Justice on Trial in Honduras
Forty-one months ago, almost to the day, I was at my desk in the office of the Honduran Christian justice organization Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (Association for a More Just Society) when I heard a commotion outside the gate. I went downstairs to see what was going on, but didn't get past the reception desk. Our receptionist told me the folks from the Honduran private security firm SETECH had shown up without warning. They wanted to be let in, and were threatening some staff members who had just come back from lunch. She told me not to go outside -- it could be dangerous. I ran back upstairs and watched the goings on from a second-floor window.
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Due to the combination of high crime levels, masses of weapons left over from Cold War militarization, and lots of cheap, unskilled labor, security guards are ubiquitous in Honduras, watching over everything right down to the corner donut stand. They are also generally treated poorly. Few have studied beyond sixth grade, and many are illiterate, making it easy for employers to stick illegal clauses into their labor contracts. Moreover, most are trying to support whole families on incomes of less than $300 a month -- putting them squarely among the poorest 40% of earth's inhabitants.
One of those workers, Tomasa, told me that due to illegal deductions SETECH made from her salary, all she could feed her four kids were tortillas and salt. So faced with the choice of enduring four 24-hour shifts per week with no overtime pay, or potentially getting the boot for complaining about such steamrolling of their rights, most guards choose the former.
SETECH -- Seguridad Técnica de Honduras -- is a private security firm employing several thousand guards around Honduras. SETECH wins government contracts because they put in rock bottom bids because they cut every corner possible in regard to their workers. Judging by accounts from former workers and complaints filed with the Ministry of Labor, they are among the worst labor rights violators in an industry characterized by such violations.
Back to that afternoon in September 2006. Several cars had pulled up outside the office, and a veritable phalanx of SETECH representatives had surrounded one of our journalists and our labor rights lawyer, Dionisio Diaz, who was representing a dozen former SETECH workers, including Tomasa. Among the SETECH representatives were the company owner Richard Swasey, and two lawyers representing him, Carlos Montes and Olga Suyapa Irias. After ten or fifteen minutes of pointing and threatening, and getting nowhere, the SETECH folks drove off.
Here's what happened in the ensuing years:
- Dec. 4, 2006: Dionisio was shot four times in the head and chest at point-blank range by hit-men driving a motorcycle while he was on his way to a court hearing on behalf of Tomasa and other SETECH workers. (Both hitmen, who were later arrested and convicted, were former mid-level managers for SETECH.)
- Jan. 2009: Olga Suyapa Irías was appointed to an exclusive eight-person commission that named 14 new Supreme Court justices.
- Feb. 2010: Carlos Montes was named vice-minister of Labor.
- Feb. 2010: Richard Swasey continues to enjoy lucrative government contracts. Today, Wednesday, Feb. 24, he's taking AJS-supported justice workers to court, using slander laws to try to silence their outcries.
I'll repeat: Dionisio, who worked to uphold Honduras' labor laws, was killed for it; Olga Suyapa Irías and Carlos Montes, lawyers representing notorious labor-rights violator SETECH, both have been rewarded with power and influence in Honduras' government; and SETECH owner Richard Swasey continues to be awarded lucrative government security contracts.
These are the kinds of blatant, ludicrous injustices that have people so sick of the status quo in Honduras that in the latter half of 2009 many were willing to swallow the whitewashed explanations of those who expelled corrupt, opportunistic Manuel Zelaya from the presidency, and many more fell for Zelaya's call for an end to the elites' stranglehold on Honduran government, business, and society. They're also the kinds of cynical moves that should raise serious flags for foreign governments and multilateral donors who are evaluating new president Pepe Lobo's claims that his administration will usher in a new era of integrity.
Today's trial against AJS-supported justice workers is a classic case of the powerful trying to manipulate laws and government to silence the outspoken and continue their practices with impunity. It will be a litmus test of sorts for whether Honduran courts will allow slander laws to be used as a tool to silence legitimate free speech.
All this is enough to make anyone feel jaded and hopeless. Quite a few Hondurans do feel that way. But despite everything, we at AJS do not. Our hope and our inspiration come from a God who "loves righteousness and justice" (Psalm 33:5) and calls us to "Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves" and "defend the rights of the poor and needy" (Proverbs 31:8-9).
We've seen God working through our staff, but also through police officers, prosecutors, labor inspectors, land-titling officials, and other government workers who truly do want to do the right thing for Honduras. We've seen God enable us to help 30,000 families obtain land titles; provide counseling and legal aid to 9,300 men, women, and children; to obtain justice and healing for more than 100 survivors of sexual abuse and other violent acts.
SETECH seems to believe that power lies in force, intimidation, craftiness, and connections. But we know true power comes from a Savior who will not abandon those who are faithful.
Abram Huyser Honig is the communications coordinator at Association for a More Just Society (AJS) / Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ).