Monday, January 9, 2012

More Victims of Police Violence: Catholic Clergy Edition

What does "impunity" mean?

In Honduras, it means that the police and armed forces are not held accountable for the violence they unleash against the people with no reason other than that they can. The number of victims and the sectors of society they come from exceeds our ability to track or report them. As has been repeatedly noted, few of these excesses are investigated, even by the human rights officials assigned this responsibility.

Now, add another group to those subject to random violence by Honduran security forces: the Roman Catholic clergy. And this time the outrage that actually gained traction with the international media.

The Latin American Herald Tribune reports that Father Marco Aurelio Lorenzo, pastor of Macuelizo, a small town in the Department of Santa Barbara, has filed a formal complaint with the Public Prosecutor's office in San Pedro Sula denouncing a police attack he experienced.

Father Lorenzo described the attack by the police, which took place on December 26, when he and two brothers were traveling to visit family, and stopped along the highway to rest. Honduran reports specify that they were between La Esperanza and Gracias, on the way to the town of Yamaranguila, in the heart of Lenca territory.

Eight police officers set on them and beat them, badly enough that they then took them to the hospital. The Latin American Herald Tribune quotes Father Lorenzo:
“They beat us on every part of our bodies,” Lorenzo said, adding that the cops didn’t realize he was a priest until they took the three brothers to a nearby hospital.

The story has been circulating in Honduran media for about a week. On January 3, La Tribuna of Honduras provided its version. Lorenzo is quoted as saying that he feared he would be killed:
“In the beginning I thought that they would assassinate me, but they did not do it."

This is how impunity leads to power: Hondurans live with the very real, and well-founded fear that if the police attack, they will end by murdering their victims to cover up their actions. The fear intimidates people and leads them to avoid exercising the rights they have under their constitution. That makes Father Lorenzo's decision to file a complaint especially important.

The Herald Tribune story adds that Father Lorenzo "is known in western Honduras for his activism on behalf of human rights and the environment". Juan Donaghy provides more details about Father Lorenzo's work in the community where he ministers.

His work places him in the company of many others who have been victimized in this way; the only apparent difference is that he wasn't deliberately targeted, but was randomly set on.

Why? in another country we could hope that the prosecutor, who supposedly "said in a communique that he would investigate the case", would clarify that. But we won't be holding our breath.

In the absence of an investigation, what we have is a story of three men, stopped to rest along the road in the countryside, randomly set on by the police. One of Honduran stories says the police robbed their victims of 11,500 lempiras during the attack. The local police claim that they were responding to an accident.

A case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the kind of violence that exercises a chilling effect on the people of Honduras.

The parish of Father Lorenzo, in a statement of support for him issued on December 31, provide an indication of the corrosive effect such incidents have on public trust in government institutions:
We alert the public in general so that they don’t trust nor allow themselves to be seduced by the security forces which are the right hand of organized crime in our society and that don’t fulfill their function to protect, serve and care for the population in general.

They add a very serious additional charge:
the principal objective was to get into the vehicle and throw it in a chasm 300 meters deep.

This apparently unbelievable claim would be consistent with a police history of covering up violence by committing even more acts of violence.

This time, the police appear to have picked the wrong victim. In reporting last week, La Tribuna of Honduras noted Father Lorenzo's history of community activism:
defender of human rights and of the El Merendón forest, the zone his parish belongs to. He also battles against the installation of mining enterprises in the area.

In the complaint he filed, Father Lorenzo said
"Both the priests as well as the nuns of the Christian base community in the Departments of Copán, Intibucá, Lempira, Santa Bárbara and Ocotepeque, belonging to the Dioces of the west of Honduras, live in a climate of terror and threats from the repressive bodies of the State."

Fighting back and providing an example for his community, Father Lorenzo can expect to have his reputation blackened and his motives questioned. But his is an example that needs to be publicized in the face of the linked impunity and despair that state violence has produced in Honduras.


John (Juan) Donaghy said...

According to a report from a friend the police involved have been moved from Intibucá. It seems that means that the Comisionado of the Police cannot go forward in any action against them since they are out of his region.
Also, the national police spokesman is claiming that Padre Marco Aurelio was drunk! The report in Friday's El Tiempo was quite the attempt to blame the victim and exonerate the police.

RAJ said...

We had heard that the police were claiming that the father was drunk-- as I said, he can look forward to having his reputation blackened for this.

The move of the police out of the regional office is a prime example of how impunity is enacted.