Ten years after coup, Hondurans flee amid violence and repression
Thousands of Hondurans have fled the country in recent months as a government crackdown on protests continues.
Tapachula, Mexico – Maical Garcia carried almost no belongings when he fled Honduras earlier this month. Once in Mexico, he contacted relatives to ask for a copy of his father’s death certificate, a case linked to the death threats that forced him to flee years later.
Garcia’s father, Jose Luis Garcia Manueles, was a primary school teacher and part-time local radio correspondent in Marcala, a town in western Honduras. The political climate was tense in early 2009, but Garcia Manueles aired contentious local perspectives on politics and allegations of political corruption in town, his son said.
“He received telephone threats and messages left on his vehicle, telling him to stop the [radio] programme,” Maical Garcia, 28, told Al Jazeera.
“He never stopped working. He never thought it would cost him his life,” he said.
On May 19, 2009, Garcia Manueles was shot in the head. His body was dumped along a road out of town.
His family was in mourning the following month when the Honduran military overthrew elected President Manuel Zelaya, who had gradually shifted somewhat to the left while in office. Politicians from both main political parties, including Zelaya’s, closed ranks behind the military, instating a civilian de facto government pending elections.
Friday marks the anniversary of the June 28, 2009 coup d’etat that set in motion a decade of political crises, violence, mass protests, militarisation and repression. Ten years later, the government of President Juan Orlando Hernandez has instituted a crackdown on protesters, and Hondurans continue to flee by the thousands every month.
The years after the coup
Contested elections later in 2009 swept the National Party into power and it has been there ever since. Violence spiked after the coup, and so did murders of social movement activists, indigenous community leaders, and journalists. By 2010, Honduras had the highest per capita homicide rate in the world outside of active war zones, and it retained the top spot for three years.
Zelaya’s Liberal Party was split into pro-coup and anti-coup camps, and the latter later joined him and grassroots resistance movements in forming an opposition party, LIBRE. But it was defeated in the 2013 elections by National Party candidate Hernandez.
The Honduran constitution strictly prohibits presidential re-election, but a convoluted Supreme Court ruling paved the way for Hernandez to run as an incumbent in 2017. In response, LIBRE formed the Opposition Alliance Against the Dictatorship with the small PINU party and anti-corruption crusader Salvador Nasralla, with Nasralla as the alliance candidate.
Preliminary November 2017 results revealed Nasralla had a five-point lead, but after the election data transmission system went offline and back on, Hernandez quickly made up the difference and became the official winner amid widespread allegations of election fraud.
The country erupted in protests and blockades that lasted for months. The Organization of American States called for new elections. But the US validated the election results, and the military police force Hernandez created spearheaded a violent crackdown. More than 30 protesters and bystanders were shot and killed, according to Honduran human rights groups.
Throughout much of the post-coup era, Garcia and his siblings were just trying to survive. Their mother had died years earlier, so after their father was murdered, his brother Jorge Humberto took custody of the children, most of them in their late teens.
“My uncle demanded justice, so that the murder would not remain in impunity,” said Garcia.
But in 2012, Garcia’s uncle was also murdered and his siblings scattered. Garcia has never since set foot in Marcala, but a local man with political ties was convicted of the murders and Garcia and his siblings were occasionally located and threatened in connection with the case.
Armed men began showing up this year at the mechanic shop where Garcia worked, hoping to afford to finish his post-secondary studies in public health administration. They asked for Garcia by name and came back more than once to ask for him.
Earlier this month, the armed men left a note on Garcia’s motorcycle at the shop that read: “We are waiting for you. The same thing that happened to your dad is going to happen to you,” Garcia said. His work colleagues told him he should flee the country for safety. He left the next day.
“I asked for help from immigration at the [Mexican] border,” Garcia said.
Garcia wanted to request asylum in Mexico, he told officials at the border. But he was told they did not have the requisite paperwork to fill out and was directed to a different nearby border crossing only to be told they did not have the paperwork either, he said.
Following an immigration deal with the United States, Mexico has been ramping up border militarisation and a crackdown on migrants. Unable to file an asylum request at the border, Garcia ended up making it the 30 kilometeres to Tapachula mostly on foot, skirting checkpoints. Mexico is now processing his asylum claim, which could take several months.
Outside the Mexican Refugee Assistance Commission office in Tapachula, Hondurans often congregate around anyone with updates about developments back home. Honduras erupted in protest two months ago against health and education privatisation, but the actions soon evolved into nationwide protests and blockades demanding “Fuera JOH” (Out With JOH), the acronym for Hernandez’s name.
Police and military forces have cracked down on protests, sometimes with live ammunition. At least three protesters were killed last week alone. On Monday, military police entered the capital city campus of the National Autonomous University of Honduras and opened fire on student protesters, sending at least four to the hospital with gunshot wounds.
“There is a lot of repression against youth,” said Yessica Trinidad, coordinator of the Honduran Network of Women Human Rights Defenders.
“It is very painful,” Trinidad told Al Jazeera.
The crackdown has not stopped the demonstrations, and blockades and marches continued all week. Protests have been building towards Friday, the tenth anniversary of the coup.
The ministers of security and defence held a brief press conference on Thursday night to read a joint statement. They stated that the government respects human rights and the right to peaceful protest, but emphasised security forces would uphold the right to freedom of movement and safeguard property.
“The Armed Forces will be accompanying the National Police in all parts of Honduras so that our population can carry out their activities as they see fit, tomorrow and any other day,” Defence Minister Fredy Diaz said.
Early on Friday morning, FUSINA, an interagency force comprised military, police and other forces, announced it was shutting down all road access to and around the capital city airport between 8am and noon. Travellers should be inside the terminal before 8am, according to the statement.
Hundreds of military personnel and riot police were deployed to the airport early Friday morning. The opposition LIBRE party had called for a rally in the area.
Demonstrations and activities are also planned in several US cities.