Murders of Teenagers and Opposition Party Members Underscore Impunity in Honduras and the Failure of U.S. “Vetting”

November 16, 2012

In previous blog posts we’ve commented on the rampant political violence in Honduras since the country’s 2009 military coup, as well as the alleged involvement of Honduran security forces in extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations. Sadly, recent reports from Honduras suggest that the situation continues to deteriorate. Today we’ll provide an update on some of the troubling recent events in Honduras – the recent killing of an unarmed boy allegedly carried out by U.S.- vetted military troops; the targeted killings of opposition politicians – as well as efforts by non-governmental groups to hold Honduran authorities accountable for the ongoing attacks and the country’s pervasive climate of impunity.

U.S.-vetted soldiers allegedly murder unarmed boy

Breaking news this week reveals that soldiers vetted by the U.S. chased after, shot and killed a 15-year-old boy, Ebed Yanes, who supposedly ran through a check point on a motorcycle in Tegucigalpa on the night of May 26. The Associated Press’ Alberto Arce and Martha Mendoza reported that, according to a soldier involved in the incident who came forward:

The boy, he said, did not stop at the checkpoint, but raced through it. They followed him in the Ford pickup, chasing him through the dark alleys for at least five minutes. The boy turned into an alley too narrow for the truck, so the driver stopped. The lieutenant sitting in the front passenger seat ordered the unit to open fire as he jumped out of the truck and started shooting. Two other soldiers got out and fired from 30 meters away, with soldier Eleazar Abimael Rodriguez dropping to his knee in the firing position, said the soldier, who is now a protected witness. The motorcyclist was shot.

AP notes that the soldier alleged to have fired first, Josue Sierra, was trained last year at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA), at Fort Benning, Georgia, and has been charged with attempting to cover up a crime and violating official duties. Lt. Col. Reynel Funes, who allegedly oversaw a cover-up of the murder (in part by having the soldiers switch out their weapons) also attended the SOA in 1984, and went to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, in 2006, AP reports.

The revelations behind Yanes’ murder – only brought to light through the brave investigative work of his father – further demonstrates the rampant impunity and corruption within the Honduran military and police, even by officers “vetted” by the U.S. Despite recent misleading comments by U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske in the Honduran press, the U.S. Congress is already withholding funds to the Honduran police over the national police chief’s past ties to death squads, and counternarcotics operations and radar support to the Honduran police and military has been suspended following Honduras’ shooting down of airplanes, and the May 11 shootings of several local villagers in a counter-drugs operation in the Moskitia region. A State Department official cited in AP’s report yesterday says that “the withholding may reach $50 million, including $8.3 million in counter-narcotics aid, and $38 million under the Central America Regional Security Initiative.”

The Yanes killing also calls into question the efficacy of the WHINSEC’s human rights training. As The Bayonet describes in a recent article, the most recent graduating class – of which 64 of the over 160 cadets were from Honduras – focused on “Democracy and Human Rights” on its first day, and visited the Holocaust museum and the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Atlanta on a field trip. But such human rights training is not new, as School of the Americas Watch has noted:


As the public outcry grew and congressional censure mounted, the SOA instituted first a four-hour human rights component and then upped it to eight hours in an effort to quell critics.

While the eight hours of human rights training is not harmful, it is minimal and inadequate for a school that touts its mission mandate as “promoting democratic values, respect for human rights.” There is no requirement that the new school seek input from noted outside human rights specialists and no provision to modify the content to address specific human rights issues in particular countries (for example, paramilitaries in Colombia). In addition, there is no attempt to evaluate or to measure the effectiveness of the training through long-term monitoring of graduates or by any other means.

Thousands of people will be protesting outside the gates of the WHINSEC/SOA this weekend, in a vigil organized by SOA Watch, and well-known Honduran human rights activist and journalist Father Ismael Moreno (aka “Padre Melo”) will be a featured speaker. Sierra and Reynel are just the latest Honduran SOA graduates known to have committed grave rights abuses; as a delegation from SOA Watch reminded Denis McDonough, Deputy National Security Adviser to President Obama this week, “Four of the generals responsible for the 2009 coup in Honduras were SOA grads.”

Evidence Submitted to the International Criminal Court

One of these four generals was coup leader General Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, and his case – along with that of coup regime head Roberto Micheletti – highlights the ongoing impunity for killings and other human rights abuses in Honduras. After over three years since the coup d’etat against the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya, none of the main actors responsible – including Micheletti and General Vasquez – have been held to account. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) submitted evidence to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague this week, “including expert testimony, periodic compilations of crimes against humanity committed in the last year, and evidence showing there has been no accountability so far for the crimes in Honduras since the 2009 coup.” Their report describes numerous killings, forced disappearances, and forced displacement of people by the Honduran police and military, as well as by death squads and private security forces.

As CCR Legal Director Baher Azmy describes in an article for TruthOut:

Honduran coup leader and former de facto president Roberto Micheletti is now a “legislator for life.” Romeo Vasquez Velasquez, the head of the armed forces who carried out the coup, is now the head of the state-owned communications company Hondutel and has announced he’s running for President in 2013.

Azmy writes about the ongoing impunity from June 2009 up to the present, which has enabled a severe deterioration in human rights:

Honduran activists and human rights defenders are overwhelmed with the ever-mounting threats and violence and talk about feeling under siege and abandoned. Since taking on [first coup fatality, 19-year-old Isis] Murillo’s case, we at CCR hear constantly from partners and friends on the ground about the continued police and military involvement in targeted assassinations, arbitrary detentions, kidnappings, political persecution and violent crackdowns on peaceful protesters. Their plight is made all the more difficult by the false narrative repeatedly asserted by the United States, Honduras’ closest ally, that things are improving.

The Killing of Opposition Candidates

Violence and impunity also threatens upcoming elections. Political primaries will be held this Sunday, November 18, and presidential and legislative elections next November. Among the murders and other human rights violations detailed by the CCR and FIDH are recent attacks on members of the LIBRE party, a main opposition party to which former first lady and current presidential candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya belongs, among other political party candidates and activists. This political repression is also the focus of a new U.S. civil society letter to State Department officials. The letter, signed by representatives of CCR, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, the Washington Office on Latin America, and several other organizations, states:

On November 3, an MRP Libre candidate for mayor in Morazán Yoro, Edgardo Adalid Motiño, was gunned down shortly after he attended an event with Libre presidential candidate Xiomara Castro de Zelaya. On November 10th, Yoni Rivas, a MUCA peasant association leader and candidate for Congress, was ambushed along with fellow MUCA leader Vitali Alvarez, although they managed to escape.

On November 2, Maria Luisa Borjas, a Libre candidate for mayor of Tegucigalpa, reported that masked policemen had followed and accosted with arms a car driven by her friend’s daughter, a car similar to Borjas’. She asserted that the police intended to assassinate her but aborted the mission when they realized they had stopped the wrong car.

These incidents follow assassinations of other LIBRE party members earlier this year. CCR and FIDH include in their evidence to the ICC [PDF]:

A leader of the LGBTI community, human rights and anti-coup activist, LIBRE party candidate and journalist, Erick Alexander Martínez Ávila, went missing on 5 May, and was found dead by asphyxiation resulting from strangulation, lying face up in a sewer two days later.

[On June 7,] Miguel Ángel Ramos Díaz, an active member of the FNRP and the LIBRE Party and deputy director of the Technological Institute of Business Administration, was gunned down by men in a black vehicle in San Pedro Sula while walking with his 12-year-old son. Ramos’ son escaped uninjured.

[On June 24,] Gunmen in a black vehicle shot and killed Jenny Concepción Reyes Izaguirre, a teacher and leader in both the LIBRE Party and the Progressive Resistance Movement (MRP). Also wounded in the attack were Reyes Izaguirre’s son and her husband Arturo Ramírez, also a LIBRE Party leader.

It’s easy to imagine what the State Department’s reaction would be if a pattern of political assassinations were underway in Venezuela or Bolivia, for example, but so far State has been quiet about the LIBRE and other political killings. Hopefully the ICC will take human rights and political repression in Honduras more seriously than the U.S. government has so far.

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