, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned Honduras for the 1988 double murder of Miguel Angel Pavón Salazar and Moisés Landaverde Recarte. (Pavón provided crucial testimony to the Inter-American Court on Human Rights against Honduras in the reknowned Angel Manfredo Velásquez and Saúl Godínez trials.) The commission instructed the Honduran government to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation to resolve the case, which had languished in a San Pedro Sula court for five years. More than five years after its condemnation by the Inter-American Court in the Velásquez and Godínez cases, the Honduran government had still not paid the full indemnizations owed the victims' families.
The 1993 headline trial of the rape and murder of Riccy Mabel Martínez, in which Colonel Angel Castillo Maradiaga became the first high-ranking officer in Honduras convicted of human rights abuses, was revisited in 1994. On April 4, an appeals court, citing irregularities and "procedural errors," annulled Castillo Maradiaga's sixteen-year sentence. After reviewing the evidence and correcting inconsistencies, the lower court reconfirmed the original sentence. The case returned to the appeals court for a final review.
FUSEP was implicated in numerous cases of human rights violations in 1994, underscoring the need for a professionally trained, independent police force. The case of Nicaraguan Juan Pablo Laguna Cruz demonstrated that forced disappearance by security forces was not exclusively an historical phenomenon. On December 11, 1993, seven FUSEP and DNI agents kidnapped and murdered Laguna Cruz, who was carrying U.S. $15,900 in transit to El Salvador, in El Paraíso in southern Honduras. Following an intensive investigation carried out by the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH) that made their continued denial implausible, the police, on January 19, 1994, finally admitted complicity in the robbery and murder.
In another disturbing incident in Puerto Lempira, Gracias a Dios, FUSEP agents detained Fernando Flores Salgado on August 11, 1994, for possession of a firearm. The agents then proceeded to torture him for three days, disfiguring his face with acid and attempting to drown him in a river. The local district attorney managed to free Salgado and presented the case before a criminal court in Puerto Lempira, where it remained pending at the time of this writing.
The torture of minors, and their illegal detention with adults, continued throughout 1994. In November 1993, five DNI agents illegally detained and mistreated three minors _ Denis David Osorto, Edwin Bonilla, and Iván Antonio Ponce _ for eight days at DNI headquarters in Tegucigalpa. On July 10, 1994, eight members of FUSEP illegally imprisoned the minor Mario René Enamorado Lara with adults at the First Squadron police station in Tegucigalpa where he was beaten by both the police and other prisoners. In one week in October 1994, FUSEP illegally detained and tortured at least twelve minors, as young as ten years old, jailing them with adults for periods exceeding twenty-four hours.
The extrajudicial execution of two former activists in late 1993 suggested the resurgence of political assassinations aimed at members of the Honduran left. Roger David Torres Vásquez, alias "Raulito," an ex-guerrilla with the Cinchonero Popular Liberation Movement, was shot six times at point-blank range by an unidentified assailant in a bus in San Pedro Sula. Rigoberto Quezada Figueroa, a former member of the Honduran Communist Party, was shot eleven times by two unidentified gunmen while stopped at a traffic light in a San Pedro intersection. In both cases, the gunmen took no possessions, discounting robbery as a motive.
Attacks on the indigenous population continued in 1994, with the murders in February and May of Dionisio Martínez and Rutilio Matute, eyewitnesses in the 1991 murder of Xicaque leader, Vicente Matute. In July over 3,000 members of the Honduran indigenous communities marched on the capital Tegucigalpa to demand respect for their rights. Ethnic leaders signed an historic accord with President Reina which promised among other points the investigation of the murders of twenty-three indigenous leaders. As of this writing, however, investigations had stalled and no one had been arrested for the Matute and Martínez murders, nor any of the previous cases.
The Right to Monitor
Human rights organizations in Honduras were permitted to organize legally and operate freely. The continued functioning and expansion of the official National Commission for Human Rights demonstrated the government's interest in human rights protection. Members from various human rights groups, however, suffered intimidation in 1993 and 1994. Beginning in October 1993, National Commissioner for Human Rights Leo Valladares Lanza, and his assistant, Jorge Valladares Valladares (no relation), received death threats on numerous occasions in connection with their work on The Facts Speak for Themselves. COFADEH was also targeted for intimidation. Death threats were left in the group's offices, its members were surreptitiously followed, and an unidentified man threatened Berta Oliva de Nativí, its director, and her children.
After the end of hostilities in the region in 1990-91, U.S. policy in Honduras shifted dramatically. While U.S. policy in the 1980s focused on bolstering the government through massive military aid, despite its flagrant human rights violations, policy in the 1990s sought to strengthen existing democratic institutions. Current goals include subordination of the military and police to civilian authority and promotion of trade and anti-narcotics programs. Unfortunately, in 1994 the Clinton administration was unable or unwilling to assign the resources necessary to achieve these goals.
Honduras, once a major aid recipient, had not received military assistance since 1992 and for fiscal year 1995, the only grant it received was $325,000 for military training. The country, however, has $15.2 million in residual military aid from previous fiscal years, of which $5.3 million remained unallocated, restricted by U.S. legislation pending payment of arrears to the International Monetary Fund and other foreign lending institutuions. Human Rights Watch/Americas recommended that the Clinton adminstration re-channel this military aid to the professionalization of the new Directorate of Civilian Investigation (DIC) and other democratic reforms.
Though largely accurate with regard to human rights abuses committed by Honduran officials, the State Department's Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1993 for Honduras had little on policy and grossly denied any implicit U.S. involvement in the disappearances of the 1980s. The report alleged that Dr. Valladares "included in his report [The Facts Speak for Themselves] unsubstantiated material from news articles from the 1980's which claimed that U.S. advisers...may have known of and tolerated the disappearances." This comment was particularly reprehensible given the wealth of available information, including statements by both Honduran and U.S. officials, documenting the close relationship between the U.S. and Battalion 3-16.
The U.S. Agency for International Development worked closely with the Supreme Court to train and replace incompetent judges and the Inspector General's office to help eliminate corruption. The Immigration and Naturalization Service and Drug Enforcement Agency also offered to advise and assist with the transfer of immigration and anti-narcotics operations to civilian authority. Perhaps most important, in conjunction with other U.S. government agencies, the International Criminal Investigative Training and Assistance Program (ICITAP), administered by the Department of Justice, conducted a series of three-week training sessions for the new DIC detectives.
The U.S. failed to support the Reina administration's reforms at a critical juncture. In addition to the ICITAP seminars, the Honduran government had requested further training and assistance for the new DIC. Had the State Department provided sufficent funding for the DIC it could have helped Honduras seize the unprecedented opportunity to replace the corrupt and abusive DNI with a professional unit under civilian authority.
Likewise, the administration dragged its feet on accountability. In December 1993, Human Rights Commissioner Valladares called on the Clinton administration to declassify documents that could help Honduras identify and prosecute those responsible for the disappearances reported in The Facts Speak for Themselves. Despite assurances that it would comply with Valladares's request, the administration delayed declassification of the documents, claiming that the financial burden would be too great.
The Work of
Human Rights Watch/Americas
Human Rights Watch/Americas sought to further the reform efforts of the current administration, while protesting continuing human rights abuses. In conjunction with the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), Human Rights Watch/Americas continued to press the Honduran government to comply with the Inter-American Court on Human Rights's ruling that it pay the full indemnization owed the families of Angel Manfredo Velásquez and Saúl Godínez Cruz.
In July, Human Rights Watch/Americas released the English translation of the Valladares report, The Facts Speak for Themselves, published jointly with CEJIL. Human Rights Watch/Americas, in conjunction with Valladares, lobbied the Clinton administration to declassify documents that could help Honduras identify and prosecute those responsible for the disappearances of the 1980s. In addition, a Human Rights Watch/Americas researcher conducted a fact-finding mission to Honduras in September to monitor recent efforts to improve human rights in Honduras.