Human Rights Groups On the Ground Amid Violent Honduras Election Protests | Sojourners


Members of the Honduran Navy wait in formation with shields as they prepare to charge a barricade of protestors in El Guanacaste, Tegucigalpa.

Human Rights Groups Observe Violent Honduras Election Protests

Photo Gallery

All photos and interviews by Sean Hawkey at protests in December and January.


Juan Olando Hernandez, widely known as JOH, stands with his supporters
during a demonstration in Tegucigalpa.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was sworn into a second term Jan. 27. The highly disputed November election has caused protesters to fill the streets, and at least 30 people have been killed.

Hernández was a conservative candidate, supported by the U.S., and appeared to be well behind his center-left rival, Salvador Nasralla. Hernández is said to have won by 50,000 votes. 

Following the inauguration, protesters set up blockades on highways and set tractor trailers on fire, which resulted in five arrests. 

Police broke up several rallies across city including a mass rally in the capital. They also used tear gas on protesters. 

Left: A group of young people carry tires to burn on a barricade in Comayagüela. Disillusionment among young people is very high, as employment opportunities are scarce, where there are jobs the conditions are poor, and access to university education is politicized and expensive. Right: Protesters in Olancho are seen holding the Honduran flag in between plumes of black smoke from a burning barricade. In Olancho, military have been using metal rods as batons to beat protesters, as well as live rounds.

Salvador Nasralla speaks to UNE TV reporters during a moving demonstration through the poorest neighbourhoods of Tegucigalpa.

The European Union and the Organization of American States showed many irregularities in the election.

Many argue that Hernandez should have never been on the ballot to begin with. The five judges in the Supreme Court who lifted the Constitution’s ban on presidential re-elections were placed in their positions by Hernández. This, for some, is a sign of corruption. 

César Silva, reporter for UNE TV, has recently been attacked by armed forces and prevented from working. Silva is famous for breaking a huge story on a multi-million dollar theft of money from the social security by members of the current government. UNE TV is the last TV station to report from the perspective of the Alliance Against the Dictatorship and is facing daily difficulties including having their cable signal, internet and electricity cut off. The police behind César stopped him from approaching Congress, where he is authorised to work

Left: Franciscan nuns take part in an ecumenical vigil outside the U.S. Embassy in the Honduras capital Tegucigalpa. Right: Others hold up candles during a vigil to pray for justice and peace in Honduras.

Roxana Corrales, National Network of Women Defenders of Human Rights

From Roxana Corrales:

"At the moment we are defending the rights of people to protest. We’ve seen aggressions against people demonstrating, who use their legitimate right to protest. They are shot at with teargas and with live rounds; they are detained illegally. So, there is a strong need for accompaniment by human rights defenders. That’s why we’re here.

"Today for example, there was a cultural activity, a concert, in one of the neighbourhoods that has been heavily repressed. This artistic group decided to support the people of the neighborhood with a presentation of music and poetry. The police and army have stopped the event. The police arrive and without exchanging words they beat people with batons, shoot teargas at them. So we try to mediate, and to document what happens. 

"Today there were maybe 100 people who’d come to sing, but the Army, Cobra units [riot police], the police and the military police arrived, around 300 of them, to disperse the people, to stop the singing and poetry. The people ran away, they are intimidated by the armed forces."

Left: Don Christiansen, minister with the United Church of Christ, Minnesota. "Democracy is in great peril here," Christiansen said. "The United States, in my opinion, is playing a very dangerous and unhelpful role, and has been for a long time. As a person of faith, I feel called to be here with my brothers and sisters, as they go through this incredible period of persecution, violence, and death." Right: Carlos del Cid, with other members of the International Ecumenical Observatory of Human Rights, stand between riot police and protestors to lower tensions during a demonstration. 

Fr. Ismael Moreno, known as Melo, is a Jesuit priest, human rights campaigner, and the director of Radio Progreso. He has received repeated and specific death threats recently, and the radio station has suffered attacks, including the sabotage of the transmission tower in Tegucigalpa.

After leading prayers at an ecumenical vigil outside the U.S. embassy, Melo spoke about defending human rights in Honduras:

"Many people ask me if I would be a candidate for public office. Political parties have even approached me, to be a unifying figure among groups with differences.

"But my vocation is not party politics. My vocation emerges from a deep faith, from the gospels and scriptures. Everything I live and say and do, comes from my faith in God, that makes all things new, that invites us to build a humanity, wherever we are, so that His glory shines.

"Here there are people that suffer because they don’t have anything to eat, their human rights are abused, there’s no freedom of expression, employment is a matter of luxury, and not a basic right for young people, the rights of women and children are abused, and there is corruption and impunity. It’s hard in these circumstances to give glory to God. My faith necessarily has to have a public service dimension, because the public service here is not about the the common good, it’s about benefits for a few and suffering for many. The question here is how to use public service for the wellbeing of the many and not just for the few.

"What moves me is a profound faith that the Lord wants us to bring good news, particularly to so many people that suffer the consequences of a world that is organised with its back to God, a world in sin. That’s what motivates me. I try to live this faith in a public way, you can’t try to lock it up. In this world there is a need for the presence of God and a new humanity, for us all to live in joy.

"I don’t believe in power that crushes or dominates, I don’t believe in the power of weapons, I don’t believe in the power of imposition, I believe in the power that produces change for the common good. That’s why I’m in a public dimension. All human beings have power, it’s the orientation that we give it that produces good or evil. Here in Honduras I feel, from my faith, that I am obliged to confront the malignant power of Juan Orlando Hernandez. I am not moved by hatred."

Bertha Oliva, coordinator of the human rights group Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared, COFADEH. 

Bertha Oliva founded COFADEH after her husband was taken from home by State forces in 1981. He has never been seen again.

"We weren’t prepared for this. We are prepared to save lives, to accompany, to protect, to articulate citizen struggles, to move forward democratically, helping people to know their rights as citizens. We never imagined that they were willing to stay in power like this, at any cost.

"We didn’t see their preparations, preparations for war, from the military down, through the other State institutions. We do know the level of power they use to remain in impunity, but we didn’t think they were preparing a war, and they were. There has been a build up of militarization since the coup d’etat [in 2009]. But this new militarization was previously unseen. We didn’t have the presence of soldiers in the streets, though we did notice a tendency to give management of public institutions to military people. And military people always make military decisions. But we believed, we trusted, that in the 21st century, we wouldn’t see what we are seeing now. We were wrong. 

"We believed in democratic process and the rule of law, we thought that future military actions would respect human rights. We were wrong.

"There is a level of espionage and infiltration that we’ve never seen before, that you only get in countries that are at war, in countries in crisis. 

"I’m obliged by my position to be positive, I’m here to raise hopes and be positive, but I can’t. We are in an undeclared civil war, where we’ve lost the hard-gotten gains of decades of campaigns, we’ve lost it."

Salvador Aplicano Cantarero, human rights defender with the International Ecumenical Human Rights Observatory. 

From Salvador Aplicano Cantarero:

"The human rights observatory is made up by people from different churches, the ecumenical movement, who are concerned about this ongoing crisis and we have decided to accompany people who at the moment are demonstrating about electoral fraud, corruption, an illegal government, and they are confronting the armed forces of the State. It’s an unequal confrontation. We’ve decided to accompany people on the front lines of this confrontation. 

"We are volunteers and we know we are taking risks. Leaders of the demonstrations have to find places to sleep, they can’t sleep at home, they appear and disappear, and often they are working with just one meal a day, many are altruistic people.

"We see a lot of abuse. Many people are attacked, as well as being gassed. We stand on the front line, between the protesters and the military. We take photographs of what happens. We see how people are beaten, and taken. And we know that when people are taken, they are often not taken to a police station, but somewhere else where they are beaten, often to try to get information from them, and then later, and hour or two later, they are taken to a police station. Some arrived injured, their heads or hands broken, with burns. We try to take photographs as people are being arrested, and also as they arrive at police stations, to compare the condition they leave and arrive in. The soldiers cover their identity, they all wear ski masks, but the vehicles they use can often be identified. 

"We speak to the military and police commanders, and to the organizers of demonstrations, we work between them, and we try to reach agreements over how long a demonstration will go on for without repression, but often the agreements are broken by the military.

"We often find ourselves in the same vulnerability as the demonstrators, we are insulted, beaten, gassed."

Rev. Daniel Buford, Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action, California. 

From Rev. Daniel Buford: 

"I came as part of a 50-person delegation to witness the human rights situation in Honduras. Human rights have deteriorated since the elections, which were indeed fraudulent. People are upset with the results, and it is a fact that a number of people have been killed for protesting since the election.

"We’re here as Christians, as U.S. citizens, and we want to stand up for truth and justice. We’re standing here in front of the U.S. Embassy, and as we stand here there are a whole lot of people standing behind us with guns, with helmets and body armour and teargas canisters, that were all paid for by U.S. tax dollars. We are part of this. We are funding, people are being shot with tear gas, with rubber bullets with real bullets that are made and paid for in the USA. We are here to say we don’t want this bloodshed financed with our tax dollars. Our tax should be used to affirm peace and justice, not to affirm fraudulent elections and the oppression of people."

Sean Hawkey is a photographer and journalist in the UK. View more of his work here.