Unscrupulous Reputation for Canadian Companies in Honduras
Canadian Sweatshops Spreading COVID: Doctors Make Demands
Edwin Espinal, spouse of Karen Spring, sends greetings from Tegucigalpa Honduras. Edwin talks about the situation in his neighbourhood today as Hondurans experience harsh conditions due to COVID-19, corruption, and inflexible government restrictions.
Describe the situation in the country during this COVID crisis.
Edwin: The COVID situation is not under control because of the government’s criminal behaviour. As Hondurans we are really upset with the inaction of our government that only cares for the rich. The Hernandez government does not provide proper healthcare and social conditions to Hondurans yet is supported by the US and Canadian government. The people are getting very sick from this pandemic; medical supplies are scarce or non-existent in the public hospitals. If a person gets sick and must visit the hospital, family members must provide a cot or chair to fit into the limited space they are given. Family members must buy all supplies and bring them in for their loved one, as there are no oxygen tanks or medications provided. Doctors are overworked, nurses cannot keep up with the sick and dying. The number of cases is skyrocketing with thousands of new reported cases every day. Many go unreported as people are afraid to visit the hospitals or cannot afford to go. They die at home.
COVID-19 is mostly rampant in the poor neighbourhoods as people live in close quarters with many family members living together. They must go out to do their own shopping in crowded streets as the population is very high in these neighbourhoods. In the richer parts of the city, there is more freedom. The middle and upper class employ workers, paying way below minimum wage; they send their underpaid workers into the streets to do their shopping and perform other duties. The rich people are therefore not exposed to the pandemic as are their employees. They are also taking advantage of the poor because jobs are now practically non-existent. The rich are following their typical pattern of not caring for anyone except themselves during this pandemic in this country.
Tell about the government control in the streets.
Edwin: When I travel through the streets, I see repression. Military and police harass the poor. The government has very strict rules to lock the people in their houses. They are only allowed out in the streets once every two weeks and many people cannot get all of the tasks completed due to long lineups, food and staples shortages. They cannot complete their shopping, banking, medical appointments in one day so they must break the rules. They also cannot afford to buy ahead, and supplies are limited. So, if the people go out into the streets, the military confiscate their cars, arrest them and hold them for 24 hours. They are forced to pay heavy fines, or they are not released.
During the day and night, helicopters patrol the skies, keeping a watch over the people. Police and military are very active, brutalizing small groups of people and teargassing them in the overcrowded neighbourhoods. There is no fairness or justice here. We are watched and monitored at all times.
Talk about the food shortages.
Edwin: In terms of food programs, the government is only providing food to the people who vote for the National Party. The government is using the COVID-19 pandemic for their own political gain and not providing for all of the people. This is immoral and inhumane because people are starving. There are no jobs and also private companies (McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Little Caesar, Denny’s, etc.) are exploiting their workers, not paying wages, benefits, as required by law. They are taking advantage of their employees and using the pandemic as an excuse.
We thank the Simcoe County community for their ongoing support. We are encouraged by your interest in our lives because your encouragement gives us hope.
Community of Simcoe Supports Hondurans
SCHRM continues to send funds to food distribution community projects located in El Progreso and Tegucigalpa. We have also received a new request for monies for food donations from the northern community of Azacualpa in the Department of Copan, close to the Guatemalan border. This community is fighting the expansion of a Canadian gold mining company, Aura Minerals, based in Toronto, Ontario. Unfair mining practices and military control by this company has left the community very vulnerable and at the mercy of Aura Minerals policy makers and shareholders. This company trades on the Toronto Stock Exchange (TSX).
The Azacualpa community is desperate for food as the area is controlled by the mining company; stores are owned by Aura and are price controlled. Supplies are scare due to its remoteness; the nearest bank and larger grocery stores are 2-3 hours away by truck along mountainous dirt roads. SCHRM is sending donations to help feed the most impoverished families here who can only leave their homes once every 14 days based on their government issued ID number. SCHRM also continues to send monies to El Progreso and Tegucigalpa organizers for the very important food programs there.
Unscrupulous behaviour from Canadian mining company
Aura Minerals has been under scrutiny and attack from Canadian and US human rights organizations for digging up the Azacualpa community cemetery. This struggle has been ongoing since 2010 when the community first reached out for help to stop the expansion of the mine which would jeopardize their ancestral burial site, their villages, and their health. The community members are fiercely against the actions of Aura Minerals, which has turned their countryside into an open pit. At the gold mining site and surrounding area, the open pit, cyanide-leaching mine causes severe health related issues; it poisons the land, cuts down their forests, and their water sources. This has been well documented and found to be true. Canadian companies such as Aura Minerals follow unscrupulous practices and take advantage of government corruption to prosper in countries such as Honduras. Actions by this company are showing Canada in a very bad light on the international stage. Their Honduran mining practices are prohibited in Canada.
The Honduras Now Podcast shares human rights stories and connects them to global issues and North American policy. Honduras Now provides on-the-ground analysis from host, Karen Spring, a long-time human rights activist and researcher, and Hondurans from all walks of life through interviews and trips around the country.
The COVID-19 Pandemic in Honduras: Community Leaders Make a Difference
Simcoe County Honduras Rights Monitor Donates to Local Food Programs
As of June 8, 2020, the reported cases of COVID-19 in Honduras has reached 6327 with only 258 deaths reported. However, health officials and local residents warn that these statistics are most likely much higher as testing for the virus is almost non-existent and many deaths are not reported or recorded. Deaths due to COVID in the rural areas go unnoticed by government officials. Many also believe that the Hernandez government does not report up to date statistics as people have little or no faith in the government authorities to care about the needs of the Honduran people.
According to www.globalnews.ca, Latin American countries will experience a surge in COVID cases and deaths in the coming weeks and months. In Honduras, without a proper health care system and lack of government assistance, community leaders have established food programs to help hungry families and have reached out to the neediest children who are feeling the effects of the pandemic on a much greater scale than those in North America.
In Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras, over nine community organizations have joined together in solidarity in the time of COVID-19 to help the hungry. To date, community leaders have delivered over 250 bags of food to the neediest families in Tegucigalpa neighbourhoods and villages surrounding the city. One community organizer remarks, “The situation is serious. Families are hungry; many have no income due to COVID-19 closures as some stores and companies have shut down; there are also restrictions on work as people are turned away at military checkpoints trying to get to their jobs. Shopping for food is difficult because a family member is only allowed out twice a month not only to purchase necessities but to do their banking and other chores. For those who have lost their jobs or the military have shut down their vendor stands, there is no money to buy the necessities. There are government food assistance programs but these only look after the people who vote for the party in power – the National Party under the military dictator – Juan Orlando Hernandez.”
Thoe food outreach program is very important but difficult to plan, manage, and implement. As community leaders can only go out twice a month to purchase necessities for the program as well as themselves, they must coordinate with other leaders to pick up food supplies, sort, weigh, then distribute the packages. Rice, beans, flour for tortillas, cooking oil, eggs, vegetables, and non-foodstuff items like soap and detergent make up the packages.
In some areas where the military presence is heavy, leaders are afraid to carry too many packages in their vehicles when they deliver in the communities. Some have been stopped at military checkpoints and the packages have been confiscated by the military. Officers taking the food state that only the government has the authority to deliver food to communities. It is therefore precarious volunteer work, as many have not only been angered and belittled by this injustice, but also harassed by the military and others have been threatened with arrest.
In northern city of El Progreso, a group of local women have founded an organization to help to feed the hungry children of the city and surrounding rural areas. Their first step was to clear a small lot, clean the brush away, then build an artisan stove to cook the meals. In another area, the women cleaned an empty shed to house the program. Their goal is to provide one good meal per day for impoverished children who may go hungry otherwise.
The organizers face similar hardships to purchase foodstuffs, sort, then deliver to the cooking areas as the program in Tegucigalpa. With military checkpoints throughout the city and in the rural areas, they face persecution or arrest if they are caught in the streets or in the stores if their ID card numbers do not match the numbers of those who are permitted out for that day. They also worry that the food will be confiscated. Like their counterparts in Tegucigalpa they are afraid to carry too much food at once.
Donations from local Honduran and international organizations are hard to obtain as these are grassroot community members trying to make a difference in an emergency situation. One organizer from the Tegucigalpa program stated that without the support of our community through the Simcoe County Honduras Rights Monitor funds, they would not have the monies to operate. This week, SCHRM is sending an additional $1800 CDN for the two programs. To ensure transparency, we receive receipts and photos for all purchases made
The SCHRM thanks all community members for their continued support and to those who have donated funds for this very important food program. If you wish to donate or to obtain further information on these programs, email at: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: 705-734-4238.
It is heartwarming to know that all monies go directly to the children and families who need assistance the most and that the community members in the severely impoverished neighbourhoods in the cities and rural areas donate their time and energy to keep these very needed programs alive.
Janet Spring and the Simcoe County Honduras Rights Monitor Committee
Edwin Espinal Speaks of Human Rights Violations Amid the COVID Crisis in Honduras
Hunger in the Streets: Handing out Food Packages to Needy Families
Since President Juan Orlando Hernandez shut the country down on March 15, 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people in Honduras are suffering from extreme repression, lack of government transparency, hunger, fear of the military, and widespread unemployment. Edwin talked to me on Sunday evening as he was cooking his dinner, a typical Honduran supper of beans, eggs, avocado, and tortillas. He had just returned from two neighbourhoods where he was delivering food to families in need. Monies were donated by the Honduras social movements to purchase these food staples. I asked Edwin these questions:
What is Honduras like now?
Edwin explained that the people are desperate; some are out in the streets protesting the COVID-19 situation as they face an extreme food and water shortage. Edwin answered.
A lot of people want to protest the Honduran government for not dealing with the crisis in a very human way, respecting human rights of the people. People are starving, there is very little water and what little amount available is not for drinking. Food supplies are scarce. It’s very bad here. So, tomorrow [Sunday] there will be a protest in the streets of Tegucigalpa because the people have nowhere else to turn. But the police and military are very violent toward the people who are asking for food. It is very sad. Families line the streets with signs hoping that people passing by in their cars will give them help. Every time people go out into the streets specifically asking for food, the military use sticks to hit them with blunt force. The military killed a very young man. They beat him up because he wasn’t wearing a mask at a check point – beat him up so badly he died. And there was no follow-up. At the military check points, which are all over the country, the military stop people and sometimes arrest them, beat them, or worse, kill them. It is senseless and desperate here.
How are the people experiencing the COVID restrictions?
This government has not been transparent at all regarding the numbers of confirmed cases. The way they are handling it is very inhumane. They don’t let people know of their own COVID-19 test results when they are tested. They just put them in the hospital and let them die. The authorities just bury them and don’t let the families know of the funeral plans. They also don’t let family members know of the results if they died of COVID or some other ailment – so they have no proof of what happened.
The government doesn’t have any credibility. The doctors were talking about the lack of medical supplies and medical facilities at the beginning of the COVID outbreak, but the government came in and fired any doctors who spoke out against the issues in the hospitals. They replace anyone who speaks out if they don’t follow what the president says. The president manages the numbers – the information. This is a pure dictatorship.
What are people’s perspectives on the military in the streets?
There are more police and military in the streets than during the electoral crisis of 2017 and 2018. There are no jobs and the government is not creating these for the people or even allowing them to sell food on the streets at this time. Due to the lack of employment, which is a regular terrible situation here, more young people try to get a job in the military and the police. The excessive number of the armed forces – the local police, military police, and the special task forces in the prisons –keep Juan Orlando Hernandez in power. We need food, jobs, health care, not a disproportionate military presence! The US and Canadian governments also keep JOH in power. If they pulled their support, this government would fail.
The people are so upset with the government that has a campaign to make people stay in their homes, but the government must help the starving people by supplying food so that they can obey the restrictions. The people understand the need to isolate, but the government is not doing anything. The people have no choice now, so they are disobeying the rules because they are starving. When the military arrest the people for being out in the streets looking for food, they detain them and make them work. And they don’t provide them with security measures; they put them all together in one place with no protection. It’s very, very irresponsible, the way this government is handling the COVID-19 crisis. People are desperate and feel that the situation is hopeless.
How do the Honduran people feel about the aid to Honduras the Trump administration and others have provided?
The people hear these groups are sending aid for COVID – the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and the United States Trump Administration. For example, USAID is sending funds to provide financial help, but the people are not receiving it. The government is using it for themselves; not a penny is getting into the people’s hands or into the programs that are needed. The president stopped all commercial activities and jobs without any warning in March even before there were any COVID cases here. There was no time given for people to prepare for isolation. They had no money (the banks shut down) and they had no extra food at that moment, so not giving any warning was irresponsible, especially with the extra militarization in the streets.
The water supply is very limited – it hasn’t rained for a long time. There are also a lot of forest fires around the city and it’s a strategy from the government to keep us inside. We are not just facing COVID, we also are facing lack of water, the corruption in the government, zero transparency, and the way the government is using the crisis to repress the people further.
People are only allowed once a week to go out for food and supplies. But not everyone has the availability to buy food because they don’t have income, so they beg for food. They have an ID number and each person has a day that is allotted to them. But some are still forced to work in the sweat shops for 12 hours per day. They can’t get out to get food on their day if they are working. So they are in danger if they go out.
The government only favours the people who vote for the National Party (Juan Orlando Hernandez) when it comes to food subsidies. It gives out food bags to only those who support JOH. The ID card provides the government with a number; they have a list of the people who support the National Party. They deliver the food only to the people on the list.
The ability to social distance is difficult. The houses are very close together; many have no glass in their windows and some families often share their homes with relatives. It is very crowded in the neighbourhoods. At the checkpoints, the military beat people up who are in a group. They detain them, they torture them by making them do push-ups until they break. This practice is against human rights decrees.
Many people have been laid off with no assistance at all. Some companies like McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Burger King, laid off people without any benefits, which is against Honduran law. The law is not enforced. If people are sick, they are still expected to show up for work. If they don’t, they are fired.
Tell me about your experiences handing out food.
Social movement organizations bought the food, split them into portions, and put them in plastic bags. We contacted people in different neighbourhoods to find out who needs food. The resistance movements in each community have a list of the needy. There aren’t many available food packages, so they have to decide who needs them the most.
Raul Alvarez and I, and many others, work in our neighbourhoods to drop off the bags of food. Each bag contains small amounts and weighs about 10 lbs. In each is a small amount of rice, oatmeal, cooking oil, flour, beans, the essential things to make a Honduran meal. A lot of people in different neighbourhood are still selling vegetables and fruit, because that’s the only way they can work; they take chances to go out into the city to buy products so they can sell them in the streets. It is a very important informal business in Honduras for both the small business owners and for those who rely on the availability to buy the products.
But Raul and I are very careful when we deliver food. We are only allowed to go out once a week, so it is very restrictive and dangerous for those who wish to volunteer.
I have to say that the human rights violations are getting worse every day. A lot of people are injured by bullets, tear gas, and beatings. In every town and city across the country, people are starving. It is really sad to see people with signs asking for help. I have never ever seen anything like it in my life. It is very discouraging. It is very upsetting. So much uncertainty, fear, and desperation!
I thank the Simcoe County community for your ongoing interest in our welfare. As many of you know, my spouse, Karen Spring is at home in Canada. She is waiting to travel back to Honduras as she was visiting her family when JOH shut the borders without warning. Karen is returning when the flights to Honduras resume. I worry about her safety when she travels to Honduras.
Edwin Espinal, Janet Spring, and the Simcoe County Honduras Rights Committee
APRIL 13 2020
Reality in Honduras During the Pandemic Canadian and US Sweatshops’ Unfair Demands on Workers Wildfires in Tegucigalpa Edwin Espinal and Raul Alvarez’ Trial Dates The global pandemic has hit almost every corner of the world. The response by different countries is dependent on so many factors as is the ability for people to withstand the impacts and effects. Unfortunately, given the great income inequality in our world, some countries especially nations of the “Global South” are hit much harder. Honduras is definitely one of these countries, but Honduras is still in a different coronavirus epidemic moment than in Canada where the virus and infection rate hit sooner. As of April 13, 2020, there are reports of 398 cases of COVID19 in Honduras. The Juan Orlando Hernandez government has reported only 24 deaths but a director of one of the largest public hospitals in the country openly announced there are many more (at least 38 in his hospital alone). Many health care professionals are accusing the government of incorrect reporting. This is fuelling the people’s continued lack of trust in the government. Many Hondurans, including healthcare workers, continue to call into question the government’s overall legitimacy and ability and will to respond effectively. An absolute lock-down of the country continues to at least April 12 and many constitutional rights remain suspended. The border remains closed. Almost every day, Honduras in different parts of the country are going into the streets, defying the lock-down, starting fires in the middle of the roads to demand the government provide them with food and basic supplies. Over 60% of Honduras live in poverty and almost half in extreme poverty. Since many are unable to work, the general population is going hungry and simply cannot stay in their homes. As virus infection rates grow, a severe life-and-death situation and crisis is almost inevitable. Food aid that has been promised by the government is unfortunately being politicized and only being handed out to people on the National Party’s voting roster. This is the equivalent of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau only providing Covid-19 support to people that vote for the Liberal Party! It most certainly is not an effective way of gaining confidence in the authorities, let alone ensuring that supplies and help are reaching those whose need is the greatest. Many of the protests during the lock-down denounce this politicization and several respected figures including even a high-level military official – who was lately fired for making such a statement – have publicly called on the government to stop politicizing food aid. Sweatshop Workers at Risk: Unfair US and Canadian Workplace Policies Many North American companies with apparel factories or sweatshops in Honduras including U.S. company Hanes and Delta Apparel, and automotive parts Empire Electronics, and Canada’s Montreal-based Gildan Activewear are either not abiding by the lock-down or putting their workers in difficult situations. Some companies including Canada’s Gildan Activewear initially called all their workers to work despite being told by the government that people should remain in their homes. For workers that wanted and needed to continue working, they had to leave their houses and risk arrest while passing through military checkpoints en route to their workplaces in the factories. The Honduran media reported last week that over 6,000 people had been arrested for defying curfew – among them, many North American sweatshop workers. Most North American sweatshop companies in Honduras are scattered in and around the large, industrial department of Cortes in northern Honduras. Unfortunately, Cortes is the epicentre of the Covid- 19 outbreaks in Honduras where the majority of cases in the country are located. There are reports of least 3 people that work in North American sweatshops have died from COVID-19. One of the deceased was a physician that worked in Gildan’s factory. The death of the medical worker is generating a great amount of fear as many factories that remain open are infection pools. Workers that put themselves at risk and go to work complained that the US and Canadian-owned companies are not providing basic protection equipment. Other companies are firing anyone – even those with permanent work contracts – that do not show up and then replacing them with temporary workers that receive no health benefits. Gildan recently announced that it will be shutting down operations for months, putting many sweatshop workers – the majority poor single mothers from rural areas that migrate to the sweatshop cities seeking employment – without any source of income, health benefits, or means to support their families. In the best of circumstances, sweatshop workers are constantly fighting for these large companies to abide by the law that is constantly violated to the benefit of the wealthy and powerful. It is these types of companies that seek economic support from our government to “bounce back” from the crisis but
abandon the commitments to their workers when they need support the most. Wildfires Surround Tegucigalpa On top of the health crisis in Honduras, the residents of the capital – Tegucigalpa – and those in the countryside watch how the wildfires in the mountains surrounding the city continue to burn and spread to marginalized farming and residential communities. The flames at night light up the sky and by day smoke is in the air. Since it is early summer, normal daily temperatures rise to 35 degrees Celsius. Fires intensify due to the lack of rain and also an extreme shortage of water that has ravaged many parts of Honduras. Environmental crises such as the wildfires exacerbate the situation as many are struggling to cope with health issues related to the lack of healthcare, supplies, food, and unemployment in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. Since water is scarce, washing hands is impossible unless water is found, then stored in large metal barrels but standing water encourages mosquitoes, which are carriers of dengue fever. Hand sanitizer, cleaning fluid, bleach, detergent, and disinfect liquids that help control sanitation levels are difficult to find or non-existent in some remote, poor areas. Edwin and Raul’s Trial Dates Edwin and Raul’s trial continues to be scheduled for May 14 and 15th but Honduran courts and the judicial system has been shut down since March 15. We do not know what will happen with the trial including when the courts will re-open and if all trials that have been missed as a result of the lock-down will be rescheduled. We are fearful that the crisis could provide cover for the government to justify an unfair decision related to Edwin and Raul’s trial. This may include keeping the original trial date but imposing several restrictions including refusing to allow human rights observers to attend or even conducting the trial virtually (which is something that is being implemented in Honduras even before the pandemic outbreak). If Honduras keeps its borders closed, Karen may not be able to get back if the trial date remains as is. Edwin, Raul, and all other political prisoners that have been conditionally released have not been able to go to the courts to sign on a weekly basis to indicate that they have not fled and remain ready to appear for their trial. Although we have been told by several Honduran lawyers that they do not need to go to the court to sign the ledger given the exceptional lock-down order, we know the total lack of the rule of law in Honduras means anything can be justified! The Simcoe County Honduras Rights Monitor thanks our supporters who continue to send best wishes, and regular inquiries as to the situation in Honduras. We wish our community at large to be safe and healthy during this time of crisis! Janet Spring, Karen Spring, and the Simcoe County Honduras Rights Monitor Committee
I am writing this update from Tegucigalpa Honduras, where I am with Karen and Edwin for ten days. We are spending the extended week visiting, catching up with family, visiting Raul Alvarez, attending a meeting with the Committee for the Freedom of Political Prisoners, and planning our May delegation.
As Edwin and Raul Alvarez’ trial date of May 14 -15 approaches, I am meeting with people this week to plan our Canadian delegation around the trial dates. We are looking forward to providing the Canadian delegates with an informative trip to Tegucigalpa, where we will attend the trial, meet with Canadian and U.S. Embassy staff, and visit with international and Honduran human rights organizations that support the Honduran people, and specifically, the political prisoners.
Yesterday we traveled to the north of Honduras to attend a meeting with COPINH (Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) regarding the case of murdered indigenous activist Berta Caceres. Despite the arrest and conviction of Berta’s assassins, the masterminds behind her murder have still not been arrested and brought to justice. These suspects hold high positions in the Honduran military and are executives in a company that has business interests related to the building of a dam in Western Honduras. International and Honduran human rights organizations are still demanding that the masterminds be charged and convicted of her 2016 murder.
On our way back to Tegucigalpa, we stopped in Comayagua to visit the historic Immaculate Conception Cathedral, built in 1634, which houses the oldest church clock in the world. This city is a Honduran landmark, known throughout the world for its Spanish colonial architecture. Comayagua is also the site of a new international airport, to be completed in the next two years. It is being built on the site of the largest U.S. military base in Central America, the Palmerola U.S. Military Base.
During this visit I have not yet seen any protests. In the streets the protests are small as compared to those that occurred after the November 2017 election and last year during the anti- privatization protests.
I asked why people are not out in the streets as frequently as has been the case on my many previous visits to Honduras. I received the answer that they are afraid to protest. Even though the President’s brother Tony Hernandez was convicted of 4 counts of drug trafficking and other offenses and Juan Orlando Hernandez has been implicated and named as co-conspirator #4 in the same New York court, he remains in power. The U.S. and Canadian governments still are doing business as usual in this country and are propping up this illegal narco-state.
The only choice the Honduran people have now to escape this repressive government’s policies and impunity, extreme poverty, lack of employment, gang violence, drug wars, and extortion by gangs, is to flee the country. This weekend, another large group of people gathered in San Pedro Sula to join a caravan to leave for the U.S. and Mexico border to seek asylum. Many were recently deported from Guatemala or Mexico by the U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, yet they are trying to escape again to make the arduous trip by taking another route. The following provides a background on the issues that force them to flee.
Facts Why Hondurans Flee
Many Hondurans cite living expenses, unemployment, and other economic reasons for why they must flee the country. Most Hondurans work for a minimum wage ($330 USD per month – salaries paid by Canadian and U.S. sweat shops just make this minimum) or less, which is not enough to buy a basic food basket ($335 U.S.) to satisfy a 2200 calorie diet per family member per month. Many private companies do not abide by the unenforced labour law; over half of the population does not make minimum wage.
If a family own a car, they pay gas prices equal to rates in California, which are the second highest state rates in the U.S. If they own a car or not, bus tickets have risen significantly; either way they are impacted. Energy prices have risen over 40% since 2018, which also makes living expenses unaffordable. Water is expensive as privatization has driven this cost up significantly. Proper running water is a luxury for many Hondurans.
Education and Healthcare
The government invests little in public education and healthcare; these services are moving toward privatization. Hondurans must pay out of pocket for basic healthcare and education. There are no supplies and few medications provided in the hospitals; this crisis has worsened dramatically in the last 5 years. In order to be served by a physician, patients are expected to purchase all materials and medications. Long lines and wait times at the public hospitals are a major problem. Private hospitals are financially out of reach for most Hondurans.
In education, user fees are increasing. Parents must pay for registration, mandatory uniforms, books, sometimes desks, and salaries of custodians and security guards. Students learn in compromised environments where school infrastructures at all levels – elementary, high school, public universities – are in desperate conditions. Most Hondurans cannot consider sending students to private schools or universities.
Despite millions of dollars of aid from the Canadian, U.S. and European Union governments to improve security and address the judicial delays and impunity rates, Honduras is more dangerous for its citizens. Many Hondurans that flee the country will talk about the insecurity and their deep mistrust of state security forces, the lack of action by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the justice system to investigate, prosecute, and bring perpetrators of crime to justice. Honduras has the third highest murder rate in the world and 90% of crimes go unpunished; it is even higher against human rights defenders at a rate of 97%.
Many Hondurans fear the targeted massacres that are occurring frequently. These are violent assassinations of 3 or more people in one incident. In 2019, there were 70 massacres involving 281 victims, the majority were young people. In the first 2 days of January 2020, 21 people were killed. In the first 15 days of January 2020, 15 women were killed.
Corruption and Drug Trafficking
This issue is one of the most detrimental for safety and sustainability in Honduras. Millions stolen from Honduran state institutions go to government officials and their family members. The New York Southern District court labelled this corruption through drug trafficking as “state-sponsored drug trafficking.” One Honduran anti-corruption state body reported that the Honduran government loses $480 million from corruption per year, monies that could fund social programs including healthcare, education, and other programs to benefit the country’s poor and reduce the push factors that cause mass migration.
The human rights situation in Honduras has continued to worsen, particularly since the 2009 military coup. Journalists, lawyers, students, small farmers, Afro-indigenous Garifuna peoples, and many individuals critical of the government are targeted for speaking the truth, challenging the interests of the rich and powerful, and defending their territories. Hondurans that stay in the country to fight for true democracy and deep structural change like Edwin and Raul, must confront repression, criminalization, assassinations, threats, and imprisonment. But many are now too frightened to protest or speak out, hence their only recourse is to join mass caravans to flee. If Canada and the U.S. continue to support this Honduran state and the U.S. does not change its policies in Honduras, the people will use this only opportunity to find a way to survive. This is how desperate Hondurans are to escape.
For a more detailed account of the factors that cause Hondurans to migrate and references to the above information, please refer to: http://www.aquiabajo.com/blog
We greatly appreciate your continued support of the Simcoe County Honduras Rights Monitor’s work in Honduras.
Janet Spring, Karen Spring, and the Simcoe County Honduras Rights Monitor Committee
This time last year, I was busy making a lot of food, packing it into styrofoam food containers, strategically placing them into clear large plastic bags, and nervously driving to La Tolva prison. On Christmas Day of 2018, I waited 4.5 hours in the hot sun to get into the jail to see Edwin and Raul. Edwin’s family and I stood in a long line with hundreds of other family members just to have a 2-hour visit. Once inside, we stood because there were no places to sit but were happy to spend the 24th with Edwin and Raul and try and lift their spirits. I had a similar experience when I visited La Tolva on New Year’s Day. This year, I am so relieved that Edwin and Raul are home with us to celebrate this holiday season. I am also glad that I, and others, are not having to spend countless hours at the prison and being constantly worried about their health and safety.
December 2019: Massacres and Riots in Honduran Prisons This holiday season in Honduras was anything but festive and exciting for family members of the over 21,000 prisoners in Honduran jails. In fact, it’s a terrifying time for prisoners and their families as there have been at least 40 prisoners killed in 3 separate massacres inside the prisons in December 2019 alone. On December 14, 5 prisoners were killed inside La Tolva prison where Edwin and Raul were held for 1.5 years. On December 20, another riot broke out in a prison in the northern city of Tela where the only female political prisoner was held for 4 months in 2018. 19 people died and over a dozen people were injured. Some of the injured are still fighting for their lives in the poor public hospital conditions in Honduras. Less than 48 hours later, another riot broke out in a US-style prison located 1.5 hours north of the capital city of Tegucigalpa, killing 18 people and injuring over 16.
Once the news hits the media about the massacres or riots, families are given no special treatment in terms of access to information. I can remember the panic, fear, and anxiety associated with knowing people had died inside La Tolva prison due to a riot in September 2018 and not knowing for over 12 hours if Edwin and Raul were among the dead or the injured. After the news of the killing of 5 inside La Tolva hit the media in September 2018, I jumped into my car, drove to the public hospital where the media mentioned that the injured would be taken, and stayed outside the emergency room waiting for news. Since the morgue is close to the hospital in Tegucigalpa, I went between the morgue and the hospital for several hours waiting to see if someone could give me information: prison guards, forensic doctors … anyone. There were several family members that did the same.
But this year for family members is different. Shortly after the massacre on December 14, President Juan Orlando Hernandez ordered the military to take over the prison system. A national emergency in the Honduran prison system was declared and a special decree was passed that handed over control to the military. The New York Times, the Associated Press and even Toronto’s CP24, reported the national emergency. It was one of the few times that Honduras was mentioned in the international or Canadian news.
Of course, the militarization did nothing to stop the two subsequent massacres that occurred after the intervention. To many people in Canada, sending the military in to control a difficult situation may sound like a reasonable response, but in Honduras, most people including human rights organizations, sound the alarm. For years, President JOH has used the military to intervene in various public institutions with little or even worse impact on the issue that the military control is allegedly intended to get a handle on.
Speculation on the Reasons Behind Prison Violence
Prominent Jesuit religious leader Father Ismael “Melo” Moreno told the Honduran press that the problem is the criminal structure of the government and President Juan Orlando Hernandez, the criminal leader leading the policies of terror and death. Many people have alleged that the gangs controlling the prisons simply take orders from their bosses, including individuals in the highest levels of the government. This sounds unbelievable to those reading about the situation from outside of Honduras but there have been several cases where young gang members that strictly abide by the hierarchical structure of the criminal organization they work for, carry out assassinations in exchange for payment or internal respect from gang leaders. In Honduras, organized criminal organizations are often more organized than the government itself and operate largely with total impunity.
This is also not the first time that President JOH has sent the military to control the prisons. In November 2018, a special military force took over all security check points including the advanced technology of body scanners to control what goes in and out of the prison. I was subjected to a body scanner every time I went into La Tolva then had to be physically patted down by a military soldier in a private room. Many ask, if the military was controlling all entrances and exits of the prisons, how were all the massacres and other deaths inside the prisons committed by guns? … the answer is obvious. There is no security for anyone in any country if corruption reigns and goes unpunished.
Another theory as to why the massacres and riots are happening has to do with the ‘politics of distraction.’ Some in Honduras believe that President JOH is trying to distract the population and international community from two killings inside the maximum-security prisons on October 25 and 26, 2019. Two people with key information and physical evidence that implicated JOH in drug trafficking were violently killed by gang members. Both would have been important and potentially key witnesses for the case in the New York Southern District court where JOH and other Honduran politicians are named as co-conspirators. I posted the two videos of these murders and their context on my blog if people are interested in more information. They can be found at www.aquiabajo.com/blog.
Moving Forward As we begin a new decade in 2020, I will be busy working with the various legal teams getting everything ready for the trials of all political prisoners. We hope that all will be acquitted and all phony trumped up charges are dropped but we know that the fight won’t be easy.
The Simcoe County Honduras Rights Monitor Committee will be traveling to Ottawa to meet with new Members of Parliament when the House resumes in late January. We will be advocating for support for the Honduran people and urging the new government to take a stand on human rights. SCHRM is also planning a Canadian delegation to Honduras in May of 2020 at the time of Edwin and Raul’s trial.
In New York on January 17th, Tony Hernandez, the brother of President Hernandez will be sentenced after being found guilty on four charges of drug trafficking, also lying to federal prosecutors. He is facing the possibility of various life sentences. The Honduran people will be watching the outcome of sentencing and how this will further impact the Honduran president’s position as he was named CC4 – co-conspirator 4 in the trial.
Thank you so much for your support in 2019. We could not have done it without the community of Elmvale and the greater Simcoe County area and beyond. A very Happy New Year from Edwin and I!
Christmas Letter and Greetings to the Springwater News community from Edwin Espinal and Raul Alvarez, Honduras. Please find their communication to their supporters below. LETTERS TO SIMCOE COUNTY FROM HONDURAN POLITICAL PRISONERS RAUL ALVAREZ & EDWIN ESPINAL
To our supporters in Simcoe County, It has been almost 4 months since I was freed from the La Tolva maximum-security prison located in Morocelí, El Paraíso [Honduras]. Before I begin to express and share a bit about my situation, I want to thank all of the people, through the Springwater News via Karen and Janet Spring, that know about and follow our case. Thank you for your solidarity with the over 150 Honduran people that have been criminalized during the 2017 electoral crisis and the 23 people that were unjustly imprisoned. Edwin, myself and others were held in maximum-security prisons that have been converted into torture centres for people that defend democracy and opposed illegal reelection in Honduras. Our Constitution specifically forbids reelection in the Republic of Honduras. Thank you to our Canadian community on behalf of Hondurans. Since I got out of prison, my life has not been the same. It was 19 very difficult months in prison filled with so much uncertainty about what was going to happen to us. This had significant emotional and mental health consequences but also meant exhaustion and the deterioration of our health. The ability for me to reincorporate or reintegrate myself into society after being in prison has been difficult because I have been denied the ability to find a job that will help sustain my family. The media in the country created a campaign to discredit all of the political prisoners in Honduras, indirectly calling them terrorists, criminals, or delinquents through the judiciary and the public prosecutor’s office. Both offices say that people that protest against the government are part of organized crime. In addition to the defamation campaign and a result of my arrest, my police background check shows that I have been arrested as a result of the accusations against me. This background check is a requirement to get a job in Honduras and many will not hire someone with a bad record even if we have not been found guilty. Because of this, it has been difficult to overcome the difficulties I am facing since getting out of prison. When I walk through on the streets of Tegucigalpa and see police or military, I instantly get scared and feel complete mistrust. The police and the military are in charge of continuing the persecution against many of us that have been accused. They are responsible for creating ‘evidence’ and false accusations against us, particularly as we wait for our trials. I frequently suffer from insomnia, stress and anxiety when I begin to think about my time in prison. I cannot sleep and get very nervous when I think about being sent back to prison and my trial that will take place in a few months. It’s important to mention that Edwin Espinal and I are not completely free until Honduran courts absolve us of all charges. As our trial approaches in May 2020, we ask for you and the international community to be on alert. Don’t forget about us because in Honduras, human rights and due process are violated particularly in the cases of the political prisoners. Thank you again and Merry Christmas from Tegucigalpa, Honduras on December 7, 2019. Sincerely, Raúl Alvarez.
To Springwater News, Exactly 4 months ago today, December 9, 2019, I was freed from La Tolva prison. I want to send greetings, thank you and share with you, the residents of Elmvale and Simcoe County, my experiences with Raúl while we were imprisoned. I didn’t know Raul when I got to La Tolva but I had heard about him one week before I was arrested when he was arrested by the Honduran police and charged with arson and property damage. I was in my house at that moment, at that time still free, and I had no idea that I would one week later be arrested as well. When I heard about Raúl’s arrest, I felt badly for him because I knew that he was being charged for demanding justice in our country. I thought briefly about visiting him in prison to give him support but one week later, it was my turn to be arrested. Once I was arrested, I was sent before a judge in a military base and unjustly sent to La Tolva within one day. I was being judged like I am a member of organized crime like the crime I committed was related to drug trafficking, criminal association, or money laundering and other high-impact crimes. Because of this, I was given pre-trial detention. From the moment I arrived to La Tolva, I was treated very poorly. I was put into an isolation cell in my underwear. I was there for a long time but could hear Raúl from my cell sometimes when he talked. I did not know it was him at the time but I began to realize that it was the same person that had been arrested one week before me. In the beginning I thought that being put into an isolation cell was the standard protocol before I was put in with the general population. After approximately 20 days passed, it did not turn out to be like that. I then realized that my treatment was distinct because I was a political prisoner and that the orders to isolate me came from high-levels of the government. So I started to demand to the prison authorities that I wanted to be treated like the rest of the prisoners and I started banging on the door and yelling that I wanted to be taken out of the isolation cell. Approximately one month later, I was put into the same cell as Raúl. We were still isolated but at least I had someone to talk to. That’s where I really met Raúl because we had hours and hours to talk. We asked the Director of the prison why we were still isolated and not with the general population. We were told that it was for security reasons. But Raúl and I insisted that we did not want to be isolated, not just from the general population, but also from our families or any visitors. We could not continue in those conditions. After various days of protesting inside the cell, the prison director gave into our demands and sent us to prison block (module) 3. The prison is divided into two areas- minimum security which has 4 modules and another that is medium-security which has 4 modules as well. The latter is controlled by the M18, largest and most violent gang in Honduras. We were sent to the modules controlled by another large but less violent gang, the MS13. They are still very violent but they are more strategic in the ways they commit violent crimes. Raúl and I were mixed in with the MS13 but separated into two different cells. We were told that we could not be together because we are dangerous together. That made us laugh because we are anything but dangerous especially surrounded by the people we were mixed in with. In the first month, an epidemic of the cold began, fever, cough, and diarrhea, so we demanded medical attention and water. When we didn’t receive a response, we spearheaded a hunger strike, which lasted 5 days because we didn’t have the basic conditions like food, water, and on top of that, being sick, so were forced to suspend it. But at least we were able to achieve that everyone got medications. We also gained respect amongst other prisoners who really became to understand that we were fighting for justice for all Hondurans, and because of that, were unjustly imprisoned as political prisoners. There were many incidents of violence inside the prison when we were there. For example, the massacre inside module 1 in September 2018. We were walking back inside the prison to our module after seeing our families. When we passed the doors of module 1, a fight broke out and prisoners began stabbing each other. Three people died in that riot and it was awful to witness it. Many months passed and we started receiving threats from other prisoners because of the protests that were occurring in the streets of Honduras. As a result of the protests and blocked roads, family members of the prisoners could not come to visit and medical visits to the hospitals were cancelled so we were told that if the protests didn’t stop, we would be killed. With difficulty, we overcame those threats. Through all these threats, Raúl and I frequently met to talk and discuss our security situation. Based on the information we received from our lawyer Prisila and Karen, we were able to coordinate ways to publicly and legally denounce the threats as well as strategies to get us out of there. Raúl and I played a lot of chess and I began seeing chess, a very strategic game, as an analogy to our situation and achieving our freedom under a dictatorship. I actually did not know how to play chess before going to prison. Raul taught me and then we taught others and we started to pass the time by planning chess tournaments with other prisoners inside. As Christmas approaches, I remember what it was like spending the holidays of 2018 in prison. It was very sad and we were under threats at that moment too. But we knew that 2019 would bring us hope. On the eve of the 25th when Hondurans celebrate Christmas, Raúl, myself and other prisoners stayed up really late playing soccer inside the tiny common area of the module. It was the only way we could keep our and others’ spirits up. After midnight, I broke a small watermelon into pieces that Karen and my family had brought for me during the previous family visit and shared it with the people that stayed up with us. Even the smallest amount of food, especially something sweet, could help cheer people up. After months of fighting to be transferred to another prison, we were finally told by prison authorities that we would never be transferred and that the orders to keep us in La Tolva came from high-levels of the government. In that moment, we felt defeated. But we continued to insist along with many people, like yourselves that supported our demands and made calls to the Canadian government and in Honduras, to demand through protest, that we be at least removed from the general population because of the new threats we had received. We were then put into an improvised room but the conditions were awful. We felt more physically secure but the conditions were inhumane. After a month we realized that if we didn’t take action, the inhumane conditions would become the norm so we started another protest, another hunger strike to demand that we be transferred to another area with better conditions. This hunger strike was coordinated with a fast, organized by the Committee for the Freedom of Political Prisoners in front of the public prosecutor’s office in Tegucigalpa. It was an incredible coordinated action, which I came to understand once I was freed. We finally received that transfer, thanks to the support in Honduras and in Canada and other places in the world, to another and more improved place inside the prison. A day later, we were informed that we had been conditionally released. There really are no words to describe that moment – disbelief, doubt, happiness … so many emotions. When we walked out of La Tolva, we were met by Karen, Prisila, and family, who received us. It was an indescribable moment and we all hugged each other. We could not have achieved it without all the people of Elmvale and Simcoe County, Ontario. I send you all my gratitude during this Christmas season for your efforts and actions that helped achieve our conditional release. Thank you! Edwin Espinal from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, December 9, 2019
Canada Supporting and Upholding Chaos in Latin America: Honduras and Bolivia A Corrupt Legal System in Honduras: Case of Canadian Porn King, Randy Jorgensen A Long-Awaited Release: Political Prisoner Gustavo Caceres is Free
Canadian/US Backed Coup in Bolivia: Will Newly Appointed Minister Champagne Speak Up?
The Canadian Federal government once again has decided to support another military coup in Latin America, this time in Bolivia. On November 17, 2019, Bolivia’s democratically elected President Evo Morales was forced to resign. With heavy support from the Bolivian police and military arsenals, he was overthrown. Jeanine Áñez Chavez took power and declared herself interim leader.
With only 4% of the vote in the election that occurred earlier in October, just before the coup, Áñez in this new role, is controlling the population with extreme force and acts of violence. These atrocities are against any groups or individuals that are peacefully protesting the overthrow of Morales or who publically speak against this illegal coup and government corruption.
Canadian Labour Unions and international human rights organizations are condemning the violence that is a result of the recent military coup in Bolivia through the ousting of President Evo Morales, the first indigenous duly elected leader of Bolivia. Morales was forced to flee the country to take refuge in Mexico; his usurper Áñez has threatened him with imprisonment if he returns to the country. Since the indigenous peoples of Bolivia represent over half the population, the ensuing violence, racist remarks, and actions against these peoples is very disturbing. With a reputation of being extremely racist, the international human rights communities fear that Áñez will commit severe atrocities against them. Read further information at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/24/bolivia-anez-regime-violence
The Honduran people still await support from Canada and the United States against illegally elected President Juan Orlando Hernandez. Hernandez is leader of the National Party; his leadership is a product of the 2009 military coup that toppled the government of Manuel Zelaya. They too continue to experience similar severe repression at the hands of the military and illegal, narco dictator government of JOH. After 17 months of imprisonment in La Tolva Prison, political prisoners Edwin Espinal and Raul Alvarez are still at risk of re-arrest, or violence against them – torture, disappearance, or murder. Hondurans fully understand the reasoning behind and actions of this recent coup in Bolivia as they too have living through a coup and are now living in fear because of it.
Why does Canada continue to support right-wing coup governments throughout Latin America? Like usurped President Zelaya in Honduras, President Morales introduced important social reforms that brought growth in economics and social policies, reduced poverty and racism, enhanced education and health, and most importantly improved human rights. But it is clear that Canadian foreign policy supports economics first; human rights are at the bottom of the list.
We have witnessed the previous Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s support of these coups in Latin America. We therefore urge the newly appointed Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne to make a public statement condemning the recent military coup in Bolivia and the illegal presidency of JOH. Even though President Hernandez has recently been implicated in drug trafficking as co-conspirator #4, and linked to his convicted brother in a New York courtroom, the Canadian government remains silent. We now hope that with a minority government, issues of human rights in and outside of Canada are discussed and rectified.
Canadian Porn King Randy Jorgensen Declared Innocent by Honduran Court
To understand the impunity and corruption in Honduras, and the unjust legal system that only favours the rich and the advancement of economics, reviewing the case of Canadian Porn King – Randy Jorgensen tells all. After a nine-year wait, the case against Jorgensen stealing Afro-indigenous land and building tourist projects on that land, finally came to trial in the northern community of Trujillo last week. Even though he was charged, Jorgensen was not sent to prison to await trial.
The case is related to Jorgensen’s Canadian land development on the north Caribbean coast that tries to attract North Americans interested in building vacation homes in tropical countries. It is directly related to our billboard story, that was published in Springwater News earlier in the year. Jorgensen is a business associate with other Canadian companies doing the same as he – illegally purchasing land and looking for buyers in areas like Simcoe County. Despite evidence against Jorgensen, the court date has been dragged out for 9 years. An arrest warrant was issued for him, but the Honduran government did not arrest him.
In Honduras, the justice system slows down for the rich and investors like Jorgensen, to a turtle pace, if it relates to economics and wealth. Not surprisingly, Jorgensen was absolved of all charges, even though it is very clear that his Campa Vista project was built on illegally purchased land. Jorgensen also took over land by fencing off additional land surrounding the Campa Vista gated community project. This extra land is being sold to those who wish to purchase land to construct vacation homes.
In this same area, four or five other Canadian and American companies are also developing resort villas; they promote each other’s interests as they try to intimidate families who have lost these lands. Some Afro-indigenous leaders have also been murdered or tortured and then criminalized for protesting the gated communities and attempting to block construction.
Yet no one in Honduras is surprised that Jorgensen was acquitted of all charges. The Garifuna community now must take this case to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. The Honduran people fully are aware that the Honduran justice system operates only for the rich business entrepreneurs, not the Honduran people. The downside of this is that justice make take up to 10-15 years for the Afro-indigenous families to regain their land. It’s not only a long period of time to await the ruling by the international courts, but all of the Canadians and Americans who purchase this land, will lose their investments when a ruling is made. Many foreigners do not know that they are buying illegally purchased land, nor do they know they are vacationing in unfriendly, compromised communities where they are not welcome. Further information on the Randy Jorgensen was reported by Macleans: https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1993/10/11/the-king-of-porn and Toronto Star: https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2016/11/20/the-canadian-porn-king-and-the-caribbean-paradise.html
Political Prisoner Gustavo Caceres is Finally Free!
Gustavo was finally freed by court order on November 14, 2019 and on that day, the National Freedom for Political Prisoners Committee and other international human rights groups traveled to the city of El Progreso where Gustavo was jailed for almost two years. Film crews video-taped the crowd as they congratulated Gustavo when he walked out of the prison a free man. The women’s group in his home town of El Progreso are now meeting to determine how best to support Gustavo and his family. Gustavo spent almost two years in prison for a ‘crime’ he did not commit. Unlike Jorgensen, Gustavo was innocent; the court threw out the case. This is a blatant example of the corruption throughout all levels of the Honduran judicial system and how it works only for the rich. The Simcoe County Honduras Rights Monitor believes that Gustavo was acquitted because of the international pressure on the Honduran government. If the pressure did not exist, Gustavo could easily have been convicted.
The Simcoe County Honduras Rights Monitor thanks the community of Elmvale and the greater Springwater area residents for their continued support for all political prisoners and the Honduran people. We continue to work with Canadian, Honduran, and international human rights organizations to affect positive change in Honduras for the Honduran people.
Edwin and Raul send their best to Springwater News and will be personally writing an update in the next issue.
Janet Spring and the Simcoe County Honduras Right Monitor Committee
Please find our recent SCHRM article for Springwater News. Written by Karen Spring, it details the situation in the country for human rights defenders, political prisoners, the case of Edwin Espinal, and the high level of government corruption in Honduras.
Karen Spring Reports on Edwin Espinal, Political Prisoners, and the Political Situation in Honduras
It has been three months since Edwin Espinal was released from La Tolva prison. I haven’t written anything publicly due to being exhausted for, while Edwin was in prison, I felt like I ran a 1.5-year marathon with little time to sit down, reflect, and absorb what was going on around me. Thank you to the people who have supported Edwin’s case, my human rights work in Honduras and this belated update from Honduras.
In the three months since his release, Edwin has been recovering, speaking to media, attending the legal hearings and meetings related to the cases of the other political prisoners, spending a lot of time with family, and planning our future.
Edwin continues to have a permanent, loud, ringing sound in his ear. We are told it is tinnitus but still feel we need to see another specialist that can run further tests. Edwin developed the problem in prison after complaining of an ear infection that was never treated. The ringing sound not only interrupts his sleep or other moments of rest or quiet, but also generates a lot of frustration and anger. It reminds him of the whole experience in La Tolva, being denied medical treatment, the unjust way he was detained, and as he often says, “the way the government wanted to make me suffer.” The mental health impact could possibly be worse than the actual physical problem. He frequently gets headaches that he says are linked to the noise in his ears and asks me sometimes to put my head up against his to see if I can hear the loud ringing in his ears. But it is internal and I hear nothing.
Every week, Edwin goes to the courthouse to sign a ledger that is supposed to show to the Honduran judiciary that he has not left the country and that he is still present to face the charges against him. His court date is set for May 14 and 15, 2020.
As for myself, I continue my work supporting the other political prisoner cases. Within the first 6 months following the 2017 electoral crisis, all were released except five including Edwin. Now, only one political prisoner remains in jail; over 170 people still face charges and are forced to sign regularly at courthouses around the country. I am also doing human rights work related to the criminalization of people awaiting trial. Some are being harassed continuously by Honduran military and police.
One young man who was arrested for participating in protests during the 2017 electoral crisis, and who spent four months in the maximum-security El Pozo prison, has been forced into hiding. Military soldiers and police with their faces covered, carrying heavy weapons including illegal weapons like AK47s, have shown up four times at his small house to either raid it when he is not home or just stand outside to intimidate him. He reports that a red Toyota pick-up truck with tinted windows and no license plate is frequently seen parked on his street. Out of fear, the young man has since fled his home. Many people face this type of intimidation and are forced to hide, or move frequently. They fear they will be killed. The Honduras Solidarity Network is assisting this gentleman and others to raise their profiles to deter the government from harassing them further and to make all the details of the harassment known publicly.
On November 11, Edwin, Raúl, members of the National Committee for the Freedom of Political Prisoners and myself, traveled to the city of El Progreso for political prisoner Gustavo Cáceres’ trial. It was suspended last week after two witnesses, called by the Honduran government, did not appear. As a defense strategy, Gustavo’s lawyers asked him to testify before the judges. When Gustavo took the stand, the judges asked him to state his ID number, address, and birthdate. He shrugged and could not answer completely, due to his disability. Many people in the courtroom teared up as Gustavo attempted to give his version of the events related to his detention. He was arrested while crossing a bridge where a protest was taking place. When stopped by the police, they put a black bag over his head (a method of torture used by the police to generate fear and attempt to elicit confessions) and took him to the police station. Gustavo told the court in an honest and sincere way, but in broken sentences, that he was close to the protest; he was trying to cross the blocked bridge to go to work. Meanwhile, the police officers that arrested him, contradicted each other, including testifying that Gustavo was arrested in two different places and based on different reasons.
In early October, I attended half of the trial of Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez (brother of President Hernandez) in New York. I posted summaries of the trial on my blog aquiabajo.com so people could follow the case. As a result of my attendance at the trial and being closely monitored by the Honduran government, another defamation campaign circulated against me on October 18, 2019, claiming that I was paying people $200 each to protest outside the New York trial and that I received funding from a convicted drug trafficker who is also in jail in the US. These campaigns are dangerous and have become a common tactic of the Honduran government to try to discredit human rights defenders and create security problems for them. This is another reason that I have not written much as both Edwin and I are aware of the exceptionally difficult security situation that we are in in Honduras, particularly given the current political context.
Since Tony Hernandez was found guilty on 4 counts of drug and weapons smuggling and lying to federal authorities, the environment in Honduras has been eerie and dangerous. As the Canadian and US government insist that the governments in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and now to a degree, Bolivia, are drug traffickers and dictators, it is outrageous to hear absolutely nothing from Canadian and US authorities regarding the drug conviction of Tony Hernandez in New York and the role that President Juan Orlando Hernandez continues to play in enabling and participating in drug trafficking.
Now, weeks after this conviction, military, police, and other government institutions are terrorizing the Honduran population so they do not protest. One Honduran journalist has reported that since the conviction, 11 people linked to the President and the President’s brother’s drug cartel have been murdered, likely to stop them from testifying against them. Human rights and social movement leaders have been kidnapped and tortured, and in some cases, brutally killed. Their bodies are dumped off at the side of a road, which is a strategy to terrorize the population. There have also been 51 massacres in different parts of the country so far this year and often involve individuals dressed in police or military uniforms getting out of unmarked vehicles, open firing at groups of young people in public areas, and then fleeing the scene. The massacres and lack of investigations into why and who committed them, send a cold chill through communities and the entire population in Honduras. However, smaller groups of people still take to the streets to protest this corruption when demonstrations are organized.
Hondurans are well aware that Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH) is scared and feeling insecure about his control over the Presidential Palace because he has been exposed as a co-conspirator in the drug case against his brother. They believe that while JOH remains in power, it is less likely that the US will ask for his extradition. Hondurans also understand that JOH is not only protecting his political power as President but also his and his brother’s drug cartel interests. Evidence brought forward in the NY trial reveals that their involvement in drug trafficking has converted them into one of the major suppliers of cocaine to the US through the infamous and now-imprisoned Mexican drug trafficker, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and the large, Mexican-based Sinaloa cartel. As one cooperating witness said in the New York trial when asked why he was scared to testify against Tony Hernandez, “All drug traffickers are dangerous and violent, but none are the brother of the President of a country that can control the military and the police.”
Edwin and I await an end to this fearful time. We are deeply grateful for the support we continue to receive from our community of Simcoe County that advocates for his freedom, the freedom of all political prisoners, and for human rights in Honduras. Thank you!