Honduran police ignore rise in attacks on journalists, gays

McClatchy NewspapersApril 11, 2011 

PUERTO GRANDE, Honduras — In a nation with the highest murder rate in the Western Hemisphere, it's perhaps not a surprise that someone armed with a 9 mm pistol opened fire last month on Franklin Melendez, wounding the radio journalist in the thigh.

What astonishes is what happened next: Police refused to go to the crime scene. Later in the evening, the three officers on duty also didn't budge when the alleged assailant waved his gun out of a moving vehicle and threatened to shoot another reporter for the radio station.

"He pointed the pistol at me and said, 'You're next, bitch. We're going to kill you,' " recalled Ethels Posada, a 30-year-old part-time reporter.

Numerous witnesses saw the assailant shoot Melendez and threaten Posada, but the police wouldn't act without a formal complaint. Once the complaint arrived, eight days later, they still refused to do anything, saying an arrest order was needed. The assailant has now fled the area.

"They didn't lift a finger to help us," Posada said of the police.

That inaction underscores why gunmen in Honduras have gotten away with a string of attacks that have claimed the lives of at least 10 journalists, 60 lawyers, 155 women and 59 gays, lesbians or transgender people since 2008.

Those cases remain unprosecuted, a trend that's alarmed international human rights advocates. In its annual human rights report last week, the U.S. State Department noted the upswing in "hate crimes" against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in Honduras, including two transvestite leaders, one of whom was executed by gunmen on a motorcycle.

The Obama administration has deployed FBI agents and prosecutors to Honduras to help investigate murders in several of the more prominent cases. In response, Honduran Security Minister Oscar Alvarez in March announced the creation of a special unit to look into the murders.

Yet no one is expecting much to happen.

The number of murders committed in Honduras has soared, from 4,473 in 2008 and 5,265 to 2009 to 6,236 last year, a 39 percent increase in two years. One is five times more likely to be murdered in Honduras (population 8 million) than in Mexico (population 112 million), making Honduras the deadliest country in the hemisphere.

Experts say killings have risen because of a surge in narcotics trafficking, general crime and the chaos after the June 2009 coup, which monopolized Honduras' attention for months. Of the 10 journalists killed, most died in the year after the coup.

They also say the government bears some blame for the murders.

"This isn't to say that the state commits the crimes, but by not investigating . . . it is complicit. It sends a message to the criminals, the paramilitaries and the hit men that they can do as they please," said Osman Lopez, who heads the Committee for Free Expression, a news media advocacy group.

Homicides roiling the gay, lesbian and transgender community have earned Honduras comparisons to Uganda, the African nation that recently debated a proposed law that would make homosexuality subject to the death penalty in some instances.

In late December, two assailants kidnapped and stabbed a 45-year-old transgender leader in Honduras, Oscar Martinez Salgado, known as Lady Oscar, tied him to a chair and set him on fire.

Journalists have been gunned down primarily in parts of Honduras where landownership is in dispute or where drug-trafficking gangs proliferate.

The root of the assault March 13 on Melendez, 35, appears to be differences over who owns the land on Zacate Grande, an island in the Gulf of Fonseca on the nation's Pacific Coast.

With a 2,100-foot dormant volcano and a rudimentary causeway to the mainland, the island is both an enclave for Honduran tycoons and politicians and home to impoverished farmers and shrimp netters in dusty hamlets.

Melendez's family has lived on Zacate Grande for nearly a century. Like many residents of the island's 10 villages, the Melendez family had no title to its holdings, thinking that it was all state land.

Then, nearly half a century ago, a Honduran mogul named Miguel Facusse obtained a deed to most of the island from a Nicaraguan-born woman. He and dozens of other rich Hondurans proceeded to build mansions, swimming pools and a heliport in a resort development known as the Club de Coyolito. They hired villagers to tend their gardens, wash their clothes and wait on tables as they enjoyed their Jet Skis, sunbathed and played tennis.

The trouble began last year, when Melendez and other island residents received seed money from Italy to start a tiny radio station, the Voice of Zacate Grande. The 250-kilowatt station became an outlet for those, such as Melendez, who claim they have a legal right to part of the island.

They question how a Nicaraguan could have sold the island to Facusse when Honduran law at the time prohibited foreigners from owning land on the nation's islands (that prohibition has since been changed).

The claims have split the island's population, with many of the villagers employed by the owners of the 60 or so mansions labeling those involved in the radio station as troublemakers.

Tension is palpable among the 1,200 residents of this hamlet of wooden shacks and rutted dirt tracks. The station's 18 volunteer reporters move about only in pairs.

"All of us are at risk," said Aaron Rivera, who's 23.

Land development has been an issue in other shootings.

On Jan. 6, assailants sacked the transmitter and two computers of Radio Coco Dulce, on Honduras' Caribbean coast, and set the building afire. The station, which gives voice to the minority Afro-Honduran Garifuna community, had opposed real estate developments on ancestral lands.

A year ago, gunmen armed with AK-47 assault rifles killed Nahum Palacios, the news director of Channel 5 TV in Tocoa, a town on the north coast of Honduras where private militias have helped Facusse expand his African palm plantations. Palacios was shot 20 times.

Lying on a bed while his wife tended to the wound in his left thigh, Melendez reflected on the telephone calls and messages of support he's received since the shooting from news media advocates and authorities in Colombia, Mexico, France and the United States.

No such signs of concern have come from anyone in his own government.

"They haven't called," Melendez said. "They haven't done anything."

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