Killing of activists and violence against social leaders and Garifuna members continue across Honduras
Two social leaders killed in one weekend alone, while violence spreads in the Bajo Aguán region
On 23rd September, Pech Indigenous community leader Juana María Martínez and her companion were killed in the Olancho Department, eastern Honduras. She was a local leader of entrepreneurship projects who was dedicated to working on behalf of the Pech, actively participating in assemblies of Indigenous organisations. As reported by InterReligious Task Force on Central America (IRTF), a Cleveland-based interfaith group that promotes peace and human rights in Central America and Colombia, this lethal attack followed the killings of at least two other Indigenous defenders, Amilcar Vieda and Naún Ismael Chacón in May 2023.
A day later, peasant leader José David Fortín was fatally shot by two unknown individuals in Trujillo, Colón Department, northern Honduras. Fortín was the secretary general of the “Campesino Agropecuaria Cooperative Tarros Limited” and was a member of the board of the community and local emergency committees (CODEL), which a few years ago provided support to the population during floods in Trujillo.
In July 2023, Fortín reported threats against him to the Prosecutor’s Office, but these were disregarded. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Honduras condemned this murder and urged the Honduran authorities to ensure a rapid, thorough and impartial investigation and prosecution, as well as to address the structural issues that are rooted in the region’s longstanding conflict.
The Platform of Popular Organisations of the Aguán (Coordinadora de Organizaciones Populares del Aguán, COPA) highlighted that Fortín had denounced the involvement of politicians in the large-scale and violent dispossession of agrarian reform lands in the 1990s. Similarly, human rights organisations declared that this murder is part of a series of systematic attacks allegedly perpetrated by actors linked to extractive projects and agroindustry, aimed at dispossessing land and intimidating the organised people in the Bajo Aguán region.
The land and environmental conflicts in Bajo Aguán have been active for many years and it is considered one of the most deadly regions in the country. Despite the agreement signed between the government, organisation Plataforma Agraria and COPA in February 2022, which seeks a lasting solution to the violence against peasant communities, this region has been particularly affected by violence.
Water defender from the Guapinol community killed
On 15th June, water defender Óscar Oquelí Domínguez was killed in the community of Guapinol. Oquelí was the brother of environmentalist Aly Domínguez, who had resisted a mining project and been killed five months earlier. As reported in January 2023 by the CIVICUS Monitor, environmental defenders Aly Domínguez and Jairo Bonilla were shot and killed in broad daylight by unidentified gunmen. They were both members of the Guapinol community in Tocoa, Colón department, where dozens of people have faced harassment, criminalisation and violence for their resistance to a mining project.
According to the Association for International Cooperation (Espacio ACI), the murder of Oquelí took place in a context of severe harassment just a few days after the announcement of the suspension of operations and the dismissal of 700 employees by the mining company.
The Guapinol community and other communities of Tocoa have faced continued attacks for peacefully questioning the legality of a mining project in the Carlos Escaleras National Park. More than 220 organisations denounced the murder of Oquelí and demanded justice for his family and the human rights defenders in Honduras:
The murder of Oquelí Domínguez follows an increase in threats against the defenders of the Municipal Committee in Defense of Common and Public Goods. The Committee has expressed its concern to the corresponding national protection bodies, but to date, the Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Honduras has not assumed a role to guarantee and prevent the risk in the conflict zone. -
Arbitrary detention of Garifuna social leader
On 31st August, the Police Investigation Department (Dirección Policial de Investigación, DPI) in Trujillo, Colón Department, arbitrarily detained the Garifuna social leader, Milton Zapata, while he attended at the DPI in response to a summons. According to Caleb Navarro, the lawyer for the Black Fraternal Organisation of Honduras (Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña, OFRANEH), the formal summons did not clarify whether Zapata would be appearing as a suspect or a witness. OFRANEH members have denounced abuse of authority and due process violations.
On the same day, he was accused of the offence of usurpation and was conditionally discharged with precautionary measures. These measures include refraining from approaching the allegedly usurped property, avoiding contact with the alleged victim, remaining within the country, and appearing at the Trujillo Court every 15 and 30 days to sign the mandatory documents. On 12th September 2023, the Trujillo Court provisionally discontinued the case.
OFRANEH’s lawyer expressed his concerns that this case adds to the 33 cases that the Public Prosecutor’s Office has already brought against the Garifuna community located in the Trujillo area. According to Indigenous organisations, Zapata’s arbitrary detention was likely related to his work defending ancestral lands in Trujillo Bay.
El racismo insertado en el poder judicial, actúa de nuevo en la Bahía de Trujillo. Milton Zapata criminalizado por la defensa del territorio ancestral de la Comunidad Garífuna de San Antonio, Colón pic.twitter.com/RsSA2At0Pv— ofraneh (@ofraneh) September 1, 2023
Threats and attacks against OFRANEH members
On 19th September, at least four unknown men were detected near the home of Miriam Miranda, OFRANEH’s national coordinator, according to the National Network of Human Rights Defenders in Honduras.
Members of Miranda’s security team demanded that the individuals identify themselves, but the men were armed with assault rifles and subsequently fled without doing so, stating that they would return soon to “finish the deal”. Civil society organisations have denounced the persecution and threats against the lives of the OFRANEH’s leaders for defending their territory, common goods and ancestral cultures.
Only a week later, on 25th September, Norma Lino and other OFRANEH members were attacked by three armed men in Puerta Castilla, Garifuna territory. According to Frontline Defenders, the attackers shot indiscriminately and wounded the defender and her colleagues, one of them a minor.
The wounded people went to the hospital to receive medical attention and then went to the National Police of Trujillo to file a complaint. The police said that the complaint would not proceed for attempted murder but for threats, even though there are previous episodes with the same perpetrator. On 27th September, the Human Rights Secretary in Honduras, Natalie Roque Sandoval, condemned this attack and urged a prompt investigation.
Atacan brutalmente el día de ayer, a miembros de la comunidad garifuna de Castilla, entre ellas defensora del territorio , Norma Lino y otros compañeros mas. hecho acontecido en la recuperación de tierras en antigua sede de Intermares#NoViolenciaContraDefensores pic.twitter.com/mVVngJv8DI— ofraneh (@ofraneh) September 26, 2023
According to OHCHR in Honduras, since 2021, two out of every ten victims of attacks against human rights defenders are members of the Garifuna community. As reported by the Latin America Bureau (LAB), a web-platform for independent news about Latin America, the Garifuna people have been impacted, among other factors, by illegal activities in Colón:
“Colón is one of the most prominent drug corridors in Honduras and home to Los Cachiros, a criminal organisation that, at its peak, was responsible for 90 per cent of Honduran drug trafficking. The impact of illegal activities has been particularly pronounced in villages inhabited by the Garifuna people, many of whom have seen their land dispossessed by criminal groups, adding fuel to the ongoing conflict.”
Attack against environmental defender
On 15th September, four unknown people fired 22 shots at the home of environmental defender José Ramiro Lara Zavala in Santa Rosa de Copán, western Honduras. He was not wounded despite the bullets being shot through the window of the room where he was sleeping. According to the Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (Red de Organizaciones No Gubernamentales de Honduras, ASONG), Ramiro has been denouncing the mass deforestation causing a water crisis for communities near El Carrizal, Copán.
National and international organisations condemned the attack. For example, the OHCHR in Honduras urged the Honduras State to ensure the safety of Ramiro and his family and to conduct a prompt and thorough investigation into the circumstances.
LGBTQI+ activist found dead
On 22nd September, the National Police reported the murder of Soraya Álvarez in Comayagüela, within the Metropolitan Area of Tegucigalpa. The individual responsible for the killing was apprehended at the scene. Álvarez was a dedicated activist from her youth onwards and a member of the transgender organisation known as Rainbow Dolls (Muñecas de Arcoiris). In 2016, she was the victim of an assault by police officers, leading to her being granted protective measures by the National Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. However, these measures were later withdrawn.
The OHCHR in Honduras condemned this killing and called on the Honduran authorities to investigate and punish those responsible, as well as ensure the protection of her family and organisation.
Human rights organisations have warned of an escalation of violence against the LGBTQI+ collective. The Observatory of the Violence of the Lesbian Cattrachas Network reported that Álvarez is the 40th victim of murder so far in 2023 and the 11th transgender person killed in the country this year. In addition, the Mesoamerican Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders (IM-Defensoras) declared that the killing of Álvarez is a tragic reminder of the risks that human rights defenders face in Honduras, highlighting the imperative for the government to take measures to respect their rights and their safety.
Protest against sex education law, seeking to counter gender and sexual equality
On 22nd July, protesters marched in Honduras’ major cities to protest against “gender ideology” and the implementation of the Comprehensive Education Integral Prevention of Adolescent Pregnancy Law (Ley de Educación Integral de Prevención al Embarazo Adolescente). In March 2023, the National Congress approved this law aimed to create comprehensive sexual education curricula, preventing adolescent pregnancies.
The march was organised by the Movement for Our Children (Movimiento por Nuestros Hijos) and protesters had placards with “Defend the original design of the family” and “We are all pro-life”. They also shouted anti-law chants, saying that the measure would “destroy the family”. Members of the Catholic and evangelical churches also participated, "We are here to raise our voices against gender ideology, and we urge President Castro not to sign the Comprehensive Education Integral Prevention of Adolescent Pregnancy Law," said Archbishop Miguel Lenihan of San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city in the country.
Since the approval of the law, conservative groups have been opposing it, claiming that it pushes “gender ideology”. As a result, in June, the United Nations in Honduras expressed concern about disinformation campaigns surrounding this law, promoting hateful messages and incitement. After the pressure from the conservative groups, on 29th July, President Castro vetoed the law.
Women’s organisations have rejected this veto, saying that it is essential to provide young people with accurate knowledge about sex and sexuality to avoid adolescent pregnancy. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), one in four births is to a girl under 19 years of age in Honduras, giving the country the second-highest teenage pregnancy rate in Latin America.
On 19th August, 20,000 people took to the streets of the Honduran capital in a peaceful anti-government protest against President Xiomara Castro, to demand solutions to rising prices, unemployment, healthcare shortages and insecurity. They also accused her of seeking to implement “communism” by promoting Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua.
The protest was called by the recently formed Citizen Opposition Block (Bloque de Oposición Ciudadana, BOC), composed of the three main conservative parties in the country: National Party (Partido Nacional), Honduran Patriotic Alliance (Alianza Patriótica Hondureña), and the Salvador of Honduras (Partido Salvador de Honduras), as well as civil society organisations.
According to the BOC, in just 19 months of government, Castro’s administration has fallen to a staggering 85% disapproval rating. Castro won the 2021 general elections with over 51% of votes, in an election with a participation rate of almost 70% of eligible voters. In January 2022, she became the first woman in the country to sit on the presidential chair. Her left-wing political party, Liberty and Refoundation (Libertad y Refundación, Libre) came back to power after 12 years of rule by the National Party, marked by electoral fraud and the infiltration of organised crime in the state.
Nurses across the country strike
On 18th September, nurses went on strike in several cities across the country calling for improved staffing and rejecting the creation of a technical university degree in nursing, as it would duplicate their functions, according to the Honduran Association of Nursing Auxiliaries (Asociación de Enfermeras Auxiliares de Honduras, ANEEAH).
With banners and slogans and holding the Honduran flag, members of ANEEAH peacefully took to the streets in different cities across the country. The protests disrupted traffic for several hours, causing severe congestion and delaying the transportation of goods and services in the main cities. Health centres were also affected, as many Hondurans were not attended to due to the lack of personnel to perform the functions of the nursing assistants.
The representative of ANEEAH, Glenda Cruz, said that they want to be heard by the National Service Civil Directory, “who has us in this precarious situation. Currently, 30 hospitals nationwide are in informative assemblies in all three shifts, without neglecting critical areas that we always care for. “
@edntvhn La Asociación de enfermeras y enfermeros auxiliares de Honduras intensificó las acciones de protesta con toma de carreteras a las que se han sumado los centros de salud, mientras servicio civil y la SESAL insisten en que no se ha creado un perfil para un técnico universitario. #EDNTV #Honduras #Noticias #huelga #protesta #salud #enfermeras #tomas ♬ sonido original - EDN TV HN
Threats and smear campaigns against journalists
On 1st August, the Mayor of Choluteca sent a letter to the journalist Wendy Funes, founder of Investigative Reporters (Reporteros de Investigación), an online newspaper, accusing her of committing a criminal offence after she published a report on 27th July 2023. This report disclosed the alleged implication of public officials in trafficking undocumented migrants in the southern region of Honduras. On 31st July, the online newspaper experienced a cyber-attack that took down the report. The Office for Mexico and Central America's Article 19 called upon the government of Honduras to protect and bring an end to the intimidation, stigmatisation, criminalisation and threat of judicial persecution against free and critical press in the country.
A month earlier, six press freedom organisations rejected the attacks and smear campaigns against journalists and human rights defenders in Honduras. In particular, they highlighted the case of journalist Funes, who, due to her investigative reporting on narcopolitics, corruption, and her critical opinion on the security measures taken by the government of President Xiomara Castro, has been subjected to smear campaigns and intimidation:
“In ARTICLE 19's quarterly analyses on the state of freedom of expression, it has been evidenced how campaigns of discredit against independent journalists are already an established strategy in Central American governments to silence critical voices that exercise independent journalism and in favour of human rights.”
In another case, towards the end of August 2023, individuals purportedly connected to the Mayor of Choluteca allegedly threatened and launched a smear campaign against journalist and lawyer Selvin Jonás Euceda Ordoñez. Euceda reported to the Committee for Freedom of Expression (C-Libre) that unknown individuals stole private content from his phone and disseminated it on social media to discredit his work as a journalist. He also stated he received audio threats warning him against continuing to “bother” the Mayor of Choluteca.