Where Will the Children Play? Neoliberal Militarization in Pre-Election Honduras

In the months leading up to the first national elections since the 2009 coup in which members of the Resistance movement will participate, state-led terror and the criminalization of social protest have intensified.The terrorizing of activists like Edwin Espinal falls within the context of criminalization of social movement leaders like Berta Cáceres and Magdalena Morales. It is also part of a recent pattern of apparently politically-motivated military police-led home invasions.

Pro-Corporate State Violence

On Thursday, October 24th I attended the late-night wake for 32-year-old journalist Manuel Murillo, whose body had been dumped in an alleyway the previous day with three gunshots to the face. I was with two international journalists and Honduran activist Edwin Espinal. As we walked past the truckload of military police outside the hall, one of them said “tienen huevos.”

In the months leading up to the first national elections since the 2009 coup in which members of the Resistance movement will participate, state-led terror and the criminalization of social protest have intensified. Juan Orlando Hernández, the presidential candidate for current president Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo’s National Party, has made the promise of security through militarization his central campaign theme. “Voy a hacer lo que tenga que hacer para derrotar a la delincuencia y recuperar la paz,” [“I will do whatever I have to do to crush criminality and bring back peace”] Hernández’s voice intones on his omnipresent campaign spots. The new military police force is an initiative of Hernández, which has significant support among the Honduran population. This is due in part to a complete lack of trust in the Honduran national police force which is widely seen as irremediably corrupt and murderous. In this context, the military appears to many to be a more reliable force to confront rampant criminality in the most murderous country in the world.

However, Honduran soldiers have also murdered several civilians in recent years. In one case that gained international attention last year, 15-year-old student Ebed Jassiel Janes was shot dead by soldiers while riding his motorcycle to meet a girl he had befriended on Facebook. Most of victims of the military have been engaged in grassroots struggle against national and international corporations exploiting lands, water, and subsoil resources of which their communities claim ownership. On July 15th of this year, Tomás García, a leader of the National Council of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was shot and killed by soldiers who also seriously wounded García’s son in the same attack. The soldiers who killed García were protecting the Chinese-owned DESA corporation against the indigenous Lenca population who oppose DESA’a construction of a hydroelectric dam on their ancestral territory.

Honduran soldiers are also linked to murders of numerous campesino land rights activists in the Aguán. Just last Wednesday, following numerous death threats, Osbin Nahum Caballero Santamaria was allegedly killed by an operation of approximately 70 soldiers, who then abducted his body along with his still-alive wife and two small daughters by helicopter. Caballero’s mother, campesina leader Maria Digna Santamaria, denounced the murder and kidnapping on Radio Globo the following morning, holding the commander of the regional operation, former battalion 3-16 death squad member and School of the Americas graduate Col. German Alfaro Escalante, personally responsible. For his part, Colonel Alfaro—also on Radio Globo—asserted that Caballero himself had been involved in criminal activity and denied any military involvement in Caballero’s death. Instead, he repeated the commonly-employed refrain (used also by police) that criminals—not soldiers—often don army uniforms in order to carry out crimes.

Overall, in the Bajo Aguán region, more than 110 campesinos have been killed since the coup, primarily by security guards and soldiers employed by Miguel Facussé and three other large regional landowners. Facussé owns Dinant corporation, which specializes in products derived from his mono-cropped African Palm plantations, many of which are planted on ill-gotten, disputed agricultural reform lands. Like AZUNOSA, Dinant flaunts its ties with World Wildlife Fund in promotional materials while downplaying its role in the criminalization and murder of social activists.

The Honduran military and the judiciary both were primary institutional state actors in the 2009 coup against president Manuel Zelaya, whose wife Xiomara Castro is running for president against Hernández on the Resistance-affiliated LIBRE (Liberty and Refoundation) Party ticket. The two institutions have joined forces in the repression and criminalization of social movement leaders. Trumped-up charges including usurpation, coercion, and continued damages against DESA (which Tomás García was killed while opposing) have been leveled against COPINH leaders Berta Cáceres, Aureliano Molina and Tomás Gómez. The judge on the case ordered Cáceres to jail while the decision is pending; Cáceres has stated that the charges against her amount to political persecution and is currently in hiding. A similar case is pending against National Committee for Agricultural Workers (CNTC) leader Magdalena Morales, who has fought to reclaim agrarian reform lands from the British-owned sugar corporation AZUNOSA. The Honduran military has joined AZUNOSA’s private security guards in violently evicting campesinos on land disputed by AZUNOSA, and there has been no police investigation of campesinos murdered by AZUNOSA guards.

Military and judicial violence are necessary and central components of the imposition of neoliberal economic policies in post-coup Honduras. In order to legitimate and secure the economic violence effected against Honduran citizens by corporations like AZUNOSA, Dinant, and DESA, the judiciary actively criminalizes opposition to them while the military (along with other state security forces) goes after citizen-“criminals” with an iron fist.

Patterns of Political Violence

In a country where so-called “random,” “street,” “gang,” and “terrorist” violence is rampant and used to justify the criminalization of social activism and the corresponding militarization of public space, it is crucial to keep careful track of the patterns of political violence (keeping in mind that all violence in in some sense political). Following the coup, reports published by Amnesty International and the Inter-American Human Rights Commission found over 4,000 human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, torture and targeted assassinations that had been carried out between the June 28th coup and August of the same year by military and police forces against coup opponents. The Resistance movement, for its part, staunchly rejected in theory and practice the use of any violence that could have resulted in bodily harm to the enforcers or supporters of the coup.

Despite the incendiary labeling of social justice and human rights campaigners as “terrorists” and “insurgents” by Honduran armed forces, police, and their allies in the media, no credible evidence has emerged to substantiate claims of armed leftists using violence to destabilize the country. There have been very few instances of violence perpetrated against members of the military, police, or private security companies in recent years. In the Bajo Aguán region, where some such cases have occurred, no investigations have taken place. As such it is impossible to say who was responsible for the killings. Campesino communities, meanwhile, are under siege—terrorized by state and private security forces’ campaigns of systematic rape, harassment and targeted assassinations, and criminalized by a corrupt judiciary. A February 20, 2013 report by Annie Bird of Rights Action includes a exhaustive tally of murders in the Bajo Aguán region carried out between January 2010 and the date of the report’s publication. Bird counts a total of 89 campesinos, their supporters and neighbors killed during that period, whereas only 16 members of security forces were killed in the region during the same period.

Similarly, journalism is one of the most dangerous professions in Honduras. But according to Hector Becerra, director of the Honduran press freedom organization C-Libre, it is more dangerous for journalists whose reporting is critical of state abuses and police corruption than for those whose reporting is complicit with the same. Proving this in individual cases is complicated because of the levels of generalized violence and the context of impunity. Becerra states that of the 31 actively-employed journalists murdered since the coup, it is possible to demonstrate in 15 cases that the murders were directly related to the journalists’ exercise of freedom of expression. In each of the cases where enough evidence exists to determine that a journalist was killed in direct relation to his or her reporting, the reporting in question was critical of the coup, the Lobo administration, government corruption on the local or national level, or police ties to organized crime. On the other hand, there are no known cases of journalist murders that have been linked to reporting critical of social movements or coup opponents.

Numerous local candidates from the LIBRE political party have been killed in targeted assassinations in recent months. As Karen Spring of Rights Action notes in a recent report analyzing an exhaustively-researched list of pre-election violence, 18 LIBRE candidates and immediate family members of candidates were murdered between May 2012 and October 19, 2013, and 15 more suffered armed attacks. Spring writes:

“According to the list…LIBRE party…pre-candidates, candidates, their families and campaign leaders have suffered more killings and armed attacks than all other political parties combined. The disproportionate number of killings of LIBRE candidates seems a clear indication that many of the killings have been politically motivated.”

Many more non-candidate LIBRE activists have been killed in targeted assassinations, the most recent being photojournalist Manuel Murillo, who was working for LIBRE congressional candidate Rasel Tomé at the time of his murder. On Thursday, October 31st, LIBRE congressional candidate Beatriz Valle announced she was leaving the country after receiving numerous death threats. LIBRE leaders have told me that in an effort to maintain a positive message to attract voters, they until recently avoided politicizing what other party members have referred to as the “extermination campaign” against them.

In pre-election Honduras, the numbers make clear that overtly political violence is predominantly uni-directional, carried out by State security forces and death squads on behalf of powerful individuals and corporations, and against those who stand in their way, or appear to do so. And as the November 24th elections approach, that violence is intensifying.

The Case of Edwin Espinal

At 7 a.m. on Wednesday, October 23rd (the day before I attended Manuel Murillo’s wake) I received a call from a human rights activist. She told me that Edwin Espinal’s house in the Flor del Campo neighborhood of Tegucigalpa had been broken into and was being ransacked by military police. Five minutes later, I was racing across town in a car with her, Edwin, one of his family members, and Canadian journalist Jesse Freeston.

I first met Edwin on July 1st, 2010, in the offices of the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH). He arrived after having been tortured by police officers from his neighborhood, his eyes swollen from the pepper gas they had sprayed directly into them 12 hours earlier after dragging him out of his parked car with no explanation. He had been refused medical attention and tortured with tasers (on his back, stomach, and ears) throughout the night, which he spent in a prison cell. I knew of Edwin at the time from his public statements following the death of his partner, Wendy Ávila, from tear gas inhalation nearly a year earlier. Since our first meeting Edwin has been continuously harassed by his neighborhood police who, he states, oppose his Resistance and community organizing activities. The same police have violently assaulted and arbitrarily detained him on multiple occasions.

Following local police officers’ repeated use of arbitrary detentions and torture against Edwin, the World Organization Against Torture and the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights both requested that the Honduran government provide him precautionary measures. But the Honduran state response has been far from satisfactory. In a judgment declaring the officers involved in Edwin’s torture innocent, judge Marta Marlene Murillo Castro claimed his torture represented a “legitimate use of force” and accepted the police claim that spraying pepper gas in Edwin’s eyes had been an accident (Judge Murillo is the same judge who determined that the military had acted legally in violently raiding two radio station and one television stations on the day of the 2009 coup against Zelaya confiscating and/or destroying nearly all their equipment in the process).

Two of the Flor del Campo police officers who repeatedly harassed and tortured Edwin, José Luís Alemán Pérez and Walter Isaías Burgos Vargas, have since been implicated in different crimes. Alemán is currently serving a jail sentence for illegal arms possession and extortion. Burgos was named by the Police Reform Commission (formed in 2012) for his involvement in corruption. However, the commission—formed largely in response to the police murder of the son of powerful National University Rector Julieta Castellanos—has failed to tie Burgos’s “corruption” to (or hold him accountable for) Edwin’s torture.

After receiving numerous death threats, Edwin and his family fled their Flor del Campo home on October 9th and went into hiding. Human rights workers involved with the case and Edwin’s neighbors suspect that the threats, which were delivered by local gang members, originated from National Party activists in the community. When National Party candidate Hernández rolled out his military police with great fanfare days later on October 14th, Flor de Campo (infamous for its violence and gang activity) was the new state security force’s first and primary target. Driving into Flor del Campo on the morning of October 23rd, we took detours around several roadblocks that had been set up throughout the neighborhood. Dozens of heavily-armed balaclava-wearing military police stood around each one.

The largest concentration of military police we saw was outside Edwin’s house. In addition to the troops storming his house (which sustained significant structural damage in the raid), between 50 and 60 heavily armed troops were assigned to different strategic tasks. Some blocked off vehicle and pedestrian traffic to Edwin’s dead-end street; others sat facing out on either side of the converted pickup beds of several military vehicles, guns ready; others directed traffic on the street perpendicular to Edwin’s alley; others guarded each of the neighbors’ homes and businesses and walked back and forth patrolling the block; and still others took video and pictures of everyone who came to the scene, in particular those of us who arrived with Edwin. The military police were accompanied by a contingent of embedded television, radio and print journalists. At one point a group of journalists and military police officers worked themselves into hearty laughter imitating Juan Orlando Hernández’s campaign refrain, “Voy a hacer lo que tenga que hacer para derrotar a la delincuencia y recuperar la paz.

Military Police directing local traffic away from the area where the raid of activist Edwin Espinal’s Flor del Campo home was taking place.

Military Police arriving to Edwin Espinal’s house in one of several pickup trucks. In the background is aluminum fencing surrounding the newly-privatized Flor del Campo community soccer field, and another military police truck with three dog cages. Two other military police vehicles also came loaded with dogs.

Members of the the military police used video and still cameras to record neighbors, friends, and human rights workers who arrived at the scene.

Militarized Neoliberal Sport

On the far side of the street where we stood, blocked by military police from entering the alleyway to Edwin’s house, sits an enormous gated construction site slated to become a private soccer field. This soccer field—the “campo” in Flor del Campo—was until recently the only open, public green space for neighborhood residents. But earlier this year, CONAPID, a Honduran public-private government commission, was brought on to redesign the field as part of its privatization. CONAPID receives funds from the Inter-American Development Bank and the controversial Honduran “tasa de seguridad”—a tax on businesses created after the coup to pay for public security initiatives. Many neighborhood residents argue that the privatization of the field is illegal. Since the field is collectively maintained, paid for and administered by the community, Honduran law requires that the community be consulted in the event of a transfer of administration or ownership. No such consultation ever took place; instead, neighbors say, two Flor del Campo residents who had no authority to do so signed away the development rights to the field. One of the signatories is a National Party member who assumed de facto leadership of a defunct community council after its elected president was murdered for what neighbors claim are political reasons.

The president of CONAPID is Reinaldo Sánchez, currently a Congressional candidate with Juan Orlando Hernández’s National Party, the party behind the military police. Part of CONAPID’s public relations strategy (in keeping with its tasa de seguridad funding) is that the organization’s work is central to crime and violence prevention in Honduras. A March 2010 article celebrating the inauguration of a privatized soccer field (replacing another public one) states (my translation):

Reinaldo Sánchez, head of CONAPID, said he felt proud to collaborate in something that will keep young people away from vices.

Sánchez reiterated this sentiment in a press release the following year:

[Sánchez] noted that society as a whole should take an active role in the processes of change developed by the Government, in order to create an atmosphere of peace among the citizenry. “These works create progress, development and opportunities for children and youths, since they enable us to distance them from taking on bad habits,” he stated.

Community members in Flor del Campo take a markedly different view of CONAPID’s involvement, and of the privatization of their communal land. Neighborhood residents, including Edwin, began organizing to oppose the venture and to maintain the public space that has defined their neighborhood as soon as they heard about the irregular transfer, even as the field was being dug up in preparation for the installation of artificial turf. Today, the site is only visible through small gaps in the approximately 8-foot high aluminum fence erected around the entire field. Once community members began to engage in actions that included the attempted removal of the fence and spray painting it with slogans protesting the venture, the military was brought in to protect the field. Slogans visible on the morning of the raid included:

●      “We the poor also have a right to public spaces”

●      “La Flor Sin Campo” (“Flower Without a Field” a play on the neighborhood’s name Flor del Campo)

●      “+Profit, -Sports, =Crime”

●      “Primero los Pobres?” (The slogan of the National Party mayor of Tegucigalpa and strong CONAPID ally, Ricardo Álvarez, “The Poor Come First,” framed sarcastically as a question)

Graffiti opposing the privatization of the Flor de Campo community soccer field, sprayed on the aluminum fencing surrounding the field. The field has been guarded by members of the Honduran military since the graffiti appeared. More recently, the newly-formed military police have been patrolling the area.

Since members of the community began organizing against the privatization of their field, several of them have received direct and credible death threats from the same few neighborhood residents who signed away the community’s rights and who stand to profit from the field under its new management. On the weekend after Edwin fled his home in Flor del Campo, a public report-back of the activities of community members opposing the CONAPID venture had been planned. It was canceled because the neighborhood activists feared for their lives.

Impunity and Elections

The terrorizing of activists like Edwin Espinal falls within the context of criminalization of social movement leaders like Berta Cáceres and Magdalena Morales. It is also part of a recent pattern of apparently politically-motivated military police-led home invasions. In the past two weeks, military police “allanamientos” (technically, forcible home raids) have been carried out against union leader Marco Antonio Rodríguez, Vice-President of the National Child Welfare Agency Workers’ Union and an international journalist who chose not to publicize their case. According to Rodríguez, when he asked the military police ransacking his home to show him their warrant, their response directly reflected the impunity they enjoy. “What search warrant?” they answered, “We can do whatever we want here.”

In Edwin’s case, there was in fact a search warrant, administered on site by public prosecutor Ricardo Adolfo Núñez (cited in the same document as having requested a search warrant), who wore a ski mask and a bulletproof vest. In the days following the raid, Edwin attempted to locate Núñez, a public figure who works for the Public Ministry and has been assigned to the Military Police. He was told that there was no phone number or office at which Núñez could be located. The signature on the search warrant was that of “juez ejecutor” (judge executor) Santos Alberto Reyes Castillo, a sergeant working directly for the military police. According to COFADEH journalist Dina Meza (herself a victim of ongoing harassment and death threats directly related to her work), who arrived at the scene later in the morning, Reyes Castillo was also present at the raid.

COFADEH journalist Dina Meza leaving the scene of the military police raid of activist Edwin Espinal’s home.

When a journalist from the Honduran newspaper El Tiempo later questioned the legality of allowing a judge executor within the military police to authorize the same military police to raid a citizen’s home, the president of the Honduran Supreme Court stated it was perfectly legal (though this interpretation was disputed by the Attorney General). On the eve of Honduran elections, what is in effect a parallel security force with its own internal legal structure has been created. And it appears to be entirely unaccountable to Honduran citizens.

Outside Edwin Espinal’s home (Espinal is in the foreground), public prosecutor Ricardo Adolfo Núñez, wearing a blue plaid shirt, balaclava and bulletproof vest, confers with members of the military police in charge of the raid. One carries on his back a large mallet used in the operation.

The search warrant itself highlighted Edwin’s alleged LIBRE activism, and authorized the raid in order to confiscate “Objects related to Illegal Drug Trafficking, Prohibited Weapons, and Cash from Crimes of Theft and Extortion.” While we waited down the street from his house, the military police broke down Edwin’s doors (external and internal) and illegally remained inside the house for two hours before the evidence-gathering inspection team went inside with three large drug-sniffing dogs, giving them ample time to contaminate the scene. Edwin photographed the search warrant of his house and gave a brief statement to the press denouncing the political nature of the raid.

Edwin Espinal giving a declaration to the press, in which he stated that the destruction of his home by military police was part of an ongoing campaign of harassment and political persecution meant to terrorize his family and political activists.

The following day, Manuel Murillo’s body was identified. Murillo, like Edwin, had been granted precautionary measures after suffering arbitrary detention, torture, and death threats against himself and his family at the hands of police. I joined Edwin and the same group of colleagues who had accompanied him to his house the previous day to Murillo’s service in a community hall in the Kennedy neighborhood, right next to a police station. We arrived late, close to 11 p.m. A LIBRE flag hung from Murillo’s coffin, and a couple prominent party members stood around in the aisle, their expressions unreadable to me. Family members walked around offering us coffee and cake. I only glanced momentarily at the young man’s face, which was crudely sewn together with black thread in an attempt to mask the disfigurement caused by his murderers.

Part of the nature of living in a context of state repression and impunity coupled with the highest homicide rate in the world is that it is difficult to assert political motives for state violence in any given case with certainty. Is there proof that Murillo’s murder was carried out by the police who tortured and threatened him with death three years ago, or by the new military police force comprised of former members of the national police and military, who now enjoy even greater power and impunity than before? Not at the moment. Is there proof that that the military police’s raid of Edwin’s home was an act of individual and collective intimidation tied to his resistance activities, and most recently to his fight to retain a public green space where neighborhood children could play? His multiple experiences of arbitrary detention and torture at the hands of police who enjoy full impunity for the harm they have caused him, and the inclusion of his alleged LIBRE affiliation in the search warrant indicate the possibility of a political motive, but do not qualify as definitive proof. The military police saying “tienen huevos” as we passed them on the way to pay our respects to Manuel Murillo and his family seemed to us to be a clear message. But can we prove that? Absolutely not.

For community organizers, democracy activists, LIBRE candidates, and potential LIBRE voters, the pre-election context in Honduras is one of extreme everyday violence amplified by a campaign of state terror carried out in the service of neoliberal policies and politicians. The criminalization and persecution of individuals and groups who oppose Honduran state policies—while difficult to prove in any individual case thanks to the near total impunity that exists for human rights violators—is nonetheless in the aggregate a clear example of what sociologist Emile Durkheim called a social fact. As 20 senators recently pointed out in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, this persecution is being carried out by police and military (and now military police) forces that receive funding and training from the United States. These are the conditions under which Honduran elections will take place later this month, and only the most cynical of observers could call those conditions “free and fair.”

Many thanks to Karen Spring for her extensive research help on this article.

Adrienne Pine is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at American University, and author of Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras. She is currently on leave to teach at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, and blogs at http://quotha.net.