On March 19, activists across the world carried out a day of action demanding the freedom of the more than 20 political prisoners held by the administration of Juan Orlando Hernández, who was recently re-elected president of Honduras. The activists were arrested following widespread protests against Hernández’s re-election and irregularities in the electoral process. Activists decried the failure of the Trump administration to speak out over the incarceration of opponents to the administration in Honduras.
Among those being held by the Hernández administration is Edwin Espinal, a 41-year-old internationally known Honduran activist and organizer who has been active in the movement against the dictatorship. Espinal was arrested en route to his home in Tegucigalpa on January 19, 2018, by officers from the Police Investigations Directorate (DPI), an investigative unit formed by Hernández in 2015 during his first term as president.
Espinal is accused of being involved in the damage to the Marriott Hotel in Tegucigalpa during a march on January 12, 2018. He was arrested on charges of arson, property damage and use of homemade explosives. Yet, according to an article for the prestigious North American Congress on Latin America by Adrienne Pine, an associate professor of anthropology at American University, evidence suggests that the damage was caused by infiltrators from the Partido Nacional, the political party to which Hernández belongs.
The case has been plagued by irregularities. Espinal is being held in the La Tolva prison, a maximum-security prison run by the Honduran military, in spite of the fact that he is a civilian. At least 17 of the 26 current political prisoners are being held in similar facilities. Family visits are barred, which only adds to the grief and pain of both incarcerated individuals and family members.
“It is another way the state of Honduras is punishing [the political prisoners] … for protesting the electoral fraud and for speaking out against the government,” Karen Spring, the Honduras-based coordinator of the Honduras Solidarity Network of North America and long-term partner of Espinal, told Truthout. “They have put them into these military-run maximum security prisons because the conditions are much harsher, and because they are not able to see their family members, that is additional punishment for speaking out against the government…. It is part of the psychological torture.”
Human rights observers from Amnesty International were barred from entering Espinal’s first hearing, which was held at a military base. Spring says that Espinal’s prosecution thus far has borne many similarities to a military court process, although he is a civilian.
“It is not a military tribunal, but it is not a civilian one either,” Spring told Truthout. “They have created an ad-hoc court system where the judges are not appointed or nominated as they should be. They are appointed potentially by the president of the country. They call them National Jurisdiction Courts, but they are very much a military style court because they do not respond to normal civilian protocols in many ways.”
The National Jurisdiction Courts were originally formed in 2010 when Orlando Hernández was president of the congress to try cases involving organized crime and drug trafficking.
On March 2, Espinal began a hunger strike to protest the harsh conditions within the prison. He was forced to end his strike after a couple of days, as the military began to limit water in the prison to only a few minutes each day.
Espinal has been targeted ever since Partido Nacional took power following the 2009 coup d’état that ousted president Manuel Zelaya from office. He was an active member of the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP), which emerged following the coup. In 2009, his partner, Wendy Avila, was killed after police deployed excessive amounts of tear gas against protesters. In 2010 he was tortured by police in his neighborhood.
Ahead of the 2013 election, his home was illegally raided by police and members of the interagency task-force of the National Inter-Institutional Security Force (FUSINA, or Fuerza de Seguridad Interinstitucional Nacional) that includes the military, military police, public ministry and national police created by Orlando Hernández in 2015. The same public prosecutor, Ricardo Adolfo Núñez, and judge, Claudio Daniel Aguilar Elvir, who ordered the 2013 raid are also the ones who ordered his arrest in 2018.
The use of units such as FUSINA and the military police represent the consolidation of power by the right wing that has occurred since the 2009 coup. These forces have become the primary means of the administration to repress the opposition and those who protest the neoliberal policies that the administration imposes on the country.
“[They contribute to the] consolidation of power into a few hands that give the president a huge amount of power to persecute any opponents of his government,” explained Spring.
Other units created following the 2009 coup, including units trained by the United States, are also being used against protesters. Soldiers from the Honduran military and the military police carried out operations against activists in the lead-up to the January 27, 2018 inauguration of Orlando Hernández. The repression against activists has displaced organizers from their communities and forced many into hiding.
Among the units that have received training from the US is the SWAT-like, highly trained unit of the Honduran National Police known as the TIGRES (Tropa de Inteligencia y Grupos de Respuesta Especial de Seguridad). As Sandra Cuffe reports for the Intercept, the TIGRES are being used in operations against activists. Police units raided the homes of activists in the department of Cortés.
Other activists face orders for arrest. Among those is María, who spoke to Truthout from a safe house and asked to use a pseudonym.
“We are being sought by the police, the DPI, and all the elements that have been sent by Orlando Hernández,” María, who was active during the protests, told Truthout. “We are worried for the members of our families.”
María faces charges for her part in the protests against the electoral fraud and in defense of democracy.
“We are accused of robberies and other crimes,” she told Truthout. “But this is a lie. There were people that infiltrated the protests and took advantage and now that we are demanding our rights, the weight fell on us.”
According to a report from the Committee of Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH, or Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras), over 1,000 activists have been arrested by the military, the military police and national police forces. Many others, like María, face criminal charges.
Activists have faced intense repression from the Honduran security forces since the beginning of the electoral crisis. The administration declared a state of siege on December 2 that suspended the constitution, established a curfew between 6 pm and 6 am, and deployed soldiers into the streets to put down any protests. The curfew was later changed to between 8 pm and 5 am because the population refused to acknowledge the hours.
The state of siege was officially suspended on December 9. Yet the repression continued. According to COFADEH, at least 38 protesters have been killed by Honduran military and police forces since November 27.
The US’s Hand in Honduras
The US has maintained a close relationship with the administrations of Honduras since the coup, creating an environment favorable for foreign direct investment in the country from US-based transnational companies. This relationship has continued into the Trump administration.
Yet, this relationship has come at a great cost. Since the coup, over 120 activists have been killed by the various administrations, including Berta Cáceres, who was killed in a high-profile assassination in 2016. Subsequently, human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, have named Honduras one of the most dangerous countries for environmental activists. Many journalists, LGBTQ activists and anti-coup activists have also been killed since the coup.
When assassination has not deterred resistance, the government has utilized the law to criminalize the various social movements that challenge the expansion of the extractive industries in the country. Those with charges remain free as the investigations continue.
“Outside of the electoral crisis, there are many campesinos and indigenous peoples [such as the] Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), or people from the Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH) that are also facing charges for the defense of natural resources,” Spring told Truthout. “They are being criminalized for their opposition to the global economic model and the model being promoted by Juan Orlando Hernández, which is privatization of natural resources. There is an entire lack of rule of law in the country, and the political prisoners are just the worst off right now because they are in maximum-security prison and facing charges.”
She adds, “The rule of law does not work; it is just used against people that are not in agreement with the government.”
The United States military also views its relationship with the Honduran military and police forces as a key strategic point. The US maintains a series of military bases across Honduras, including at the Soto Cano Air Base, or Palmerola. There the US military works closely with the Honduran security forces, providing trainings and participating in joint anti-drug trafficking operations.
The US has also trained many high-ranking soldiers at the infamous School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, which is now known as The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). Two of the soldiers indicted in the assassination of Cáceres attended courses at that school.
The Honduran Political Crisis
Honduras has faced an intense political crisis in the nearly 10 years since the US-backed military coup d’état that ousted Manuel Zelaya from the presidency in 2009. The post-coup administrations of Roberto Micheletti, the former president of congress who was elected to the presidency by congress following the coup, and of Porfirio Lobo Sosa and Juan Orlando Hernández, began to implement business-friendly policies to attract foreign direct investment.
These plans were met by intense mobilization by residents to challenge the far-right administration. But activists faced intense repression by the administrations’ security forces.
On November 26, 2017, millions of Hondurans went to the polls to vote for the next president. Juan Orlando Hernández faced the opposition party’s candidate, Salvador Nasralla, a former sports commentator who ran as a member of the Alianza political party. Nasralla found support within the popular movement that arose following the 2009 coup. The Alianza is made up of a coalition of parties that are against the 2009 coup, including the Liberty and Refoundation Party (LIBRE) which was formed by former President Zelaya ahead of the 2013 election.
Initial results from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) declared Nasralla the winner of the 2017 election, but following a period in which the TSE said the electoral computer system “‘went down’ for five hours,” this was reversed. The TSE stated that the failures did not change the results, but many Hondurans questioned this. As hundreds of thousands of Hondurans took to the streets to denounce and decry the alleged fraud and the re-election of Orlando Hernández, the opposition demanded a recount of votes at over 5,000 polling stations.
On December 21, the TSE published the official results of the recount, declaring Orlando Hernández the winner. In the following days, the United States, Canada and the European Union recognized the results, and congratulated Orlando Hernández on his reelection. Yet many Hondurans continued to view the Hernández administration as fraudulent.
Among the issues that many Hondurans point to with the administration is the fact that the re-election of any Honduran president is barred by the country’s constitution. In the leadup to the 2017 election, Orlando Hernández went to the country’s Supreme Court, which ruled that the incumbent could potentially run for another term. For many Hondurans this was infuriating, as opponents of Zelaya had sought to justify the 2009 coup by arguing that he was trying to amend the constitution to permit a second term.
The Honduran political and judicial system is plagued by corruption and impunity. The administration has maintained the corrupt system that benefits a small economic and political elite. Honduras has one of the highest rates of impunity in the region, with violent crimes rarely being investigated or prosecuted.
The Organization of American States’ has supported the construction of an anti-corruption body known as the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH). But MACCIH lacks the autonomy it requires to take on large-scale investigations.
Since 2015, the United States has supported the Alliance for Prosperity, a multimillion-dollar development plan meant to stem northern migration. The US claims the Alliance is meant to improve and modernize the judicial systems of Honduras. Yet in Honduras, the legal system is used to criminalize the activists who oppose the plans of the Hernández administration. Furthermore, according to the Honduran Constitution, the re-election of Orlando Hernández was illegal. Yet, the international community remained silent. The United States has also remained silent about the accusations of the connections between Orlando Hernández and narco traffickers in Honduras.
“[Juan Orlando Hernández] does not have any legitimacy in Honduras,” Spring told Truthout. “Even in spaces that have traditionally had support, he has lost a lot of his support for a variety of reasons. The legitimacy of his government comes from international support and recognition from the Canadian, American and European governments.”