Honduras: The Frontline in the Battle for Democracy

Hondurans protest against Batallion 3-16.
Photo: Mirian Huezo Emanuelsson.

The coup d’etat in Honduras on June 28 shook the world, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean. It was the first coup d’etat for the Obama administration, which condemned the overthrow and characterized it as a coup. This was remarkable, given the history of the White House.

A month has passed and the de facto regime is still in the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa, as the overthrown president, Manuel Zelaya Rosales, alternates between touring the world garnering support and waiting in the northern region of Nicaragua with supporters—he has made various attempts to return to his country, but with no guarantees from the coup leaders.

The situation is explosive. To date, the strategy followed by Zelaya and the National Resistance Front (Frente Nacional de Resistencia) in their struggle against the coup d’etat insists on a continued peaceful struggle. However, Zelaya and the Front won’t ultimately decide the form of struggle that will be used to defeat the coup regime. The coup leaders through their actions will decide that.

While the neighboring countries of Honduras—El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala—experienced bloody civil wars in the decade from 1970 to 1980, Honduras lived under the boot of a civil-military government, but without war. Now, history could be reversed.

* * *

Many people witnessed an official haul away the young construction worker, Pedro Magdiel Muñoz Salvador, on the evening of July 24 in the village of Alauca, 12 kilometers from the border with Nicaragua in the Paraíso department. A photographer from the newspaper La Tribuna took a photo at this precise moment. What the photographer didn’t know at the time was that this photo brought to light one of the most atrocious political assassinations since the 80s.

"As a mother, I feel terrible," says a woman in the crowd. She says she is 70 years old and remembers the dirty war of the 80s and the reign of the infamous "Battalion 3-16."

She carries the Honduran flag in homage to the body of Pedro Magdiel, which the killers left in an open field next to a coffee processing plant. His eyes look skyward, his mouth is wide open, and there’s a question on his face. He wears a light black jacket, half zipped revealing a section of a dirty dark shirt. He has blue jeans, grey socks, and black tennis shoes on. He has a sharp cut on his forehead, one on each cheek, and a fatal one in his carotid artery.

"He (Pedro) was in front of the roadblock that the police and the army put up to hold us back. At 3:00 in the afternoon they launched tear gas, then later burned tires and branches, and he was one of those that brought dried leaves down. So we can testify that he was still alive when he was captured," says the woman with outrage and tears of anger and helplessness.

At 9:00 a.m. on Saturday, July 25 my photographer and I entered the field where the body was found at 7:00 that morning. The authorities and the police didn’t dare to enter given the rage of thousands of people that spent the night in Alauca. Twelve kilometers away, in Nicaraguan territory, President Manuel Zelaya had arrived the day before and he would have entered the country on July 24, accompanied by thousands of Hondurans in an attempt to return to Honduras and begin a peaceful march to the capital of the country.

But the coup regime did not allow the nation’s first lady, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, to meet the president at the border along with hundreds of activists from the National Front against the Coup d’Etat (Frente Nacional contra el Golpe de Estado). They were held back at Arenales, a town 30 kilometers from the border with Nicaragua. Zelaya understood the message—the de facto regime would arrest him if he entered the country.

We go around talking to several people and one, who belongs to the Discipline Commission and is a native of the Paraíso department, tells us, "Commissioner Osorto says that Pedro was released at 6:30 in the morning on Saturday, but he mysteriously appears dead here at 7:00 with signs of torture." The forensic doctor Santo Cepeda arrived but did not do anything until the authorities and the police from the National Direction of Criminal Investigation (DNIC) arrived. The Discipline Commission was put in charge of protecting state representatives from a lynching by the resentful masses.

Half an hour later, Jasmina Chacón from DNIC and Renán Cruz, from the public prosecutor’s office, are escorted to the scene. They seem very nervous as they work with the forensic doctors to collect items strewn across the field, which could prove to be belongings of the victim. They collect a cell phone, a cloth bag, a wallet with several love letters between Pedro and his wife, photos of the couple and their son, and an identification card that confirms his name and surname.

Santo Cepeda and his assistant begin lifting the body. The police take a picture of each wound from the blows he received and recorded the size of the wounds. As yet, bloodstains have not been discovered and it appears that bloodstains on the victim have been washed away. Then they open the jacket and the shirt and find four large wounds in the abdomen. The shirt is soaked with blood. But the worst comes when they turn the body over.

The first they see are three wounds in the back of the head that were caused by a knife or machete. At 12:00 exactly on Saturday July 25, the doctor lifts the shirt and discovers the work of sadists. Pedro Magdiel has 35 puncture wounds in the back and a total of 42 cuts all over his body. His left arm is hurt and various fingers fractured.

According to the forensic doctor, his death occurred between eight and 10 hours before, which means between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m. on Saturday—the time Pedro was supposedly in police custody, although the national police deny this 22 minutes later through the El Heraldo newspaper.

The body of Pedro Magdiel matches the image in the photo published by La Tribuna on page 52 that same morning. Four days later, on Wednesday July 29, the magazine Honduras Laboral writes that "Relatives in Tegucigalpa identified Magdiel by his clothing and face after seeing the photo in La Tribuna taken when he was taken into custody." The magazine shows the photo from La Tribuna alongside the one taken by my photographer after Pedro’s death—the clothes match in both photos.

The article states, "an important detail is that the rifle carried (by the official) in his left hand is similar to that of an M16, but smaller. This type of rifle is only used by officials in the armed forces, specifically the army." This means that identifying the officer is not a difficult task and could help uncover who Pedro Magdiel was handed over to that afternoon. It is ironic because as it turns out the owner of La Tribuna is Carlos Flores Facussé, who was one of the intellectual architects of the coup against Manuel Zelaya. Now his own photographer has provided key evidence in the search for the killer or killers of Pedro Magdiel.

"This is called selling fear, selling terror!" says the woman interviewed, who preferred not to give her name. "I told the international press that we have returned to the 80s where the National Security and Internal Enemy Doctrine is applied. They captured workers, farmers, students, and professionals and dragged them out of their houses and later they showed up dead. This is the doctrine of Billy Joya Amándola!"

Battalion 3-16

Gloria Esperanza Reyes was one of the women arrested in the 80s, but she was lucky. She wasn’t assassinated or forcibly disappeared like 218 and 110 Hondurans (respectively), victims of an order from the military intelligence unit known as "Battalion 3-16." The women were tortured with electric cables applied to their nipples and vaginas. They would start with 110 volts and ramp it up to 220 volts. "The first shock was so strong that you wished you were dead," recalls Gloria. José Barrera, one of the torturers of "3-16" confirmed Gloria’s phrase, "They begged us to kill them. Torture is more horrible than death," said the thug on June 13, 1995 in an extended report from the Baltimore Sun daily newspaper in the United States.

What Barrera and the U.S. reporter did not know then was that one of the most hated members of "3-16," its captain Billy Joya, would walk into the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa on June 29, 2009 and sit down beside the de facto president, Roberto Micheletti as his "ministerial adviser." Joya knows how to pull the strings in a coup or a dirty war. He was one of the students "trained" by the Chilean police force during the Pinochet dictatorship.

The CIA Created a Monster

In August 1980, 25 officials from the Honduran Armed Forces landed on an unpaved runway in the deserts of the southwestern United States. They were received by five CIA agents, one of them called "Mr. Bill." Florencio Caballero, one of the 25 Hondurans that would be turned into an expert on "disappearances" in 3-16, told the Baltimore Sun, "We arrived at a military base; everything was private, no television, only video clips."

Battalion 3-16 was created by recommendation of the CIA in the context of the "Preventative War." It was an independent intelligence paramilitary command that with blind hatred executed anyone who smelled of subversion, progressiveness, or people’s movements in Honduras. The inspiration and the "professors" came from the CIA and the Argentine military dictatorship, where their "efficiency" was shocking and resulted in 30,000 disappeared. Two Honduran generals, Gustavo Alvarez Martínez and José Bueso Rosa, confirmed that "the United States offered to create a special forces unit."

"It was their idea to create an intelligence body that reported directly to the highest order of the Armed Forces Command Group," General Bueso told the Baltimore Sun on June 11, 1995. This report also confirmed the role and influence of John Negroponte, who arrived in Honduras in 1981 and initiated an internal war in the country. During his term as ambassador, the military budget increased from $3.6 million in 1981 to $77.8 million in 1985, when his mission was completed—having created the Contras in Nicaragua and protected the El Salvadoran dictatorship.

During the six months in the desert the nucleus of Battalion 3-16 was formed. The CIA manual on psychological warfare and torture literally permeated the brains of these Honduran officials. The Hondurans applied what they learned from their U.S. and Argentine advisers, returning as deadly machines against their own people. Now with Billy Joya in the presidential palace and ruthless assassinations such as that of Pedro Magdiel, the Honduran people find themselves returning to a nightmare period in their history, with an "updated" form of the "3-16."

APROH and the Democratic Civil Union

The Association for the Progress of Honduras (APROH) was created as a legally registered entity on January 10, 1983. "For almost two years, the APROH advised the state; it produced the principle economic and political documents used by the government, among them a report presented to the Kissinger Commission. In September of 1983, it proposed to Kissinger that the United States invade Sandanista Nicaragua. The APROH represented a global vision of the country framed within a neoliberal and national security perspective. In this context, in the second half of 1983, they proposed to organize 125,000 landless families in agro-forestry cooperatives, under an obligatory military regime, and therefore under the control and authority of the armed forces," writes Juan Arancibia in his book Honduras a National State.

According to Arancibia, the APROH proposal pursued three objectives that coincide almost identically with the policies of "democratic security" followed by Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, in his mission to create a "network of informants and collaborators" or "forest rangers." The project merely takes advantage of the misery in the Colombian countryside, paying campesinos 150 dollars in return for informing the military forces in their war against the insurgency.

Arancibia describes the objectives of APROH: to organize landless families to politically manipulate them and transform them into future civil patrols (like those in Guatemala at the time) that would serve to control the population. It also eliminated the social and political problems that the landless population represented and served to increase lumber production and improve forest conservation, and to create social and political barriers to the eventual development of political-military organizations that would use the forests as a rearguard and mobilize landless people as their social base.

APROH was more gringo than the gringos and "it suggested to the Kissinger Commission that Honduras should be converted into a Protectorate or Free Associated State of the United States. Though APROH pointed out that the idea was undesirable given the particular characteristics of the country, it was proposed as an extreme possibility to save the system. In essence, they were saying that it was preferable for Honduras to disappear completely as an independent country than to experience revolutionary transformation," writes Arancibia. This attitude reflects the absolute intolerance of General Romeo Vásquez and Roberto Micheletti today, who preferred to carry out a coup d’etat June 28, using the military to stop any minimal reform that granted the people direct participation as in the popular consultation scheduled for that day.

It is evident that the elite of the 80s represented by the APROH is the same sector and social class that executed the coup d’etat on June 28, 2009, this time using the facade of the "Democratic Civil Union," or "the Whites," or "The Perfumed Ones," as the coup leaders are commonly referred to in Honduras.

Who were these people and who are they today?

In the past they were prominent personalities in political parties and business, rightwing intellectuals, military leaders, and figures from the judicial branch. Today it’s the same and we can add to that list the leadership of the Catholic Church and evangelicals, the Supreme Court, the public prosecutor, the Attorney General, the Human Rights Commission—Ramon Custody, renamed "the Ombudsman of the oligarchy"—and above all, the mass media.

Billy Joya as Strategist

"It is no secret to anyone that this (coup) came from businessmen who do not want to share their profits and wealth with the people. There are also former presidents of the republic such as Flores Facussé, Rafael Calleja, and Ricardo Maduro, and presidential candidates such as Pepe Lobo (Nacional) and Elvin Santos (Liberal) that belong to the oligarchy of this country. And sadly, the Catholic and evangelical churches that were behind all of this, including engaging in the indoctrination of their parishioners in order to blindfold them to the reality of the country. What they did not know is that the people would grow, awaken, and reclaim their right to participate in decisions that affect them. This constitutes a coup here as it would anywhere in the world! Individual rights are suspended. The rights to physical integrity, to life, and the liberty of the people have been violated."

The words come from María Luisa Borja, former colonel of the national police for 25 years who was fired during the Richard Maduro administration when she "dug" too deep into the internal corruption of the police force. She is horrified at the mention of "Battalion 3-16" and adds:

"Billy Joya is the strategist behind all of this, and so we see the same practices as those of the 3-16. And if you analyze the current directors of the national police, they are ex-members of the 3-16, like the director of Transit, Napoleón Nazareth Herrera, the director of Special Investigations, René Maradiaga Panchamé, the general director of Police, Salomón de Jesús Salinas. They are all former members of the fateful Battalion 3-16 who at this moment are practicing these abuses of authority!"

A Prolonged Popular Struggle

It’s dark when we leave Alacua and the department of Paraíso behind and head back toward Tegucigalpa that night. The headlights illuminate the mountainsides, the palms, and the small homes dotted along the rural landscape. This part of Honduras is beautiful and exudes a tranquil calm.

All of a sudden we see a wall of soldiers with automatic rifles across the highway. An official tells me that we can’t continue down the road because the Melistas (Zelaya supporters) have blocked it. But we say that we are journalists and we want to speak with the first lady, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, who has spent 24 hours in the town of Arenales, waiting for the roadblocks to be lifted so that she can be reunited with her husband for the first time since the coup.

For hours now there have been two parallel lines of soldiers blocking the road. They are prohibited from speaking with us, but they shut their eyes in affirmation when we ask if they suffer the same poverty as those who live in the poor neighborhoods of the country and the same lack of jobs and opportunities for education and medical attention just like other Hondurans. On the other side of the roadblocks they have started a bonfire and the people are tired but ready to continue the peaceful struggle. Carlos H. Reyes, a legendary union leader of Stiby that organized the workers at Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola bottling plants around the country, is speaking to the crowd without a megaphone, which he doesn’t need given his booming voice.

Also in the crowd is Marvin Ponce, a deputy from the Democratic Unifier (UD, Unificador Democrático) party who recently returned from Washington after taking part in a delegation to meet with U.S. Congress members and convince them of the importance of the United States closing the "valve" on the coup regime.

"Since the two-month general strike in 1954 (which started at the U.S. banana companies, United and Standard), the popular movement has not been involved in a battle as intense as this one. Because the military coups of the past were always between the political and military elite and the people tolerated it in some ways. But now the people in Honduras have changed and that is why we have spent the past 26 days resisting and the politicians and military, in their nervousness, have turned to repression as a last resort," says Ponce.

The leftist Honduran deputy maintains that the Obama administration would like to delay a resolution by waiting until the president and the people give up in order to bring legitimacy to the coup leaders.

"This means that the gringos are playing a dirty role in this duel. The first lady is detained here, along with her mother-in-law and two daughters. We have to reverse this terrible process. We have an active youth and adults who have lived through the era of the 80s who don’t want to go back to that period. We have an organized and mobilized citizenry that is struggling and resisting. We will not tire and I believe that we will enter into a prolonged popular struggle to obtain a new constitution and reinstate President Manuel Zelaya."

Clinton’s Man, Oscar Arias

Marvin Ponce and Silvia Ayala, also a UD Congress member, were both members of a delegation selected by Zelaya to participate in the negotiations in Costa Rica mediated by President Oscar Arias. But Ponce doesn’t have faith in the Costa Rican.

Ponce states that Oscar Arias "has played a sad role in dragging out the process and proposing a seven-point agenda although he is not a negotiator and he has ruled out the popular consultation, the whole reason behind the coup." Arias proposed a seven-point agreement including a commitment to cease in the attempt to let the people decide on whether to carry out a constitutional assembly.

"They have the arms; not just the military, but also the communications media. We have broken the media blockade of the right and the groups in power. You can see how the people have mobilized the entire time and have not stopped. This is why we went to Washington to demand that the United States take a stronger role after having basically taken that role from the OAS and transferred it to Central America and Arias where we see a fruitless dialogue taking place that can be prolonged in order to wear out the president and the citizenry while strengthening the coup leaders. The regime was practically converted into a valid counterpart! The biggest error the president (Zelaya) committed was to engage in a dialogue with the coup leaders. But he believed after speaking to Hillary Clinton that everything would be solved in two or three days because the mediation would have to be an ultimatum for the coup leaders to hand over power.

"The first meeting with Arias was a disaster. So was the second, and by the third meeting there was a different agenda. The coup leaders now say that they will consult with the Congress and the Supreme Court, that is, they will engage in more bureaucracy to buy time. Obama told president Zelaya that he shouldn’t go to Tegucigalpa but to Washington. The United States is playing a sad role and in the end they are part of the coup d’etat because they don’t seem to want a concrete solution to this problem.

"When we were in Washington the representative and head of Central America at the State Department told us they were doing a judicial study to determine whether or not there truly was a coup d’etat in Honduras. So we told them that the people should not have to bow their heads to national or international coup leaders.

"The secretary general of the OAS, Jorge Miguel Insulza, arrived in Tegucigalpa on the third day of the coup solely to warn the coup leaders that they had to return power to the overthrown President Zelaya. Now he has taken a lower profile and suggested that Zelaya not return to his own country and that he follow the agenda set in Costa Rica."

The First Lady Leads the Protests

June 28 divides Honduran history into a "before" and "after." Nothing and nobody will be the same after this date according to Xiomara Castro de Zelaya and the people active in the struggle against the dictatorship.

"We are living in a dictatorial regime. We have spent the past 26 days (the interview took place on July 24) all the while knowing that there is repression and that we do not have the rights we have always had. But we will not tire. We want peace in our country and to have peace we must return to constitutionality and the democracy that we have maintained in the past which has in one way or another permitted dialogue.

"The president was very clear when he said that there are powerful groups who do not want the people and the country to develop. He made that clear and now they have taken off their masks. Today the people understand when Mel speaks about powerful groups, now the people know who those groups are. Despite repression and the many obstacles they are putting in our way, the people are standing firm. The people here are unarmed and have only one objective: to get to where the president is, with the hope that his return will mean peace for our country. That is what we are trying to do here today.

"It has always been thought that Hondurans are submissive, passive, and conformist, that we just bow our heads, and that we aren’t even open to the possibility of discussion because we know they will not listen to us. This is the conception we’ve had our whole lives. That during the Cold War Honduras was at peace and the people adapted. The president tried to make the people understand that they have rights that cannot be usurped by anybody. We have freedom and we have to demand attention for our needs. This was the president’s position.

"The people began to understand that with the Cuarta Urna. He told me that it doesn’t matter if the people understand what I want to do, but my conscience tells me what I must do. Now we see that the people have responded, because now it’s not just a position of the president of the republic, but of the people."

On June 25 the president led a caravan of 1,000 people that went to the Air Force base to retrieve electoral materials for the public consultation that had been confiscated by the Attorney General’s office that same morning. Since that day, the people have grown more and more aware, according to Xiomara Castro:

"They still have not realized, they still think that with weapons one can repress and by simply scaring and intimidating, the people will calmly return to their houses and feel beaten. The reality is quite different. We have been here for 26 days in resistance and the people have shown that they will not back down until their positions are accepted."

Two days later the de facto president, Roberto Micheletti, and General Romeo Vázquez offered the first lady permission to travel to the country of her choice, to which she responded:

"I do not need permission to travel to any country! My country is Honduras and this is my struggle!"

How to Overthrow the Dictatorship?

The Chilean, Uruguayan, and Argentine people were unarmed and could not resist or overthrow the fascists and military leaders behind the coups of the Southern Cone in the 70s. The coups were condemned by the world while the White House, the CIA, and the Pentagon were the architects that turned back the clock of history. Without arms the people who fought back were easy prey for the thugs. The antifascist struggle little by little organized, but in Chile the dictatorship lasted 17 years.

In Honduras, the whole world, even the OAS and the White House condemned and confirmed the coup d’etat, as Obama said on the first day. By the logic of this unanimous condemnation and the force of the Honduran Constitution that even the Honduran coup leaders defend, there is justification for rising up against the dictatorship.

President Manuel Zelaya finds himself in a dilemma. As I write this report, news arrives of the army, the police, and their Cobra Command repressing thousands of protestors in Tegucigalpa along the Northern Highway to the industrial city of San Pedro Sula and the port city Puerto Cortez. The 38-year-old foreign language teacher Roger Abrahán Soriano Vallejo is hanging on to life after having been shot in the head by a sniper. Hundreds of protestors have been arrested all over the country. All of this shows the unwillingness of the de facto regime to create conditions for the return of the constitutional president; in fact, violence has increased and become more dangerous.

Creating a "Peaceful Army"

The director of Radio Globo, David Romero, reports that on his July 29 visit to Las Manos, near the border with Nicaragua, he spoke with a young boy who says he was with four other boys who tried to cross the border through the mountains to reach President Zelaya. On their trek they were detained by five paramilitary members, hooded and wearing army issue boots. They were in a straight line with a distance of 10 meters between each of them and they stood staring them in the eyes. They were tortured, though the boy said that he and one of the other boys were lucky because they were released, but the other three are disappeared and they fear the worst. They have seen many vultures circling the area. Romero also reported that the army and police are stationed at the roadblock in Alauca, but there are also paramilitaries there dressed in civilian clothing, in brown shirts and visibly carrying 9mm pistols. These men are giving orders in threatening tones, saying things like, "Hopefully you won’t make it inside before the curfew …!" An open death threat in the same place that Pedro Magdiel Muñoz Salvador was horribly murdered.

Despite the circumstances, Manuel Zelaya insists on a peaceful struggle: "We do not want to use arms to throw out the dictatorship that is hurting the Honduran people. Today the left recognizes the power of the vote and this is what is happening in Ocotal. We are preparing ourselves to defeat the coup leaders at the ballot box as they use rifles to repress the people," he said on July 29, according to the press.

Zelaya said that the Honduran political refugees in Nicaragua have begun a new phase of training in the formation of a peaceful popular army with the objective of defeating the coup-led dictatorship. "We will have ideological and political education and training. As of today we will use the weapons of reason and this army will be invincible because we will use these weapons," he said while displaying his identity card.

Civil War?

But the popular indignation grows everyday as the number of victims grows. Below is just one of thousands of emails circulating through different networks in Honduras to get an idea of the daily struggle in the streets:

"It is incredible to hear the coup leaders justify and celebrate the death and repression of Hondurans just to boast their egos … They will not feel so content or protected in a civil war … There aren’t that many soldiers … They should think about what they are doing and stop this before it is too late … They are blood-thirsty!"

On June 15 President Manuel Zelaya Rosales was the victim of an ambush some 100 meters from the Air Force base in Tegucigalpa. Two shots broke the windshield of the car that carried the president. Zelaya came out of the terrorist attack unharmed. The oligarchy-controlled media that now celebrates the coup mocked the incident, saying that the president had staged the attack by having someone throw rocks at the window.

We now know that Zelaya challenged the invisible power of the six or seven ruling groups and the coup took place 13 days later; 80 shots were fired at the presidential home, and he was taken in his pajamas to a plane and flown to Costa Rica.

The coup leaders did not count on the reaction of the Honduran people who have not rested a single day in their efforts to re-establish democracy. The question is why the world, and above all the United States, does not clamp down on all areas of the Micheletti regime. Just revoking visas for the coup leaders or freezing their bank accounts is not enough. The regime only understands the tough language and hard decisions, and Obama and Clinton know that.



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