La Lucha Es Constante: Updates from Pajuiles

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.