Violent Military forced Removal of Peaceful Indigenous Demonstrators in Honduras

After eight days of negotiation, at 4:00 am just five hours before the planned signing of an agreement, 2,000 well-armed Honduran soldiers and police attacked an encampment of indigenous and black protesters. The demonstrators were gathered outside of the Honduran Presidential Palace in Tegucigalpa to protest the politically motivated assassinations of Chortis' leaders, Candido Amador and Ovidio Perez, and to demand the return of indigenous lands. Abiding by their convictions, the demonstrators refused to leave until an agreement was signed and continued their peaceful protest despite violent assault from the government.

Over four thousand people from seven Honduran indigenous and black groups: Chortis, Lenca, Pech, Tolupan, Miskito, black English speaking Creoles and Garifuna arrived in Tegucigalpa as part of the "Great Indigenous and Black Mobilization" on May 5, 1997. In the camp, food was scarce and health care inadequate. Many people suffered from stress, heat exhaustion, heart conditions, and arthritis. Still, Hospital Escuela, only a mile away, refused to provide the pilgrims with essential medical treatment. The public health risks were comparable to those of many poor Honduran communities. Luckily, with the arrival of the Honduran Red Cross, the Ministry of Public Health and private doctors, as well as the construction of latrines, there were no outbreaks of communicable diseases.

In the negotiating room, things appeared to be moving swiftly. By the second day, the government had already agreed to conduct a full internal investigation into the assassinations of Amador and Perez. The government was slow to comply with Articles 13 through 19 of Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which demands the return of indigenous lands and respect for indigenous cultures. This refusal to concede blocked negotiations for eight days. Pastor Fasquelle, chief government negotiator, finally presented an agreement directly to the encampment. Offering too little land and not enough guarantees, the proposal met with fierce opposition and was rejected in an oral vote. Finally, an agreement was reached that included a stricter time table to restore indigenous land and stronger guarantees of government compliance.

Five hours before the agreement was to be signed at 9 a.m. on May 11th, 1,500 soldiers and 500 police descended upon the camp armed with riot gear and rifles, including M16's and M60's (large tripod-style machine guns). Unarmed men, women, and children assembled peacefully in front of Presidential Palace found themselves trying to avoids the blows of their attackers. One pregnant woman was brutally beaten, and many children were trampled by police. Large pots of cold water were poured over protesters and most of their possessions were destroyed. Michael Marsh, an international observer, personally witnessed soldiers violently knocking over women with children in their arms.

The pilgrims relocated a mile away at a more precarious site. Fast moving cars encircled the encampment, hitting one protester. Most of their food and belongings had been confiscated, and authorities refused to release them. These government actions incited public outrage. Hundreds of students and other demonstrators flocked to the capital equipped with food, clothing, and other supplies.

It was two days before negotiations formally resumed. After the resignation of Pastor Fasquelle from the government negotiating team, progress was made toward resolving the crisis. The accord was signed on May 14th between President Reina and the indigenous delegation representing the demonstrators. In addition to promising a full investigation into the assassinations, the agreement also includes the return of 9,000 hectares of land, the instatement of human rights observers in Copan and Ocotepeque, where many indigenous people have received threats or been attacked by wealthy landowners, transportation to return the pilgrims to their communities of origin, assurances to fulfill its obligations from past treaties. The negotiators also agreed to instate a commission of Guarantors to guarantee the fulfillment of this agreement. The commission will work with indigenous groups and government agencies to insure compliance of the agreement.

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