On August 9, the International Day of Indigenous Peoples, the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña – OFRANEH) held a demonstration at the Justice Ministry, petitioning the state of Honduras regarding the lack of investigation into the forced disappearance of four indigenous Garífuna people. There hasn’t been any progress on the investigations despite exhortations from the Inter-American System. At the demonstration, OFRANEH also denounced racist and denigrating treatment by state officials.
Text: María Celeste Maradiaga
Photographs: Jorge Cabrera
Translation by Ann Deslandes
Amidst chants and ancestral rituals, around 300 Garífuna people, with the support of some Lenca leaders and people from other Indigenous groups, marched into the offices of the Justice Ministry in Tegucigalpa on August 9, 2022. They went to denounce, to Minister Óscar Chinchilla the lack of an investigation in the case of the four Garífuna people who were disappeared in July 2020.
OIn the morning of July 18, 2020, people carrying weapons and wearing Police Investigation Directorate (Dirección Policial de Investigación – DPI) vests kidnapped four Garífuna people in northern Honduras, including Albert Snaider Centeno, president of the Triunfo de la Cruz Community Board and member of OFRANEH.
Before arriving at the Justice Ministry, members of the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH) protested near the American Embassy on La Paz Avenue in the capital with the slogan, “You took them alive, we want them alive!”. They called for the return of the four missing Garífuna people.
Then, the demonstrators moved to the Justice Ministry, where OFRANEH co-ordinator Miriam Miranda led the decision to enter the building together with representatives of 46 Garífuna communities and the other protestors demanding justice for the forced disappearance of the four Garífuna behind her. They filled the corridors of the ministry, demanding a meeting with Chincilla.
However, Chinchilla refused to receive them, and no other official received them nor spoke with them about their demands.
After a couple of hours inside the building, the OFRANEH representatives came out to issue a statement condemning the government’s ineffectiveness and its racist treatment of Indigenous people.
Miranda told ContraCorriente that the action was driven by OFRANEH’s historical struggle for the rights of people of African descent and Indigenous people. The organization believes that without applying pressure, without struggle and without resistance, there won’t be any progress.
Miranda recalled that, last year, a delegation was formed to demand answers about the forced disappearance of the four Garífuna people. This did not work, she said.
“The Garífuna people made the decision to protest inside [the Ministry building] because they are tired,” said the OFRANEH co-ordinator.
“We know that next time … they will put up bars and run us out quickly so that we do not enter. But there is always a way to get in,” concluded Miranda.
Despite OFRANEH’s complaints and international pressure, the Justice Ministry has not made any progress in the investigation of this case to date.
In August 2020, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (I/A Court) ordered the state of Honduras to investigate the disappearance of four Garífuna people and the protection of the communities of Triunfo de la Cruz and Piedra Parada, in Tela, Atlantida department.
In 2015, the court also issued judgements in favor of the Triunfo de la Cruz and Piedra Parada communities, affirming their right to collective property on ancestral territory and their right to free and informed consultation.
None of this has been fulfilled, said Miranda, because businesspeople, public officials and drug traffickers illegally occupy their territories and install projects without prior consultation with the Garífuna people.
“Many of these public officials do not just have a little beach, or a little house to visit, they have also taken over land, they have taken over beaches … We are tired. The time will come though, when they will not be able to get near any Garífuna community”, Miranda maintained.
The ulterior motives behind the failure to investigate forced disappearances
Lawyer and human rights defender Edy Tábora works with the Garífuna Committee for the Investigation and Search for the Disappeared of Triunfo de La Cruz (Comité de Investigación y Búsqueda de los Desaparecidos de Triunfo de la Cruz – SUNLA). He told Contracorriente that OFRANEH presented a request to the Justice Ministry on July 20, 2021, demanding the creation of an investigation mechanism in which the Garífuna people would participate, in light of the investigating agencies’ ineffectiveness.
SUNLA is made up of the relatives of the disappeared Garífuna people along with a multidisciplinary group of experts. Tábora noted that the initiative arose as little information was being provided by the Justice Ministry on the forced disappearance of the four Garífuna people.
OFRANEH demanded the creation of a special prosecutor’s office to investigate the case, and that a special prosecutor be appointed. They also requested that the process include active participation of the Garífuna relatives of the disappeared.
Tábora said the Justice Ministry was not sufficiently resourced to “deal with all the violence against Indigenous people in the country.”
“You have to remember that in the Justice Ministry, the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Ethnic Groups only has three prosecutors to deal with all of Honduras,” he said.
“The Garífuna people alone have approximately 10,000 complaints filed in that office and there has been no response,” he said, adding that the Justice Ministry does not work for the people or citizens of Honduras, but is at the disposal of powerful political factions and organized crime.
Tábora also described the position taken by the Attorney General’s Office (through its head, Manuel Antonio Díaz Galeas) as alarming, saying that the Attorney General is adamant that a land titling process cannot be carried out on Garífuna lands because they are in the hands of third parties.
In the 2015 judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights against the State of Honduras regarding Piedra Parada and Triunfo de La Cruz, the court ordered the restitution and regulation of the lands of the Garífuna people.
“All the Indigenous peoples of this country are being subjected to serious mechanisms of dispossession of territory and violence, which in the end aim to disappear them, to disappear their worldview”, said Tábora, adding, “But they will not succeed because Indigenous peoples have been resisting for centuries.”
The human rights defender considers it important that the struggle of the Garífuna peoples, who pre-exist the state and are demanding their ancestral rights, be known.
As Indigenous people, “they … have rights that have been approved through international regulations,” he said.
“But in Honduras there is no progress in guaranteeing respect” for these rights, “either at the normative or practical level,” said Tábora.
Condemning institutional racism
Miriam Miranda, coordinator of OFRANEH, says the way in which some representatives of the current government have addressed Indigenous people demonstrates that there is a racist state that is based on violations of Indigenous peoples’ ancestral rights.
“How is it possible that in this country there is this institutional racism, where Indigenous peoples are seen as the worst? When in other countries, such as Paraguay, even public officials speak Guaraní, an Indigenous language,” said Miranda, who points out that Indigenous people in Honduran society are devalued when, in reality, they have supported the country through their activism.
The co-ordinator noted that the mobilization at the Justice Ministry was not at all about asking for money or taking photos with public officials.
She referred to statements made by presidential advisor and former president Manuel Zelaya Rosales at a public meeting with Lenca leaders from Lempira department, in which the leaders were treated disrespectfully.
According to Miranda, when Darwin Reyes, president of the Lempira paving project, asked about the continuation of a road project in the department, Zelaya said, “There is no money, you don’t understand.”
At the meeting, Manuel Zelaya also referred to Reyes as someone “hard” to understand. Finally, the former president said that if he did not understand what Reyes was saying, it meant the others present did not understand either.
Another member from the Lenca communities interjected, “We are Lenca and we understand what we are told, and we comprehend, and we are critical thinkers.”
“They tell us that we don’t understand, that we are brutes, but they are the brutes!” said Miranda.
“They don’t understand and they come to tell us after 500 years that we don’t understand, and why are we still alive? Because we know what we want and we know our rights,” she added.
“They will continue to persecute, prosecute and criminalize us, but they are not going to make us disappear, which is what they want. They have wanted to make all Indigenous peoples disappear and they have not been able to,” she said.
Miranda argued that Honduras is held back by such behavior by state officials, and added that the country’s ‘re-foundation’ won’t take place in institutions, by will be implemented by the people.
She said that the struggle of all Indigenous peoples and organizations should be the same: to ensure the recognition of ancestral rights.
The Office of the High Commissioner of the United Nations (UNHCHR)’s 2021 report on human rights in Honduras stated that 169 environmental and land defenders were victims of attacks. In addition, the report said it was “worrying” that to date there has been no progress in the investigation or any action taken to locate disappeared people in order to guarantee access to justice, truth and reparation for the victims and their families.