Persecution and resistance: The experience of human rights defenders in Guatemala and Honduras

August 8, 2007

Persecution and resistance: The experience of human rights defenders in Guatemala and Honduras

"The commitment to defend life is what nourishes us, what gives us hope to carry on with our struggle, and to believe that things can change. We're being threatened constantly, but if our struggle is to be worthwhile, it depends on us carrying on. I have small grandchildren -- I want them to be able to live in a healthy environment."
Victor Ochoa, General Coordinator of the Environmentalist Movement of Olancho (MAO), March 2007

Victor Ochoa, General Coordinator of MAO, March 2007. © AI
Rene Gradiz, a leading member of MAO, March 2007. © AI

Two environmental activists -- Heraldo Zúñiga and Roger Iván Cartagena -- were shot dead on 20 December 2006 in Guarizama, Olancho Department, Honduras. The two men, both members of the Environmentalist Movement of Olancho (Movimiento Ambientalista de Olancho, MAO), were killed in execution-style shootings reportedly carried out by members of the national police.

According to the information received, the police forced them to get out of their car and stand against the wall of the building next to the municipal office of Guarizama, before firing around 40 rounds at them. Four police officers were accused of the killings and were placed in preventive detention in the police station of Juticalpa on 5 February 2007. They remain detained at the time of writing pending trial.

MAO has been campaigning against deforestation and illegal logging in Olancho Department since 2000. The organization has been lobbying the Honduran Congress to approve a proposed Forestry Law that would protect the forest by regulating government and private investment and guaranteeing communities the right to participate in the sustainable use of natural resources.

In May 2006, Heraldo Zúñiga had expressed fears for his safety. He said that, after publicly exposing illegal logging in the Salamá region in western Olancho Department, he received several death threats. A request was filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights requesting precautionary measures for MAO members and in May 2006 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had requested that the Honduran government provide information on the case.

On 16 June, the Honduran authorities reportedly informed the Commission that protection measures had only been implemented for Padre Andrés Tamayo, leader and founding member of MAO. To Amnesty International's knowledge no protection measures had been provided to any other member of MAO, including Heraldo Zúñiga from whom precautionary measures were requested.

Following the killings of Heraldo Zúñiga and Roger Iván Cartagena, on 22 December 2006 the Commission ordered the Honduran government to urgently implement precautionary measures on behalf of members of MAO.

According to information received, the Honduran authorities have not fully complied with this and have only provided MAO with limited and sporadic protection. For example, in January 2007 police visited the MAO offices only twice and the houses of four MAO members twice each, despite the high security risks faced by MAO.

In addition, there are concerns about the impartiality and effectiveness of protection provided by members of the National Civil Police, the same police force reportedly responsible for the killings of Heraldo Zúñiga and Roger Iván Cartagena.

There are continuing reports of threats and intimidation targeting MAO members. For example on 10 February 2007, a text message to a member of Heraldo Zúñiga's family warned him that he and Padre Andrés Tamayo would be the next people to be killed.

MAO's work has been severely hampered by this continuing harassment. MAO members have had to restrict their activities to certain areas and curtail visits to communities for fear of attacks. Additional security measures, such as changing the location of meetings and switching cars during journeys are also posing additional obstacles for their human rights work.