Terror in Honduras: One Family's Tragic Story of Life After the Coup
Tegucigalpa, Honduras -- It's been a rough summer for the Murillo family. On July 5 -- one week after the military coup that ousted democratically-elected president Mel Zelaya -- nineteen- year-old Isis Obed Murillo was killed when soldiers opened fire on a peaceful protest march at Toncontin airport. Obed's father, Jose David Murillo, a well-known anti-deforestation crusader with the Environmental Movement of Olancho (MAO), and head pastor of the New Life Church, had long taught his family the virtues of peaceful resistance to authoritarian power. Pastor Murillo, his son Isis, and three other siblings had come to the airport that morning to welcome home the deposed president, and to show their defiance of the military-backed government. At about three-thirty p.m., shortly after Zelaya's plane was refused clearance to land, the Honduran soldiers guarding the runway began firing teargas and live rounds into the crowd of unarmed demonstrators.
"I stood up in front of the soldiers and cried, ‘What are you doing? Do not attack us!'" says Pastor Murillo. "We had done nothing to provoke them." When the protestors broke and ran, the family was separated. Pastor Murillo did not learn the fate of his fifth-born child for nearly an hour -- until he received a cell-phone call from his eldest son, informing him that Obed had been shot in the back of the head, as he tried to escape the incoming rounds. The youth's final, conscious act was to push his younger brother, Byron, out of harm's way. It took about ten minutes for Obed to die. During that time several campesinos bore him up wrapped in jackets, and raced to the nearest hospital.
Pastor Murillo, joined by his wife, identified their son in the morgue that evening. "We could not believe what had happened," says Obed's mother, Sylvia Mencias. "We did not have any words sufficient to our grief." But this was just the beginning of the Murillo's ordeal.
In the office of the morgue they were greeted by a public minister, who said, bluntly, "This is not our fault." When asked by Pastor Murillo whose fault it then was, the government official threw the clipboard containing the death certificate into Murillo's face, and demanded a show of "respect."
Three days later, on July 8, Pastor Murillo met with three members of the Honduran Department of Criminal Investigations (DIC), to inquire into the details of his son's death. The meeting was held in the public offices of the Committee for Detained and Disappeared Persons of Honduras (COFADEH), a prominent human rights organization. (Murillo already feared governmental revanche, and thought the COFADEH office would be safe ground). Immediately after the meeting, upon exiting the building, Murillo found the street cordoned off by police, and ten heavily-armed officers waiting to arrest him.
Without being told what charges had been made against him, the pastor -- a big man in his late fifties, with close-cropped, still-dark hair and massive, work-worn hands -- was cuffed and taken to the Via Della police station. There, deep in the basement, he was ordered to sign a fabricated "confession", stating that he had murdered three people and raped another. When Murillo balked, a sergeant put a 9 millimeter pistol in his ribs, and shouted "Firma aqui!" -- "Sign here!"
"There is no justification for this behavior," says COFADEH Coordinator General Bertha Oliva. "It's monstrous. [The de facto government] has no respect for human rights." COFADEH has documented about nine thousand illegal detentions since the coup, and scores more have been physically (and sexually) assaulted by police and soldiers. About a dozen people have been killed, including at least two more during the march on Toncontin.
"This is a highly abusive regime, a kind of hybrid of military and oligarchic rule," says Grahame Russell, Co-Director of Rights Action, a U.S.-based organization involved with the Murillo case. "The elites will do anything to protect their fiefdom."
After signing the bogus document, Pastor Murillo was driven to a penitentiary in the Olancho district, where he was held in solitary confinement for the next 37 days. There were never any formal charges filed in court, which makes his detention illegal under the Honduran Constitution. Finally, on August 13, after weeks of pressure and investigation by COFADEH and others, the pastor was fined $25,000 lempira (about $1,322 U.S. dollars), and released. But it didn't end there.
The government still refuses to release the autopsy results for Isis Obed, and the ballistics report on the bullet lodged in his skull. Pastor Murillo must report to the prison in Olancho every two weeks, and the family is still deeply in debt from paying the fine. Murillo recently applied to have his driver's license renewed, but was turned down when the computer system showed him to be a "felon." Their home is under constant surveillance, including helicopter fly-bys. A few weeks ago, when two of their daughters received death threats, the family was forced to go into hiding. Being on the run makes it almost impossible for Murillo to serve his community, either as pastor or conservation activist.
"All of this is being done to shut me up," says Murillo. "To intimidate me. But the price of my son's life is not negotiable."
This reporter met with the pastor and his wife in the offices of COFADEH, where the couple expressed acute concern over future reprisals, including great fear that the authorities would learn they'd met with an American journalist.
"I love my country," says the pastor, "but I want people to know the raw truth of what is happening here." The only hope for Honduras, he says, "Is for the U.S. to help us. They are the greatest country in the world. The only transparent democracy in the hemisphere. If they won't come to our aid," says the Pastor, as tears of emotion well in his eyes, "then who will?"