Relatives of victims of military operations demand justice

Click title for original from Friendship Office of the Americas:
Relatives of victims of military operations demand justice
Tegucigalpa, December 13, 2012.

Relatives of people who have died at the hands of military personnel, as well as surviving victims, demanded justice at a press conference held today at the headquarters of COFADEH (Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras).

Decree 223-2011, using the second and last paragraphs of Article 274 of the Constitution as its basis, allowed the Armed Forces to perform police functions when there is a 'state of emergency in public security' and has been renewed 4 times through executive decrees. It has resulted in the involvement of military personnel in the violent deaths of civilians, including children.

In other cases, there has been the evident involvement of US agents in murders and in the interference in criminal proceedings, as in the case of the attack from helicopters by DEA agents on a boat carrying 16 defenseless Miskito indigenous people, as a result of which 4 died from shots from high caliber weapons (including two pregnant women).

COFADEH announced that it will submit these cases before the universal justice system. They include that of the young soldier Alex Josué Banoff who died in violent circumstances at the barracks of the 15th Special Forces Battalion at Rio Claro, Colón department. The family does not accept the official explanation for his death.

The third case relates to an incident which happened on May 27th in the capital, Tegucigalpa, when soldiers from the 1st Special Forces Battalion, trained by the United States, and acting without legal nor police supervision, with legal powers granted by the President and Congress, murdered Ebed Jassiel Yánez Cácerez (15), a block away from the police station at Villa Vieja, a district on the edge of the capital, on the road to Danli. The officers in charge ordered their subordinates (a patrol of 7 soldiers) to destroy the evidence of the crime and then, during the judicial proceedings, they tried to hide further evidence.

The fourth case reported occurred on March 30th, 2011, in the community of Planes, Sonaguera, Colón, during which soldiers and riot police used tear gas and live bullets to violently break up a peaceful demonstration by hundreds of campesinos in support of the teachers' dispute. During this brutal crackdown, Neptaly Esquivel, a campesino, was wounded by a gunshot which shattered the bone in his left leg, leaving him disabled.

What is the situation now for the relatives and survivors? The on-line newspaper defensoresenlinea.com gathered the testimony of several families affected by the remilitarization of Honduran society.

The families and the victims speak out:
Carmen Antonia Antúnez who lost her son, Alex Josué Banoff, a soldier, when he was shot in the trachea at the barracks of the 15th Infantry Battalion, said that she asked him whether he had shot himself, and he answered no, and that what had happened was that a trap had been set for him. While he was in hospital, Alex Josué asked his mother not to leave him because he was afraid.

43 days after the incident, Alex Josué died. The Public Prosecutors Office in Trujillo questioned several officers of the 15th Battalion stationed in Río Claro, Colón, but weaknesses in the investigations has meant that no charges have been brought against those responsible for the death of Alex Josué Banoff. It is known, for example, that the murder weapon is not in the possession of the Prosecutors Office.

Neptaly Esquivel's case arose because of brutal repression by soldiers and police while they were breaking up a campesino demonstration in Planes, Sonaguera, Colón. The armed forces used tear gas and live ammunition against the demonstrators.

Neptaly Esquivel was seriously wounded during this brutal crackdown, and stated that the soldier who shot him at point-blank range was determined to finish him off. As a result of the gunshot which lodged in his left leg, Esquivel can no longer walk.

“The bullet broke the bone and shattered it. At that moment I was holding on to a post and I said to the soldier, 'Don't treat me like this'. The soldier responded by kicking me and I fell in a stream of sewage. Other soldiers grabbed me and beat me. A man tried to help me and he said that there were 8 men hitting me”, stated Esquivel.

More than a year after the vicious attack, Neptaly Esquivel still cannot work and has asked the authorities of Atlántida Regional Hospital to transfer his case notes to Tocoa, so that he can start his rehabilitation. Esquivel is married and has four children.

Soliders killed a boy

Another case raised was that of Ebed Jassiel Yánez Cáceres, a minor, murdered by members of an army patrol, who in the early hours of May 27th were stationed at the turn-off for Los Pinos district, on the road to the east of the country. Seven soldiers from this road-block pursued Ebed Jassiel in a Ford 350 donated by the United States. Ebed Jassiel was on a motorbike and had not stopped when ordered to do so by the soldiers. The soldiers shot at Ebed Jassiel and killed him.

Wilfredo Yánez, the father of the minor, said that he was not afraid and would continue to demand justice, because the Public Prosecutors Office only charged three of the soldiers. On July 14th this year, its Human Rights Unit lodged formal charges before Tegucigalpa's Criminal Court, accusing
Sergeant Eleázar Abimael Rodríguez Martínez, Corporal Felipe de Jesús Rodríguez Hernández and Second Lieutenant Josué Antonio Sierra of responsibility for the violent death of Ebed Haziel Yánez Cáceres.

When the court hearing began, the Public Prosecutors Office was only accusing Sergeant Eleázar Abimael Rodríguez Martínez of murder. The other two soldiers were accused of perverting the course of justice and failing in their duty as public servants. Rodríguez Martínez was given a prison sentence and is in jail in Támara, Francisco Morazán, while Rodríguez Hernández and Sierra were given non-custodial sentences, and are under the supervision of the Commander of the First Infantry Battalion. They cannot leave the country, they must go to register with the court every Friday and they cannot have contact with the relatives of the victim nor the witnesses in the case.

COFADEH, in its capacity as private complainant, presented an appeal, requesting that the charge of homicide be extended to Corporal Felipe de Jesús Rodríguez and Second Lieutenant Josué Antonio Sierra. They were in charge of the patrol of seven soldiers which, in the early hours of May 27th, pursued Ebed Jassiel in a Ford 350 when he failed to stop at a road-block in Villa Vieja district, while on a motor-bike.

COFADEH's request was turned down by the Appellate Court and the oral and public trial is expected to happen in the next few months. The Public Prosecutors Office conducted investigations into 29 soldiers involved in Operación Relámpago (Operation Lightning) at the road-block in Villa Vieja district, to the east of Tegucigalpa on the date of the crime. It appears that the soldiers involved in the murder belong to the Special Forces Battalion at La Venta, Francisco Morazán.

On June 29th, 2012, Wilfredo Yánez, with COFADEH's support, submitted a legal challenge to the Supreme Court, arguing that the decree which allows the armed forces to carry out police functions was unconstitutional.

Wilfredo Yánez stated that high-ranking officers had protected their subordinates, to the extent of switching the guns which had been demanded by the Prosecutors Office as evidence. “What you have are favors that politicians and high-ranking soldiers do for officers involved in situations like this – it is impunity and it is corruption”.

Yánez revealed that the soldiers' defense lawyer will request a change to the conditions of the non-custodial sentences “and you have an officer (Second Lieutenant Josué Antonio Sierra) who shot a 15-year-old in the back and has a non-custodial sentence, so what are they going to try and do with the corporal who also has a non-custodial sentence,” wondered the victim's father.

The survivors of Ahuas

Lucio Nelson, survivor of the attack in Ahuas, told how, while he was travelling in the boat from Barra Patuca, on nearing Ahuas, he was seriously injured by shots fired from a helicopter by DEA agents.

The shots from high-caliber weapon hit him in the left arm and in the lower back. His life changed completely as a result of such a traumatic experience. “I was asleep and I never thought this was going to happen. When I heard the shot, I jumped in the water, but when I began to swim, my arm was already broken, and when I got out of the water I saw them shooting from above. I continued swimming and I was hit again. I grabbed a branch and I felt dizzy because I had lost a lot of blood. Then I fainted, and when I awoke I was in the Moravian Hospital in Ahuas.”

“We always travelled by day and night – I never thought that something like that would happen”, Lucio said. His father, Edgardo Nelson Escoto, said that he was very sad “because nobody helps us, nobody supports us and my son used to help me at work, but I thank God that he is still alive. The only people who give us support are those from COFADEH.”

Hilda Lezama, who was shot in the legs, said that it took her 6 months to recover and that now she can walk. “I can walk well but I'm always in pain and I have to take pain-killers every day”.

Asked about the work she did together with her husband, taking divers to the Bay Islands and Barra Patuca in the boat which was attacked in the early hours of May 11th, Lezama answered that “now I have nothing – no money – all the money I had has gone on hospital bills. In fact, I still owe the hospital money and I haven't received a penny from the government. It's because of this that I'm seeking justice, so that I can recover the money I have spent”.

Sabina Walter, mother of 15-year-old Wilmer Walter, said that her son is much better. Although she knows that the hand injured in the attack will never be the same again, she believes that her son will be able to move forward, with the help of God and COFADEH.

With COFADEH's support, Wilmer Walter has received physiotherapy for his left hand over the past 6 months in San Felipe Hospital. He had been wounded by a shot from a high-caliber weapon in the horrific attack in Ahuas. He has even managed to successfully complete sixth grade.

Bertha Oliva, COFADEH's General Coordinator, said that the four cases are emblematic and paradigmatic, and when we talk about victims' relatives and survivors it is as if we are talking about war survivors.

“In Honduras, even though we're not at war we have wounded young people, with their futures in jeopardy. I'd like to say that, in the light of the facts and findings in these four cases, we have no other option other than publicizing them. We know that here in Honduras, it is going to be very difficult to get justice and we're not willing to keep silent and go along with the whitewashing that the Public Prosecutors Office is engaged in. What is happening is that cases are being brought to trial, but none of the direct perpetrators or senior officers are being punished”.

Oliva stated that there were very strong similarities between the cases; first because it was soldiers who had committed the crimes against the victims, and also because of the level of impunity. Another finding was that the Public Prosecutors Office, particularly the Office of Forensic Medicine, tries to conceal evidence to ensure that high-ranking soldiers are not implicated in crimes. The cases are practically all doomed to remain in absolute impunity.

In the case of Ahuas, COFADEH's Coordinator stated that the Public Prosecutors Office has refused to allow them to see the case file under any circumstances and thus is denying the victims their right to present their case. “The Public Prosecutors Office can't refuse access to the case file to the legal representatives to the Ahuas victims' relatives (in this case COFADEH), still less copies to see the pleas. In the case of Ahuas these have been given in secret.”