Hondurans continue to flee one year after post-election crackdown

The political crisis resulting from last year's controversial presidential elections contributes to today's mass exodus.

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    Supporters of opposition presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla struggle with military police for possession of a giant Honduran flag at the Policarpo Paz Garcia neighbourhood of Tegucigalpa in January [File: Fernando Antonio/AP Photo]

 [Daylife]
    Supporters of opposition presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla struggle with military police for possession of a giant Honduran flag at the Policarpo Paz Garcia neighbourhood of Tegucigalpa in January [File: Fernando Antonio/AP Photo] [Daylife]

    Lopez Arellano Sector, Honduras and Tapachula, Mexico - The bullet hole in Junior Rivera’s neighbour’s garage door was just one of many in the Lopez Arellano sector of Choloma, in northwestern Honduras. Military police shot live ammunition during repeated crackdowns on local highway blockades by residents protesting what they called "election fraud".

    "This is the sector that was the worst hit by the repression," Rivera, an opposition alliance political activist, told Al Jazeera.

    On two early occasions, national civilian police force officers showed up to dialogue with Lopez Arellano residents blocking the highway, a critical commercial corridor running from San Pedro Sula, the country's second-largest city, to Puerto Cortes, the country's main port. Police and locals negotiated a compromise, leaving one lane open to traffic, but police soon stopped showing up to talk, Rivera said.

    "After that, it was just the military police with tear gas and live bullets," he added.

    Monday marks one year since the 2017 presidential elections in Honduras, and the ensuing political crisis continues, contributing to the mass exodus of thousands currently fleeing the country.

    Preliminary election results showed opposition alliance presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla with a supposedly irreversible five-point lead. But after the election data transmission system crashed for hours and came back online, incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernandez quickly shot into the lead.

    Hernandez and his predecessor from the ruling National Party, Porfirio Lobo, have been plagued by allegations of ties to organised crime and drug trafficking, and they both now have close relatives in custody in the United States.

    On Friday, Juan Antonio Hernandez, a former congressman and the president's brother, was arrested at the Miami airport. He faces charges of conspiring to import cocaine to the US, as well as weapons charges. Last year, a US district court sentenced one of Lobo's sons to 24 years in prison for conspiring to import cocaine. 

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    "In the case of the citizen Juan Antonio Hernandez, as in the case of any other Honduran, the President and his government maintain the position that every individual is responsible for their actions and that in no manner is that responsibility transferable to anyone else," the Office of the President said Friday in a statement.

    Military police drag away a giant Honduran flag they stripped away from supporters of opposition presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla during clashes in the Policarpo Paz Garcia neighbourhood of Tegucigalpa in January [File: Fernando Antonio/AP Photo] 

    Hernandez's candidacy for a second term was contentious from the start. The Honduran constitution has a strict ban on presidential re-election, but a Supreme Court ruling during Hernandez's first term in office gave him the green light to run.

    Three political forces united in an effort to defeat Hernandez at the ballot box: the LIBRE party that grew out of opposition to a 2009 coup d'etat; Salvador Nasralla and his broad base of supporters backing his anti-corruption platform; and the small PINU party.

    The sudden reversal of the preliminary election results sparked widespread condemnation, prompting calls for a total recount. The secretary-general of the Organisation of American States called for new elections.

    Government crackdown

    Highway blockades, city road barricades and marches broke out around the country. Hernandez enacted a state of exception, suspending several constitutional rights and freedoms, but it did not contain the outrage. 

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    Military and police forces cracked down on protesters, sometimes firing live ammunition into crowds. Human rights organisations documented more than 35 killings, though some were reportedly extrajudicial executions of activists outside of the demonstrations.

    International institutions concluded more than 20 protesters and bystanders were shot and killed during the crackdown on protests and highway blockades. The country's chief medical examiner confirmed that autopsies revealed bullets corresponding to state security forces in most of those killings.

    Six Lopez Arellano residents were shot and killed in when security forces attacked local highway blockades in the month following the elections.

    The government and military denied responsibility for any post-election killings. The government claimed the protests were infiltrated by gang members and financed by Venezuela, but presented no evidence to support the allegations.

    A man walks away from tear gas as supporters of Salvador Nasralla, then-presidential candidate for the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship, clash with police during a December protest caused by the delayed vote count for the presidential election in San Pedro Sula [File: Moises Ayala/Reuters] 

    Public prosecutors have initiated a few legal cases related to abuses by security forces following the elections, but there has been only one arrest for homicide in the context of election protests.

    Al Jazeera first spoke with Rivera in his home in late December 2017. Port-bound semi-trailers sped past on the highway separated only by weeds and a ditch from the pot-holed gravel street in front of Rivera's house. Military police were stationed a few blocks away, at the main entrance to the Lopez Arellano Sector.

    At the time, Rivera was the Choloma municipal coordinator of the opposition alliance, a member of the Cortes departmental opposition alliance coordinating body, and held a position in the Lopez Arellano Sector community council.

    Rivera's gate and front door were damaged. Military police kicked the door in on December 12, 2017. They detained Rivera without telling him why or accusing him of any crime, and tried to take him away.

    "They told me they were going to disappear me," Rivera said. 

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    Word of the commotion military police were causing at Rivera's home had spread quickly. Rivera is widely known in the neighbourhood, not just as an opposition activist but also for his involvement in local matters, standing up for youths subject to arbitrary arrests and taking part in community battles against water pollution. A crowd began gathering to defend Rivera, and the military police were forced to let him go.

    Hector Hernandez accompanied Rivera, his friend, during the interview with Al Jazeera last December. An energetic former police officer, Hernandez was an active participant in the local highway blockades and marches following the November 2017 elections.

    Five weeks after the interview, on February 4, Hernandez was shot and killed in the street in broad daylight. No one has been arrested.

    Forced to flee

    Rivera was already spending the night elsewhere by late December, hoping it would become clear to security forces he did not sleep at home, so they would not show up at night and place his family in danger. The threats and attacks continued, though, and this past April, he fled with his wife and children to another part of Honduras. But Rivera kept getting word that military and police officers were looking for him. 

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    Last month, Rivera left the country altogether. He joined thousands of Hondurans fleeing violence, poverty, and political persecution en masse in what was originally dubbed a caravan and has since renamed itself an exodus. Subsequent groups from Honduras and El Salvador, as well as individuals and groups from other countries, followed in their footsteps heading north through Guatemala and Mexico.

    More than 5,000 Central American migrants and refugees are now in Tijuana, at the border with the US. They face overcrowding and underfunding at the local stadium that has become their shelter, and increasing border militarisation and US asylum restrictions.

    Migrant and refugees walk on the road that links Tapachula with Huixtla, Mexico [Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters] 

    Rivera is not with them. He is one of the more than 3,000 Central Americans from the exodus who chose to stay behind to request legal documentation when they entered Mexico. Many plan to seek asylum and work in Mexico, while others simply want a visa to legally transit through the country on their way to the US border.

    They were all detained for two weeks upon entry, but are now scattered in shelters and crowded rented rooms around Tapachula, a city in the southern state of Chiapas. More than a month into the process of applying for refuge, they are not authorised to leave the state.

    Every week, the thousands of refuge seekers line up to sign in both with Mexican immigration authorities and at the National Refugee Commission, which is coordinating with the Mexican office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

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    Rivera is far from the Lopez Arellano Sector resident to flee Honduras. In an interview this weekend in Tapachula, he told Al Jazeera that more than 75 people from the Lopez Arellano Sector joined the exodus. Some continued on to Tijuana, but many stayed behind in Tapachula. Abuses by state security forces, gang violence, and extortion are among the main factors behind Lopez Arellano Sector residents deciding to flee.

    Rivera is also not the only local resident to flee due to political persecution and threats. There is widespread support for the opposition alliance in northwestern Honduras, but in the Lopez Arellano Sector, the most active opposition alliance activists formed a collective. Of the 86 members of the collective, 44 fled the country last month, said Rivera.

    "We just want somewhere we can be safe, and to be able to work to support ourselves and our families," he said.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News