Women human rights defenders are targets of threats and attacks in Honduras


Garifuna human rights defender killed

On 12th October 2019, land rights defender María Digna Montero was murdered at her home in the indigenous and afro-descendent Garifuna community of Cuzuna, Colón department. According to reports, unidentified assailants shot her several times in her backyard and then fled on a motorcycle. María Digna was a kindergarten teacher and a member of the Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña (National Black Fraternal Organisation of Honduras - OFRANEH) Intercultural Bilingual Education working group. This killing, which took place on the Day of Indigenous Resistance, was seen by human rights organisations as a warning to those who dare to question the system.

In 2019, sixteen Garifuna people have been killed, six of whom were women who were killed between September and October. OFRANEH has denounced the fact that the authorities have yet to open an investigation into these crimes. Human rights organisations IM-Defensoras and Red Nacional de Defensoras de Derechos Humanos in Honduras condemned this inaction and the treatment of the case by media outlets that displayed photos of the defender’s body in a way considered disrespectful, racist and re-victimising. On 5th November 2019, OFRANEH protested the continuous violence against the Garifuna people.

Union leader killed

On 16th November 2019, union leader Jorge Alberto Acosta was shot and killed in a billiard parlour in La Lima, Cortés department. He was a leader of Sindicato de Trabajadores de La Tela Railroad Company (Union of Tela Railroad Company Workers – SITRATERCO), which represents Chiquita banana workers and is reportedly the oldest union in Honduras. Along with other unionists, Acosta had previously received death threats and been subjected to attacks for his labour rights advocacy. The Honduran Human Rights Secretariat called for an investigation into this murder and stated that Acosta had been granted precautionary measures from the national protection mechanism. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) also urged the Honduran State to conduct a prompt and independent investigation to find, prosecute and punish those responsible for the violent crime.

Attack and intimidation of defenders

On 9th November 2019, LGBTQ activist Alejandra Vega was physically and verbally attacked in San Pedro Sula, Cortés department. Alejandra is currently a project coordinator of the Asociación Feminista Trans (Trans Feminist Association - AFET) and a member of the Coalition against Impunity. She had to be admitted to intensive care after this assault. As reported by IM-Defensoras, during the attack the aggressor made explicit references to the human rights defender’s activism and her gender status.

On 12th November 2019, human rights defenders Mirtha Gutierrez, Angélica Álvarez, José Herrera and lawyer Allan Alvárenga were subjected to police harassment. The human rights defenders were at the home of Mirtha and Angélica when they noticed a group of five military police officers outside the house. According to IM-Defensoras, the officers remained outside for approximately 30 minutes, jangling their handcuffs with the apparent intent to make a noise. When one of the defenders went out to ask them what they were doing, they said “patrolling.” The week before, Mirtha and Angélica had participated in a press conference to denounce corruption and the government’s repressive policies.

Berta Cáceres killers sentenced

On 2nd December 2019, the seven men convicted for the killing of environmental and indigenous defender Berta Cáceres received sentences from 30 to 50 years in jail. During the case, the court found that the murder was ordered by executives of the Agua Zarca dam company Desa because the protests led by Berta had caused delays and financial losses. While family members and supporters have welcomed the decision, they have also highlighted that the intellectual authors and financiers of the killing are still immune. Bertita Zúñiga, Berta’s daughter, told The Guardian:

“From the outset, the path to justice has been painful, as our rights as victims have not been respected. These sentences are a start in breaking the impunity, but we’re going to make every effort to ensure that all those responsible – the company executives and state officials identified in the trial – are prosecuted.”

Peaceful Assembly

In October 2019, anti-government protesters organised several demonstrations demanding the resignation of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández while supporters came out onto the streets in favour of Hernández. The protests were mobilised after Hernandez’s younger brother was convicted of drug trafficking in a New York court, with witnesses who implicated the president in illegal activity.

On 10th October 2019, an anti-government protest in a park in Tegucigalpa was repressed with tear gas. On 24th October 2019, another demonstration was repressed by the police with tear gas and water cannons. According to news reports, once the police used tear gas to disperse protesters, some protesters began to block streets with burning tyres and to break windows of some commercial establishments in the city centre. The opposition has announced a campaign of civil disobedience until Hernández leaves power.

Thousands of pro-government demonstrators also joined marches to show their support for the current administration. According to news reports, several people from different parts of Honduras travelled to Tegucigalpa for a march that gathered around 7000 people on 20th October 2019.


Killing of journalists

On 1st November 2019, two unidentified individuals shot and killed journalist Buenaventura Calderón and his wife, Maribel Bolian. Local newspapers reported that the couple were arriving at their home in Puerto Lempira when unidentified attackers shot at them from a motorcycle. Buenaventura hosted the daily news programme Ecos de Mosquitia on Kupia Kumi radio, in which he reportedly often criticised local authorities, denounced corruption and highlighted impunity in drug trafficking related cases. He was also a businessman and represented opposition party Partido Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) in the Gracias a Dios department. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged the Honduran authorities to thoroughly investigate this murder and determine whether it was linked to Buenaventura’s reporting.

On 25th November 2019, journalist José Arita was shot and killed by two unidentified individuals in the city of Puerto Cortés. The killing took place shortly after the journalist left the offices of television station Puerto Visión de Canal 12, where he had been recording his broadcast. According to reports, Arita had briefly stopped at a convenience store and was walking to his car when four unidentified men shot him and fled. Arita was the host of nightly show La Hora de la Verdad (The Hour of Truth), a late-night commentary programme where he discussed local politics in Puerto Cortés. However, an anonymous source told CPJ that Arita had never mentioned receiving threats and that he was well known in the town for his involvement in charity projects.CPJ also reported that the police have not discarded the possibility that his assassination was linked to his journalistic work.

Other freedom of expression developments

The Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) published a statement asserting that Honduras’ draft National Cybersecurity Law attacks freedom of the press and expression. IAPA urged the National Congress of Honduras to repeal the law, arguing that it violates international standards and principles of freedom of expression in the digital age. Experts have said that the law is ambiguous in regard to defamation, introduces censorship measures and imposes obligations on website managers. The Colegio de Periodistas de Honduras (Honduran Association of Journalists - CPH), the Asociación de Medios de Comunicación (Media Association - AMC) and other civil society organisations in the country also reject the draft legislation.

On 2nd November 2019, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras (OHCHR) expressed deep concern at the criminalisation, persecution and impunity affecting journalists and the media in Honduras. In 2019, organisations defending free expression registered more than a hundred alerts for attacks against the press and against people practising journalism. Incidents documented include judicial persecution through lawsuits, attacks with tear gas, physical persecution, destruction of journalistic equipment or arbitrary arrests during the coverage of protests. In their statement, OHCHR recalled that attacks on social communicators, journalists and the media are attacks on freedom of expression, and a limitation of the right to information for society as a whole, as well as a violation of human rights.