The global economy reaches its fingers into the small campesino communities, as it has for centuries. History repeats itself: the campesinos resist regressive land grabs by the country’s elites who control the electoral process, the military and the other institutions of power, the judicial system is notoriously ineffective, and the long arms of the U.S. government reach down into Central America to advance its own geopolitical and economic interests.
The entrance to the Porvenir Penitentiary in La Ceiba, Honduras is off the main highway on a dusty, rutted road that bisects a field of pineapples more likely destined for the U.S. market than for consumption by the locals. A bright yellow tractor spraying pesticides provides a jarring contrast to the otherwise monochromatic green of the landscape. The loosely secured gate was swung open by a grinning inmate, clad in a prison issue t-shirt and jeans, holding a small child of two or three who waved cheerfully as we passed through. After brief conversation with the guards whose automatic weapons hung loosely over their shoulders, Jose Isabel “Chavelo” Morales walked outside the main prison door, unaccompanied, to greet us as we stood under a nearby tree. Welcome to the Honduran penal system, our guide commented with wry smile.
Dressed impeccably in a polo shirt, jeans and loafers, Chavelo shifted his weight occasionally as he spoke. His handsome face bore the faint, yet discernible scars of an accident on his birthday several years prior, when he was using doing groundwork at the behest of the prison warden. The weed-whacker Chavelo was using hit a stray wire that ricocheted into his face, injuring his eye and gashing his cheek and tongue. Chavelo told us with slightly impaired speech that inadequate medical care in the prison left his vision damaged in his noticeably hazy right eye.
Chavelo’s voice was quiet but unwavering as expressed his gratitude that we traveled all the way from the U.S. and Canada with the human rights and solidarity organization Rights Action to hear his story. Smiling humbly, he welcomed us and expressed his gratitude for our visit, noting that he would have been a victim without the support and attention of human rights groups, which has provided some measure of protection. Chavelo recounted briefly how he ended up in the prison, emphatically stating that, “I have been in in prison for five years for a crime I did not commit. I am not a thief or an assassin. I never took anything from anyone.” He contextualized his conviction in the area’s land conflict, saying that he was jailed because he was “one of the people struggling for a place to live and grow food for our children.”
Mostly, Chavelo spoke the veneer of stoicism that often veils those who must recount their deeply intimate and painful stories to strangers, over and over again – they learn to narrate their stories without reliving it each time. At times though, Chavelo’s pain bled through perceptibly – he was visibly choked up telling us of his anguish at the death of his beloved young daughter Denia Liseth, who drowned, and the deaths of his father, grandfather and two aunts while he has been in jail, lamenting that he could not even say goodbye to my family members. While speaking, Chavelo seemed guarded and visibly nervous, occasionally glancing furtively around to see who was within earshot – his gaze stopped momentarily on a young man doing yard work nearby. As a crease formed across his forehead, Chavelo told us that a new prison director had started eight days ago, that he is very strict and does not engage with the prison administration and prisoners like his predecessor. He added that he used to be able to work outside the compound on the grounds, but the new director discontinued the practice. Implicit in his words was the worry about whether the change in administration would signal decreased security for him. Those who know him well commented that he seemed more distracted and fearful than they had observed previously.
Chavelo’s fear is well founded. Since his incarceration almost 5 years ago, he has endured near constant threats from other inmates. Chavelo’s prior cellmates were sickened by poisoned orange juice he believed was intended for him, requiring his family to deliver food so that he is not at the mercy of the prison foodservice. When his family cannot make the six-hour round trip to the prison and his food store has run out, Chavelo goes hungry, often for several days at a time. Perhaps because the international spotlight generated by concerned NGOs provides him some small measure of protection, Chavelo was moved from the general population and now sleeps under the watchful eye of the prison guards. But any sense of security or relaxed vigilance from such an arrangement would be misplaced. The inspector for the prison is none other than Henry Osorto, a member of the local landowning elite whose relative Chavelo has been convicted of killing. In the aftermath of Osorto’s “inspections” Chavelo detects a palpable escalation in hostility toward him.
One cannot understand the travesty of Chavelo’s conviction without looking at the historical and political context that renders justice elusive for those on the wrong side of the Honduran oligarchy. Chavelo hails from Guadalupe Carney, a community established by landless campesinos on the abandoned U.S. Military base in the region, the Regional Center for Military Training, known by its Spanish acronym, CREM. To the area’s campesinos, CREM symbolizes a sordid legacy of U.S. military support for what are now widely criticized interventions in Central America that contributed to unspeakable suffering. The community was named in honor of Father Guadalupe Carney, a Jesuit Priest and liberation theologian who was disappeared in 1983, presumably by the Honduran military for his support of campesino resistance movements in the region.
As U.S. priorities shifted elsewhere in the early 1990s, the U.S. government allowed CREM to revert to the Honduran government. Under Honduran agrarian reform initiatives, this land was to be parceled out to landless campesinos, yet the town of Trujillo instead ceded titles to local elites. Prominent among them was Henry Osorto, a current police official and former military commander who had been stationed at CREM.
Organizing in resistance to being illegally dispossessed, campesinos throughout the region formed MCA (Campesino Movement of the Aguan), to acquire the CREM land. Chavelo was among a group consisting of 700 families that organized in the community of Guadalupe Carney, which subdivided into 45 smaller collectives referred to as empresas (businesses). Throughout the 1990s, the elites and the campesinos traded legal victories in the struggle for control over the land. The Honduran agricultural institute (INA) ultimately sided with the campesinos’ position that the country’s agrarian reform laws conferred legal rights to them, but the battles over the land waged on unabated, sometimes in the courts and sometimes in the fields.
In 2000, weary of the refusal of the judicial system to vindicate their rights, the campesinos began a peaceful occupation of the CREM land. Tension erupted, and Henry Osorto’s brother Diogenes died in the ensuing conflict, exacerbating the friction between campesinos and large farmers and setting a collision course that in the end would cost many lives.
By 2008, the campesinos had consolidated some modest gains, including reclaiming the land for Chavelo’s family and other members of the collective of Santa Maria Los Angeles. Their success only served to further enrage Osorto, and a series of conflicts brought the tension to a boiling point again.
The triggering event for the conflagration that ultimately sent Chavelo to jail started in the pre-dawn hours of August 3, 2008. The official account represented in the police reports and the press, both controlled by the local elites, painted a picture of a murderous group of campesinos, a tactic that justified the criminalization of resistance and eroded sympathy for any alternative account. Greg McCain, a US activist, conducted a painstaking investigation by interviewing multiple witnesses and stakeholders and reviewing press accounts and court records to reconstruct a very different narrative of the events that day. According to witnesses, on that summer morning, Osorto’s paramilitary guards entered the community and fired randomly at houses, sending the residents retreating into the woods. Unable to flee, a 13-year-old girl took shelter under a bed. When she was discovered in her hiding place by Osorto’s men, she was terrorized and abused before the men retreated to the Osorto enclave of Rancho Henry. When word spread to the community, a group set off for Rancho Henry to demand that the guards who brutalized the young teenager surrender. Despite their outrage, the campesinos were still committed to peaceful opposition.
Surrounding the house, the campesinos initially asked the Trujillo police to intervene, but were met with stony indifference. Members of the Osorto clan and bodyguards held their ground. The tense standoff lasted most of the day, with periods of quiet punctuated by the staccato of gunshots fired from Rancho Henry. The conflict turned deadly by mid-afternoon, when Jóse Arnulfo Guevara was struck and killed by bullets fired from the house. As the conflict waged on, the Trujillo police stood in the distance, unwilling to intervene. At some point the campesinos began returning fire, and a number of Osorto’s guards were killed. At some point an explosion triggered a fire that send Rancho Henry up in flames. At the end of the conflagration, all occupants of the house were dead, as was Arnulfo. A number of campesinos were also injured. The cause of the fire was never investigated and its origin is still uncertain.
Despite the simmering land conflict in his area, Chavelo started that August day as usual, pedaling around on his bicycle selling ice cream to support his family. After work he stopped to join a pick-up soccer game. When he returned home at around 4 p.m., Arnulfo’s anguished wife, who had by then heard that her husband was gravely injured, pleaded with Chavelo to help. Without hesitation, Chavelo set out for Rancho Henry and thus began his descent into the nightmare in which he currently resides.
After arriving at the chaotic scene at Rancho Henry, Chavelo accompanied four friends as they retrieved Arnulfo’s body for his grieving wife. As he walked next to Arnulfo’s limp corpse, the lone reporter on the scene snapped Chavelo’s photo. That image was to become a critical piece of evidence in his conviction.
No one was arrested at Rancho Henry that day. Through questionable police investigation practices that would never withstand scrutiny in the U.S., the list of suspects was winnowed down from over 300. Chavelo was subsequently identified as a ringleader of the campesinos who had gathered outside Rancho Henry, along with Carlos Antonio Maradiaga, who witnesses testified was not even in the vicinity of Rancho Henry. Given the difficulty in reconstructing what happened that day amidst chaos and the flimsy evidence, it is reasonable to question why Chavelo was singled out at this stage. Perhaps the local authorities were under intense scrutiny to prosecute someone. Chavelo he had already come into Osorto’s sights for an incident the prior year, when Chavelo and several friends were accused by Osorto of stealing a truck, a charge that Chavelo disputes. In fact, title to the truck was clearly vested in the Santa Maris Los Angeles community, but even when presented with this evidence, the local prosecutor refused to dismiss the charges. The complaint was never adjudicated, but Chavelo was required to report to the police station every Friday, a commitment he honored without fail. Though the requirement was ostensibly imposed to ensure that Chavelo did not flee, many members of the community saw the registration requirement as harassment intended to send a clear message about the risks of activism.
Chavelo was arrested on October 17, 2008 and along with Carlos Maradiaga, charged with a host of crimes, including murder and arson. The trial started in June 2010 and was marked by irregularities. Though Chavelo did not arrive at Rancho Henry until late afternoon, prosecution witnesses testified that he had led the crowd of 300 people and set fire to the house, a fact that was not backed up by any forensic investigation into the cause of the fire. Witnesses placed Chavelo almost simultaneously on the road 100 yards from the house, siphoning gas from a car, and inflicting fatal blows to men in the Osorto house. Witnesses for the prosecution varied wildly in their testimony about what transpired that afternoon, though testimony by several members of the Trujillo police were virtually identical, as if recited from memory. Yet witnesses were remarkably consistent about certain details, presenting near perfect corroboration in ways that arouse suspicion about the veracity of their testimony and the degree to which they might have been prepped. The descriptions of Chavelo’s clothing, exactly as depicted in the photograph, was recounted numerous times, with a degree of synchronicity that would be unlikely months after a chaotic and traumatic event unless carefully orchestrated in advance. In addition, the exculpatory evidence provided by the journalist who took Chavelo’s picture was not preserved for the record because of a power outage during his testimony, although he averred that Chavelo has leaving the scene rather than charging toward it, as alleged by the prosecution. His photograph places Chavelo at the small house on the compound during the time testimony for the prosecution places him at three different locales. Understandably fearing reprisals, many witnesses for the defense were too terrified to testify, although the defense presented some credible alibi evidence.
In the end, Chavelo was acquitted of all of the charges against him except the murder of Manrique Osorto, though it is hard to understand how this particular death was recalled in such detail by witnesses when the rest of the day seemed clouded by a haze of confusion and panic. Carlos was acquitted of all charges, though the prosecution alleged they were complicit in the same acts – yet another anomalous result that casts doubt on Chavelo’s conviction. The only difference seemed to be the presence of the photograph linking Chavelo to the scene.
In violation of Honduran law, which requires that those charged with crimes be sentenced within two years of their arrest, Chavelo was not sentenced until almost four years after his arrest, and two years after his conviction. After numerous sentencing dates were scheduled and randomly canceled, Chavelo was sentenced in absentia, as he and his lawyer were not even apprised of the proceeding. A legal challenge to the legitimacy of Chavelo’s detention was denied by the Court of Appeals. Chavelo is currently awaiting a decision by the Honduran Supreme Court, the last resort in a notoriously dysfunctional legal system that is beholden to the interests of wealthy and powerful. Some observers note that the Court is unlikely to make the finding necessary to set aside the verdict – that the prosecution and/or judges rigged the investigation and trial, in effect indicting “the system” that many neutral observers believe to be badly corrupted.
Chavelo sleeps fitfully at night, haunted by the fear that he will awaken to attackers that manage to slip past the guards. And he holds on to the fervent hope that the Supreme Court will conduct a fair and impartial review that he is confident would exonerate him.
An international campaign is inundating the Honduran Court with calls and letters and an occasional visit, demanding justice for Chavelo. A group from my delegation personally delivered letters to the Supreme Court, and we were granted an impromptu audience with a magistrate from the Court, who listened politely to our concerns. Those of us accustomed to judicial systems in which efforts to influence courts are indirect and such contact would raise concerns about the appearance of impropriety felt some discomfort with these tactics. But we soon realized that any hope for Chavelo’s release leaves his advocates with few other options. Even if he wins release, Chavelo will live in constant fear of reprisals. For Chavelo and his family, an uncomplicated existence has been irretrievably lost.
The global economy reaches its fingers into the small campesino communities, as it has for centuries. History repeats itself: the campesinos resist regressive land grabs by the country’s elites who control the electoral process, the military and the other institutions of power, the judicial system is notoriously ineffective, and the long arms of the U.S. government reach down into Central America to advance its own geopolitical and economic interests. Recently, the urgency to slow climate change has inadvertently, yet predictably, accelerated illegal land grabs by companies eager to capitalize on the growing demand for palm oil for both food and use as biofuels. The production of African Palm generates additional profits from the sale of carbon credits allocated to those producing so-called “green energy.” Dinant Corporation is owned by Miguel Facusse, reportedly the largest landowner in Honduras, who has been repeatedly implicated in the violent repression of land rights activists – at least 91 have been killed in the Lower Aguan region since 2009.
This is the story of one man, and his family and community, but campesinos across Honduras are facing repression for their struggle for dignity and sovereignty over their lives. The highway to the prison winds through miles of lush palm trees that stretch as far as the eye can see, a reflection of the region’s forced reliance on African Palm as a monoculture cash crop. The Banana Republic sobriquet was coined to describe Honduras in the late 1800s, and in truth, not much has changed structurally since then. Palm has replaced banana as the dominant cash crop, but Honduras is still controlled by an oligarchy that almost always prevails over the masses of the campesinos struggling to subsist.
Though the events at Rancho Henry were undeniably tragic, and resulted from years of festering conflict, Chavelo was unjustly convicted for the crimes, a cruel irony given the culture of impunity for the elites that pervades Honduras.
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Lauren Carasik is a Clinical Professor of Law and the Director of the International Human Rights Clinic and the Legal Services Clinic at Western New England University School of Law.