British Gas risks fueling dirty war in killing fields of Honduras

British Gas risks fueling dirty war in killing fields of Honduras


On a death list: Bertha Oliva, head of the Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras.On a death list: Bertha Oliva, head of the Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras.Photo: Michael Gillard

Death squads are operating in a coastal area where British Gas has started a multi-million pound offshore oil exploration drive. Michael Gillard reports from the killing fields of Honduras where peasant and community leaders are dying and a British company is at risk of fueling the dirty war.

Josbin Santamaria Caballero has disappeared. Soldiers came looking for him in the early hours of the morning on 30 October. They traveled in patrol boats through this remote but heavily militarized corner of northeast Honduras, where British Gas has just started exploring for oil that could lead to a £50m investment over the next ten years.

When the soldiers arrived, Josbin’s wife, Rosa, was making breakfast for their daughters Keilin, aged six, and two-year-old Nesly. She said the soldiers started beating her husband, a peasant farmer, and accusing him of being a sicario or assassin for local drug lords.

The long-abandoned region of Gracias a Dios has more than potentially large oil and gas fields. It is also a transhipment point for tons of cocaine sent by Colombian and Mexican cartels to the United States. However, there is little to thank God for among the farmers and fisherman living in this war zone.

Last year, a joint US-Honduran drugs operation led to the death of four innocent villagerstraveling home by small boat. Two were pregnant, one a teenager and the other a father. Four more were injured in a hail of bullets when the army helicopter gunship opened fire on the boat.

This October, when a helicopter landed at the Caballeros’ farm near Bruss Laguna, Rosa recalled in a witness statement how some 40 soldiers spread out to secure the area.  “They blindfolded us so we couldn’t see the soldiers’ faces. I heard one, who appeared to be in charge, say ‘kill and burn him’, then two shots. When I was able to remove the blindfold I saw soldiers carrying Josbin onto the helicopter. I didn’t know if he was alive or dead. When the helicopter left they said to me, ‘We’ll give you five minutes to get out of here.’ I grabbed my two girls and fled to the mountains.”

HondurasJosbin’s mother Digna Santamaria with his two daughters

Rosa’s statement went to the Human Rights prosecutor. It arrived five days before the presidential elections on 24 November, which saw the return of the right wing National Party on an internal security and foreign investment manifesto.

An investigation is underway. However, there remains almost total impunity for human rights abuses committed by Honduran security forces. The prosecutor’s office is under-resourced and itself under threat from sicarios.

The US-trained army deny they were ever at the Caballero farm. The family has formally accused Colonel German Alfaro, commander of the Xatruch Task Force based near the border of Gracias a Dios, of planning Caballero’s murder. Days before his disappearance the colonel publicly denounced Caballero as an assassin. Last Wednesday he said: “This individual is a criminal and sicario. In fact, today someone came to my office willing to give evidence in a court that he had seen this man kill a 6-month old baby”.  Col. Alfaro said Caballero also kills for the United Peasant Movement (MUCA) and fled to Gracias a Dios to escape justice.

Digna Santamaria, Caballero’s mother, is a high profile member of MUCA in Tocoa, the town where Col. Alfaro is based. Her two grandchildren are staying with Digna in the peasant settlement of La Confianza. She believes he was ‘disappeared’ because of her work in defending peasant land rights against landowners in the palm oil industry. Since 2010, 113 peasant leaders have been killed in the region.

Caballero’s case has been taken up by the Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared (COFADEH) in Honduras.  Bertha Oliva, its director, said the police and military are using the US-led war on drugs in Honduras to eliminate civilian political and community leaders seeking land reform in an area dominated by agribusiness, cocaine kingpins and now oil barons. Oliva has been marked for death many times since the early 1980s when her husband, a resistance fighter, disappeared. “The death squads are here waiting to strike at the people. I am on the list again,” she said.

Amnesty International has warned that human rights defenders, indigenous and peasant leaders, justice officials and journalists are subject to phone tapping, surveillance, death threats, kidnapping and murder. The military and private security working for big business are targeting and criminalising peasant communities, it said in a recent letter to presidential candidates.

British Gas is talking to the Honduran army and navy about future security arrangements in the coastal area of La Mosquitia in Gracias a Dios.  It is concerned about working in the world’s most violent country and the third most corrupt in the Americas.

“We believe that Honduras offers considerable potential of reserves and felt that the offshore region had been largely overlooked by our competitors. We strongly support human rights within our areas of influence and recognise the significant impact that a major oil or gas discovery and development could make to the country,” said a spokesman for the company, which split in 1997 from the UK domestic gas supplier of the same name.

British Gas started negotiations with the Honduras government last year. In May it signed a contract securing rights to explore an offshore coastal area of 13,500 square miles. La Mosquitia is home to at least four indigenous peoples. In 1859, Honduras signed a treaty with the departing British Crown agreeing to hand back land titles to the ‘Mosquito Indians’.

The Honduran government only fully complied with the treaty this September when British Gas was consulting with Miskitu Asla Takanka, which the company says is “one of the largest groups representing indigenous communities”.  However, Bertha Caceres, head of the Coordinating Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras, said the land title transfer is a way for the government to divide tribal peoples and buy off those opposed to or demanding greater investment from the oil and gas project. She said British Gas had not consulted her group.

Josbin Santamaria Caballero before he disappeared in October

British Gas is waiting for government environmental licences to begin surveys. The company has allocated £300,000 over the next two years for social and environmental investment projects.

A spokesman said: “We haven’t gone in with our eyes closed. Clearly the security situation and human rights issue is a major area of concern.”

Col. Alfaro denied there are any state-sponsored death squads operating in the northeast, except those linked to drug traffickers and the peasant movement. He said he would shortly be releasing recently received video and witness evidence proving that Caballero is alive.

It’s day 40 and his body is nowhere to be seen.

An edited version of this article first appeared in The Sunday Times on 8 December 2013.  Photos:  Michael Gillard ©


Q&A with Raul Burbano, Canadian Electoral Observer in Honduras

Q&A with Raul Burbano, Canadian Electoral Observer in Honduras

December 4, 2013


2203Upon his return to Toronto, I had the opportunity to catch up with Raul Burbano, Program Director ofCommon Frontiers. Common Frontiers is a multi-sectoral working group based in Toronto that organizes research, educational campaigns, and political action on issues related to hemispheric economic, social, and climate justice. Raul reported from Honduras during the election and was gracious enough to take the time to talk about his experiences and provide some analysis of the current electoral crisis.

Kevin Edmonds: When you were on the ground in the days before the election, what was the general attitude of the public? Were they hopeful or did they see this coming?

Raul Burbano: We were on the ground from the 17-27th in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, Choloma, El Triunfo de la Cruz, Arizona, and Valle de Siria. The mood was contradictory because in general people had high expectations for change, but at the same time expressed a lack of confidence in the process and in fair and transparent elections. As the elections drew closer, this became more apparent with people like cab drivers, vendors, and LIBRE activists sharing their personal stories about the irregularities within the voter registry. Stories of voters showing to be dead on the registry list and dead people registered to vote, names associated with pictures of other people, all disqualifying them from voting…this was the first sign that many pointed to as fraud.

The Canadian delegation was the first to report and denounce the elections. What were some of the irregularities that caused your group to make this decision?

RB: Our delegation was part of the larger group, the Honduran Solidarity Network (HSN), and together we were the largest delegation of observers (190) spread across the country in 10 districts.

The atmosphere of fear and violence leading up to the elections must also be taken into account when considering fair elections. There were numerous reports of pre-election intimidation, violence, and murder of opposition candidates with as many as 18 from the LIBRE party murdered just 6 months prior to the elections. Two days prior to the elections masked men with guns, presumed to be military police, surrounded the LIBRE party headquarters in Tegucigalpa. Members of our delegation were present and observed the fear and anger of LIBRE sympathizers. The day before the elections Maria Amparo Pineda, LIBRE party’s Cantarranas polling station president, and other member, Julio Ramón Araujo Maradiaga, were assassinated after leaving a polling station training.

Speaking to our own experience on the ground, the scare tactics started from when we arrived in Honduras. There was a strong atmosphere of intimidation on the part of the government toward independent observers. After our pre-election press conference, armed immigration officials raided the hotels where our northern delegation was staying, asking for their passports and documentation, threatening to expel observers. This was a clear attempt to intimidate our group.

At numerous voting centers there was no “custodio”—the person in charge of the voting center. This means that in some cases the military police had to take responsibility for all the material. In the municipality of Ojojona, rather than being able to speak to a “custodio,” we were greeted by a TSE official who identified himself as being in charge of the voting centre, despite the fact that was only a “vocale”—a support person at a voting table. He spoke to us in English, describing himself as a U.S. citizen and former navy seal with considerable land holdings in the area. He made no effort to hide his disdain for the LIBRE party, stating, “we don’t want those commies here.” He expressed his and everyone’s “strong support” for the ruling National party.

We visited areas where there was no electricity or an internet connection to transmit the results. In many cases the technical person in charge was not aware of the correct protocol to follow, and in some cases they asked us what they should do. In one voting center in the municipality of Santa Ana, military police demanded our personal information even though we were clearly identified as accredited observers. At one voting station in the barrio of La Joya in Tegucigalpa, I was pulled out in the middle of observing the vote count by TSE and military police and asked to leave. So I had to ask myself: if they can do this with international observers, what can they do with local observers and electoral participants?

Not to mention that we received numerous reports of vote buying and the refusal of access to opposition members at various voting centers across the country.

So when we compared our experience with the rest of our delegation who had also observed and documented serious and undeniable fraud in all 10 districts in which they observed, we came to the conclusion that our experience was not an exception, but rather the standard. We felt this opened up the elections to serious issues of fraud.

What also caught my attention was on Sunday night. We were sitting around the TV watching the vote count when David Matamoros, president of Honduras’ electoral court and member of the governing National Party, announced the preliminary results. Despite only 54% of the votes counted, he announced the National party with 34.9% of the vote and LIBRE with 28.36%. Not to mention that he provided no details to back up the number that was given, like where that data was coming from, or that about 500 of the voting centers lack electricity or an internet connection, clearly meaning that those numbers would be outstanding until later that week. With such high stakes on the line, why would the TSE be so irresponsible as to give out results that were not substantiated or irreversible at that early point? What his announcement triggered was that all major news networks, locally and internationally, proclaimed Juan Orlando Hernández as the new president—in essence laying the ground work for the pre-determined outcome.

KE: There have been comments since the discovery of widespread fraud that the democratic path has failed, and that now it is time to step up the offensive against the oligarchy. What are your thoughts on this movement? Do you think it is a minority opinion or a real possibility?

RB: There’s serious debate and opposition in Honduras to the electoral strategy of the LIBRE party. It goes back to the National Assembly of the resistance that took place in June 2011 where the decision was taken to follow the electoral strategy.

There’s a significant movement that argues for the need to strengthen the resistance movement with a focus on social and political struggle through mass mobilization from below—local struggles in communities andbarrios that build an inclusive and participatory process that focuses on transformative solutions as opposed to reforms. Many of these groups are already involved in struggles for territory, indigenous culture, anti-patriarchy, etc—groups like the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), Garifina communities, and women’s organizations.

In retrospect one can say the biggest losers in these elections are the social movements. This is because much of the energy has gone into the electoral process and into building the LIBRE party at the expense of strengthening the social movements. The results can be seen in the weak response on the streets by the LIBRE party and the movements that support them. It took a week for people to take to the streets to protest the fraud, and it was not as significant a turn-out as we saw in the past against the coup.

KE: While your delegation released its denunciation of the election results, Canada has remained silent—with its silence working as acceptance. Can you discuss some of the reasons why Canada is so supportive of the national party?

RB: The Canadian government is recklessly focused on trade and investment at any costs, even at the expense of human and labor rights abroad. In Honduras it’s the mining, sweatshop, and tourism sectors that Canadian corporations covet. It was no coincidence that the Canada-Honduras free trade agreement was signed just weeks before the Presidential election in Honduras. This was, in my opinion, a quid pro quo where Canadian corporations will benefit from the investment protection measures contained in the Chapter 10 of the bilateral free trade agreement, and in return Canada bestows further legitimacy to an electoral process that is largely illegitimate.

KE: Can you comment on the breakaway member of the EU delegation that has denounced the Honduran election as a fraud? How do delegations work? Can you provide some insight as to how the decision making process unfolds?

RB: I can’t really comment as to the inner workings of the EU delegation or process. In terms of Leo Gabriel, the European delegate who has come out questioning his own EU report, I think it does make some things clearer in terms of the ulterior motives behind the EU and its need to whitewash Honduras’ image. Much like our government, they, too, are willing to turn a blind eye to corruption, fraud, violence, murder, and human rights violations, all to safeguard their corporate profit. Therefore, presenting a clean and transparent electoral process helps the European Union to clean up Honduras’s image around the world and set this commercial project into motion. [Raul directed my attention to an agreement signed by the European Union and the Central American region (EU-CA AA).]

KE: What can those of us outside of Honduras do?

RB: Solidarity is the key tool to help the Honduran people in their struggle. But just as important for those of us who live here in Canada is to join the local struggles against things like the pipelines, so-called trade agreements, anti-fracking, mining, indigenous sovereignty, and so on, that challenge the status quo. For its our Conservative government in collusion with transnational corporations that seeks to impose a model that priorities profit over human life, the environment, democracy, etc—in Honduras, but here in Canada as well.

Kevin Edmonds is a NACLA blogger focusing on the Caribbean. For more from his blog, “The Other Side of Paradise,” visit Edmonds is a former NACLA research associate and a current PhD student at the University of Toronto, where he is studying the impact of neoliberalism on the St. Lucian banana trade. Follow him on twitter @kevin_edmonds.


Report from Honduras: How the Election Was Stolen

Report from Honduras: How the Election Was Stolen

December 9, 2013
Driving into Tegucigalpa to observe Honduras’s November 24 presidential election, our 17-member National Lawyers Guild delegation searched in vain for billboards featuring Xiomara Castro, candidate of the LIBRE (Freedom and Refoundation) party and wife of former President Mel Zelaya, ousted in a 2009 coup. Instead, Juan Orlando Hernández, candidate of the well-heeled ruling National Party—with whom Castro ran neck-and-neck in the pre-election polls—greeted us from virtually every inch of costly advertising space. It was an early sign of the extreme disparities of wealth and power that cast a long shadow over the election, creating formidable—and likely insurmountable—obstacles for the fledgling anti-coup resistance party in its first venture into national politics.

2208Xiomara Castro and Mel Zelaya. Credit: lr21.comAccording to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), Hernández won the presidency with 37% of the vote, well ahead of Castro at 29% and the Liberal Party candidate at 20%. (Honduran election law does not provide for a runoff if no candidate wins a majority.) But LIBRE, together with the libertarian Anti-Corruption Party (PAC) which received 14% of the vote, has refused to recognize the official results, denouncingan “electoral fraud of incalculable proportions.” Following a massive protest march last Sunday, the TSE agreed to a partial public recount.

The official results dashed the hopes and expectations for change shared by a broad-based alliance of LIBRE supporters including campesinos, trade unionists, indigenous, LGBT, women’s, and student groups, and even some businessmen who have grown alarmed at the state of Honduras’s economy. Since the coup, poverty levels and the gap between rich and poor have increased dramatically, with Honduras now showing the greatest wealth disparities in Latin America. As industrialist and LIBRE supporter Adolfo Facussé has noted, “Poor people dying of hunger, that’s not good for business.”

As international observers, we were impressed by the high level of civic engagement exhibited by the Honduran people, and by the progress that has been achieved towards creating a more transparent and accountable electoral system in a society with fragile democratic institutions. But these advances were far outweighed—and indeed subverted—by the circumstances of concentrated power, militarization, and targeted repression in which the election occurred, creating opportunities for electoral abuse and compromising the integrity of the process long before voters arrived at the polls.2209Voting line in El Reparto barrio. Credit: Emily Achtenberg.

The Election  

On Election Day, we witnessed extraordinary efforts by ordinary Hondurans to make their votes count. More than 61% of 5.3 million eligible voters turned out at 5,400 voting centers nationwide. Many persisted against the odds, waiting 2-3 hours in line at overcrowded, under-resourced polling stations in impoverished barrios.

At one such school facility in Tegucigalpa, we saw family members and volunteers virtually carrying elderly and handicapped voters up three steep flights of narrow stairs, and improvising creative directional systems to help voters through the complex labyrinth of classrooms to find their tables. Still, with voters entering and exiting the building confined to a single narrow doorway, many in this neighborhood—described to us as a LIBRE stronghold—may have concluded that the obstacles to exercising their vote were just too great.

Honduras made important advances in this election towards implementing a universal voter registration system for citizens aged 18 and over. Voter ID cards, previously distributed by the political parties, were issued directly by mobile Registry brigades (a U.S.-funded initiative). Yet, members of our delegation heard voters complain that their dead or emigrated relatives still appeared on the Registry, or that they themselves could not vote because their names were not listed. European Union (EU) observers found that up to 30% of the Registry entries were invalid.

Voters in this election had a choice of eight presidential candidates and nine parties, marking a sharp departure from the two-party (National and Liberal) system which has dominated Honduras for a century. But beyond the strong showings for LIBRE and PAC, the five smaller parties turned out to be largely shams, helping to perpetuate dominant party control of the voting system by trafficking their polling table credentials to the National Party (while their existence greatly increased the complexity and cost of the election).

TSE officials advised us that they allocated an equal number of blank credential documents to each party, but could not control what the parties did with them later. This practice, which has been strongly criticizedby the EU and the OAS, allowed the National Party to consolidate control over the voting tables where critical decisions (such as whether a voter is eligible to vote, or how to count a ballot) are made by majority vote.

2210Discount cards offered by National Party candidate Hernández. Credit: laprensa.hnMembers of our delegation saw the popular National Party discount card—another mechanism used to influence the electoral outcome—being offered to voters at party tents outside polling places. The card, which lowers the cost of groceries, pharmaceuticals, cell phone plans, and other goods and services, reportedly identifies the bearer as a National Party member and is good for four years. Whether or not this constitutes bribery, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) calls it a hidden campaign financing source which may directly violate Honduran election laws, for businesses having contracts with the government.

The election featured significant technological advances, including a much-vaunted electronic transmission system which allowed each table’s hand-counted voting tallies to be scanned directly to a centralized TSE database. This was a vast improvement over the past practice of calling in the results by cell phone, but also introduced new levels of problems. Some 600 voting centers (more than 10%) lacked the electricity or internet connections required for scanning.

Then, the TSE’s published voting results for some tables turned out not to match the scanned tallies, often—but not always—reflecting an undercount for LIBRE or PAC. This was not surprising to us, having watched hundreds of TSE recruits transcribing the scanned tallies into the database late into the night after the election, in a process that left considerable room for error, if not abuse.

An independent, non-partisan review of the database by a group of concerned citizens has sought to reconcile these inconsistencies. While their analysis leaves the candidates in the same relative position, it also confirms significant flaws in the TSE software—underscored by Honduras Anonymous’s recenthackings into the system.

Digging a few layers deeper, LIBRE claims that many of the scanned tallies in the TSE database don’t match the copies received by the party, suggesting possible tampering either at the National Party-controlled voting tables or later by the TSE. In some cases, LIBRE notes, the official tally sheets are missing from the database altogether. In still others, the number of votes counted exceeds the number of voters, or reflects an absurdly high voter turnout. A sample of suspicious tally sheets culled from the database by SOA Watch illustrates some of these anomalies. (The database, for all its flaws, is completely accessible to the public.)

Thus far, the TSE has only agreed to a public recount of the tally sheets (not the votes), which will contrast the original, scanned, and LIBRE party versions. LIBRE is demanding, at a minimum, that where inconsistencies are found, the ballots should be recounted vote by vote. As of now, the recount process remains unresolved. The final election results must be certified by December 24.

The Electoral Context

With 700 international and 15,000 national observers, this election was the most closely scrutinized in Honduran history. Ironically, while high-level observer missions like the OAS and EU found significant irregularities in the process, and criticized some systemic weaknesses such as the wide imbalances in media coverage and campaign financing, they generally concluded (as did the U.S. State Department) that the election was “transparent, free, and fair.”

What’s missing from these assessments, as the NLGHonduras Solidarity NetworkSOA Watch, and other human rights and solidarity organizations have noted, is a recognition of the broader context in which the election occurred. For starters, the alarming consolidation of power by the National Party over all government branches and institutions since the 2009 coup was a critical factor shaping the electoral climate. As president (until recently) of the National Party-controlled Congress, Hernández accumulated enormous power, summarily replacing four Supreme Court judges who challenged his pro-business initiatives, and stacking the Justice Department in favor of the ruling party just prior to the election. The National Party also controls the TSE.2211Military controlling access to voting site. Credit: Emily Achtenberg

The post-coup military’s outsized role in Honduras, enhanced even more during the elections, was disturbingly evident to our observer team. Charged under the Constitution with safeguarding the vote and the ballot boxes, soldiers with M-16 machine guns were highly visible at every polling station, even controlling logistics and voter access at some locations.

With Honduras having the highest homicide rate in the world (at 20 murders per day), the choice between Hernández’s mano dura initiatives to militarize domestic police functions—in violation of the Constitution—and Castro’s advocacy of community policing was a central issue during the electoral campaign. Manipulative messaging by the ruling National Party, disseminated through the state-dominated media, may have been effective in swaying fearful voters to Hernández on this issue.

Still, the beefed-up military presence (which is heavily U.S.-financed) has not succeeded in halting drug trafficking in Honduras, but has bolstered large landholders and businesses in their efforts to suppress popular resistance to corporate land grabs. Especially in the electoral context, militarization—by the very forces that were instrumental in carrying out the 2009 coup—has created a climate of intimidation that discourages the exercise of civil liberties.

The climate of repression, politically-targeted violence, and impunity in post-coup Honduras that has intensified during the run-up to the election has been well documented. At least 22 LIBRE candidates, activists, and supporters have been murdered since May 2012, including two on election eve and one in the days just after the 2212Credit: Emily Achtenbergelection. Two days before the vote, the LIBRE headquarters in Tegucigalpa was surrounded by masked men with guns, alleged to be military police. Human rights organizations have catalogued gross violations particularly targeting indigenous groups,campesinos, lawyers, journalists, LGBT community members, and other opponents of the regime.

Most of these crimes have gone unpunished. The newly-appointed Special Prosecutor for Human Rights told our delegation that she faces a backlog of 7,500 cases. Meanwhile, indigenous leader Bertha Cáceres, currently facing criminal charges for her role in resisting a    hydroelectric dam megaproject, gave us a copy of a paramilitary “hit list” targeting 18 activists, with her name at the top.

Regardless of how the final numbers pan out, in the context of these broader forces at work in Honduras to preclude the possibility of a “free and fair election,” it is fair to say that the vote was compromised, if not manipulated or outright stolen. Solidarity organizations are calling on the U.S. State Department to not formally recognize the electoral results until all allegations of fraud and violence are fully investigated.


Emily Achtenberg is an urban planner and the author of NACLA’s weekly blog Rebel Currents, covering Latin American social movements and progressive governments (


Today in the Streets of Tegucigalpa: Anger & Mourning!

Today in the Streets of Tegucigalpa: Anger & Mourning!

The national mobilization called for by Xiomara Castro on Friday night became a massive, angry funeral procession today in Tegucigalpa. Last night two members of LIBRE were murdered in Tegucigalpa, there were unconfirmed reports of another in Olancho and a bomb was set off at another resistance locale. Today’s march accompanied the coffin of Jose Antonio Ardon, “Emo 2” from the Pedagogic University to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and then to his wake at the national teachers union (COPEMH) hall.  President Xiomara Castro, ex-President Zelaya, and other leaders from LIBRE and the National People’s Resistance Front (FNRP) spoke angrily of the fraud, lies and violence and called on people to take the streets agains after this “ballot box coup” as they did after the June 28, 2009 coup.

Thousands of marchers chanted, sang and shouted emotionally, carrying LIBRE flags, and hand-made signs. Person after person told our team that Juan Orlando Hernandez and the National Party are usurpers and not the legitimate government. LIBRE is filing a formal challenge to the announced results and has vowed to fight in the courts and international bodies as well as the streets.

Photos by E. Torres, V. Cervantes