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Step by Step

Hondurans Walk for Dignity and Sovereignty

by GREG McCAIN

From February 25th to March 7th, I participated in the 200 km Walk (about 124 miles) referred to as Caminata Dignidad y Soberanía Paso a Paso (Walk for Dignity and Sovereignty Step by Step), which culminated with over 400 people from various groups representing the social movements in Honduras reaching the National Congress in Tegucigalpa to demand three things:

* Abolish the new mining law, which basically gives foreign mining companies carte blanche to take the natural resources of Honduras for their own enrichment while having no regulations to stop these companies from poisoning the rivers and ground water and destroying the environment through mountain top removal and deforestation. In addition, these mining companies have historically exploited the labor of the local communities, paying little to nothing while poisoning the local populations with chemicals such as cyanide used for extraction.

* Abolish the new Model Cities legislation. This is new legislation passed by decree by the Congress after having been found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in November of last year. The following month, the president of the Congress, Juan Orlando Hernandez(JOH), staged what has been referred to as the 2nd coup by holding an emergency session of Congress to vote out 4 of the members of the Constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court who found the original version in violation of the sovereignty of Honduras. JOH and President Pepe Lobo claimed that these magistrates were traitors who were holding back the economic development of the country. He also claimed to have fixed the issues that these “traitors” found to be unconstitutional.

It is for all intents and purposes the same neo-liberal package that gives up huge areas of land to outside developers to create neo-colonial enclaves that don’t have to operate under constitutional regulations. The further claim is that the land under consideration is uninhabited. Two areas that have been proposed, the communities of Puerto Castillo and Santa Rosa de Aguán are traditional Garifuna land along the northern coast in the Department of Colon. The Garifuna are the Afro-Caribe people who have inhabited the northern coast of Honduras for over 200 years. They have been struggling to maintain their land from rich foreigners such as the Canadian Porn King Randy Jorgensen who has bought up at bargain prices much acreage in and around the area of Trujillo.

Jorgensen has built a cruise ship dock on the beachfront in the town of Trujillo, not far from Puerto Castillo, which is also the location of the fruit company, Dole’s, shipping docks.  The Congress refers to the model cities as Special Development Regions (RED in its Spanish acronym). They will combine the exploitation of local labor and natural resources perpetrated by foreign corporations with the destruction of the natural environment such as has happened in Cancun, Mexico and other resort areas around the world, with all of the profits going to the foreign directors of the REDs, and their foreign investors.

* Freedom for the Political Prisoner Jose Isabel “Chavelo” Morales Lopez. Chavelo Morales has become a symbol of the campesino movement and his imprisonment illustrates the criminalization of the campesinos as they struggle to maintain the land that is theirs by all rights under the agrarian reform laws that had existed prior to 1992. These laws were subverted by the ruling elite when so called “free” trade agreements were first being thought up and hammered out by corporate lobbyists in the US Capital.

Chavelo was framed for the 2008 murder of a family of rich landowners, the Osortos. This moneyed family had illegally obtained thousands of hectares of land at rock bottom prices (some of it free of charge) that were legally recognized as being set aside for peasant farmers. In the late 1990s, the Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MCA), of which Chavelo is a member, took legal routes to obtain the land and began to work it for their own subsistence. The Osortos and their paramilitary guards terrorized the communities, killing leaders of the MCA, and shooting into the houses of families. This occurred while the national police and the Honduran government turned their backs on the illegal actions of the Osortos, presumably due to the bribes that the rich landowners doled out. Indeed, the police and the district attorneys played an active role in criminalizing the campesinos by issuing trumped up arrests warrants (Currently there are over 3080 campesinos with arrest warrants against them). Click here for a more complete background of Chavelo’s story and the travesty of justice in his case.

Chavelo spent the first 2 years in jail without a trial. It was another 2 years before he received his sentence. This is a clear violation of Honduran Penal Process Code 188, which states that a person cannot be incarcerated for more than 2 years from the time of his arrest until sentencing. This alone should be enough for the Supreme Court to annul the conviction and set him free, and indeed this is what Chavelo’s lawyers are hoping to happen in their appeal of causation that they have filed with the high court. But additionally, the sentencing statement that the judges in Trujillo issued gives no concrete evidence linking Chavelo to the deaths that occurred other than a photo of him close by to the scene where some 300 other campesinos and dozens of police had been during a standoff at the Ranch of Henry Osorto, the ex-military, ex-police sub-commissioner, and current penal system investigator. It is with Osortos influence alone that Chavelo is currently imprisoned. Chavelo has spent close to 4 ½ years in prison based on hearsay evidence and the political and economic influence that Henry Osorto has over the judges. Chavelo faces 20 years in prison unless international pressure convinces the Supreme Court of Honduras otherwise.

With these three demands energizing our every step, we entered Tegucigalpa with 400+ walkers who made a silent vigil through the streets until we reached the National Congress. Once there, hundreds more joined us. A small group, accompanied by Padre Melo Moreno, a Jesuit priest and director of Radio Progress, was able to meet with Marvin Ponce, vice president of the Congress. Promises were made that the protesters concerns would be addressed. No one is holding his or her breath.

Another group was able to meet with the President of the Sala Penal of the Supreme Court, basically the chamber of the court that deals with prison issues. This group was made up of Omar Menjivar, Chavelo’s lawyer; Esly Benegas from COPA (the Spanish acronym for the Coordinated Popular Organizations of the Aguán); Merlin Morales, Chavelo’s brother; Myself, Greg McCain, representing La Voz de los de Abajo and the Honduran Solidarity Network, and Brigitte Gynther from SOA Watch. The President of the Sala Penal, Jacobo Antonio Cálix Hernández, began by stating that the court was backlogged by two years, they hadn’t even begun to hear cases that had been sent to the court in 2011. Chavelo’s case had just reached the court at the end of January 2013. He stated that cases were very complicated and that they took a lot of study on the part of the judges. He was basically letting us know that nothing happens fast in the justice system.

We each made our case for why we were there and what we expected from the court, reiterating the lack of evidence and the violation of the procedural code. Chavelo’s brother made explicit Osorto’s influence on the judges in the Trujillo tribunal and the fact that the only evidence was a photo of Chavelo and that the context of the photo was not addressed in the sentencing. He also made the emotional appeal that Chavelo has been unjustly incarcerated while his daughter, father, 2 aunts and grandfather have all passed away without his being able to attend the funerals. I piggybacked on Merlin’s plea by noting the money and political power of Osorto and my hope that it does not reach to the Supreme Court. I also underlined the amount of time that Chavelo has spent in jail and hoped that there weren’t further undue delays of justice.

Judge Cálix made the promise that he would speed up the process for having the trial transcripts of the lower court transcribed by no later than the following week. He then stated that he would schedule the hearing of the case for sometime between April 1st and the 5th. This hearing is basically a formality so that each side, the Defense and the Prosecutor, can present their cases. The judges then legally have up to a year to make a decision. This was huge news. We in the room, along with the threat of having 400+ demonstrators that were still at the National Congress converging on the Supreme Court, cut the process down by two years. Again, none of us are holding our breath. The campaign to put pressure on the Supreme Court has just begun. We need to reduce the year long wait and bring Chavelo home. Pronto!

To send emails and make phone calls to the court between now and the promised April hearing, click here, and you can also follow future actions and the progress of Chavelo’s case.

Greg McCain is a volunteer human rights activist living in Honduras. He coordinates with the Chicago based La Voz de los de Abajo and the Honduran Solidarity Network.