Letter to US Embassy in Honduras

Ambassador Llorens,

We have compiled this report of human rights abuses committed by the Honduran police and military against civilians.  We will be disseminating this information internationally, and would like to be able to include a response from the U.S. Embassy, particularly a response to the U.S. government’s refusal to call the Honduran coup regime a coup regime.

Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Quixote Center / Quest for Peace

This report comes from an international delegation of North Americans which has been in Honduras a short time taking testimony of, observing, and reporting human rights abuses.   This delegation came to Honduras because reports from people on the ground have differed substantially from most media reports of the coup regime.

Monday night, August 3rd, we heard reports of alleged human rights abuses in the city of San Pedro Sula.  Tuesday we traveled to San Pedro Sula to talk with witnesses and victims.  We traveled with members of COFADEH, the Honduran Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared, a well-respected human rights organization based in the capital.   While there, we heard testimonies of excessive and indiscriminate police violence against peaceful protestors as well as uninvolved citizens.  Even the judge assigned to execute the writs of habeus corpus for those protestors who had been unlawfully detained was threatened with lethal weapons and assaulted by police at the police station.  We also heard the testimony of a woman whose son has been disappeared, and we heard from teachers who fear they’ve been targeted on a “death list.” 

Margarita Murillo, herself a survivor of twenty-two days of detention and torture in the 1980’s, testified that in the early hours of July 26th, her twenty-four year-old son was kidnapped from their home.  She believes that the kidnapping is retaliation for her own political work against the coup.  She had noticed armed men in unmarked cars around their house as early as three weeks prior to her son’s disappearance.  She said, “If the army took my son to deter me, it was very poor judgment on their part.  I’ve been in the struggle for twenty-five years; I’m not going to abandon it.”  Her son’s name is Samuel David Flores Murillo.  His mother said, “If he appears alive but tortured, we’ll denounce that internationally.”

Another teacher testified that last Tuesday, his sixteen year-old son was kidnapped from their home while the family was at another peaceful demonstration.  This teacher believes that he has been targeted by the military, attempting to dissuade him from political activity.  His son was returned home three hours later without explanation.

On Monday, August 3rd 2009, between two and three thousand people in a caravan of about 500 cars attempted to stage a peaceful protest, organized by teachers, in the city of San Pedro Sula.  They planned three stops: the central park, the Honduran Arab Club, and the city mall.  They approached the Honduran Arab Club, which was surrounded by police, because acting president Michelleti was there.  Realizing they wouldn’t be able to get close to the building, the protesters turned around to leave the Arab Club to move on to the city mall.  As they were beginning to leave, police approached and began smashing the window shields of the caravans cars with their clubs.  The police then began to pull people from cars and beat them.

One local furniture maker with a degree in philosophy, Porfirio Castro, was at the protest with his wife, their eight-year-old daughter, and a family friend.  Castro testified that he only brought his daughter along because it was explicitly nonviolent, as anti-coup demonstrations have all been intentionally nonviolent, and they thought it would be a “low-risk” protest.  They did not expect violent response.  The police broke the windows of the furniture maker’s car, then pulled him out of it and kicked him and beat him with their clubs.  He showed bruises on his back and shoulders.  He testified that the police hit his 8-year-old daughter on the head.  His daughter was hidden in a nearby home with a friend while he himself was detained along with others.  Those detained were released at 6:30pm on Monday.  Castro’s testimony to us on Tuesday was brief; he left to pick up his daughter to take her to a psychologist for trauma treatment.

Gustavo Mejia, a local teacher, was driving at the head of the caravan with large speakers.  He testified that five policemen on motorcycles stopped his vehicle and threatened its occupants with pistols.   He testified that all around him, police were beating people, including sexually assaulting women with their clubs.  When Mejia was detained and taken to the first precinct of San Pedro Sula, he feared he would be disappeared – he had been detained in a teachers’ struggle in 2004.  He showed us that the last eight messages on his phone were anonymous death threats against his children, trying to terrorize him into leaving the movement against coup.  Teachers in particular have received a lot of repression, he said.  “They tell us our days are numbered.”

Ricardo Castro, a radio and TV journalist for twenty-eight years, said he’s never seen repression like this in Honduras.  The previous Wednesday in Comayagua, the simple act of taking out his recording equipment at an anti-coup protest got him thrown to the ground and beaten by police.  He showed us the still-dark remnants of bruises sustained that day.  Wednesday he was detained along with peaceful protestors, and he said that the police sprayed water and pepper powder on the floor of their holding cell to make their eyes and skin burn.  On Monday in San Pedro Sula, Castro was in the caravan when police pulled him out of his vehicle – clearly marked PRESS – by his neck, put a pistol in his mouth to threaten him, then began beating him.  He said, “I know many police officers; I’ve interviewed them over the years; many of them are quite calm.  The ones yesterday were crazy.”

According to pro-bono lawyer Samuel Madrid, police called protestors Chavistas and communists, and beat many with the butts of their guns.   A 79 year old man was hit on the back of the head.  Seven women and at least twenty-eight men were arrested (including the 79 year old man).  Among them were three lawyers, all of whom confirmed that no crime had been committed and that the human rights of the protestors had been violated.  Osman Fajardo, an oversight judge, determined that no crimes had been committed, and the protestors who had been apprehended were released approximately four hours after being detained.

After the attack on the caravan, police moved on to the central park of San Pedro Sula.  They began harassing someone sitting in the park for wearing a “Mel” ribbon on his hat, and took him away.  The crowd then began whistling at the police in disapproval, and the police responded by physically assaulting those in the park.  People ran for cover to a nearby commercial center, where a married couple owns an internet café.  They closed the gate on their business for safety.  Police appeared at the gate, demanded that they open it, and then pulled the couple out of their business and began beating the man, Miguel Mejia.  A picture of the attack appeared in the newspaper, with a caption stating that the police were subduing protestors.

Two teachers testified that they believe their names are on a list of thirty people from the region that the military is planning to disappear.  They called it a renewal of operation 316.  The 316 was a clandestine military death squad in the 1980’s responsible for torturing and disappearing civilians.  Billy Joya, former member of the 316, is now de-facto president Michelleti’s principal advisor on security, responsible for developing “national security doctrine techniques.”

One of the first briefings this delegation received upon our arrival was from a public prosecutor in the Honduran judicial system. He explained in clear terms the elements of this takeover which point unequivocally to a military-supported coup. Essential to those elements is the absence of due process per the criminal code: there were no clear charges pending against Zelaya which warranted his being searched or apprehended.  Even if there were pending charges, Zelaya did not pose a risk of flight or violence which would necessitate his being forcibly apprehended in the early-morning hours by the military.  The military is not authorized or tasked with apprehension of criminal suspects.  This state attorney concludes that the coup leaders have acted illegally and in violation of the Honduran Constitution. 

Given the most recent example of state-sponsored repression in San Pedro Sula on Monday, and in light of the clear illegality and unconstitutionality of the coup government, it is essential that the United States Government formally and unequivocally name this a coup d’etat.

US law would then require that all financial aid be cut and military ties severed until constitutional rule of law is restored. Further, diplomatic as well as tourist and business visas to anyone implicated in the coup would be cancelled — not just the diplomatic visas of a few coup leaders — and the US mission including the Ambassador would need to be pulled from the country.

By declaring the coup a coup, the US would be joining the rest of the International Community, and acting in accordance with US and International law. This is the responsibility and only rightful course of action for the US if it is to act in good faith on its commitment to supporting and defending democracy.

For more information, contact Tom Loudon.