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Welcome to the New Honduras, Where Right-Wing Death Squads Proliferate

The new regime in Honduras is assassinating union leaders, teachers and journalists. Why does the U.S. support it?
 
 
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Things are back to normal in Honduras.

At least that's the message of right-wing president Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo Sosa and much of the international community. Several U.S. and international agencies are in the process of restoring aid to Honduras. U.S. biofuels, mining and other businesses are ramping up for increased investment in the impoverished Central American country. The massive repression of public protests, curfews and censorship that followed last summer's coup d'etat have abated.


But this image ignores a new reality in Honduras: the emergence of what many are calling death squads carrying out targeted assassinations, brutal attacks and threats. They have created an extreme climate of fear for the campesinos (peasants), teachers, union members, journalists and other community leaders involved in the resistance movement that continues to oppose the coup and Lobo's election.


Dozens were killed in street violence between the June 28 coup and the November 29 election, with the deaths largely attributed to police, military forces and other coup supporters. Lobo has tried to distance himself from the coup regime, but since the election, at least a dozen people have been killed and others beaten or raped in attacks with clear political hallmarks. The victims include a teacher shot in front of his students; a young union leader whose body was found with signs of torture after she disappeared; the daughter of a prominent anti-coup TV reporter shot in her home; five journalists killed in March alone; and a TV reporter killed April 21. In December, well-known gay rights activist Walter Trochez was kidnapped in Tegucigalpa and interrogated about the resistance while being pistol-whipped in the face. He escaped, but was murdered a week later. In February, a woman who was raped after a post-coup protest was kidnapped and terrorized by men including the rapist, who said "Pepe says hi," a clear allusion to the president.


Authorities have largely attributed the murders and attacks to random crime and gang violence. Street crime has been at epidemic levels in Honduras for years, and has reportedly increased since the coup. And a few prominent victims of attacks or threats have been coup supporters. But international rights groups say a trend of violence and threats against community-based resistance leaders is undeniable and part of a highly orchestrated campaign to tamp down the popular resistance movement which continues to call for a new constitutional assembly and a reshaping of Honduran society, including the restoration of worker protections and social policies instituted under deposed president Manuel Zelaya but terminated since the coup.


"They've pulled away from the mass repression in the streets and gone for individual assassinations," said Victoria Cervantes of the Chicago group La Voz de los de Abajo, who met with resistance groups in Honduras after the coup and the election. "You don't look like a military regime, and it's cheaper than sweeping up people in the streets. But it terrorizes large groups of people, perhaps more effectively than the mass repression."


This spring at least one campesino has been murdered and at least four shot in a land struggle in the Bajo Aguan area, where campesinos are trying to reclaim land from wealthy palm plantation owners. Campesinos who occupy and lay claim to unused land have long suffered violence from police and hired guns. Zelaya was largely supportive of such campesino movements, which are legal under agrarian reform laws, but the conflicts have escalated since his ouster.


In the Bajo Aguan area, locals say, former Colombian paramilitary members have been hired to terrorize campesinos. And Billy Joya, a notorious member of the "Battalion 316" death squad during the 1980s military dictatorship, has reportedly returned to train militias to fight drug traffickers and "guerrillas," which is taken to mean the resistance movement. Post-dictatorship, Joya was charged with illegal detention, torture and murder of opponents. He has since lived in Spain and the U.S., continually pleading his innocence while working as an international businessman and security adviser. A 2006 report by the Mesoamerica Institute for Central America Studies says Joya worked as an adviser to Zelaya’s security secretary Alvaro Romero. Another of Zelaya’s cabinet ministers, Milton Jimenez, was among the six students Joya was charged with illegally detaining and torturing in 1982.