Honduras: Violence targets left ahead of elections

Supporters of LIBRE party.

Candidates from the left-wing Freedom and Refoundation (LIBRE) party, their families and campaign leaders have suffered more killings and armed attacks since May last year than all other political parties in Honduras combined, an October 21 report by Canadian-based Rights Action has found.

LIBRE was formed by opponents of the military coup that overthrew president Manuel Zelaya in a 2009. The disproportionate number of killings of LIBRE candidates seems a clear indication that many of the killings have been politically motivated.

As the November 24 general elections approach, a discussion of human rights violations is paramount in understanding the political context in which the elections will take place.

LIBRE targeted

The Rights Action report is intended to promote that discussion by providing a list of killings and armed attacks against candidates, party and campaign leaders, and their families since May last year. The purpose is to draw attention to the context of violence, insecurity and apparently politically motivated killings taking place before the elections.

Although the list is undoubtedly incomplete, the report found that, out of 36 killings that have been suffered by all parties, 18 were directed at LIBRE. Of 24 armed attacks, 15 have been directed at LIBRE.

In other words, LIBRE party pre-candidates, candidates, their families and campaign leaders have suffered more killings and armed attacks than all other political parties combined.

These incomplete results highlight the terror, violence and impunity in which the elections will take place. Regardless of the political affiliations of the victims, it remains unclear how “clean, credible, and reliable” elections on November 24, as US Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske has called for, can occur.

Historic context

Honduras has maintained a two-party political system for decades. However, in the wake of the June 28, 2009 military coup, a strong new political force emerged, the National Front for Popular Resistance (FNRP, which sought to oppose the coup through peaceful means.

After Zelaya returned to Honduras, the FNRP decided to take part in this year’s elections. For the first time in modern Honduran history, a major third political party was created: LIBRE.

There are eight presidential candidates taking part, including LIBRE’s Xiomara Castro de Zelaya. The elections will involve nine political parties.

Though President Porfirio Lobo's post-coup regime has been promoted internationally as a government of “unity and national reconciliation”, it includes none of the key actors forcibly removed from power during the 2009 coup.

The Canadian and United States government, as well as the European Union, have backed the Lobo government’s false claims of reconciliation and unity.

Lobo's term in office has been marked by unprecedented levels of violence: Honduras today has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, coupled with a high impunity rate.

The Lobo government has tried to persuade the international community that it is taking effective action against the country's rampant violence — as Honduran Vice-President Maria Antonieta Guillen tried to do at the United Nations General Assembly on September 27.

But such attempts have been followed by continued massacres and killings in Honduran streets and the on-going systematic targeting of political opponents and social activists.

Since the 2009 coup, international human rights groups, including the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, the UN Human Rights Commission, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, have noted gross human rights abuses. These have particularly targeted certain sectors of Honduran society, such as lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders and opponents of the post-coup military regime.

Crucial elections

The elections will take place in an on-going context of gross human rights abuses committed by the Lobo government and the five-month de facto government of Roberto Micheletti that preceded it in 2009.

A lot weighs on the results of the elections, whether it is the US government and OAS hoping for a seemingly clean, democratic poll, or sympathisers of the LIBRE party, hoping for a transformation of Honduran society along the lines of the FNRP’s principles.

Honduran society has been polarised by the coup and its repercussions over the past four years. On one side are those hoping to change the status quo and reject the political and economic interests behind the 2009 coup — largely the FNRP and the LIBRE party.

On the other side are those perpetrated or supported the coup and hope to maintain the status quo — largely business elites, the two traditional political parties (the National and Liberal parties) and its allies.

This list of those killed or attacked is undoubtedly incomplete. It relies almost entirely upon reports from the Honduran media, which generally under-reports human rights abuses and are likely to under-report politically motivated violence.

The list lacks background and circumstantial details regarding each case. It also does not include reports of politically motivated attacks in the form of death threats, attempted kidnappings, persecution, criminalisation and attacks often classified by the Honduran state and Honduran National Police as “common crime”.

It also does not include individuals that are not candidates or regional party leaders, but may have been deeply involved in the campaigning. It does, however, include killings of, and attacks on, family members and campaign activists, which are a less visible manifestation of political violence.

Without a doubt, many other cases are not documented because the victims and their family members, for fear of persecution, have not come forward to publically denounce the attacks.

Bertha Oliva, a prominent Honduran human rights defender at the Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared (COFADEH), has noted that there has been significant under-reporting of politically-motivated attacks and murders of LIBRE activists due to fear of further persecution.

Impunity

The Honduran judicial authorities' failure to carry out investigations of these cases appears to stem in part from a lack of political will.

This makes it impossible for family members, the victims and human rights groups to understand the reasons and roots of the armed attacks and killings. Without a proper investigation it is difficult to determine which attacks had political motives.

However, the failure of authorities to investigate, accompanied by the targeting of political opponents — as major international human rights groups have noted of the Honduran state — raise further doubt that these killings are simply “common crime”.

Some of the victims who appear on this list have been deeply involved in social movements, such as: Antonio Trejo, lawyer for the land rights movement and candidate for the Broad Front of Political and Electoral Resistance (FAPER); Erick Martinez, LGBTI activist and congressional pre-candidate for LIBRE; and Joni Rivas, Congressional candidate for LIBRE and leader of the United Campesino Movement of the Aguan.

The attacks against these individuals may also be related to their involvement in human rights and social justice causes. In these cases, the relationship between social issues they championed and their electoral participation are inextricably related, though it adds another degree of complexity to the attacks.

An extra complex subject of debate is the role that drug-related crime may play in some of these attacks.

These accusations have surfaced, for example, in relation to the assassination attempts reported against current mayor and candidate for re-election for the National Party in Jutiapa, Atlantida, Noe Guardado Rivera.

Attempts against Guardado reportedly began many months before the electoral campaign was launched, with a total of five reported attacks. Guardado claims he has charged police officials with slander for statements associating the attacks with trafficking.

Similarly complex is the situation in San Esteban, Olancho, where Liberal Party congressperson Fredy Najera was charged on October 11 last year with the murder of National Party member Claudio Mendez Acosta.

In August, Najera was absolved in court, arguing he was incapable of carrying out the attack as he had been injured in an attack that killed fellow Liberal Party candidate Gerson Orlando Benitez on October 6. Just a few days before this, Liberal Party vice-mayor candidate in San Esteban, Carlos Padilla Guillen, was murdered.

The intent of the incomplete list is to encourage a discussion of the circumstances in which the Honduran elections will occur. To date, there has clearly been a disproportionate number of killings and attempted killings targeting LIBRE candidates.

A thorough investigation of each case is a difficult, if not impossible, task before November 24. But Rights Action hopes this incomplete list raises significant questions about how democratic and fair voting and election campaigning can be held in a context of on-going terror, violence and impunity affecting candidates and their families throughout the country.

[For more information, visit Rights Action.]


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