Killings Continue in Bajo Aguán as New Report Documents Abuses by U.S.-Trained Honduran Special Forces Unit

February 22, 2013

A few days ago two more land rights activists were murdered in the Bajo Aguán, a region of Honduras where dozens of campesinos have been killed over the last three years. On February 16, Jacobo Cartagena, member of the Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán (or MUCA, by its Spanish initials), was shot and killed as he waited for a bus.  Hours later, José Trejo Cabrera, was shot down while driving a motorcycle near the town of Tocoa. Trejo was the brother of Antonio Trejo Cabrera, a lawyer who had defended small farmers’ land claims who himself was shot to death last September as he was leaving a wedding. Amnesty International has called on the Honduran government to “urgently investigate” José Trejo’s killing and noted that “the day before he was shot dead [he] had been in the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa, to meet with officials in an effort to ensure justice for his brother’s murder and visiting media outlets to keep the spotlight on the case.”

In an interview with the Associated Press, José Trejo had said “if they killed my brother, what will they not do to me?” He and others blamed the powerful businessman Miguel Facussé for his brother’s murder.  Facussé and a handful of other wealthy landowners in the region have hundreds of armed security guards who are believed to be responsible for many of the numerous killings and other attacks targeting campesino activists. Honduran authorities have failed to bring those responsible for the killings to justice or to take effective measures to protect the activists.  As the AP notes, “no one is serving time in prison for any of the 89 assassinations of campesinos committed in the Aguán Valley since December of 2009 when land occupations began…”

Since August of 2011, hundreds of Honduran soldiers have been stationed in the Bajo Aguán as part of the so-called Xatruch Intervention Force, ostensibly to mitigate the ongoing violence taking place there.  But targeted killings of campesinos have continued unabated and representatives of land rights movements have accused military personnel of being involved in attacks on their members.  A new report authored by Annie Bird of Rights Action adds significant weight to these allegations.  It documents 34 cases of abuses directly involving members of Honduras’ 15th Battalion, a special forces unit of the Honduran army that has been present in the region for decades and has played a central role in the Xatruch Force.

The report describes in detail specific instances of torture, threats, forced disappearances and killings in which members of the 15th Battalion have been reportedly involved, often in tandem with police and private security forces operating in the Aguán.  Only a small handful of these abuses have been partially investigated and none of those responsible have been prosecuted.  

The report also examines how military officials have sought to criminalize the region’s campesino movements, associating them with terrorism and drug-trafficking, while steadfastly defending the property claims of powerful landowners. 

Those who have reported on the abuses of security forces in the Aguán have also been criminalized by military officials. On February 18th the Commander of the Xatruch Intervention Force publicly accused various journalists, human rights defenders by name of “denigrating the actions of the armed forces” and of “besmirching the image of the Honduran nation.” Following the incident, Reporters Without Borders issued a release stating that the accusations were “a clear attempt to intimidate and censor” and that “this kind of public stigmatization directly exposes those concerned to significant risks, given the human rights situation in Aguán in particular and Honduras in general, where those who dare to provide information about land disputes and environmental problems are systematically criminalized.”  

As Rights Action notes, the 15th Battalion reportedly receives training and assistance from the U.S. government.  The Honduran media has reported that U.S. Army Rangers have trained personnel from the Battalion and that U.S. Special Operations South has funded the upgrading of the Battalion’s Rio Claro base.

provision attached to the annual U.S. Foreign Operations Appropriations Act – known as the Leahy Amendment, after the U.S. Senator who first introduced it – prohibits U.S. military assistance to foreign units that commit gross human rights violations with impunity.  The provision states: “No assistance shall be furnished under this Act or the Arms Export Control Act to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible evidence that such unit has committed gross violations of human rights.” The only exception being if the “Secretary determines (…) that the government of such countries is taking effective measures to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice.” A similar provision can be found in Defense Appropriations Acts, though it only deals with the funding of training activities for foreign troops.

Rights Action’s report appears to provide “credible evidence” that the 15th Battalion and other Honduran authorities are involved in gross abuses and there is no indication that Honduran authorities have pursued any form of judicial action to address these abuses.  If the U.S. government has plans to fund further military assistance to the unit there may well be cause for the Secretary of State to cut off assistance until abuses are adequately investigated and any responsible military personnel are brought to justice.  

Other recent incidents involving Honduran security forces have also appeared to be within the realm of Leahy Amendment action.  Last November the AP reported on how Honduran soldiers trained and vetted by the U.S. murdered an unarmed teenager who ran through a check point last May.  The same month, four Honduran villagers in the Moskitia region were killed in the course of a counternarcotics operation carried out jointly by the DEA and a special Honduran police unit trained and vetted by the U.S.  As a joint report and previous posts have explained, the Honduran investigation of the incident was flawed and inconclusive, a fact which the State Department still appears unwilling to acknowledge.

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