Honduras pre-election violence spikes; Berta Cáceres files disappear
Tear gas flies during a confrontation between police and demonstrators in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on November 26, 2013. | Fernando Antonio/AP

National elections in Honduras are a year away, but the incumbent president, Juan Orlando Hernández of the right-wing National Party, is already in campaign mode, as are his opponents on the left and center. Tensions are on the rise, with police carrying out a tear gas attack against opposition demonstrators this past Monday.

Such events are leading the opposition to worry whether it will be possible to campaign for the November 2017 vote without being subjected to violence. Honduras remains one of the most violent countries in the world, a situation that has only worsened since the 2009 coup against former President Manuel Zelaya. Indigenous, women’s, labor, and LGBTQ activists have been particularly targeted over the ensuing years. In many cases, the victims have been people who got in the way of big moneymaking schemes involving transnational corporations, Honduran elite families, right-wing political leaders, or all three.

There is now also serious talk of the reappearance in Honduras of the death squads which slaughtered thousands in Central America during the dictatorships of the 1980s. The disappearance of the case files from the Berta Cáceres murder investigation is ramping up such fears.

Legacy of the coup

When former President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown by a military coup in June 2009, the pretext given was that he was somehow planning to run for re-election later that year. Second terms were forbidden by the Honduran constitution at the time. The more likely reason for his overthrow was ruling class resentment over the social and economic reforms he had introduced which were beginning to have an impact on Honduras’ historic poverty. Another was probably that under Zelaya, Honduras had allied itself with the left-wing governments in the region via the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, or ALBA.

Zelaya’s foreign minister, Patricia Rodas, said at the time that the coup plan was hatched under the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, who was angry because of Zelaya’s alignment with Cuba and Venezuela.

The pretext that Zelaya had to be overthrown because he was thinking about running for re-election has now been blown out of the water by the current President, Juan Orlando Hernández. A wealthy businessman, he was elected in 2013 under very dodgy conditions; it later was revealed that money had been illegally taken from the Honduran Social Security Institute, the agency that provides health care for the poor, to finance his campaign. This and other revelations have led to months of anti-corruption demonstrations against his government. Undaunted, Hernández managed to pack the Supreme Court with his supporters and secured a ruling that the prohibition on re-election was unconstitutional. It is now assumed he will run again, though he has not yet formally announced his candidacy.

Under Hernández and his predecessor, Porfirio Lobo, also from the National Party, the economic situation in Honduras for the poor and working class has declined sharply. Of course, most countries around the world took a big economic hit due to the world financial crisis at that time, but Honduras did radically worse than other countries in the region. A 2013 study by the Center for Economic Policy and Research found the increase in inequality in the country particularly notable. This, combined with the deteriorating security situation and the corruption scandals, should be a source of worry for Hernández.

Zelaya still has a strong following in Honduras, so the cynical decision of Hernández to give himself permission to run for re-election has set off a debate as to what the pro-Zelaya forces should do. The electoral left is mostly concentrated in the LIBRE (Libertad y Refundación) political party which grew out of the movement opposing the 2009 coup. One possibility that has been mentioned is to run Xiomara Castro, Zelaya’s wife, as LIBRE’s presidential candidate. She was the party’s nominee in the last election in 2013 and might well have won had the election been clean and fair. Another possibility is to run Zelaya himself once more, since Hernández has now made this possible. On October 30, LIBRE is holding a national consultation to determine what will be their course of action.

Return of the death squads?

The opposition’s fear of election-related violence, however, has been stoked by the murder of several government opponents over the last couple of years. The best known of them was environmentalist and indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres, who was shot to death on March 3 of this year. Her case has brought to light the probable collaboration of the military and the militarized police in some of these slayings. Eventually, five men were arrested for her murder and were supposed to be put on trial.

However, Cáceres’ family and friends got very disconcerting news last week. For reasons that have not been adequately explained, a supervising magistrate in the case, María Luisa Ramos, decided to take the case files out of the office and to her home on September 29. On the way, she says, she was held up by two unidentified men and the files were stolen from her car.

There is now fear that not only will the disappearance of the Cáceres case files allow the killers off the hook, but that the lives of witnesses to the crime will now be endangered because they can be identified from the files.

Cáceres’ daughter Olivia has demanded that an investigation be carried out of why Ramos took the files out of the office and called for witnesses in the case be fully protected. The Cáceres family and their friends are demanding that an impartial outside agency, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, be brought in to investigate the murder, but President Hernández has so far ignored this demand.

The U.S. connection

The United States government bears major responsibility for the current situation in Honduras. When Zelaya was overthrown in 2009, most of the countries of Latin America formed a united front to reverse the coup and return Zelaya, the legally elected president, to power. However, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worked to undermine this strategy and moved toward new elections to replace Zelaya. These elections were carried out with troops in the street repressing Zelaya supporters and cannot be considered to have been fair.

Legislation currently in the U.S. Congress, sponsored by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), calls for a cutoff of security aid to Honduras unless the human rights situation there is improved dramatically. The bill (HR 5474, the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act) has now accumulated 42 co-sponsors (all Democrats) but needs many more to advance (contact your Congresspersons today to ask them to co-sponsor and support the bill).

So far, however, the Honduran government expresses no worry that U.S. aid to its military and police forces will be cut off. It announced that it is also negotiating with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to get aid from that quarter.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.