Members of the COBRAS, armed with riot gear and tear gas, stand guard outside the encampment at Pajuiles, May 3, 2018. The banner above them reads: “The Pajuiles Sector does not restrict free movement/it only protects its water and, with it, life. STOP THE CRIMINALIZATION.” The United States cut off all support for the COBRAS after their involvement in extrajudicial killings, torture, and forced disappearances in the wake of the 2009 coup.
Since March 22, 2017, World Water Day, a small and resilient community in Pajuiles, Atlántida, Honduras, organized by Witness for Peace partners in the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ), have held a permanent encampment to resist the illegal imposition of a hydroelectric dam project on the Río Mezapa, the community’s only source of clean water. We’ve written extensively about Pajuiles before, both when the first wave of state violence and criminalization hit in August, 2017 and again when the widespread and systematic crackdown of opposition and protest in the wake of last November’s elections left the community under constant police and military surveillance, saw live ammo fired into protests there, and also brought the extrajudicial killing of the community member Geovanny Díaz Cárcamo at the hands of state security forces.
The first week of May brought a series of dramatic events in Pajuiles, including the long-awaited conclusion of the preliminary hearing against ten of the criminalized community members, a massive police force descending on the community to escort heavy machinery and construction materials to the illegal construction project on the Río Mezapa, the repression of a march the following day, and a visit from the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. Below is our update.
‘A Selective Process of Criminalization’: The Legal Case of the Pajuiles Ten
In August, there were two separate waves of criminalization, and as a result of that, there have been two separate legal processes for the water protectors and human rights defenders in Pajuiles. The second, as we recounted at the time, stemmed from the arrests of three members of the encampment and a local general store owner on August 15th, 2017. Their initial hearing ended on September 1, 2017, with all charges dropped. Among the criminalized in that case were Albertina López, who WfP’s National Delegations Coordinator Melissa Cox interviewed on a delegation in March, and Wendy García, who travelled with the migrant caravan and is seeking asylum in the United States as a result of the threats, criminalization, and state violence she and the community have suffered. (For more on the links between state violence in Honduras and the cause of Honduran migrants in the United States, see our blog from February.)
The first case, with ten defendants, began in August but has faced constant delays. At the first attempt at their initial hearing, the assigned judge was the sister of Mario Fuentes, the then-Mayor of Tela who approved the dam project without community consent. The MADJ attorneys representing the community, Víctor Fernández and Ariel Madrid, successfully appealed againstthis brazen conflict of interest, and a new judge was assigned the case. However, the Public Ministry (the public prosecutor’s office, which receives immense support from the United States and is regularly held up by the Embassy as a crucial partner in the fights against corruption and impunity) and the private lawyer representing HIDROCEP, the dam company, appealed the new judge because she is the same judge who dropped charges against the other four in August. With no apparent sense of irony, they made the case that she couldn’t be impartial because of her ruling in the other case, and also questioned whether she and Víctor might be related as both of them have Guzmán as a surname. After some months, this appeal was denied and the judge stayed on the case.
As we mentioned when we first covered the case against the Pajuiles Ten in late August, there are aspects of their case that resonate with the tactics used by the Public Ministry to criminalize our partner organizations from COPINH to OFRANEH, including the charge of “usurpation” for the legitimate defense of their territory. Another is the endless delays of the process – while the criminal process against the defendants is ongoing, they have to physically check in at the courthouse in Tela once a week and they’re forbidden from leaving the country and attending public meetings. All three of these represent hardships on their own, but when they’re employed against human rights defenders, the last two measures effectively silence dissent for as long as the Ministry can keep the process going, regardless of whether they have the evidence to make a case. We’ve seen this tactic used constantly, and more egregiously still in the case of the political prisoners who are being made to wait out their interminable legal processes in prisons that, based as they are on the U.S. model of mass incarceration, meet absolutely no international standards for the rights of detainees.
That the Pajuiles Ten have their freedom, restricted though it is by the unduly harsh measures imposed on them, is lucky, but that the Public Ministry continuously delays legal processes against human rights defenders knowing that the measures enacted against them will severely restrict their ability to advocate for their cases is an unconscionable use of state power to silence dissent. That the United States considers the Public Ministry an important ally in the fights against impunity and corruption, considering this, verges on farce.
MADJ attorney Ariel Madrid addresses the Pajuiles Ten and their supporters outside the courthouse in Tela, Atlántida, April 26, 2018.
On April 25, 2018, more than eight months after their arrests, the remaining criminalizadxs from Pajuiles began their preliminary hearing for the third time. (According to Honduran law, any hearing that is suspended for more than fourteen days has to start again. This is, of course, taken advantage of by the Public Ministry as one of their delay tactics.) MADJ lawyer Ariel Madrid, with support from the law student and part of MADJ’s legal team Mario Iraheta, presented for the defense. In a clear representation of the imbalance of power at play, the prosecution was represented by two lawyers from the Public Ministry, another government lawyer representing the Attorney General’s Office, and a private attorney representing the hydroelectric company.
The defendants faced two charges, usurpation and coacciones (coercion, or specifically collective intimidation of HIDROCEP employees.) The prosecution’s case was predictable, and predicated on the lie that the encampment at Pajuiles has been restricting free movement on the road leading to the dam construction site. As we have said in our previous blogs on the subject, for more than a year we have witnessed the protesters in Pajuiles allowing absolutely free circulation for everyone, including company employees, with the exception of heavy machinery and construction materials.
MADJ’s case took the political long view, accusing the Public Ministry and the Honduran state of criminalizing the right to protest and defend the rights to water and life. It was, at its heart, a defense of not only the right but the obligation to defend water and life, and a defense of the legitimacy of peaceful protest to achieve that. After more than a year of following all the official channels to denounce the imposition of the dam and the subsequent contamination of the community’s only source of clean water, only to be faced with absolute silence from Honduran institutions, MADJ argued, what choice was left but peaceful protest? What choice was left but to physically block the construction of the dam? To support their case, MADJ presented a mountain of evidence, including the protective measures granted the community by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in February and the many official denunciations filed by the community against everything from the construction itself to the armed attack against Óscar Martínez and Martín Fernández in August.
After two days of arguments, the presentation of evidence, and witness testimony, on April 25th and 26th, the case was adjourned until March 2nd for the judge’s decision. During closing arguments, the prosecution requested additional measures against the defendants, including the eviction of the camp and the installation of a 24-hour police presence on the road to the construction site, supposedly to “guarantee free movement” but transparently to intimidate the community and guarantee the free movement of heavy machinery and construction materials.
Supporters of the Pajuiles Ten gathered outside the courthouse in Tela, await the judge’s verdict in the initial hearing, May 2, 2018.
On May 2nd, the initial hearing concluded. The purpose of an initial hearing is only to establish whether or not there is sufficient evidence to proceed with a trial, the very rough equivalent of grand jury proceedings in the United States but with the defense and defendants present and a judge rather than a jury deciding. It was in the initial hearing that the charges against the first group of Pajuiles defendants were dropped in September, and also in the initial hearing that the charges against MADJ member Aquilina Guerra Mejía were dropped. Aquilina was arrested in February under ridiculously trumped-up charges of bomb possession as a part of the continuous campaign of intimidation and criminalization of MADJ.
In this case, the judge found the charge of usurpation without merit, but chose to continue the process on the lesser coercion charge. MADJ had three days to appeal, which they have done, and as of the publication of this blog the results of their appeal have not been decided and the next court date has not been set. Critically given what happened next, the judge also declined the prosecutors’ requests for both a police presence in Pajuiles and the eviction of the camp.
‘La Lucha es Constante’
The shell of a tear gas bomb that was fired into the encampment at Pajuiles, May 3, 2018. The manufacturer of the tear gas is Pennsylvania-based Combined Systems, Inc., whose product has been used to repress people in Honduras, Guatemala, Colombia, Palestine, Egypt, Ferguson, Charlottesville, and innumerable other places in the world.
The following morning, May 3, 2018, at about seven in the morning, a contingent of heavily militarized police, including U.S.-backed TIGRES, National Police, and Investigative Police units, as well as COBRAS, descended on the camp to prevent the communities from blocking passage of heavy machinery and construction materials. Outnumbering the protesters 10-1, and armed with tear gas, automatic weapons, and riot gear, they provided what amounted to a personal escort to HIDROCEP’s owner Jason Hawit and his employees to ensure the continuation of his devastating project.
By the time the Witness for Peace Honduras International Team arrived on the scene a little after nine that morning, the COBRA forces had already tear-gassed the camp and arrested Norberto López, Albertina’s brother, for photographing the arrival of the machinery and the police. Norberto was released that afternoon, and faces the absurd charge of “public scandal.” He is now the 18th member of the encampment to face criminal charges for his involvement in the ongoing protest there, and the first to be arrested after the IACHR’s protective measures were announced.
Norberto López of Pajuiles, shown here incarcerated in Tela for “public scandal” for taking photos of the machinery and police arriving in his community. Photo courtesy of the Movimiento Amplio por la Dignidad y Justicia (MADJ).
We stayed in Pajuiles all day on the 3rd, and saw a rotating team of COBRAs and, eventually, TIGRES guarding the camp itself. When we arrived that morning, heavily armed units from various Honduran police forces had staked out positions about a quarter mile in either direction from the road leading past the encampment to the construction site. A military truck full of reinforcements sat just around the corner from the encampment, blocking vehicle access to some of the residences behind the camp. The National Police – specifically members of the Preventative Police, which are the forces that most closely collaborate with the State Department – set up a checkpoint for all vehicular traffic on the main highway.
Throughout the day, various pieces of heavy machinery and trucks full of construction equipment made their way up and down the mountain, always with a heavily armed police export, most typically made up of COBRAS with automatic weapons and riot gear. In the mid-afternoon, we came to really understand the extent of the police presence when Jason Hawit descended from the construction site protected by a caravan of TIGRES, COBRAS, and national police. The entire area looked like occupied territory. We have since learned that the small army called on by Hawit to defend his hydroelectric project was not given any judicial order, but was instead acting on orders from civilian authorities in Honduras. Needless to say, their presence was in direct contradiction to the judge’s orders the day before.
Clockwise from top left: A truck full of construction materials makes its way past the encampment en route to the construction site; COBRAS in riot gear stand guard outside the encampment while a bulldozer unloads to be led up the mountain; a mix of COBRA and TIGRE forces guard the encampment while the caravan of police who were at the construction site descend the mountain.
Of particular interest to us was both the extent to which the force occupying Pajuiles on May 3 was made up of US-backed forces, TIGRES in particular but also Preventative Police and DPI, and the role they played. The TIGRES are an elite commando force created in 2013 to combat narco-trafficking and gang violence in Honduras. The United States was deeply involved in their creation, and provides financial and technical support for their operations. The TIGRES have received training from both the United States military, and JUNGLA, the anti-narco commando unit of the Colombian National Police who have themselves been trained by the DEA and Special Forces of the U.S. Military. Since the start of the post-electoral crisis, they’ve been deeply involved in the militarized repression of opposition protesters.
The TIGRES who were present in Pajuiles on May 3 came from a new base in El Progreso, not far from the Witness for Peace office. Even the defenders of U.S. support for the TIGRES would surely have to concede that providing a personal escort to a businessman through a crowd of peaceful protesters against his dam is not their function. It is another clear example that, for all the rhetoric about engagement and the need to fight organized crime, the reality is that U.S.-backed forces in Honduras are routinely used for the repression of human rights defenders and to serve the interests of political and economic elites. That a commando unit closely supported by the United States is being used for this purpose should outrage us all as citizens. To put it one way, there were a lot of U.S. taxpayer dollars in Pajuiles last Thursday, and this is yet another example underlining the urgent need for the Berta Cáceres Act and an immediate end to U.S. support for Honduran security forces.
Another important dynamic at work with the security forces in Pajuiles last week was the clear cooperation between units who receive U.S. support and those who don’t. We’ve written before about the myth constantly perpetrated by the State Department that it can distinguish between the “good” security forces and the “bad” ones who violate human rights and only support the good ones. This is absurd on its face for two reasons: the first is that Honduran security forces, even those with the very best of human rights training and intentions, are following the orders of a nascent dictatorship that has a policy of criminalizing dissent and enforces that policy through abject brutality. The second is that, in reality, there are joint operations between the different forces and the distinction that the Embassy insists on is not, on the ground, real in the slightest.
Take, for example, the COBRAS. The United States cut off support for the COBRAS in the wake of the 2009 coup, when the evidence that they had perpetrated extrajudicial killings, forced disappearance, and torture became too overwhelming to ignore. The Embassy insists that the “good” security forces who operate with U.S. support, like the TIGRES, are utterly distinct from the COBRAS, do not share information, do not work together. And yet in Pajuiles on Thursday, and not for the first time, we saw a group of commandos that was comprised of both COBRAS and TIGRES guarding the encampment. It is clear evidence of a thing we have long known was true: of course they work together, and U.S. support for one is effectively U.S. support for all.
A joint group of COBRA and TIGRE forces receive their instructions outside the encampment in Pajuiles, May 3, 2018.
‘El Pueblo Unido’
As we left the camp on Thursday evening, the majority of the police had left. There remained, however, the contingent of joint COBRA/TIGRE security guarding the camp itself well into the following day. The next day saw a roundtable discussion on the Pajuiles situation conducted in the encampment by WfP partners Radio Progreso, followed by a long-planned march from Pajuiles to the town of Toyos. The march attracted multitudes – around 40 communities were represented, as well as local parishes, in a demand for the Honduran state to respect the rights of the communities gathered in protest in Pajuiles. Although the march was planned well in advance, the events of the day prior gave it newly immediate resonance.
John Walsh, the former chair of Witness for Peace’s national board, who has been providing accompaniment for MADJ, was present for the march, and wrote the following for WfP Northwest:
Friday, I had the chance to see a march of thousands of people whose communities, like Pajuiles, depend on the natural resources of the Nombre de Dios mountain range, home to the headwaters of the Mezapa and many more rivers. This march in defense of placing the public interest first had been planned long in advance, but also responded to the moment. When the speeches were over, marchers spontaneously blocked the highway as a protest against the militarization of Pajuiles. The one and only main road in the region stayed blocked, with traffic backed up a mile or more in each direction, until the riot police arrived and launched an attack with a barrage of teargas.
The march in defense of Pajuiles. Toyos, May 4, 2018. Photo courtesy of John Walsh.
We then went to visit the Pajuiles camp and community members. As we ate lunch together, a line of police with automatic weapons – the U.S.-funded “TIGRES” special forces – stared at us from a few feet away, just the other side of the fence.If the intention was to intimidate the people in the camp, it failed, because the community’s next step was to hang a tarp across the fence to block the stares of the police. And the community put back up the Honduran flag that the police had torn down the previous morning. Before long, the police had pulled back to the other side of the street, and community members were standing where they had been.Friday night, the troops stationed in front of the camp went away, and they have not come back since. Ironically enough, the change might be related to the private hydroelectric project’s not having respected private property when they placed construction materials and started work on land uphill from the camp where they did not have permission to be. On Sunday, the landowners essentially confiscated the construction material, putting it under armed guard behind a new barbwire fence. The community’s vigilance of the site will be added to the landowners’, while the hydroelectric project will face legal action.Pajuiles stands strong. But in order to continue to brake the militarization and threats the community faces, Pajuiles needs visibility and support. You can help by insisting that the U.S. stop funding the TIGRES specifically and Honduran security forces generally. Educate your Member of Congress about the misuse of state security forces in Honduras and request prompt action.Another useful step is to cut off funding from any U.S. sources for this and all similar projects that misappropriate community resources.And while you’re at it, you could point out that U.S. government support for repression and exploitation is one of the factors driving people to emigrate from Honduras. Congress should be extending Temporary Protected Status, “TPS,” for Honduras and ensuring that asylum seekers are treated properly.
We strongly echo John’s policy prescriptions at the end of his message: the Berta Cáceres Act, which would cut off funding for security forces, would also mandate a ‘no’ vote from the United States on loans from international financial institutions such like the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank on extractive projects like the dam in Pajuiles. We also wholeheartedly agree, as is amply demonstrated by the case of Wendy García, the Pajuiles compañera currently seeking asylum in the United States, that the connections between the human rights abuses in Honduras and the plight of Honduran migrants en route to or already inside the United States are inextricably linked.
There is a slogan you hear a lot at marches and protests in Latin America that goes Adelante! Adelante! La Lucha es Constante! Forward! Forward! The Struggle is Constant. And the meaning of this, the constant struggle, seems as clear after the past week’s events in Pajuiles as it ever has. A lot of activists in Honduras have noted that the country is in a state of permanent emergency, where one can’t rest from the last fight before the new one imposes itself. The victories in Pajuiles have been hard fought and well won, but for those of us who mean to be in solidarity with them, this week shows us we cannot let our guard down.
Witness for Peace is indignant at the use of U.S.-supported police units to intimidate them and to assure the continuation of the horribly devastating HIDROCEP dam, and equally at the U.S.-supported Public Ministry for its continued employment to criminalize human rights defenders and protect the powerful. Our indignation is matched only by our resolve to stand unequivocally in solidarity with our partners in MADJ and in Pajuiles.
Pa’lante, siempre pa’lante.