Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 192 | Julio 1997



Popular Pressure In a Sea of Violence

Social discontent has exploded throughout the country. The people organize, make demands and quicken the government’s turtle-like pace. In the background is an organized crime ring ever more organized and more dangerous.

Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC) of Honduras

From the first day of April to the last, Honduras experienced constant mobilizations in various zones which, though not coordinated, all expressed a growing social discontent. The malaise began in the western department of Santa Barbara, where hundreds of residents from some eighty rural communities took over a major highway to protest the government's failure to implement various community works that had been promised during the presidential election campaign. The occupation ended when government officials again pledged to fulfill their promises.

One day later, 300 people from the poor and constantly protesting neighborhood of Canán in the capital, together with the Honduran Action for Peace Committee (COHAPAZ), demonstrated against the Commerce Secretariat for its failure to comply with the Social Pact agreed to several months ago by politicians and business and union leaders. One of the pact's main points had to do with price controls on the basic market basket. The protestors demanded immediate price stabilization, since prices shot up 6% just in the first four months of the year. That increase was not as steep as last year, but was enough to worsen the already difficult situation facing the majority of Hondurans.

Throw them all in Jail?

On April 17, peasant organizations marched through the capital to protest both the neoliberal economic model and the repressive anti-peasant reforms established in the new penal code. The National Congress spent months debating this code, which is much more severe than the old one, particularly its punishment for land invasions, highway occupations and street protests.

The Coordinating Council of Peasant Organizations of Honduras (COCOCH) pointed out that the government has reformed the penal code to avoid uprisings and protests by workers and peasants in light of the neoliberal policy's failure. The architect of the reforms, Guatema Fonseca, is known in Honduran circles for his role as a friend and adviser to peasants in other times. According to them he has now turned into an authoritarian oppressor.

With the new penal code, crimes such as land usurpation and street protests carry severe fines and are not subject to bail. Supreme Court justice Marco Tulio Alvarado says of the situation that "if a new court processing code is not also approved very quickly, the jails will be glutted." Even without new overcrowding, the penitentiary system in Honduras, as in the rest of Central America, is already so inadequate as to be inhuman.

At the end of the month, some 300 residents of Tepusteca, in the rich agricultural region of the Aguán Valley in Yoro, took over the highway that provides access to the Standard Fruit Company's farms. In the last five years this transnational corporation has bought up thousands of hectares of fertile land belonging to the peasant cooperatives that grew out of the agrarian reform. The former cooperative members turned to protest to demand fair payment for their lands and fulfillment of the promises that the transnational had made at the time of buying their properties. According to the protesters, they were won over with trickery and false promises of help for community development.

Trouble in Paradise

The social discontent also exploded on the other side of the country at the same time. On April 28, some 800 residents of El Paraíso, seat of the department of the same name, took over the regional highway leading to Nicaragua to demand that the government repave it; it has been in bad condition for over three years. The action was supported by the whole town, including the chamber of commerce, the coffee growers and cattle ranchers, the transport workers, the educational sector and the Catholic Church.

The situation worsened the following day, when some of the protestors also occupied various governmental offices to express their discontent with the inoperative government institutions. Several demonstrators were jailed.

The next day, April 30, a pitched battle broke out between the demonstrators and about a hundred police and army members. Two civilians were killed and various people on both sides were wounded. The indignant protestors headed for the police station, which they showered with stones and bricks. Fearing for their lives, the 60 police officers quickly left town. Their withdrawal unleashed a spate of vandalism in which the police station was sacked and burned. The demonstrators also torched the police post near the border crossing into Las Manos, Nicaragua. The local parish priest, who had supported the protest, said he was grieved by the events, since they occurred just as agreements were beginning to be reached with the authorities.

The town of El Paraíso was without police for the whole first half of May, so residents organized vigilance committees under the direction of a "Citizens' Security Council" to guard commercial establishments and banks against crime. The groups even imposed a curfew.

In mid-May, the social forces and the regional police put an end to the crisis. The population agreed to rebuild the two burned police posts, so that 20 agents could then be sent back to the city. Meanwhile, the Citizens' Council continued its patrols.

The inhabitants of El Paraíso had been peacefully requesting the highway repair for several years. But two people had to die, dozens had to be wounded and great disorder had to be created to force the Secretariat of Public Works, Transport and Housing to start work on it the day following the disturbances.

Such long delays in tending to such basic and easily resolved problems as this one show the inefficiency and inoperativeness of the government bureaucracy. The events confirmed to the nation that without grassroots pressure, sometimes even violent pressure, demands are not heard. The sad lesson was that the only fuel that gets the government moving at more than a snail's pace is blood.

Ten Kidnappings in a Row

Before being pushed out of his position as head of the armed forces and into exile last year, General Luis Alonso Discua warned that after him would come the kidnappings. He was right.

Between July 1996 and April 1997 a rash of kidnappings occurred in the northwestern zone of the country, particularly in the Sula Valley. The victims include business leaders and big landowners and their children. Most of the kidnappings were professionally executed.

The kidnappers' fundamental objective has been millions in ransom. In several cases the family maintained total silence and dealt directly with the kidnappers, while the Criminal Investigation Department (DIC) could only speculate about what had happened. In the first eight cases the individuals were released relatively unharmed, but the ninth one was different. After two weeks of fruitlessly searching for a young businessman named Ricardo Saybe who was whisked away during Holy Week, his body was found at the bottom of a river tied to a heavy piece of vehicle metal. The DIC claimed that it could have been a revenge killing between economic groups involved in illegal businesses.

The Tenth Kidnapping

The tenth in the chain of reported kidnappings, which occurred on April 23, sparked indignation in Honduran society, particularly in San Pedro Sula, culminating in the call for a Civic March for Peace on May 6.

The victim, son of Ricardo Maduro Joest, the businessman and banker who ran the Central Bank during the Callejas administration, suffered serious gunshot wounds during the kidnapping. His body was found 36 hours later in a pasture a mile or so outside of San Pedro Sula, after a man called in a tip to Radio América.

A few days before Ricardo Maduro Jr.'s death, San Pedro Sula's bourgeoisie, never expecting the crime wave to become so brazen, had threatened to close their businesses if there were any further kidnappings. Bus since the kidnappings had now touched the wealthiest economic sector in Honduran society, the reaction of the business leaders went beyond the threat of a peaceful business strike. They decided to go into the streets, together with other sectors, to demand that government security forces quickly and severely clamp down on crime.

The business community led the huge May 6 march, supported by San Pedro Sula's workers, churchgoers and students, to proclaim their right to security and demand that public safety be reestablished in that northern coastal area. According to Anael Pérez Suazo, the local police chief, his forces are helpless in the face of the kidnappings. He claims there is no way to prevent or counteract them, since they are what he calls "a criminal modality that has been generalized in all of Central America and in the world." Although Pérez Suazo denied that any police formed part of the bands of kidnappers in Honduras, many people hypothesize that members of the armed forces could be involved, even if not the police force itself.

The same day as the march, the Human Rights Committee in Honduras (CODEH) requested an investigation of several active military officers presumed to be members of criminal bands operating in the country. CODEH charged that various members of the military, trained as Special Operational Commandos, and apparently under the command of Colonel Aníbal Burgos Moya, had participated in the kidnapping of businesspeople and in other assaults and similar crimes. This elite group is reportedly a continuation of the infamous counterinsurgency Battalion 3-16 which appears to be operating in the corridor that runs between Santa Rosa de Copán and La Ceiba, which includes Yoro, Atlántida and Cortés. The members of this group, according to CODEH, were trained by Israelis between 1982 and 1984 in assault techniques, hostage rescue, kidnapping, urban counterinsurgency operations, explosives and demolition. CODEH leader Ramón Custodio suggested that this group may have participated in the kidnapping and death of Maduro. General Mario Hung Pacheco, the current armed forces chief, while not denying that there may be criminals in the ranks of the military institution, insisted that they did not learn their trade in it.

It's Organized Crime

While the rash of kidnappings has been the most dramatic criminal activity in the past few months, it is hardly the only one. There are daily reports of armed robberies of banks, gas stations and businesses, and car theft is rampant. Such common crime, both by gangs and by individuals, has made the population very jittery, even in the small towns and rural zones, where violent death goes hand in hand with alcohol and drugs.

State Attorney General Edmundo Orellana issued the following analysis on April 30: "Organized crime, a dangerous modality, has replaced common crime in Honduras. Organized crime feeds on the economic resources of the national financial system. The bands of car thieves, kidnappers and bank robbers are all connected and somehow deposit their money in the national banks."
Human Rights Commissioner Leo Valladares blames "the politicians who flip from one side to the other, have been totally irresponsible and have abandoned us to a mortal dance of vulnerability with crime." Valladares questions the slow transfer of the police from military to civilian control; in fact, even though this reform has been approved, no entity has even been constituted to carry out the transition. In Valladares' judgment, "What we need most is not a large armed forces but a well paid and trained police authority that is willing to defend the rights of the citizenry."

The Wave Keeps Growing

The problems of crime don't even figure on the electoral agenda of the presidential candidates. They are still too busy fighting to see who will benefit most from the transfer of the police so they can thus strengthen their own campaign in propaganda terms.

The inability of the current police force, still obviously under military control, to deal with the crime wave is reflected in the following statistic: in the three years of 1994-1996, FUSEP arrested 71,634 individuals for crimes or other reasons. Of these, it only sent 28,940 (26.4%) to court. While crime doubled in those three years, the number of people FUSEP sent to the courts fell year after year, from 33% in 1994 to 19.7% in 1996.

In May, the DIC arrested a number of people supposedly linked to several of the kidnappings. Efraín Amado Ordóñez allegedly planned several of them, together with bands made up of the Padilla Bustillo brothers and the Mejía Discua brothers, who remained at large. At the end of the month, two of the Padilla Bustillo brothers were shot down in a confrontation with the police. The liquidation of the suspected kidnappers seems to be a strategy of the police, military and other economic sectors involved to leave no trace of their participation in these crimes.

What Should Be Done?

Putting 1,600 military and police troops on the streets of San Pedro Sula produced some results: crime dropped and arrests climbed. Nonetheless, there were still very few days free of bank and business robberies in the Sula Valley and the capital. On May 21, the archdiocese had to ask for protection for Archbishop Oscar Andrés Rodríguez, the victim of threats. Four days later a band machine-gunned the house of Deputy Attorney General of the Republic Max Gil Santos, possibly to intimidate him regarding some important suits that had been filed in the civil courts.

The sizable police and army deployment and the quick arrests in some robberies give the sensation that the police and the military are putting on a show to impress society and, based on their successful results, negotiate their participation in the new police force. They would like the police to remain under some sort of military control and want the state to budget more funds for the armed forces.

The officers, experts in psychological warfare, are manipulating the population's fear of the growing crime wave to present themselves as the only guarantee of the citizenry's security. Meanwhile, the economic roots of the social decomposition behind much of the crime are not being addressed.

To deal with the crisis the government appointed an anti-crime commission to analyze the situation and propose solutions. It was headed by presidential designate Walter López, former head of the armed forces, and included the Commander General of the Police, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Minister of Governance and Justice, and a sizable number of business leaders. Because the commission had no experience in criminology, however, its proposals were inappropriate and insufficient.

Stronger Punishment Or More Convictions?

One specific solution recommended by San Pedro Sula police chief Anael Pérez was to declare a state of exception. This would involve suspending some guarantees that favor the criminals, such as being able to hold them only 12 hours before sending them to court. Pérez recommended increasing the period to 72 hours, so that the police can effectively investigate the detainees and send them to court with better evidence.

At the end of April, National Congress president and Liberal presidential candidate Carlos Floes Facussé announced a constitutional reform that would create a life sentence for those found guilty of repugnant and extremely serious crimes. The Constitution currently establishes a maximum punishment of 30 years.

The reform was approved after only a few days of debate, but will have to be ratified in the next legislative session before becoming law. Bertha Oliva, from the Committee of Relatives of Disappeared (COFADEH), criticized the National Congress' decision, stating that "the problem is not an extension of punishments, but their application. The problem is a restructuring of the judicial branch, so that it will be clean, independent and will be a technical body."

Establish the Death Penalty?

National Party deputy Mariano Madrid proposed a constitutional reform to establish the death penalty. But this initiative aimed at counteracting the violence was not supported by either the other legislators or the population.

Leo Valladares expressed the sentiment of many Hondurans when he said, "Easily and irresponsibly, everyone speaks of the death penalty. If ninety percent of those in prison in Honduras have not yet been sentenced, how many years will we delay in imposing a death penalty? Instead of the judges talking about maximum punishment and castration, they should speed up the paperwork to sentence the prisoners."

Over a Million Weapons

Along with the innumerable land mines set along the border with Nicaragua, another of Honduras' vestiges of having lent itself to the military project of the US government and the contras in the 1980s is the proliferation of weapons of all kinds throughout the country. Estimates vary. The Ministry of Defense calculates that a million weapons are circulating in Honduras. The Public Ministry says there could be up to a million and a half large calibre weapons in the hands of civilians.

On April 29, the National Defense and Security Council resolved to undertake a general disarmament at a national level. This measure has little likelihood of success.

After the death of Ricardo Maduro, the National Congress fell into the military's trap by approving an additional 40-million lempira budget for the armed forces. As Ramón Custodio of CODEH explained, "It's the trap of paying what is apparently repeated blackmail by the armed forces top brass: 5 million lempiras in 1996 and 40 million in 1997, so that they can set up the circus of a few military cars with police triumphantly entering the crime capital."

What Structure for The New Police?

A group of FUSEP officers, headed by Colonel Antonio Urbina, has been persistently pressuring the National Congress for months to approve the creation of a single police force responsible for all police functions. They also want it to be headed by a high-ranking officer.

The human rights groups, on the other hand, recommend that the new civilian police force have separate jurisdictions with a diversified command structure to avoid an authoritarian concentration of power such as the National Investigation Department (DNI) had. In the 1980s the DNI participated in tortures, disappearances and killings. As an expert from the Spanish government said, giving absolute power to the police is wrong because it doesn't respond to Honduran reality, and could lead to dangerous authoritarianism.

Civil society also insists that the new police chief be a civilian and not a military officer, to assure a change of mentality and because some members of the police are accused of heading up criminal bands. A military director in the new police force would negate the civilian character of the institutions, calling the director's independence from the armed forces into question, and would only demonstrate how much real power the military still has.

The total transfer of the police into civilian hands, formally planned for the end of this year, threatens to turn into a political circus. Although the Liberal Party has a majority in the Congress, it has allowed the National Party (PN) to delay the transfer. The PN, allied with the officers' association, is subtly interfering with the constitutional reforms, particularly with respect to management of the budget for the new police force. Furthermore, the PN doesn't want Congress president Carlos Flores to get any political points for transferring the police into civilian hands, since he is the Liberal Party's presidential candidate. For this reason in particular, the PN bench postponed debate on the bill that will regulate the structure of the new police.

How "New" Will It Be?

Many sectors are asking how new the civilian police will really be. The current police officers oppose self-cleansing and are resisting the demands of civil society that members of the new police force submit to psychological and aptitude tests.

Leo Valladares says that the agents and officers who do not switch from a militarist mentality to a civilian one should not be admitted into the new police force. Continuing with the same police personnel in an institution that only has another name and another command would be to prolong the anguish of the Honduran people since the inefficient current force has collapsed and cannot deal with today's insecurity. The recent events in El Paraíso show that the existing police force is even a threat to the very society it is supposed to protect.

The slow process of establishing a civilian police force to replace the military one created in 1963 is making the efforts of the top brass to call attention to its budget demands and desire for more social space more visible. This publicity show has several chapters.

One was the contingent of 250 police who were trained in anti-terrorist actions and sent triumphantly to San Pedro Sula on April 21 to wipe out crime in the northern zone of the country. Another was the cowboy tone set by armed forces chief Hung Pacheco for the celebration of his 50th birthday. The party was done in the Old West style, in which all guests were invited to dress as cowboys (and girls). As the festivities were winding down, an unknown person shot at the General's retinue in a still mysterious act that the press called an "attack."

Chortí Leader Killed

Starting in April the indigenous communities had begun threatening to block highways and make a new pilgrimage to Tegucigalpa to demand fulfillment of the commitments that the government had made to their organizations. But it was the murder of a Chortí leader in Copán that triggered a massive and energetic demonstration lasting throughout the second half of April and part of May.

It was foreseeable from the first months of the year that there would be problems between peasants and cattle ranchers when the planting season began in May. It was unimaginable, however, that the pressure for land would explode into conflicts in apparently peaceful regions, much less that it would get directly up to the highest levels of the central government.

Cándido Amador Recinos, a leader of the Chortí people, was murdered outside the pre- Columbian ruins of Copán, a tourist municipality close to the Guatemalan border. The motive seems to have been the conflict between 15 Chortí communities and cattle ranchers (mainly the Cueva family) in the zone since some of the indigenous communities were located on land for which the ranchers had deeds.

Amador was a founder of CONICHH (National Council of Chortí Indigenous People of Honduras) and leader of CAHAEA (Honduran Council for the Development of the Autochthonous Ethnicities) and of CONPAH (Confederation of Autochthonous Peoples of Honduras). The latter two organizations are made up of all seven ethnic groups in the country: Chortís, Lencas, Jicaques, Peches, Tawaskas, Miskitos and Garífunas.

Indigenous Wrath

The killers thought that murdering Cándido Amador would stop the struggle of the Chortís, who only recently, after the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the invasion of America, had begun to recover their identity and form their own organization. But his death had the opposite effect; it awoke the Chortí communities from a centuries-long lethargy.

They recovered the body of their leader from where it lay outside the tourist town and held a wake for him in the small Catholic chapel of a nearby village. Then, in a massive procession, they carried it back to the ruins of Copán, where the priest, a friend of the ranchers, was compelled to celebrate a mass.

The indigenous multitude then lifted the casket to their shoulders and began their procession again. The ladino community of Copán, fearing that the hour of indigenous revenge had finally come, closed their shops. But the Chortís, who had never before demonstrated their historic revenge so massively, quietly carried the simple box off to bury their hero, not in the cemetery, but "illegally," in a village called Rincón del Buey, headquarters of their organization.

Just as their ancestors had buried the founder of the Yax Kuk Mo lineage, the Quetzal Verde, in the marvelous Mayan ruins of that locality, the Chortís felt they had the right to inter the father of their struggles in the seat of their nascent organization, draped with the flag of Honduras.

On March to Tegucigalpa

These events unfolded into a "pilgrimage" on May 4 of about 3,000 indigenous people to Tegucigalpa to demand that the killers of Cándido Amador be found and that the indigenous be provided land to plant in May. The demonstrators took over the grounds of the Government Building in the capital for 11 days, where they slept under the stars and under rain, ate badly and held a formal fast for five days far from their communities while their leaders negotiated with the government.

Men, women, children and even nursing babies from all seven ethnic groups participated in the pilgrimage. Although the Chortís were the most affected, the Lencas played the strongest leadership role since this was their fifth pilgrimage and they are now used to it.

Carlos Solano, a Jesuit priest who works with the Jicaques of Yoro, the Indigenous Pastoral Vicariate, accompanied the marchers throughout their pilgrimage, even sleeping and fasting alongside them in Tegucigalpa.

The indigenous leaders stood firm in the negotiations, demanding guarantees and precise deadlines for fulfillment of the agreements. If the government offered them 500 hectares of land, they weren't satisfied with the President's word of honor; they demanded a guarantor commission. If the government omitted dates, they, due to the urgency of planting, demanded that what was promised be handed over in May.

Minister of Culture, Sports and the Arts Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle, who coordinated the government commission, was inflexible about the people camping out on government property. He recommended a violent eviction, arguing that the women and children were getting sick due to exposure to the elements.

The eviction occurred on Monday, May 12, at dawn. Father Solano related that nearly a thousand soldiers and policemen surrounded them and quite literally kicked them off the government grounds, while the people offered passive resistance.

The dislodging of the protestors had an enormous political cost for the government. When President Reina left for the United States several days later to receive a Doctorate Honoris Causa from Washington's American University, one newspaper saw him off with this headline: "The mask of Reina's moral revolution has slipped."
About a third of the demonstrators returned to their distant villages, but the extensive media coverage of the eviction gave courage to the two thousand who remained in Tegucigalpa. Negotiations were reopened after the government coordinator was discharged, and after long sessions important agreements were reached late in the night of May 14. The government pledged to negotiate 500 hectares in Copán until completing 2,000, and to provide a total of another 7,000 hectares in Ocotepeque, where the Chortís live. It also promised to speed up the investigation of Cándido Amador's assassination. A commission of guarantors was named to oversee the agreements.

The Chortís Won Recognition as Indigenous

The demonstrators got much of what they asked for, especially the promise of land. And they also achieved something they had not asked for, but which was at the base of all their demands: to be recognized as indigenous peoples.

Acculturation has had so much force over the centuries that many of the Honduran Chortí communities have been transformed into non-indigenous peasant communities. Save for an elderly woman or two, all have lost their language. They forgot the Mayan organization, which has managed to preserve Guatemala's Chortís.

Because of this, the argument of the authorities, including the Institute of Anthropology and History, has been that Honduran Chortís are either Guatemalan or are pure peasants. Based on this argument, the government had refused to apply Convention 169, by which Honduras pledged internationally in 1995 to provide land to the indigenous people, to the Chortís.

Now, as fruit of the Chortís' struggle and of the May 14 agreements, which have yet to be fulfilled, the government now recognizes the Chortí communities as indigenous.

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