by: Corie Welch
On Saturday morning at 5 am, a group of 4 x 4 vehicles arrived in the community of Triunfo de la Cruz. Heavily armed men, wearing bulletproof vests, face coverings, and uniforms with what appeared to read “DPI” searched the homes of residents one by one as they violently abducted five community members. Almost a week following the incident the whereabouts of Milton Joel Martínez Álvarez, Suami Aparicio Mejía, Junior Rafael Juarez Mejia, and Mamba (nickname) remain unknown as loved ones grow increasingly worried for their safety.
Triunfo de la Cruz: A Community in Danger for their Resistance
The coastal community of Triunfo de la Cruz sits on the northern coast of Honduras in the department of Atlantida and is the ancestral territory of this indigenous Garifuna community. One of the many communities organized with the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH in Spanish), they submitted a case to the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights (IACHR) which they won in 2015.
The community, OFRANEH, and their legal team submitted the case to the IACHR in 2013 because of the illegal occupation and dispossession of their ancestral land promoted by the Honduran State to make way for investment. In 2015, the IACHR ruled in favor of the community, citing the failure of the state to protect the rights of this indigenous community to free, prior, and informed consent. The ruling mandated reparations to be paid to the community as well as culturally applicable communal land titles to be granted to prevent further displacement. Finally, the state is obligated to protect the cultural and physical safety of the community.
However, the state has failed to comply with the ruling on multiple levels, leaving the community in constant danger of dispossession from mega-tourism and other extractive projects. As exhibited by the disappearance of community leaders this weekend, physical attacks to intimidate and discourage community resistance continues to threaten the physical safety of its members. In addition to the conditions of the ruling, the community should be protected by “Precautionary Measures”, granted by the IACHR in 2006 because of threats associated with their work as human rights and environmental defenders. The state is legally required to protect this community, yet continues to fail them.
But for members of OFRANEH, the role of the state extends beyond failure to protect, but active hostility towards the organization that threatens the status quo. State security forces repress demonstrations organized by OFRANEH and the justice system criminalizes activists for their work defending their ancestral lands. One of the kidnapped, Snider Centeno, played an important role in bringing forward the case to the IACHR as President of the Community Council; loved ones fear his disappearance is linked directly to this work. Snider Centeno, Aparicio Mejía García and Joel Martínez Álvarez are members of OFRANEH and reveals yet another attack against the organization.
US Security Aid Assisting Human Rights Violations
Cases of violence and intimidation against indigenous defenders are tragically commonplace in Honduras - the country identified as the deadliest place in the world for environmental defenders in 2017 by Global Witness. The egregious level of human rights violations is made possible by US policy, specifically security aid.
The kidnappers were seen wearing uniforms of the Police Investigation Directorate (DPI in Spanish), which is a special branch of the Honduran police that has received training from the DEA and FBI for decades. DPI has been credibly and repeatedly linked to acts of kidnapping and torture primarily of political dissidents. In the 2016 police “purge” which removed police linked to corruption and high level crimes included several DPI agents. Yet, money continues to flow to Honduran security forces.
DPI responded claiming that the kidnappers were not DPI agents, and instead made an arrest of a “third party actor” that somehow obtained DPI uniforms. A similar response was used in 2018 by another Honduran security force, the Technical Criminal Investigation Agency (ATIC in Spanish), which was seen removing two high school activists from their homes in El Progreso before their bodies were found abandoned days later with signs of torture. This incident sparked a conversation throughout Honduras about the resurgence of death squads as seen in the 1980s. Even if these crimes were committed by third party actors, if uniforms can end up in “the wrong hands”, imagine what else can.
Meanwhile, protests organized by OFRANEH to demand the Honduran authorities to find their leaders have been met with repression by National Police, including tear gas fired against protesters in Sambo Creek. Taxpayer money is used to intimidate, torture, and murder human rights defenders - disproportionately those that identify as Garifuna, indigenous, and LGBTQ. This is why we continue to demand the suspension of security aid to Honduras and support HR 1945, the bill that will stop financing corrupt forces committing human rights violations in Honduras. The US is complicit in these human rights violations and must do something to ensure these five defenders are returned alive.
Here’s what you can do.