[Note from the Honduras IT: This blog post was written on August 14th. At six o’clock this morning, August 15th, a contingent of National Police and Cobras arrived in Pajuiles, fired tear gas into the homes of community members, and arrested five people, including one pregnant woman and one minor. We arrived in Pajuiles shortly after 10:30 AM, and saw a massive gathering of security forces (around 50, by our estimate, although people who’d been there said there had been more during the arrests) and a community that continues to stand in non-violent resistance to the twin repressions of the non-consensual dam project and the increasing police violence and intimidation. See our updated action alert, as well as this action alert from La Voz de los del Abajo for more information.]
Since late last year, the Witness for Peace Honduras International Team has been observing the work of our partners in the Broad Movement for Dignity in Justice (MADJ, for its initials in Spanish) in organizing the communities in and around the town of Pajuiles, who have been restricting the construction of a hydroelectric dam, being built with neither the proper consultation of nor consent by the affected communities.
Members of the communities who have opposed the dam been in permanent occupation of access roads to a dam site since March 22nd, 2017. The dam is being constructed by Hidrocep, S.A., which is owned and operated by Jason Hawit from one of Honduras’ most powerful families, and whose father currently awaits trial in the US on FIFA corruption charges.
Since we’ve been monitoring the situation in Pajuiles, we’ve been consistently inspired by the community’s dedication to non-violent resistance to a project that has, even in its construction phase, devastating to the river water that serves as the main source of drinking and bathing water for the communities. The protesters in occupation of the sites had successfully prevented further construction of the dam, while still allowing the free movement of people without incident. The camps at the roadblocks have been sites of community meetings and gatherings, organization, and training.
Óscar Martínez holds up two bottles of water during a Witness for Peace delegation visit to Pajuiles in May. The bottle on the left shows the quality of the water before the dam’s construction began, and the one on the right shows the current quality. (Photo Credit: Cat Walker).
The Honduras IT visited Pajuiles and its sister organization in Jilamito, with a delegation in May. While we were there, members of the community and MADJ told our delegates that for months, despite formal complaints and two lawsuits filed my MADJ and non-stop pressure, there had been total silence from local authorities on both dissolving Hidrocep’s operational license and ordering Hidrocep to pay for environmental damages that the municipality itself had verified and recognized publicly.
Intimidation and Violence
On August 4th, all but a few members left the camps in the morning to protest the stalled cases in front of the Prosecutor’s Office thirty minutes away in Tela. While they were away, around 100 individuals, who community members believed were paid and tipped off by company owner Jason Hawit, came down the mountain and destroyed and looted the camps, taunting and threatening those who stayed behind. Those who had been in Tela returned while this was going on. Despite frantic calls to police, only three showed up and, according to eyewitnesses, stood by doing nothing.
To protest the violent mob and police inaction, organizers spontaneously moved the protest to the nearby highway. Only then did police backup arrived, along with special forces and an anti-riot squad tank. A stand-off followed and eventually men, elders, children, and pregnant women were removed from the highway.
MADJ General Coordinator Martín Fernández and Pajuiles community member Óscar Martínez broke off from the group and went to the second camp to assess the damages. They were subsequently surrounded by 20 men with club, machetes, and guns and violently assaulted.
MADJ General Coordinator Martín Fernández in the aftermath of the violent attack on August 4th, 2017. (Photo Credit: Movimiento Amplio por la Dignidad y Justicia).
Illegal Detentions and Eviction
On the morning of August 10th, at around 6:30am, the Military Police along with members of two elite special command squads, the COBRAS and TIGRES, raided two roadblock camps in Pajuiles maintained by communities organized under the banner of Witness for Peace Partners in the Movimiento Amplio (MADJ). Community members were swiftly and forcibly evicted as uniformed agents confiscated materials and equipment from the camps. They were aggressively prevented from taking video or photos as the police ripped up the metal barricades installed by the communities.
Following the eviction and destruction of the two camps, the Military Police illegally detained Oscar Martínez and his spouse, Angélica, along with two other members of the community, Orlando Martínez and Arnaldo Castro.
Angélica, Oscar, and Rene were released late that night, the terms of which require them to check-in every Tuesday and Thursday at the courthouse in Tela. There are twelve other individuals – whom police and the company have identified as being part of the resistance leadership – that appear on the warrant list. The official charge is “encroachment by possession of a public space to the detriment of the Honduran State and the company HIDROCEP.”
It’s worth mentioning that since 2010, MADJ has filed seven formal complaints with the State Prosecutor’s Office in Tela regarding illegal dam concessions, environmental contamination, and threats to land and water defenders. There has not yet been one injunction nor arrest made despite the office’s verification and recognition of environmental damages caused by HIDROCEP in August of 2016. And yet, in the short course of 24 hours, the same office signed an injunction and issued warrants that led to an eviction, four arrests with twelve outstanding, and all for damages caused to a small group of business executives at HIDROCEP.
MADJ’s lawyers hope to avoid the arrests (along with the psychological trauma to them and their families) of the remaining twelve by having them make a court appearance. They are also preparing to press charges against the police who raided Angélica and Oscar’s home without a search warrant.
In a clear message of intimidation, the police have maintained an anti-riot tank beside the now empty roadblock site. Angélica and Oscar’s young children wept as they were forced to abandon their home (ground zero of MADJ’s campamento digo or dignified encampment) for fear of further attacks. In a press release published by MADJ, they asserted that “no action or restitution from the company or the government can ever fully compensate or repair the serious damages inflicted upon the peaceful coexistence that at one time characterized the towns and communities of Honduras, most tragically, the splintering of the social fabric that only gets deeper with events such as those we faced today.”
The Embassy Response
Eyewitness accounts from the events of August 4th and August 10th mentioned the presence of two US-funded and trained police units: the National Police, and the TIGRES. In their responses to a Witness for Peace Urgent Action on the situation in Pajuiles, officials from the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa said:
We reached out to the Honduran authorities. It is our understanding that one of the three individuals initially detained this morning has been released; the other two individuals were detained by the police based on outstanding warrants issued by a Honduran judicial authority. We are still working to ascertain their current situation. The operation was carried out by the Honduran National Police, with the support of the Police special units, the Cobras and the anti-riot Police, and other police units. To our knowledge, no members of the TIGRES were involved in this operation. We continue to monitor and work to get more details about the current situation.
Regarding the presence of the TIGRES, we have neither photo nor video evidence to confirm eyewitness accounts specifically mentioning their presence, but for that matter, neither does the Embassy. As mentioned above, save this video, security forces aggressively prevented any documentation of the eviction. In the Embassy’s reply, they refer to “other police units” in addition to the National Police, the COBRAS, and the anti-riot police. Our partners, in addition to local media reports, uniformly refer to the Military Police of Public Order, the Preventive Police, and the Directorate of Police Investigations (DPI) as being included in these “other police units.”
With such an alarming cocktail of security forces that blur the military-civilian line – and considering the abundant TIGRES presence in similar scenarios documented by Witness for Peace – if MADJ community members mistakenly identified TIGRES where there were none, one could understand how. In an interview conducted by the Honduras IT with Martín Fernandez about security forces, he said that “they change uniforms so often that no one knows who they are. All we know is that to us they are all the same disease.”
And while accuracy in documentation is essential for strategic and effective advocacy, the Embassy’s clarification on this particular matter not only belies the disorienting reality that environmental defenders and human rights activists confront when dealing with Honduran security forces, but amounts to a distinction without a meaningful or reassuring difference.
Individual responses from Embassy officials sometimes included the information that “the United States does not currently work with or support the COBRAS,” yet another armed group who was present at the Pajuiles eviction. Okay. But rather recently they received US SWAT training in intelligence gathering and special ops.
The US government presently funds and/or trains the following: National Inter-Institutional Security Forces (FUSINA), the Criminal Investigation Technical Agency (ATIC), the TIGRES, the National Agency of Criminal Investigation (DNIC), and the Urban Crime Prevention and Intervention Units of the National Police. Those units receive or have received training from the following: DEA (recently implicated in the 2012 Ahuas Massacre), the FBI, SWAT, the CIA, the Marines, and Navy Seals.
While it’s welcome news that the US government isn’t currently working with every governmental security agency in Honduras, it’s equally naive to suggest that practices and mentalities neatly obey the porous institutional boundaries that separate them. Like Martín said, when you have armed state actors constantly changing uniforms in an country whose institutions – corroded by corruption – offer impunity to the criminally powerful and criminalize the powerless, the problem isn’t whether or not the COBRAS received US support today, but that continuing to finance and train such groups itself contributes to the suppression of human rights and the targeting of those who defend them.
The Embassy’s response, noting the “outstanding warrants issued by a Honduran judicial authority,” in its way betrays the point. The US Embassy goes to great lengths in meetings with the Honduras IT and Witness for Peace delegations to distance itself from parts of the Honduran armed forces associated with human rights abuses. The US Government doesn’t give aid to those forces. But Honduran judicial authorities are, particularly since the 2009 coup, regularly issuing warrants that amount to human rights abuses, and even security forces that are only doing their jobs in enforcing those warrants are therefore participating. The reality is that there simply is no way to cherry-pick the “good” security forces in Honduras. All police and military aid will necessarily be used for things like the eviction of the non-violent, legal resistance in Pajuiles.
This is why we’re supporting the Berta Cáceres Act, and this is why we hope you will too.