Saturday, March 31, 2012

Honduran Authorities Lit the Match for the San Pedro Sula Fire

More than half of the 13 dead accounted for in San Pedro Sula's prison fire, 7 people, had not been convicted of a crime.

Contrary to English-language press reports, they did not all die from the effects of the fire set during the uprising.

The victim of the death that apparently started the incident was not simply involved in a gang dispute, but was conveying changes ordered by the prison administration.

And as of today, Honduran papers tell us, the facility is still under the control of the prisoners.

We are used to bad reporting, we are used to stereotypes, but given the context for this latest disaster provided by the horror of the Comayagua prison fire, we expected a bit more care on the part of English language media, a bit more digging below the surface.

Contrary to the AP story reproduced in many English newspapers, the cause of death of all thirteen victims was not simply "a fire started by rioters" or "burns or asphyxiation". This was a claim made by government officials, before any bodies had been examined by forensic specialists.

Now, Honduran news outlets report that about half of the dead died as a result of gunshot wounds suffered in the early morning.

While Honduran authorities claimed to have regained control of the prison by late Thursday, Honduran reporting noted that the prisoners retain control of the facility. They turned away human rights officials, and said they wanted to be left in peace.

The English language press described the arrival at the prison on Thursday of the bishop of San Pedro Sula, Romulo Emiliani, as a mediator. Yet none of these stories cited his statements, reported in the Honduran press, telling the authorities that the inmates required a two day cooling off period before the authorities should try to re-enter the facility.

Not all of the reporting is better in the Spanish language press. Accounts of the cause of the unrest continue to be fragmentary, contradictory, and often give no source for information. Prensa Latina on Friday described the person who was decapitated (according to Honduran reports, post-mortem) as what in the US would be called a trustee, but one who in the Honduran prison system apparently had much more of a role in prison administration:
The incident sparked off when Mario Alvarez, an inmate appointed coordinator by the prison authorities to impose discipline, informed about some changes in the cells, and some inmates decapitated him, threw his head in front of the prison entrance and confronted those that accompanied him.

This is in marked contrast to the Honduran press reports, which described Alvarez as a coordinator for a group of prisoners who were unaligned with the two main identified factions in the prison population, implying that the reason he was targeted was a conflict among the factions, rather than for conveying prison administrative orders to the general prison population.

Like the previous disaster, this one was entirely predictable-- indeed, it was predicted, by those who know best what conditions are like in Honduras' prisons and enough freedom to speak: the families of the incarcerated.

As the AP reported,
at the time of the deadly blaze in Comayagua, relatives of inmates at the San Pedro Sula prison warned that it had far worse overcrowding and security conditions.

The suspension of the national head of prisons, Danilo Orellana, was the main action Porfirio Lobo Sosa took after the Comayagua disaster. As Amnesty International noted in a statement following the San Pedro Sula disaster, the government has taken no substantive steps to alleviate the conditions present in Honduran prisons:
"Inmates in Honduras's prisons are being denied their basic human rights and this latest horrific incident shows how precarious their situation continues to be – despite the repeated government promises that no more such incidents will occur," said Esther Major, Amnesty International's Central American Researcher.

“Many of those currently languishing in Honduras’s overcrowded jails have been there for years awaiting trial and have not even been convicted of any crime."

Just this week, the AP reported,
Honduras Attorney General Ethel Deras appeared before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on Monday and said the San Pedro Sula prison was housing more than 2,200 inmates even though it had only 800 beds. Nationwide, 24 prisons built for a total capacity of 8,000 inmates are housing about 12,500, he said.

Put those numbers together with Prensa Latina's report that Mario Alvarez had been sent to the inmates to explain some (undefined) changes in the management of the cells-- the crowded spaces to which a prison population that mixed the as-yet untried and the convicted-- and while neither English language press nor Honduran press are likely to ever completely clarify events, we have a suggestion that this incident was started by administrative actions.

They may not have started the fire. But with the conditions they tolerated, Honduran prison authorities lit the match.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Prison Fire in Honduras: Another Chapter in an Old Story

The English language press is reporting another prison fire in Honduras, this time in a prison in San Pedro Sula with as much as 1800 or 2250 inmates, that was built to contain a maximum of 800, according to Honduran press reports.

According to CNN, the dead include "a prisoner who was decapitated". Ricardo Ramirez, described as chief of police of San Pedro Sula (actually now the head of the National Police), is cited as saying that before the fire "shots had been heard from inside".

USA Today titled its article 14 dead in Honduran prison fire amid riot. Quoting "authorities" they summarize the deaths as occurring "after armed inmates started a fire during a riot". They quote police commissioner Yair Mesa:
"The uprising has been put down with the need to fire shots," Mesa said by telephone from inside the prison. He added the 14 victims apparently died of burns or asphyxiation. The cause of death could not immediately be determined because the bodies were so badly burned.

Also quoted: fire chief Jose Danilo Flores who USA Today quotes as saying that
the prisoners themselves appeared to have fought the fire inside the facility. But Flores said the armed inmates had kept firefighters from entering earlier in the day.

This is a far too familiar story. USA Today actually managed to add the most necessary context:
In 2008, the latest year for which figures are available, Honduras' prison system had nearly 38% more prisoners than it was built for, according to the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies.

Perhaps predictably, Honduran coverage was less subtle. La Prensa wrote "13 muertos dejá motín" (uprising leaves 13 dead), putting all the responsibility for the deaths on the prison uprising, and avoiding any discussion of the overcrowding the grows out of the policies of the government:
The uprising was produced after a quarrel among the group of prisoners called "los paisas", who are the prisoners that are not related to either of the two gangs that operate in Honduras.

The point at issue was generated after there was encountered inside a cell, the decapitated body of Mario Álvarez, one of the sub-coordinators of los paisas. The head of the prisoner was thrown from inside toward the area of the entrance to the jail area, whose control has not been possible to be retaken in its totality by the Police to avoid a repetition of the gunshot that accompanied the beginning of the incident, that left another 12 dead.

The confusing use of the passive voice here, so important to avoid getting into who shot first, makes it hard to completely visualize the turn of events. Now add this:
Police sources stated that the prisoners, among whom firearms had been encountered, presented to the Police a sheet of demands to return control of the jail, but they threatened that if they were not given a response, they would kill another coordinator of los paisas.

What those demands were goes undocumented.

Given the normal propensity for La Prensa to provide the most lurid and stereotyped view of things, their coverage of this fire seems almost matter of fact.

But a comparison to coverage in El Tiempo allows us to see some differences. Start with the title: Sube a 13 el numero de víctimas (the number of victims climbs to 13).

The account of the fire is also somewhat different: Tiempo repeats the claim seen in La Prensa that the fire was in the kitchen area, crediting it to a "police official". But it also includes other reports: that the origin point was the conjugal visit cells, citing a fire officer; and that it began in "
Zona 18, occupied by gang members", the latter without a specific source.

The AFP reproduced a Spanish language story that indicated that the prison was back under the control of the authorities. Despite repeated quotations of Honduran police and government officials saying that the actual events would only be clarified by investigation, the AFP story includes repeated claims about how the incident started, who was responsible, and what happened, sometimes by the same person almost simultaneously saying that the investigation would have to be carried out to know what they just said they knew:

For example, Walter Amaya, a police official, is quoted saying that
"organized bands that are in conflict provoked" the fire in San Pedro Sula, but he asked "to await the results of the investigations" to have more precision about what happened.

AFP, which is the source of the higher prison population estimate of 2250, follows Honduran government sources in describing the inmates entirely as members of
fearsome gangs Mara Salvatrucha (MS) and Mara 18 (M-18), and other bands of drug traffickers, kidnappers, and vehicle thieves.

What they omit is how many of the prisoners were not so fearsome: whether, as was the case in Comayagua, a portion of the incarcerated were uncharged or still awaiting trial.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


A bogeyman is sometimes defined as an imaginary monster used to frighten children. That definition seems particularly apt for the kind of analytic thinking that takes place in Honduras's government and Armed Forces.

On March 26, at 5:45 pm, some quantity of armed men attacked and shot up a military truck traveling the rural roads near Sonaguera, Colon, wounding five soldiers of the 15th and 16th Battalions. These soldiers were deployed as part of Operation Xatruch II.

The assignation of blame for this attack is like a Rorschach test of everyone's favorite bogeyman.

Juan Carlos Fúnez, Deputy Defense Minister, told Lobo's Cabinet Meeting on Tuesday that the truck was driving back from investigating if campesinos were stealing palm fruit from a plantation near there when approximately 30 armed individuals attacked them. According to Fúnez, these same armed individuals are creating disturbances and scaring the residents of Sonaguera.

According to El Tiempo's earliest coverage of the story, the military spokesperson for Operation Xatruch II attributed the attack to "campesino groups" fighting over land rights. This land rights battle explanation was then picked up by the foreign press. Blame General Rene Osorio for this one. He told the press that he suspected the campesinos were being armed and trained by instructors brought in from Nicaragua and Venezuela. No word on how he knows this, but he's repeated this explanation for violence in the region many times.

InSight Crime, in its reporting, noted that this part of Honduras is part of key drug trafficking routes in Honduras and believes it possible that drug traffickers who run drugs overland from Colon and Olancho to Guatemala were responsible. They cite both domestic and foreign drug runners as possibilities.

In the end, Porfiro Lobo Sosa had the last word, however. At the Cabinet meeting, Lobo corrected Fúnez's characterization of the attackers as "campesino groups" saying:
Those aren't campesinos; this has nothing to do with agricultural conflict; these are the same as the others, this same band is the one that was in San Franciso de La Paz, and they move between Olancho and Colon
Lobo says the crime was committed by drug traffickers.

No word yet on how Lobo Sosa knows that.

Friday, March 23, 2012

International Vote of Confidence(?) in Honduran Human Rights

The Honduran government campaign to get international observers to ignore violations of human rights is in full swing. Latest up: Honduras's representative to UNESCO, Alejandro Palma.

In one of the most important Honduran government statements made to date, Palma argued that they must be innocent of any wrong-doing, because otherwise, they would not have the support they do from other nations:
The international community supports us because they have confidence in our government and they wouldn't have confidence in a government that represses.

Taking a "one explanation covers everything" approach tailor-made to fit into the US State Department's own preferred narrative, Palma took UNESCO to task for blaming Honduras for endangering press freedom. He said, predictably, that it is drug violence that was responsible for the elevated number of deaths of reporters in Honduras in 2010 and 2011:
We only want the world to understand the critical situation in which we are living, with an enemy that's difficult to confront, a situation not of our making because we neither produce nor consume the huge quantity of drugs that pass through our country daily.

Palma went on to say that it's not just reporters that are being killed, but also prosecutors, judges, and other citizens. Notably absent from his list: university students, campesino activists, LGBT activists, and others who have been targets of deadly attacks over the same period.

His main point: to absolve the Lobo Sosa government of any responsibility; as he put it, "it's not the result of any internal policy". Good to know that murder of the citizenry is not Honduran government policy.

But neither, apparently, is it a government policy to solve those murders. And journalists are bearing a disproportionate measure of the deadly violence that the Lobo Sosa government has failed to investigate, and, many international human rights reports demonstrate, has actually promoted through both policy moves and investigative inaction.

The chilling of a free press in Honduras goes beyond assassination.

UNESCO reported that the work conditions of journalists in Honduras have seriously deteriorated over the last several years with "harassment, attacks and the murder of journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists," as well as the closing of opposition radio and TV stations, use of disproportional force against protesters, and blocking of the web pages of international media.

Palma simply rejected the report as "confusion generated by the complicated political situation" that arose out of the 2009 coup.

By Palma's logic, the US would never support a repressive government so there must be nothing they need to do differently. So much for the US State Department's assertion that it is working with that government to improve human rights.

Sounds like time to give some consideration to the opinions of US Senators and Congress members who are calling for putting real pressure on Honduras by withdrawing security aid, aid that is directly supporting a corrupt military and police, whose violations of law are never going to be investigated as long as the Honduran administration can say "they wouldn't have confidence in a government that represses".

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Permanent Policing by the Military?

On Tuesday at the weekly cabinet meeting, the Honduran government voted to extend the state of emergency declaration that allows the Honduran military to exercise most police functions.

Now Porfirio Lobo Sosa is talking about making it permanent.

The role of the Honduran military is spelled out in the constitution, in article 272:
The Armed Forces of Honduras, is a permanent national institution, essentially professional, apolitical, obedient and not deliberative.

They were instituted to defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Republic, preserve peace, the rule of the Constitution, the principles of free elections and alternation in office of President of the Republic.

They will cooperate with the National Police in maintaining public order in order to guarantee the free exercise of suffrage, custody, transportation and supervision of election materials and other safety aspects of the process, the President of the Republic shall make available the Armed Forces for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal from one month (1) before the election, until they are decided.

This is the mission as defined in the constitution, but over the years the military has gained control of other budgets and other institutions, so that today it controls many of the strategic sectors of Honduras.

These include the merchant marine, immigration, intelligence, civil aviation, and most recently, forestry. The military also has a strategic partner in communications, where retired General Romeo Vasquez Velasquez was appointed head of HONDUTEL.

Only during the days of military dictatorship that preceded the 1982 constitution has the Armed Forces had a hand in more parts of the government. We've commented previously on this mission creep (here, here, and here).

And now, Porfirio Lobo Sosa would like to make their policing function permanent.
Clearly,there are new challenges that we have, new realities too. I am going to arrange in my government that the military participate in giving security to the people; this will be my fight. Its doesn't matter to me if that requires constitutional reforms.

With timing that could not have been anticipated, Paul Stockton, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Americas' Security Affairs, in a Congressional hearing today called for Latin American countries to carefully evaluate the use of their military to control organized crime and drug trafficking, because there always exists the possibility of human rights violations.

And it wasn't just Stockton.

In the same hearings, Carmen Lomelin, United States Ambassador to the OAS told Congress:
I can understand the frustration of the president (of Guatemala, Otto) Perez Molino and others, but I believe that this decision (to use the military) needs to be taken with much care, because of the past history. For obvious reasons you need to observe the history of the Americas and their relation with the military.

Stockton added:
The challenges in citizen security are better confronted by the institutions charged with citizen security.

In Honduras, it is the police who are constitutionally supposed to be in charge of citizen security.

Stockton pointed to Colombia under Uribe as an example of what can go wrong when you employ the military as police. There, among other things, the military showed off "rebels" it had caught and killed. Except they turned out to be Colombian citizens murdered by the military, some after being kidnapped, others killed during operations.

Stockton said:
If the military violates human rights they lose popular support, which makes it harder to reach the final objective.

He called Colombia under Uribe a good example of how human rights violations take root. He acknowledged that under Santos Colombia has begun to prosecute human rights violations.

And it is not just foreigners that think permanently militarizing policing is a bad idea. Retired General Mario Hung Pacheco, former commander of the Honduran Army, said
That's a tough topic and you have to handle it well. but it is not within the possibilities for reforming the role of the armed forces; they have their specific missions specified in the constitution of the Republic and one of those is to support the Police when there is a national or regional state of emergency.

General Rene Osorio Canales, the current head of the Honduran Armed Forces also spoke against the idea:
We need to do a detailed study before giving more public security powers to the Armed Forces.

But Tiempo reports Lobo Sosa replied:
This will cause deep debate...but we should have it and in some way make the constitutional changes necessary so that the Armed Forces participate in giving security to the people.

Give the man credit for sticking to his guns; in this case, all too literally. But maybe it would be worth noticing that even the military doesn't want to continue on this path.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Public Letter and Denunciation of a Menace to the Cultural Patrimony of Honduras

That's the title of a document posted today on Vos el Soberano, and circulated via email by the authors.

They are the Ex-Minister of Culture, Arts and Sports of Honduras during the Zelaya administration, Dr. Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle, and the last legally appointed Director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, Dr. Dario Euraque.

Both noted historians, they explain clearly what is at stake in the actions taken to pacify politicians of the town of Copan Ruinas who have insisted they should get a cut of the sales of tickets to visit the World Heritage Site, Copan.

So far, no response from the government of Porfirio Lobo Sosa or, mysteriously, his Minister of Culture or the current occupant of the office of Director of the Institute of Anthropology and History, who (they note) are not listed as signing the agreement through which not only will income from Copan be illegally diverted to local politicians: the budget of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History will be deprived of funding, and protection and interpretation of the entire national patrimony, including traditional cultures, archives, historic places, and archaeological sites across the country, will be destroyed.

Public Letter and Denunciation of a Menace to the Cultural Patrimony of Honduras

The 26th of February of the present year there was signed a public agreement on the part of the present Minister of the Interior of Honduras, Áfrico Madrid, the Mayor of the Municipality of Copan Ruinas, Helmy Giacoman, and the Congress member of the Department of Copan, Julio Cesar Gámez. Through the so-called "Agreement of Copan 2012", its signatories, supposedly in order to strengthen the impact of the government of San José de Copan in the protection of the national patrimony in the Copan Archaeological Park (PAC), rather prepared the destruction of the institution legally constituted to administrate and protect the Cultural Patrimony of Honduras: the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia (IHAH).

The Prosecutor for Heritage ought to investigate this unusual Agreement of Copan 2012 that commits the sin of an evident abuse of authority. First, because it ignores and disqualifies the functions of the maximum administrative authority legally responsible to keep watch over the Cultural Patrimony of the Nation: the Secretaria de Cultura, Artes y Deportes (SCAD), whose leader is at the same time President of the IHAH, who was not present and did not sign the act. The Agreement also doesn't carry the signature of the Director of the IHAH since the coup d'etat of 2009, who by law is obligated to defend his institution, although it can be supposed that he supports the accords of the Agreement that threatens it. Second, because via these and other transgressions, the Agreement of Copan 2012 violates the spirit and international compacts assumed by the State of Honduras in relation to the most important international instruments that guard the cultural patrimony of humanity.

The Agreement of Copan 2012 consists of nine understandings. Four of those (3, 4, 6, and 7) pretend to promote a greater participation by the government of Copan in the administration of the cultural patrimony of the region behind the back of the SCAD and of the technicians and specialists of IHAH and its international collaborators, who in their great majority are opposed to the Agreement in question. In fact these articles mask the principal objective: which is to permit the mayor of Copan to divert the income of the PAC with purposes outside the mission of the law that governs the Cultural Patrimony: Decree 220-97, the Law for the Protection of the Cultural Patrimony of the Nation.

This disastrous proposition is evident in the first article that, without authorization and the required proceedings, dismisses from his position the regional administrator of the IHAH in Copan and the Park. The agreement under its article number nine promotes investigations on the part of the Prosecutor of the officials and employees of the IHAH without cause or denunciation with the aim to intimidate and silence the technicians and specialists and sub-directors of this institution who refused to favor the evident concubinage between the Directorate of the IHAH and the signatories of the Agreement of Copan 2012. Article number five asks that President Porfirio Lobo sanction a pre-proposal for a law introduced to the National Congress by the congress member for Copan Gamez which would grant a percentage of the income of the Park to the government of San José de Copan.

The Agreement of Copan 2012 seeks to reform the Decree 220-97, without consulting the SCAD and to the discredit of the autonomy and the authority that Decree 220-97 grants the IHAH to gather resources of its own and to administer and protect not just the Copan Archaeological Park but all the Cultural Patrimony of the Nation, including from many archaeological sites and the Historic Centers of the historic cities, the documentary patrimony of our archives and the living cultures. The Honduran people should know that the IHAH will administer and protect this treasure that is the greatest treasure of the nation and the core of our National Identity with the resources from the income of the Copan Archaeological Park. And that therefore the agreement and the project to strip the institution of that income will contribute to destroy the IHAH and still more to deprive the Cultural Patrimony of Honduras of protection.

We urge the Honduran people and the international community, the Presidency of the Republic, the Minister of Culture, Arts, and Sports, and the Special Attorney for the Cultural Patrimony of Honduras so that, by common agreement, they can denounce the Agreement of Copan 2012 and they can investigate the circumstances in which the signatories ignored the institutions concerned, usurped their representation and functions, abused the attributes that the law grants them and played at demagoguery, with the Copan Archaeological Park as token on the board.

Friday, March 16, 2012

ONYX Withdraws From Honduras

ONYX Services and Solutions, the Colorado-based company, announced today that it is withdrawing from its contract with ENEE to install a 22 megawatt solar farm on Roatan.

This contract was signed October of last year, and called for ONYX to supervise the installation of 18.5 megawatts of solar power, later increased to 22.5 megawatts.

The company is just walking away from the contract.

Their press statement claims the political, regulatory, and financial situation in Honduras presents an unfriendly environment to alternative energy projects.

At the same time, they say they are continuing small solar projects on Roatan, which calls into question their explanation.

What happened?

Longtime readers of this blog will recall that when it was announced in October of last year, we called this contract into question because of a lack of expertise in installing solar power in ONYX, a lack of financial backing to carry out such large projects, and a lack of employees.

We noted at that time that the company's own statements to the SEC were about running banking ATM networks in upstate New York, not solar power.

So while it is convenient for ONYX-- which did not have the financial resources to carry out its part of the contract-- to portray Honduras as an unfriendly environment for their business, we would suggest that if you follow the money, there was never any reason to expect ONYX to be able to complete their end of the bargain.

Mano Dura Again

William R. Brownfield, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs will visit Honduras in the next few days. Reportedly, he will call for a return to "mano dura" policing of gangs in Honduras based on his assessment that such a policy worked in El Salvador.

Except that it didn't work.

The source is La Prensa Gráfica of El Salvador, which reports that in a video conference held in Washington, D.C. Brownfield previewed his trip to Honduras and Guatemala. Brownfield reportedly said:
I think the most effective anti-gang program that we will support at this time, is in El Salvador. My vision is to try and replicate the success of Salvadoran anti-gang program [in Honduras and Guatemala]. We will see concrete results of these programs in El Salvador in the coming years and I'll be optimistic about this year....We will see detentions and arrests. We will see the dismantling of the gangs, or parts of gangs....and we will see a reduced participation of the gangs in illicit drugs.

La Prensa Gráfica wrote that it was unclear which of the two anti-gang initiatives, named "Mano Dura" and "Super Mano Dura" respectively, Brownfield was referring to, but that neither had disrupted the gangs significantly or reduced the homicide rate.

They are not alone is describing the failure of these two programs. Sonja Wolf, a social scientist based on Mexico writing in March 2011 for Sustainable Security documented some of the failures of these plans:
Contrary to the official discourse of success, Mano Dura was spectacularly ineffective: the homicide rate escalated, and the gangs adapted to the climate of repression by toughening their entry requirements, adopting a more conventional look, and using heavier weaponry. More importantly, confinement in special prisons allowed gang members to strengthen group cohesion and structure. Moreover, the large-scale incarceration of gang members fueled the need for more resources for both the inmates and their families and resulted in an upsurge in extortion, particularly in the transport sector.

She says the Salvadoran government switched the strategy under President Funes starting in 2009 so that now
gangs are being tackled through the overall crime policy rather than a specific gang programme. The police – now under a new command – has stopped conducting mass raids in gang-affected zones and begun to strengthen its investigative capacity.

Her analysis says this is what is showing results in El Salvador.

But that is not the policy the US reportedly intends to advocate in Honduras.

Mo Hume of the University of Glasgow, in a 2007 article on Mano Dura in the journal Development and Practice, notes that repressive policies tend to be adopted by weak states that lack the capacity to develop other strategies to contain violence and crime:
The government's discourse dehumanizes gang members in order to justify the reintroduction of coercive measures. ....More dangerously such rhetoric reinforces a politics of fear that is not reliant on hard evidence. Instead it is a strategic project to protect the interests of a hegemonic elite and to deflect attention from the broader weaknesses of the government such as corrupt institutions and heightened inequality.

If the evidence of these scholars aren't enough, then let's consider what the US government has to say in its own research.

A 2006 USAID study on gangs in El Salvador and Mexico notes that the two programs in El Salvador had a series of bad, unintended consequences, like filling up the prisons to overflowing, and saturating the ability of the police and judicial system to handle the cases. They also note that the Salvadoran Supreme Court ruled several key parts of the law unconstitutional, like the ability to round-up supposed gang members for illicit association solely on the basis of having tattoos.

The policies of "Mano Dura" and "Super Mano Dura" are widely considered to be failures.

They weakened democracy, advocating instead for authoritarianism, and violated the constitutional guarantees of those accused and arrested under the program. They did not reduce violence or crime, though they did impede gang recruitment. These policies led to prison overcrowding in El Salvador. They crippled the police and judicial system's ability to investigate and handle cases.

Honduras already tried "Mano Dura" in 2002 during Ricardo Maduro's term as President. It was introduced by Oscar Alvarez as a solution to gang violence. It filled Honduran jails to overflowing and resulted in prison riots in 2003 and 2004.

These are the failed policies that Brownfield reportedly intends to recommend to Honduras and Guatemala.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

US Media and Honduras: Violence and Elections

US news media coverage of other countries tends to be spotty and idiosyncratic.

For example, when CNN picked up the news about members of Congress calling on the Obama administration to put pressure on Porfirio Lobo Sosa over impunity for violence against Honduran citizens, the article reduces the issue to one thing: the horrific record of murders of journalists. Lost in translation: the actual well-informed breadth of the Congressional letter, whose first sentence reads "We are concerned with the grave human rights situation in the Bajo Aguán region of Honduras and ask the State Department to take effective steps to address it". Where CNN selectively emphasizes the deaths of journalists, the Congress members actually present a comprehensive, shocking overview of the unchecked human rights situation:
human rights violations in Honduras where human rights defenders, journalists, community leaders and opposition activists are subject to death threats, attacks and extrajudicial executions....

In the Bajo Aguán region, forty-five people associated with peasant organizations working to resolve ongoing land disputes have been killed since September 2009, as well as seven security guards, a policeman, a journalist and his partner, and three other persons....

These cases have yet to be investigated and prosecuted, resulting in a climate of impunity. In September 2011, Human Rights Watch reported that while some arrest warrants have been issued, no one has been arrested or charged for these killings. While the legal system has failed to effectively prosecute perpetrators of extrajudicial executions, legal proceedings have been initiated against at least 162 small farmers and more than 80 were temporarily arrested, largely on charges of trespassing and theft of farm produce, between January 2010 and July 2011.

And then the US media moved on to the next story. What attracted their attention? The official recognition of a new political party in Honduras, Libre, led by Mel Zelaya.

Not that this isn't important news; anything that shakes up the political landscape in Honduras is worth attention. The trigger for the coverage is the certification of 62,000 signatures on the petitions to establish the new party. Honduran electoral regulations required 42,290 signatures.

Also drawing attention in US media coverage of Libre's official establishment is the fact that Xiomara Castro, wife of Zelaya, will be the party's presidential candidate in the next election in 2013. The Chicago Tribune article cites unnamed "opinion polls" that they say "have shown her running first or second". But like most US reporting on Honduran politics, what is missing here is all the context that would make sense of this isolated statement.

Early political polling in Honduras does suggest shifts in the electorate. In January, Dick Emanuelsson wrote about a poll on party preference by CESPAD (Centro de Estudios Para la Democracia). Honduran news media at the time (September 2011) found support for Xiomara Castro at 85% among supporters of the resistance. The apparent source of the Chicago Tribune's claim that Xiomara is "running first or second" likely is the poll's finding that among likely presidential candidates, Salvador Nasralla had support from 27.9% of respondents while Xiomara had 18% support

The main findings of CESPAD's 2011 polling, though, show a lack of enthusiasm about electoral politics. They note barely 7% of the population reported being very interested in participating in politics.

The main deterrent: unhappiness with the two traditional parties. CESPAD found that 66% of those they polled were prepared to change their traditional voting pattern, indicating a great shift away from the tradition of two party domination of Honduran elections. The high popularity of Nasralla and Xiomara reflects this: neither is a candidate of a traditional party.

Describing a "crisis of legitimacy", CESPAD found that most political figures, and those religious figures who had become involved in politics during and after the coup, had high negative assessments. Here, the report says that the highest any major political figure can manage is Porfirio Lobo Sosa (with an approval rating of 16), Xiomara (at 13.9), and Manuel Zelaya himself (at 12.1).

Remarkably, among the contenders for the presidential nomination of the Partido Nacional, only Oscar Alvarez (ex-Security Minister, and architect of mano dura in Honduras) was in positive territory, with a meager 6.5 approval rating. But the Partido Nacional was actually better off than the Liberal Party, whose declared candidates at the time were suffering from high negatives (-37.9 for Yani Rosenthal, and -55.9 for Edmundo Orellana). CESPAD notes that a majority (59%) of Liberal Party affiliates polled still recognize Manuel Zelaya as the leader of the party.

And that brings us to the real punchline of the Honduran political polling, which is lost in US media coverage that emphasizes Xiomara's candidacy and the founding of Libre solely in terms of the personal political career of Mel Zelaya. Libre's success in gaining legitimacy is part of a strong trend away from traditional two-party politics documented by CESPAD.

At the time-- before Libre had filed its signatures-- the Partido Nacional had the highest prospective support, but nowhere near a majority. In response to the question, "If the election were held today, for which of the following parties would you vote?" the PN polled 29.9%.

The Partido Liberal registered 24.1% in response to the same question, while the traditional small parties-- UD, DC, and PINU, all scarred by their stance during the coup and de facto regime, and all collaborating with Lobo Sosa in the current government to some extent-- together didn't manage to reach even 4% support.

Where are the rest of the voters? With the Partido Anticorrupción of Nasralla, described by the Chicago Tribune as a "sports commentator" who "quickly gained popularity thanks to his appearances on game shows, where he often appears with scantily clad models". The new PA polled 18.7% in the CESPAD tally.

Then there was the Frente Amplio de Resistencia, precursor to Libre, which, before being established, already was polling at 15.5%.

Oh, and one last point: in a footnote on these results, CESPAD wrote

The poll reveals that 93% of the sympathizers of the Partido Nacional would vote, today, for that party. Nonetheless, the "hardness" of this vote seems relative: 60% of those that today subscribe to the Partido Nacional could vote for another candidate or political party, if it had a better program or proposal.

Doesn't that seem like news? What if polling in the current Republican campaign showed that 60% of its voters said they would switch parties if someone else had a better platform? Do you suppose the news coverage would be solely about Mitt Romney being the heir apparent of his father's political legacy?

Oh wait. That is how the US media report US elections. Never mind.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Congressional Letter Provokes Response

How do you know when you are making a difference?

How about when the entire Honduran government mobilizes to refute you.

At Porfirio Lobo Sosa's meeting today with his cabinet, they determined to send Foreign Minister Arturo Corrales to Washington, D.C. to see what he can do to refute a letter authored by Illinois Representative Jan Schakowsky and signed by 94 US Congressmen.

While the Honduran press suggests that the Congressional letter was motivated by the killing of yet another journalist in Olancho this week, in fact it was drafted and posted for signatures long before the journalist was killed.

The letter calls on the US government to suspend military and police aid to Honduras because of a lack of action on human rights issues.

The Congressional letter, addressed to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, expresses grave concern over the human rights situation in the Bajo Aguan, where 45 campesinos and 7 security guards have been violently killed since 2009. They note the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) held hearings on the human rights violations in the Bajo Aguan in October, 2011. The letter cites testimony that private security guards, police, and members of the 15th Battalion have carried out violence against the campesinos there since the beginning of Operation Xatruch II, a deployment of some 1000 soldiers to Olancho supposedly to quell the violence there.

The Honduran government has failed to investigate any of the human rights complaints by residents of the region. So the Congressmen call on the State Department to engage with the Honduran government to get these complaints investigated and report back to Congress with a detailed status of each case. They ask for the suspension of military and police aid "given the credible allegations of widespread, serious violations of human rights attributed to the security forces." They urge that the State Department enforce the Leahy provision, which denies US foreign aid to military units that violate human rights with impunity.

After the Honduran cabinet met, Corrales announced the imminent departure of the mission to Washington, D.C. to try to reverse the bad image of Honduras with respect to human rights. Corrales said
it mentions the journalists, but what it does not mention are all the advances that Honduras has in these same points (security and human rights).

Accompanying Corrales will be the Instituto Nacional Agrario director, Cesar Ham, who helped negotiate a settlement to the most active land disputes in the Bajo Aguan.

Corrales said they don't intend to confront anyone, but will be in the US from Tuesday to Saturday to clarify the panorama in Honduras.

The problem is that Corrales has nothing to talk about.

Lobo Sosa has admitted that Honduras is incapable of investigating any crime, and pleaded repeatedly for international help. Rather than investigate crime, or human rights violations, the Honduran government does nothing.

During the past two years of Lobo Sosa's term, there have been 42 hate crimes against LGBT individuals in Honduras. During a similar period under the previous president, Manuel Zelaya, there were 7. (The increase started during the six months of the de facto administration of Micheletti, when there were 22 hate crimes against LGBT individuals.)

Yndra Mendoza of the Red Lésbica Catrachas explained that they were taking one of these cases to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In this case a transgendered person was murdered by three Tegucigalpa police officers:
It's a reliable case because they had everything they needed to prosecute them in Honduras, and they let them go free....the state needs to be held responsible for its actions.

In light of the murder a few days ago of yet another journalist, there's painfully little Corrales can show in the way of progress on investigating human rights abuses, and removing impunity.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Communique from the Union of the Institute of Anthropology and History

Received from concerned colleagues in Honduras:

Alert: we should defend our Cultural Patrimony, hertiage of all Hondurans.

The SITRAIHAH (union of the workers at the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia) as the legal representative of the workers of the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia, reaffirms its commitment to the interests that guarantee the protection, conservation, restoration and dissemination of the values of the Cultural Patrimony of the Nation. Given this, having knowledge that persons with partisan/private ambitions seek to financially and legally destabilize the IHAH, [SITRAIHAH] declares the following positions:

1. The SITRAIHAH declares itself energetically in opposition to any Reform of the Ley del Patrimonio Cultural and other primary, secondary or tertiary laws that affect the IHAH.

2. SITRAIHAH demands the IMMEDIATE firing of the officials that are causing damage to the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia.

3. SITRAIHAH is committed to the protection of the institutionality of the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia, which we will defend in all the national and international venues that might be necessary.

Therefore the employees affiliated with SITRAIHAH ask the unconditional aid of our compatriots affiliated with the workers' central organizations: CGT, CUTH, and CTH, and in addition we extend the call to the Federations affiliated with them. In equal manner we make a call on the educational and cultural institutions related to the activity of the protection of the Cultural Patrimony that the IHAH develops, in such a way that together we demand the respect for the existing laws that protect the Cultural Patrimony of the Nation.


Copan Seized

Employees of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History have taken over Copan Archaeological Park, protesting the agreement signed by Africo Madrid and Helmy Giacoman, that is apparently being implemented by the Institute.

The employees reject the proposed changes to the law on cultural patrimony, changes that would give municipalities control over archaeological materials found within their boundaries, and a position on the Consejo Directivo (essentially, the Advisory Board) of the Institute.

In addition, the employees oppose the proposed bill now being considered in Congress that would give 50% of the proceeds from admissions to the park to the town of Copan Ruinas.

They have called for the immediate removal of the director of the Institute, Virgilio Paredes and other Institute employees that have supported the agreement.

The employees agreed to reopen the park at noon today.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lack of Will to Fix Police

There is international agreement that Honduras needs to clean up the corruption in its national Police.

Chile sent its Carabineros to make recommendations. A result of their visit was the immediate dismissal, without hearings, of 24 police officers, though the reasons for their dismissal were never made public or their names communicated to the prosecutor's office.

As recently as five days ago, representatives of the US State Department reiterated their support of the process of addressing police corruption in Honduras. Even Ramon Custodio, Human Rights Ombudsman, said that "cleaning up corruption is an urgent necessity because of the emergency situation that the country is living with." The Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Church in Honduras called for the immediate and effective cleanup of the Police.

All of this urgency arose from the assassination of two university students by the Police last October. Eight Police officers have been indicted in the murders.

But there's a problem.

Nothing's actually happening.

On the first of December, Congress created the Dirección de Investigación y Evaluación de la Carrera Policial (DIECP), and selected Óscar Manuel Arita to direct it. But it seems Congress "forgot" to include his new agency in their 2012 budget passed later that month. Unofficially he saw that he could accomplish nothing, and has quit citing the lack of budgetary support as the reason. Officially, however, he quit strictly for personal reasons.

The lack of funding might be deliberate. It is Lobo Sosa's government that proposes the budget. On November 5, 2011, Lobo Sosa reactivated the Consejo Nacional de Seguridad Interior (CONASIN) to, among other things, oversee the cleanup of the police.

Lobo Sosa's group, under his control.

In January of this year, Julieta Castellanos, whose son was one of the university students murdered by the police, called what's going on a fictive cleanup. She said the police actions to date are merely marking time so that they can make the claim they don't need a commission to clean them up. There was talk at that time of an international commission to oversee the Police cleanup, with 3 national and 2 foreign members, but that seems to have fallen by the wayside.

While more than 100 police have been dismissed for alleged corruption (which includes failing a drug test), none of the information on their alleged acts of corruption, or their names, has been given to the prosecutor's office so that they can be investigated. Blame the Security Minister, Pompeyo Bonilla for this.

Lot's of heat; not very much light.

Monday, March 5, 2012


The concept of a church and how to define one is hard for Honduran legislators to grasp.

For most of Honduras' history, you needed to have a formal act of Congress declaring your organization a religious entity to officially be considered a church. Until now, only the Catholic Church had been declared a "church" by Congress.

Instead, most churches in Honduras today operate as the Honduran equivalent of 501(c)(3) civil non-governmental organizations.

Why, exactly, is the Honduran government in the business of deciding what's a real church?

The Honduran constitution establishes Honduras as a secular state with freedom of religion and the separation of church and state. In Article 77, on the topic of religion, it states:
The right to exercise any religion or worship is guaranteed without any precedence (for one over the others) as long as they don't go against the public order. Ministers of the many religions may not hold public office, nor promote political materials, even by invoking religious principles or values as a means to that end.

Honduras has signed international treaties relevant to religious freedom, such as the International Declaration of Human Rights (articles 2, 18 in particular), the Interamerican Democratic Letter (article 9), and the American Convention on Human Rights (article 12).

The Honduran Penal Code enshrines the right of religious freedom by making it a crime to interfere with someone's religion (articles 210-213).

Honduran law also addresses the separation of church and state. The Law of Political Organizations imagines that political entities should be divorced from subordination to or dependency on ministers of any religion or sect. Political parties are prohibited from using religious symbols (article 80). It is illegal to tell someone to join or leave a political party for religious beliefs or reasons (article 104).

The treaties, constitution, and law are pretty clear. All religions are permissible; church and state are separate; and no religion should be favored.

But in practice, Honduras favors two religious groups in particular in its government. The Catholic Church and the Confraternity of Evangelical Churches are asked for input by all government commissions. They hold reserved seats in some government commissions, involvement not extended to other religions. By having a position on the nominating committee they influence the selection of candidates for the Supreme Court.

That existing favoritism and involvement of these two church bodies makes it not particularly surprising that Congress in 2010 passed the Ley Marco de la Íglesia Evangelica de Honduras (decreto 185-2010) to give a blanket declaration of juridical personhood to any church that was a member of the Confraternity of Evangelical Churches.

Passage of this law was set against a background of threats by Africo Madrid, Interior Minister, to review every NGO in the country and deny many of them NGO status, particularly religious ones that he felt were "fringe". The law transformed evangelical churches from NGOs with a religious and charitable mission, to churches with juridical personhood, no longer NGOs, no longer under threat from the particular prejudices of one government minister.

Article 2 of the law says that an Evangelical Church bases its actions in the teachings of Jesus Christ and the sacred writings of the Bible. Article 3 shares with us the values of an Evangelical Church:
1. Respect for life and the gift of God, his preservation and dignification.
2. Integrity based on truth, sincerity, rectitude and compromise.
3. Unity, based in the love of God and one's fellow mankind in total respect of their denominations and doctrinal convictions.
4. Fidelity to the eternal principles contained in the word of God and the Church and the body of Christ.
5. The family as the basis of the church, Society, and the Nation; its integration, harmony, solidarity and stability.
6. Social responsibility, as the human being is indivisible, requires material and spiritual solidarity, giving it dignified housing, food, clothing, health and basic education.
7. Sociopolitical responsibility, the church submits itself to authority, respecting the law, because there is no authority except on the part of God and those that have it, have been established by God.
8. Only god is just and has permitted that people exercise justice to punish and instill fear of those that do bad and not of those who do good, as a path to achieve peace, security, and the prosperity of the Nation.
9. Excellence: all the actions of the Evangelical Church of Honduras are done as if for God, characterized by searching and finding the best results for people and the Country, optimizing with wisdom the resources of the faithful, and
10. Leadership: the Evangelical Church of Honduras promotes and makes clear the wise and good administration of all of the assets and talents which God has placed under his administration, along with the spiritual and material resources.

See the problem? Its not that all these principles are bad; any religion might conceivably adopt them, although we find the claim of divine authority for the political authorities (point 7) somewhat disturbing for a secular state.

But the biggest problem is that Congress, in this law, is making these principles of church behavior into legal norms. Congress was never granted the power to codify the religious beliefs of its citizens. This violates Article 77 of the constitution; it is government establishment of religion, pure and simple.

And of course, there is the glaring fact that the law restricts the definition of evangelical church to those that adhere to these beliefs and practices and are members of a specific organization, the Confraternity of Evangelical Churches. Remember that in the background Africo Madrid was threatening to remove the NGO status of religious NGOs he felt were "fringe": these were not members of the Confraternity.

The Confraternity, a constellation of evangelical churches in Honduras, does not represent all evangelical churches. There are evangelical churches that don't belong to the Confraternity either because they don't want to, or they don't share some of the required beliefs for membership.What happens with this law: are they suddenly not evangelical churches? Congress has established a religion that includes some and excludes others.

Article 6 gives the Confraternity the sole right to represent the evangelical church before the government and to communicate with the government. Article 7 says that to convert an existing organization from a civil NGO to a religious organization, the Evangelical Confraternity of Honduras must petition the Interior Minister (Africo Madrid, remember) to change their status.

Article 8 says the Evangelical Confraternity can exclude any organization that violates the norms included in this law, as well as its own regulations. By membership in the Confraternity, churches get exoneration from all taxes and surcharges, including the free importation of goods and services (Article 4, clause 11).

Any church that calls itself evangelical must get the permission of the Evangelical Confraternity to call itself "evangelical" whether it wants to be an NGO or considered a "church", just as a church needs the permission of the Catholic church to call itself "catholic".

It is implicit in the text of Article 7 that evangelical organizations should associate with the Evangelical Confraternity. It's only through petitions from the Confraternity that they may convert themselves from civil to religious legal entities. This probably violates the legal right to free association.

Should a government be able to set up a particular organization as the sole way to petition or communicate with the government and government officials?

It's not particularly surprising that the Sala Constitucional of the Supreme Court found the law unconstitutional. It was challenged by evangelical churches that were not part of the Confraternity, either because they did not want to be members or because of their beliefs. The Public Prosecutor filed a report with the Court finding the law unconstitutional, and the Sala Constitucional of the Supreme Court concurred.

So now pressure is being exerted by both the leadership of Congress, and Porfirio Lobo Sosa for the full Supreme Court to reverse the decision of the Sala Constitucional.

Here's to the constitutional separation of church and state and the protection of religious freedom in Honduras today.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Does it Matter if Cultural Patrimony Law is Defied?

Does it matter, in Honduras, at Copan (or anywhere else in the world, for that matter) if politicians intervene in the legally mandated management of cultural heritage?

Before you answer that question, think clearly about what is at stake here. And if you are in the US, don't get feeling superior. Across the US, state governments have taken aim at historical preservation positions, many necessary to comply with existing laws. Under the Bush administration, the Federal government explored privatizing national archaeological responsibilities. With a generation of Federal archaeologists and anthropologists retiring, scholars have noted that there is a passive erosion in the presence of these necessary disciplines in the US at the Federal level.

Honduras has had heritage legislation on the books for longer than the US. The modern Honduran Institute for Anthropology and History is the successor to an institution that was established in 1952. Over the last twenty-five years it made steady progress towards policies guided by research and social goals under the direction of scholars trained in anthropology and history. In all that time, though, it has been at risk from the low level of funding provided by the Honduran national government. The magnitude of the responsibilities it has have always been under pressure from that lack of resources. In addition, the modern Institute has been under considerable pressure to facilitate increases in tourism, which (as every archaeologist knows) can often be a goal at odds with the preservation and careful investigation of material remains of the past for the purpose of sharing knowledge about it with all those who have a stake in that knowledge.

Now, Honduran archaeologists, anthropologists, and Honduras face an "agreement" forged at Copan, in reaction to public unrest about a particular proposal for a museum exhibition, but following on a long campaign to claim income from the archaeological park directly (rather than indirectly, through the spending of tourists staying at the town while visiting the site). US scholars should be concerned about this precedent, not just for Honduras, and not just because Copan is a World Heritage site, but because it represents an essential shift to viewing cultural heritage as a commodity.

Former Minister of Culture Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle, a historian with a distinguished record teaching in Mexico and more recently as a visiting professor in the US, gave us permission to reproduce comments he made in email circulating among scholars in the US and Honduras:
The municipalities should participate in the promotion and supervision of the tourist market, and on the other hand they do NOT have the technical capacity to administer archaeological parks and centers of investigation; and to me it appears evident that these municipalities should not, being the principal, indirect beneficiaries of the public investment in archaeology, divert from the institutionalities the indispensable resources, while there are no others to be provided.

This is nonetheless a longing that is almost ancient that has had resonance in the previous government of President Maduro and the temptation of the politicians is powerful because they do not understand the technical dilemma and the approach is congruent with the neoliberal policies of privatization...

(Perhaps one of the most grave prices of the coup was to derail the project to consolidate the [Copan Archaeological] Park with the purchase of lands that we had declared a primary priority.)

The support for "municipalization" is worrying because they invoke their signatories, on the part of the Minister of the Interior [Áfrico Madrid] (one of the most powerful) and of the Minister of Tourism, one of the best financed... The Minister of Culture who is the President of the IHAH does not seem to have been present.

The predicament is interesting. They have been diffident to "intervene" in other matters, with respect to the administration of IHAH, tolerating its manipulation, and now, because of its new institutional weakness they could be endangering the conditions for scientific work.

Pastor Fasquelle's comments bring to light the glaring absence in the present instance of the Minister of Culture, who should be the voice of the mission of the Institute.

For her part, the Honduran archaeologist Eva Martinez, who remained part of the staff of the Institute throughout the de facto regime of Micheletti and continues today as Subgerente de Patrimonio (roughly, Assistant Director for Cultural Patrimony), also sees the Copan agreement as a grave erosion of the ability of the country to properly care for the materials as heritage of all its people. Dr. Martinez gave us permission to quote her as well:
I am against the municipalization of the PAC [Parque Arqueológico Copán]. I consider it necessary to involve the municipal authorities and the citizenry in the active protection of the cultural patrimony, and I believe that this is an important means of development (in the best sense of the word). But to remove 50% of the income of the PAC from the IHAH is not a way to share responsibilities in the conservation of the patrimony, and for that reason I oppose it.

You [the archaeologists and historians addressed in the original email] know well the complex and complicated history between the Municipality and the IHAH, so that you will understand what this is all about and you also know from reading it that this document lacks legal force. Nonetheless, its intention is worrisome.

Martinez makes a point that Pastor Fasquelle-- who, during two terms as Minister of Culture, promoted programs to engage the people in active ways in protection and understanding of Honduras' past-- agrees with, that there is a proper goal that could be confused by the naive reader with what is happening here. Engaging communities with locally sited heritage is one way to create an ethic of stewardship.

But as she says bluntly: that goal is not met by treating the site as an economic resource. In fact, world-wide, treating sites as economic engines is a threat to their preservation, and may divert resources from their understanding.

Martinez refers to the complex and complicated history between the Institute and Copan-- a history too complex to even begin to touch on here. Implicitly, she is reminding us that Copan has for a long time been at odds with the IHAH, wanting to claim special privileges in management of the park, without-- as Pastor Fasquelle notes-- the technical expertise.

She is entirely right that, under existing Honduran law, including the Honduran constitution, the agreement signed has no legal force. But here is where I am perhaps more concerned by it that others might be, who saw it as simply a theatrical act meant to calm down the people: the current congress of Honduras has shown no timidity about changing the constitution, and even ignoring aspects of the constitution and established law, when it interferes with what Pastor Fasquelle accurately calls the "neoliberal policies of privatization".

And so, whether legal or not, this document should concern every reader who cares about how countries manage their common goods, and how the public in general can continue to have protected its interests in understanding the past.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Radio America: Virgilio Paredes Reassures Copan

More than a week before the signing of an accord that gave the municipality of Copan Ruinas unprecedented control over what by law in Honduras is a shared cultural patrimony, Radio América interviewed Virgilio Paredes, the otherwise silent bureaucrat who has been managing the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, about what was then a crisis under development. The transcript of that interview provides a window into just how the Institute let the situation escalate, ending up with a cabinet minister imposing an unprecedented agreement that guts the mission of the Institute itself.

Here's our translation of the most relevant parts of the interview, with commentary added:
Emmanuel Tercero, journalist in the booth: Carlos Rivera tells us that there are problems between the alcalde (mayor) who does not want archaeological pieces to be taken with the permission of the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia, to take important pieces for an exhibition in a museum in the US. Carlos Rivera from the west of the country...

Good afternoon. This morning we spoke as well with Virgilio Paredes of the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia who told us that the Maya-Chorti community is in agreement that original archaeological pieces will be transported to Pennsylvania, US, for an exhibition.

[Comment: it seems that Paredes is here arguing that the Maya Chorti do have a right to have their opinions heard, and that they had agreed to the exhibition.]
... but the Alcalde of Copan Ruinas, Helmy Giacoman, who is also preoccupied, is in communication, a brief summary of what is happening, go ahead, Alcalde...

Statement of Helmy Giacoman, Alcalde of Copan Ruinas: Good afternoon, the truth is that the town of Copan is extremely preoccupied by what has been being given these days, the truth, with the exhibition of these pieces at an international level and the truth is that we are very preoccupied... the people also found out about this and the truth is that the local media well, there has been circulating a lot about this business, because there are very disastrous antecedents for the patrimony of Copan Ruinas, when pieces have been taken outside the country and were lost in foreign territory, so it is explicable, completely explicable, to think that the town is very preoccupied, because these pieces have an incalculable value since the value that they have for what is the patrimony of Honduras, and the truth is that we are really preoccupied.

[Comment: What Giacoman is referring to is an incident in 1999 when a jade object from Copan, part of a traveling exhibition that was originally in Venice, went missing in Mexico, where the second site for the installation, the Colegio de San Ildefonso, simply did not have appropriate security. This theft, and others at the site and elsewhere, have been cited since at least 2004 in arguments by the municipality of Copan Ruinas claiming a voice in management of the pieces excavated from the site, and in proceeds from visitation there.]
Well, thanks to the Alcalde of Copan Ruinas, Helmy Giacoman, for letting us glimpse this concern, now that they propose to transport archaeological pieces to Pennsylvania, US for an exhibition, but what will Virgilio Paredes of the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia say on this point.

Well, thanks Carlos, as it happens we have Virgilio Paredes, director of the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia, how do we take away this concern of the Alcalde and the people there in Copan Ruinas, about this idea or this intention that there is, is it a reality, for how many pieces, what guarantees it, the process, the respective guarantees, the inventories so that there will not be losses of the same, Virgilio Paredes, we are listening on Radio America...

Declarations of Virgilio Paredes: Good afternoon, we want to say to you that the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia has been working on this exhibition for approximately a year, to undertake an arduous process of analysis, to see which pieces can be transported, under what conditions and in the framework of the Ley de Patrimonio Cultural de la Nacion, to establish that the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia is who will have these pieces in custody, and that in the care and restoration of these pieces, and in the framework of the same Law they also will establish the processes to loan archaeological pieces.

As you will know the Archaeological Park of Copan is patrimony of humanity, World Heritage, it isn't just national heritage, so it is in this framework in which we have Agreements... we try to promote tourism, to promote the tourist portion of all that is Maya archaeology...

So what the Law establishes has been followed, and what the Law sets up are the following processes: the Institute comes, verifies the pieces, speaks in this case with the University of Pennsylvania, with which there has been communication for approximately a year, and the pieces are identified that are going to be loaned to promote Honduras and Copan Ruinas outside the country, unfortunately we have been hearing a lot of bad news about what happened in the prison, the deaths and so many bad things about Honduras that are being promoted, this is one piece of good news for Honduras.

[Comment: notice the confusion between what properly is the role of the Institute of Anthropology-- the protection, interpretation, and sharing of information about Honduras cultural patrimony-- and what should be the work of other government agencies, like the Institute of Tourism, or even private enterprise. Most of the dialogues about Copan seem to end up really being about income that can be generated from Copan. And of course, the role of the Institute should be more than promoting Maya archaeology, since that is only one part of Honduras cultural heritage. It is also shocking to see the contrast drawn so starkly: the massive deaths caused by the prison fire in Comayagua are unfortunately "being promoted" and in contrast, the proposed US exhibition is "one piece of good news" for Honduras.]

After asking who makes up the Consejo Directivo for the Institute, the reporter asks if the proposal was discussed and "socialized", e.g., debated with the relevant public stakeholders. Paredes responds:
It has been discussed, it is approved, so that everything is in order, we came and it was approved in conformity with the Law, this passes to the President of the Republic, the President and his Attorneys determine the processes, if everything is in [agreement with the] Law, of all the enumerated pieces photos and everything.

Emmanuel Tercero: How many pieces are we talking about? Paredes: 74 pieces.
Tercero: What benefits is this going to bring? Paredes: There are various benefits, first the University of Pennsylvania, which is the warrantor that we are going to have, is going to promote Copan Ruinas, there will be publicity internationally, it is a museum that will be open for all the US, in the framework of 2012 it will come to assist in training, in institutional strengthening, in assistance for conservators, in all the team that is necessary where we do not have resources.

Tercero: Is there a guarantee that [the pieces] will return intact, then? Paredes: The guarantee is the Law itself, in our vaults there are pieces, these 74 are already classified, they are photographed, and we have the list already, they are already authorized by the President, with their photos, that is what we are going to do ourselves, and that I wanted already today to deliver formally and officially to the Alcalde, it is a shame that I could not see him, since the official note with the photos and the list, with those photos and the list the Alcalde was asked for a representative.

Then within three weeks that the insurance is approved, the boxes and everything, then I will need a representative of Civil Society and a representative of the Municipality, so that they can come and see and verify each one of the pieces when they are going to be packed, so that those that have the documentation can verify what it is that is leaving the country, there will be representatives of the DEI and they will close everything and it will go to the US, in February of the next year when the pieces arrive, I will need both the Institute with the Civil Society and the Alcalde's office to sit down, we will open each box and verify that all that went is exactly what came back, that it isn't replicas that come, and it will guarantee that all that left the country is exactly what it is.

Tercero: Well, here we should ask something don Virgilio, [the mayor?] said "well, we are also bringing tourists, so if they take away all the pieces or even just a part, well then the tourists that come here aren't going to see anything?" Paredes: Look, we have more than 5000 pieces, so 74 is nothing in comparison, the problem that we have is a grave problem notice that we do not have a museum with the international standards of climate control, of environment, of lighting and of security to be able.. the good news that we have for the Honduran people is that via the Government of Japan there is now being given us approval to build a museum of international level in Copan Ruinas.

Tercero concludes: Well, Alcalde Municipal Helmy Giacoman of Copan Ruinas and Virgilio Paredes, Director of the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia, about these pieces that are going to be removed and that this is in keeping with agreements and in accordance with the Law and that it is going to be approved by the Executive branch, and that [Paredes] is going to meet there with the Alcalde to clear up doubts.

[Comment: about ten days later, an accord signed by the Alcalde and, on behalf of the government, the minister of the interior, but not by Virgilio Paredes, conceded to the people of Copan Ruinas not only the degree of participation in packing and unpacking proposed here; but much more besides. Not involved in these negotiations: the Minister of Culture, who should have been the representative of the Executive branch in this case.]

Friday, March 2, 2012

Copan is falling and so is the Cultural Patrimony...

We previously discussed the signing of a document that entirely violates the Honduran law in regard to the national cultural patrimony, and translated that document.

In the first post, we noted that Virgilio Paredes (appointed to head the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History by Myrna Castro during the waning days of the de facto regime of Roberto Micheletti) was curiously absent from accounts of the signing of the accord ceding to the Municipal government of the town of Copan Ruinas many aspects of the management of that World Heritage site. While referenced by title in the accord, he is not named either.

Some correspondents raised the idea that the Institute and its officers were not actually committed by this agreement; that it was executed as a kind of sop to the people of the town, angered by proposed loans of objects for exhibition in the US.

But we also have received another document, and this one demonstrates that, far from protesting the illegal accord that was signed by Porfirio Lobo Sosa's representation, Africo Madrid, the Institute's legal counsel already, on February 27, has begun to put it into action.

The letter-- on letterhead of the Institute of Anthropology and History-- is directed to the mayor of Copan Ruinas, Helmy Rene Giacoman. It is signed by Attorney Erlinda Lanza, General Secretary of the Institute, and is copied to the office of the director of the Institute.

Here's what it says:
Esteemed Mr. Mayor:

I inform you that I met with Maria Miranda, Jose Ramon Murillo and Omar Antonio Rios, finalizing the details of the Supervisory Commission for the transport of pieces to the University of Pennsylvania.

I was informed that the Commission proposed by the Municipal Mayoralty would be composed in the following manner:

1. Maria Miranda, Education District
2. Jose Ramon Murillo of the 2012 Committee
3. Omar Antonio Rios Head of the Municipal Tourism Unit
4. Ingmar Diaz 2012 Committee
5. Brenda Rivera Representative of the indigenous communities
6. Martha Emma Melendez member of the Municipal Council of Transparency who also will be the custodian designated for the transport of the pieces to the US

The said committee will have to be present for 5 or 6 days, eight hours daily in the building that the CRIA occupies for the packing of the pieces and they will be attended and instructed by the Institute technician Norman Martinez, Registrar of Cultural Properties.

We spoke about the points that are described in the Copan Ruinas 2012 agreement of the 26th of February and it was determined that on point 2, while the Ley Orgánica del IHAH is not reformed, the participation of the AMHON in the Consejo Directivo of the Institute, if the Consejo itself considers it, will be solely as an observer.

With respect to point 3, it was resolved that the same commission previously named will review the inventory and will be on the record that the Maya pieces are in each one of the sites.

With respect to point 4 the elaboration of a protocol on the part of the Institute was proposed that would regulate the presence of members of the Municipal Corporation so that they shall be present in the excavations, discovery, and exhibition so that they can attest to transparency while the lay and regulations of protection are reformed.

With respect to point 5, attached you will encounter Circular No. 412-G-2011 dated 13 December of 2012, directed to the commission of Finances of the National Congress through which IHAH presented what its position was with respect to the decree through which it is proposed that a percentage of the income of the Copan Archaeological Park should pass to the Municipal Mayoralty. [This document was not attached to the copy sent to us.]

Both point 5, as well as point 6 (sales of tickets outside the country) and 8 (reform of the Ley para la Proteccion del Patrimonio Cultural de la Nacion) will depend on the Sovereign National Congress of the Republic with actions carried out by this Municipality.

Point 7 will be completed with the nomination of the commission that at the beginning of this report was laid out, and in addition the University of Pennsylvania will send to you an invitation so that you will participate in the inauguration of the event as well as the costs of one person designated by this municipality so that he should be one of the custodians of the pieces, who will participate both in the transmission as well as the return of the same.

And finally point 9 are matters specific to the Municipal Mayoralty.

In the hope that this will be the beginning of a permanent conversation,


Attorney Erlinda Lanza.

The Copan Agreement

Here is the text of the agreement signed in Copan, described by one of our Honduran colleagues as "a clear attack on the IHAH and the cultural patrimony". We would note that this "agreement", produced on letterhead of the Municipalidad of Copan Ruinas, entirely violates the long established constitutional principles that hold the cultural patrimony of Honduras as a common good of all the people of the country. (Note that "Copan Ruinas" is the name of the town, not simply a reference to the archaeological site; where the latter is intended, we use the English "Ruins of Copan" for the Spanish "Ruinas de Copan".)

Agreement Copan Ruinas 2012

Gathered in an Open Town meeting, in the Municipal Hall of Copan Ruinas, with the goal of reaching agreement over the subject of the sending abroad of archaeological objects from our national patrimony to the city of Pennsylvania, United States, with the participation of the municipal Mayor, the city council, Congressmen, mayors and representatives of nearby towns, the Minister of the Interior and Population as a representative of his Excellency the President of Honduras, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, the Director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, Commissioner of Municipal Transparency, brothers from the Maya Chorti, representatives of patronatos, brothers from the rural communities, citizens of Copan Ruinas. After hearing participation during the present Open Town Meeting, in Local and National interest, we agree conjointly, to the following points

1. The immediate firing from the post of Regional Director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History of Salvador Varela, in light of his being responsible for the lack of communication between IHAH and the municipal government and people of Copan Ruinas.

2. To reform the Ley para la Protección del Patrimonio Cultural de la Nación (decreto 220-97) so that the honorable municipal government and town of Copan Ruinas have direct participation with voice and vote in the Consultation Council which supports IHAH, giving to the communities where the cultural patrimony is found the power and right to manage them, always within the law of the said Patrimony, so that with this [they become] the true protectors of our history.

3. To grant the honorable Municipal Corporation and town of Copan Ruinas the right to name representatives to make an complete inventory of all the archaeological pieces, documents and things of any type which are housed in the CRIA [the archaeological storage of IHAH in Copan], the Archaeological Park, Museums and any other site on the national level.

4. To grant the honorable Municipal Corporation and people of Copan Ruinas the right to name representatives that will be present in any excavation, discovery, or exhibit related to the Patrimony Ruins of Copan, which will give trust with transparency.

5. In light of the proposed law that would grant a percentage of the income from the Archaeological Park, the Ruins of Copan, coming out of an Open Meeting held in 2011, and that the same [law] is in the process of approval by the National Congress, knowing that the committee report is favorable, we ask the constitutional president of the republic, Porfirio Lobo Sosa, to support and favorable approval of the decree and ordering its publication as required by law.

6. To grant the honorable Municipal Corporation and people of Copan Ruinas the right to the sale of tickets, in conformity with the plan presented to the President of the Republic, a plan which comes from brotherhood of the honorable municipal corporation of Antigua, Guatemala and the honorable municipal corporation of Copan Ruinas.

7. To grant the honorable Municipal Corporation and people of Copan Ruinas to name a commission so that the same will be witnesses to the packing, supervision, and shipping of archaeological objects, thus to give faith in the return of all the objects that shall leave for exhibition.

8. Give the honorable Municipal Corporation the authority so that it can invoke the Legal Department of AMHON [so that] that the Ley para la Protección del Patrimonio Cultural (Decreto Legislativo 220-97) shall be reformed in every chapter and article so that the people of Honduras are empowered in their patrimonial historical legacy.

9. Ask the Investigating Prosecutor for legal processes against officials and employees of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History in local, state and national courts, as well as other dependencies of the state.

In witness the honorable municipal Mayor, the honorable Municipal Corporation, the honorable Congressmen, mayors or representatives of the nearby towns, Minister of the Interior and Population in representation of his Excellency President of Honduras Porfirio Lobo Sosa, Director of the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, municipal commissioner of transparency, brothers representatives of the Maya Chorti, represenatives of the patronatos, brothers of the rural community boards, citizens of Copan Ruinas, we proceed to the signing of the present accord.

Given in the city of Copan Ruinas, on the twenty-sixth day of the month of February of the year two thousand twelve.

[the signatures of Mayor Helmy Rene Giacoman Franco, and of Africo Madrid, follow]
[below this is the signature and seal of Julio Cesar Gámez, interim representative of the Department of Copan in Congress]
[Below this follow the names of sixteen others, not identified to office]