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Tense days in Tegucigalpa

The International Accompaniment and Observation Delegation reports on the current situation in Honduras

September 24, 2009
7 min read

Democratically elected Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, deposed by a military coup on June 28, returned clandestinely to Tegucigalpa, appearing at the Brazilian Embassy around midday on Monday, September 21. As word of his arrival spread, thousands of Hondurans who’ve been calling for his return began to assemble outside the embassy to celebrate, catch a glimpse, and show their support.

Our delegation was there for a few hours in the early afternoon and saw the enormous excitement, relief, pride, and possibility in the faces of the thousands of people both young and old, campesinos and school teachers, students and mothers, indigenous people and workers, all full of hope.

The return of Zelaya means the possibility for free and fair elections, a constituent assembly for the creation of a more inclusive constitution, and an end to the repressive practices of the de facto regime. Such practices have left dozens dead, thousands detained illegally, hundreds wounded, and several ‘disappeared’ in the wake of persistent and violent persecution of the peaceful resistance movement which has taken to the streets daily since the coup.

By mid-afternoon on Monday, the de facto government had called an obligatory, nationwide curfew from 4pm until 7am. Our delegation made the quick and difficult decision to return to our guesthouse, even as hundreds of people continued arriving to the area around the Brazilian Embassy, just a short block from the US Embassy and the United Nations building.

At 5am on Tuesday the 22 September, tanks and military personnel on foot passed the police barricades around the Brazilian Embassy and began firing tear gas and live ammunition into the crowd of about 500 people who had stayed all night holding peaceful vigil outside. Many people didn’t have enough time to gather their belongings and left behind shoes and purses as they fled; many family members were split up in the process of trying to escape the blows of military clubs and tear gas. Some people were offered shelter in nearby homes. When they had finished rounding up, detaining, or dispersing those assembled, the armed state actors then proceeded to break the windows and slash the tires of cars left behind by protesters before impounding them.

Despite the extension of the curfew from 7am to 6pm, members of our delegation were able to visit the hospital and interview some of those treated, many of whom were from outside Tegucigalpa and were still trying to track down all the members of the groups with which they had travelled to the city when they heard of Zelaya’s return. At least 18 people received attention at the Hospital Escuela, the main public hospital, including stitches in the head and treatment for fractured bones.

Other delegation members visited the Chochi Sosa baseball stadium, which had been converted into a mass detention center for people who had violated the mandatory curfew as well as those who had been gathered outside the Brazilian Embassy. Some of those detained had been seriously wounded; some had sustained multiple traumas to the head. They all stood in the blazing mid-day sun in the stadium. The delegation accompanied the most seriously injured to a clinic, where treatment cost USD $80 – a week’s salary, if you have a job.

That afternoon, people from all over Tegucigalpa called into one of the few non-coup television stations, Chanel 36 Cholusat Sur, which also transmits on the radio. They announced to the media that they were running out of food and water, and feeling desperate under the curfew. One woman said that her diabetic mother had not had insulin for three days.

Despite the desperation and lack of food and water, that night we heard residents in the neighborhood organizing in the streets, chanting and singing and occasionally shouting ‘alerta’-alert-the sign that the police or military have been spotted. The National Resistance Front had called upon people to take to the streets in their own small neighborhoods, and while the people did so all over the country, they were met with live ammunition, tear gas, and beatings by police. Though we smelled pepper gas through our guesthouse windows, for the remainder of the night we heard the mostly jubilant sounds and songs of the people’s resistance in the streets.

Once the curfew was provisionally lifted from 10am-4pm on Wednesday, people were able to move freely for a while, and some came to COFADEH, a well-respected non-governmental human rights organization, to formally denounce their treatment at the hands of the military in front of the Brazilian Embassy and in the neighborhoods the previous night. One woman had multiple deep bruises from being beaten over 20 times by the military, after she was found alone, vomiting and nearly unconscious from the effects of the tear gas.

We also took the testimony of a 24-year old young man who was beaten up by police while in a street celebration, then beaten during his two hour period of detention. He was thrown down to the ground and forced to place his hands on a chair to be beaten with clubs. He heard the police talking about killing him, but because he happened to know one of the officers he was eventually released, along with a 19 year-old who was detained with him. He has serious injuries to his head, neck, hands, knees, and back including a serious wound on his left lower back.

We have heard reports that there is a high frequency sound blasting the area around the Brazilian Embassy, where Manuel Zelaya remains, along with members of his cabinet and some leaders of the anti-coup resistance. This is part of the military’s offensive on the embassy, constituting a form of both physical and psychological torture, since it can cause permanent hearing damage as well as prohibit sleep and clear thinking.

We spoke with some of the over 500 lawyers nationwide who comprise the Lawyers Front against the Coup, who have been offering pro bono legal support and defense work for those whose rights have been violated since the coup. They located the roots of this current struggle in colonisation: there has never been real democracy in Honduras because the families who have always owned and controlled the resources in the country continue to enjoy political and economic power. The lawyers said that the economic elite, descended from these few families, have been able to orchestrate this coup in part thanks to their ownership of most of the media outlets in the country.

Despite all the repression, there was a march on Wednesday, as there has been a demonstration every day since the coup. Despite also having many of their routes blocked off by police and military blockades, thousands of marchers cheering and chanting made it past the COFADEH office and to downtown. Upon arriving to the central square, they were met by military and police squads masked and armed, who began to pursue the demonstrators.

At this point, we’ve seen and heard reports on radio and TV of detentions but are no longer downtown so haven’t heard further confirmation.

The city is basically a police state. It is common to see a line of police and military blocking a street. There is always some important power base – like the presidential house — behind that line, though sometimes it’s so far behind that line it’s hard to see.

The report was sent by Sandra Ribas, a Honduran national that is the Vice President of the Peace Centre in Costa Rica. Sandra is also a member of the Costa Rican Human Rights Commission. Together with Francisco Cordero, a former assessor of the Costa Rica assembly, they led a delegation that was in Honduras for ten days and is now advising the resistance movement on Gandhian non-violent direct action techniques. Their intention is to eventually establish a Peace Centre and Human Rights institute on the model of the one in San Jose centre.

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