Posts Tagged ‘COFADEH’

COFADEH Project to Remember the Victims of Forced Disappearance: The Route of Historical Memory

August 30, 2014

Today, August 30 is the International Day of the Disappeared.

To commemorate the lives of the 184 victims of forced disappearances during the 1980s and 90s in Honduras, the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) initiated the “Route of Historical Memory” project, a pathway to landmarks of the practice of State terror during this time that arose from a clearly structured strategy using calculated and ruthless violence.


Those who dreamed of a better future were illegally detained for being insurgents or opponents of the State by COBRA (Anti-subversion Police), the TESON (Special Forces for Jungle and Night Operations), or the Group of the 14 (death squads of Intelligence Battalion 3-16).

The Route of Historical Memory, “la Ruta”, takes one to the locations where these people were arrested, tortured, and secretly buried.

The starting point is the COFADEH office, where the principal documentation is found and where the walls are filled with photographs of those who are missing: fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, sisters, and brothers who disappeared. Few returned. There is not sufficient space or words to express the pain and desperation of the families who will never know what happened to their loved ones or where they are buried.

Next, is a visit to the Merced Plaza, where COFADEH has protested against forced disappearances every first Friday of the month for 33 years. The “Ruta” continues on to horrific places like the “house of terror’, located on the estate of Amilcar Zelaya in Amarateca, where detainees endured unimaginably brutal torture before suffering a cruel death.

The gate of the Diamond House, at that time a base of the Nicaraguan Contra forces, has a structure identical to that of the gate of the estate in Amarateca. It is another location where detainees were tortured. There is a suspected clandestine cemetery at this house, near the slope to the River Frio.

It is clear that this violence is structural and continues to this today, applied differently but always in accordance with the strategy of a State that does not respect human rights.

The last stop on the “Ruta” is the “Casa Contra el Olvido”, the Home against Forgetting, an unforgettable site that emits a serene aura full of light and peace. Here, the memory of all those disappeared remains alive, intangible, waiting and hoping for truth.

More information on:

Acompañantes internaciones recorren la “Ruta de la Memoria” que muestra la impunidad

¿Qué es la Ruta de la Memoria Histórica?

Exhumation in the Aguán: in search of the truth

May 28, 2013

From April 23- 26 2013, the Honduras Accompaniment Project (PROAH) accompanied members of the Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) to the lower Aguán, where they exhumed a human skeleton that was found by campesinos in the Paso Aguán property, near the Panamá community.

 The COFADEH, at the request of the community and the family of José Antonio Lopez Lara, who disappeared on April 29, 2012 on the Paso Aguán property, asked experts from the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) to conduct the exhumation with the authorization of the judicial authorities of Trujillo, department of Colón, and with the support of the Human Rights Office of Honduras.

The embrace of Doña Elena is strong and warm. Her slender and agile body does not show her 79 years; her direct, sharp gaze is that of a woman who, although she has suffered her whole life, including the greatest pain of losing a child, cannot give up and continues struggling for justice.

 madre de López Lara

Doña Elena

The anguish of Doña Elena and her family began a year ago, when José Antonio López Lara, a 46 year old campesino, disappeared on April 29, 2012. He left his house in the Rigores community (Trujillo, Colón) to fish in the Ilanga river, whose waters border the Paso Aguán palm oil estate, then in the hands of landowner Miguel Facussé Barjum. According to Saudi, the oldest daughter of José Antonio, Facussé’s guards had previously threatened to disappear and kill her father for approaching the estate. On the day of his disappearance, “around 10 am, some campesinos from there said that they heard 4 shots”1. However, nothing was known about José Antonio until April 3, 2013, when a human skeleton was found buried in a clandestine grave on the Paso Aguán property that borders the Panamá community. The discovery of the grave, about 200 meters from the place where Jose Antonio was supposedly fishing, suggested that they might be his remains.

Before José Antonio López Lara, at least three campesinos have been reported disappeared. On May 15, 2011, Francisco Pascual López (37 years old) disappeared while herding cattle. A boy heard shots, but the body was not found. Meanwhile Antonio Gómez (55 years old), a member of the Nueva Vida de Rigores movement and campesino from the Panamá plantation, disappeared in February 2012 and the Panamá plantation guard, Lito Rivera (35 years old) disappeared on his way to work on the afternoon of January 30, 2012.

 The guards and owners of the property always prevented the families and friends of the disappeared from looking for the bodies that would allow them to ascertain the truth. It was after the disappearance of the campesino leader Gregorio Chávez on July 2, 2012, whose lifeless body was found three days later in the Paso Aguán estate and after the retaking of the property by the campesinos that a commission was formed to search for the rest of the victims and, after three false alarms, on April 3, 2013 another body was found2.

Although José Antonio López Lara’s family immediately went to the police station to report the illegal grave, suspecting that it might have to do with their relative, the police did not follow up on the report. So while José Antonio was not part of any campesino movements in the area, the Unified Campesino Movement of Aguán (MUCA) and other organizations decided not to ignore the fact and organized for the official exhumation and identification of the remains.

First, they approached the area and decided to take shifts in groups of 10 during the day and 50 men at night so that nobody could erase the traces of one or possibly more of the victims of violent land conflict that is ongoing in the region. After that they began the formal process to be able to proceed with the exhumation. First, the petition was presented to the Trujillo court by the Special Prosecutor of Human Rights, COFADEH, the families of the disappeared in the Lower Aguán and the MUCA. Then the Trujillo court took care of finalizing the process. The exhumation was conducted on April 25th. The process was carried out by experts from the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG), the archeologist Leonel Paíz, and the Anthropologist Alma Vázquez.

 When, at dawn, the experts from Guatemala arrived to the site of the discovery with members of the COFADEH, international observers and journalists, the family of José Antonio was already gathered under a tent: Doña Elena, her sons, grandsons, great grandsons and Rosa, José Antonio’s wife, with their two sons of 3 and 8 years of age. In addition to the family, the place was guarded by dozens of members of the police and the army. On one side, relatives and unarmed human rights defenders, looking for a spark of truth; on the other, armed men trained for war.

contingente policialPolice contingent

 un militar de Xatruch III observa de cerca

Xatruch III soldier observing the exhumation

The discovery site was marked by a sugar cane cross. Here, in the shadow of the palm tree, the exhumation process began. Leonel and Alma gave orders to the three campesinos who helped them in the excavation: they measured, marked, took photos, and filtered the dirt.

Los expertos forenses colocan marcas antes de excavarThe experts start the exhumation

We all followed them in silence, almost without breathing, in a surreal atmosphere. Little by little, the area was filling up with people. Dozens of campesinos had slowly approached until they surrounded the premises with a hug of solidarity and their banners protesting the militarization of the area and the repression of their struggle. And there they stayed, standing and quiet, all day.

 campesinos abservan el proceso

Campesinos observing the exhumation

Around noon, the first signs of the body appeared: the rubber boots and the skull, resting on its right cheek, as if asleep. And then the striped bag and the fishing line that his wife had given him in the morning before he left the house, and the fish, buried with him. “It’s him!” one of his sisters exclaimed. “I knew it. It was a hunch. From the beginning I felt that it was him.” Doña Elena went to the grave and broke down in tears, covering her face with a white handkerchief. At 4 pm the compañeros rolled up their banners and left in silence, as they had arrived. After a powerful funeral ritual and the words of Pastor Rigoberto Ulloa and Priest Juan Colato, the bones were taken to a vehicle of the Office of the Prosecutor of Human Rights to bring them to the Public Prosecutor’s Medical Forensic unit in Tegucigalpa, where the forensic scientists would conduct a morphological analysis of the remains the following day. The certified laboratory of the FAFG would take care of the DNA tests for a complete identification.

osamenta completa. Con características físicas y objetos encontrados se cree que es Jose Antonio López Lara

Without doubt, once it is officially and scientifically confirmed that the body recovered in the exhumation on April 25th is that of the disappeared José Antonio López Lara, the campesino movement of the Lower Aguán will obtain an important victory in their struggle to defend the land.

Photos Marvin Palacios : id=2558:imagenes-del-proceso-de-exhumacion-en-el-bajo-aguan&catid=42:seg-y-jus&Itemid=159

1 Interview with Saudi, one of José Antonio López Lara’s daughters:

COFADEH celebrates 30th anniversary; symbolically presenting 4 cases before the ICC

December 21, 2012


Just two weeks after celebrating its 30th anniversary the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) announced (link in Spanish) their intention to present four cases of human rights violations before the International Criminal Court  (ICC). According to a December 14th press release these cases are emblematic of the impunity of human rights offenders in Honduras as well as of the influence of United States hegemonic hemispheric security policy.

Ebed Yanes's father (link in Spanish). The 15-year-old was killed by the Honduran military. The case is one of 4 to be presented to the ICC.

Ebed Yanes‘s father (link in Spanish). The 15-year-old was killed by the Honduran military. The case is one of 4 to be presented to the ICC.

The four emblematic cases COFADEH will present to the ICC are symptomatic of a system of impunity in which the U.S. government has a heavy hand. Each of the cases point to U.S. involvement in rights violations and impunity for the perpetrators. In the Ahuás case, the role of U.S. DEA agents in the May 2012 massacre of indigenous villagers is addressed. Preliminary conclusions released in annex to COFADEH’s press release on December 14 state, “In the Ahuás case evidence threw light on direct intervention of U.S. agents in favor of the killers and in the interruption of criminal process.” They also highlighted the militarization of the country as a direct result of U.S. influence and a direct cause of human rights abuses in Honduras.


COFADEH is recognized as one of the foremost authorities on human rights in Honduras. Founded in the 1980s in response to the massive detentions and disappearances of that decade, the organization has grown from a small group of women demanding justice for their loved ones into a leading organizational force in the field of human rights. Members of COFADEH are regularly threatened for their work. COFADEH as an organization has been granted protective measures by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. Most recently, journalist Dina Meza reported threats she received on November 19, 2012. These follow threats made against her in April, which were denounced by international human rights organizations including Amnesty International.

COFADEH declared 2012, the year of their 30th anniversary, to be the “Year Against Impunity.” In commemoration, the organization raised a monument on August 30th, the International Day of the Disappeared, at the site of an unmarked grave exhumed in 1995 5 kilometers outside the city of Danlí. Days after the dedication, the monument was riddled with bullets and 50 days after its installation it was disappeared. COFADEH General Coordinator, Bertha Oliva denounced this attack on the memory of the disappeared at the organization’s 30th anniversary celebration.

First shots fired into COFADEH's monument to memory (photo credit COFADEH)

First shots fired into COFADEH’s monument to memory (photo credit COFADEH)

COFADEH celebrated its anniversary on November 30, 2012 with a discussion forum in the morning followed by a concert the same evening. The forum,  “Historic Memory and Impunity,” began with presentations by Lisa Sullivan (SOA Watch), Bertha Oliva (COFADEH), Ludivina Hernandez (COFADEH), and Oscar Aníbal Puerto (Honduran Institute for Rural Development, IHDER). During his address Mr. Puerto said, “We are celebrating the anniversary of the moral reserve of this country.” Lisa Sullivan underscored the role of the U.S. in Honduras and shared a symbolic story from her plane ride into Tegucigalpa when a Honduran man fainted and three North American doctors came to his aid. She noted that instead of stealing his wallet and his shoes in his defenseless state, they assisted the man and helped to revive him. “That’s how relations between our countries should be,” Sullivan said.  Bertha Oliva stressed the importance of memory to ensure that history does not repeat itself. COFADEH’s anniversary was also celebrated in London where COFADEH lawyer Kenia Oliva was visiting at the time.

Banner at COFADEH’s 30th anniversary celebration: "30 years of memory demanding justice"

Banner at COFADEH’s 30th anniversary celebration: “30 years of memory demanding justice”

The overwhelming message received from those present was one of gratitude.  COFADEH’s struggle will continue, according to journalist Marvin Palacio (link in Spanish), “with its memory, informing past and present acts, working for justice, communicating and articulating voices against forgetting.”

The tragedy in La Moskitia – COFADEH publishes the preliminary report of its fact-finding mission

June 20, 2012

From 20 to 24 May 2012, a commission organised by COFADEH (the Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras) visited La Ceiba and La Moskitia to document the tragic events of 11 May, when four passengers in a river boat were killed when they were shot from helicopters during a joint antinarcotics operation by the Honduran police and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).   During its mission, COFADEH received accompaniment by PROAH, including a representative from Witness for Peace.  COFADEH presented the preliminary report of this mission at a press conference on 6 June.

The passenger boat fired upon by helicopters. The bullet holes can be seen on its side.

There was – and there still is – an urgent need to clarify the facts surrounding the case, not only because of the seriousness of what occurred, but also because of the series of statements by the authorities, US and Honduran, justifying the attack by implying that the victims were involved in the drugs trade[1].  COFADEH’s mission managed to shed light on many of the key facts, as well as giving a face to the innocent victims, and a voice to their relatives and others affected by the attacks.

We travelled to Ahuas, the municipality in La Moskitia where the tragedy occurred, and home to most of the victims and their relatives.  Its name, which means ‘pine’ in the Tawahka language, has a particular resonance for those who remember the militarization of Honduras by the US during the 1980s – Ahuas Tara (‘Big Pine’) was the name of a series of major joint military operations between the US and Honduras in La Moskitia in the context of the Contra War over the border in Nicaragua.

The journey underlined the remoteness and isolation of the region.  We travelled in a small plane (about 20 seats) over the jungle of the western Mosquitia, and then in an even smaller plane (a 4-seater) flying low over the grasslands in the east of the region, which provide easy landing strips for drugs planes.

In a region where there is only one main road, air and water are the usual means of transport for the local people.  When we arrived, we were taken to the ‘landin’, the small river port in Paptalaya, a small community in Ahuas municipality, close to where the tragedy happened, and where the boat was due to dock before it was fired upon by four military helicopters at 2 am on 11 May.  The boat was still there, complete with 20 bullet holes in its sides.  One of the ‘factors’ which made its passengers suspicious in the eyes of US officials was  that they were travelling at night[2].   However, this is normal practice for long river journeys in a region where the strength of the sun during the day is fierce, and looking at the boat – a pipante, essentially a long canoe – it was easy to see that it was so narrow that putting a roof on it would have destabilized it.

The ‘landin’ at Paptalya where the passenger boat was due to dock, and where the helicopters landed.

Information  on the events leading up to the tragedy were provided by the local mayor, Lucio Vaquedano, who has been  praised by COFADEH for his bravery in publicly stating the facts surrounding the case[3], and in contradicting the versions of the Honduran and US authorities who, immediately after the tragedy, claimed that the dead were drug-traffickers.   In an interview with COFADEH, he stated that, according to accounts he had heard, a light aircraft had landed on an illegal runway 3 kilometres away to leave a drugs shipment, which was possibly already tailed by the police and the DEA. The cargo was taken to the dock at Paptalaya where it was transferred to a boat. The employees of the drugs traffickers fled when they realized they were being tracked, abandoning the boat which then drifted down the Patuca River.  The passenger boat, which was travelling upriver, was about 700 meters away from the landing at Paptalaya when it came across the boat carrying the drugs.  Just at that moment, the police and the DEA attacked, opening fire on the passenger boat.  For Mr Vaquedano, it was a mistake that unfortunately took the lives of four innocent people[4].

The dead were Hasked Brooks Wood, 14, a minor travelling with his mother Clara Wood Rivas, and  three adults, all of whom were parents, and two of whom were pregnant women –  Candelaria Pratt Nelson, 48, who was from Brus Laguna, on the coast, and the mother of 6 children, and Juana Jackson Ambrocio, 28, the mother of two young children, who lived in Ahuas.  The other adult, Emerson Martinez Henriquez, 21, was the father of two girls, and had left the army only a month earlier after three years of military service in the 5th Infantry Battalion in Mocorón, Gracias a Dios.

Typical houses in Ahuas.

Further details of the attack came from interviews with the boat’s survivors.  They insist that no warning was given before the helicopters fired upon them, and that no other shots were heard, although as late as 10 June the Honduran authorities were reported as claiming, on the basis of a preliminary investigation, that the agents on the helicopters were justified in firing in self-defence[5].

What is certain is that there was no attempt by the personnel in the helicopters to help the passengers once the attack took place.   Given that they included children who could not swim, it is a miracle that not more people died, as the passengers were forced to jump  in the river to escape the firing, which continued while they were in the water.  Three of the injured, from their hospital beds in La Ceiba and Ahuas, told COFADEH how, despite their injuries, they managed to swim to the river bank.  There, two of them, Wilmer Lucas Walter, 14, with a severe injury to his wrist and Lucio Adan Nelson Queen, 22, shot in the back and elbow, fled into the trees to save themselves when they saw that the attack was continuing.  The third hospitalised victim, the boat owner, Hilda Rosa Lezama Kenreth, 53,  was hit by a high-calibre bullet which left a  groove 4 inches wide and 12 inches long across her thighs.  She was in the river for over two hours, sheltering under a bush from the attack[6].  She was forced to spend so much time in the polluted water that she contracted an infection in the wounds, and at one point there was the risk that both legs would have to be amputated.

What she did not know at the time was that her son had been prevented from rescuing her by agents – reportedly both American and Honduran – from the helicopters, who spread terror among the community after landing at the dock at Paptalaya.   They detained him for an hour and beat him,  forcing him at gunpoint to recover the boat containing the drugs.  This was only one example of a series of reported abuses by the Honduran and American agents, who violently broke into houses, looted fuel, ill-treated the inhabitants and subjected some to death threats.  One of the survivors of the attack, Clara Wood Rivas, and the mother of one of the dead, Hasked Brooks Wood, 14, had arrived distraught at the landing, after swimming ashore, only to be threatened at gunpoint by three agents, who asked her if she wanted to die and told her to get out of the area[7].

This failure to help the passengers of the boat extended to the care of the wounded, both immediately after the incident as well as longer term – all help for the injured was arranged by the people of the community, with no support from the authorities.   In the end, Lucio and Wilmer spent over 20 days in hospital in La Ceiba without being operated on – in the case of Lucio, the operation was cancelled at the last minute a number of times, and it was finally carried out only after UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross intervened at COFADEH’s request.  In the case of Wilmer, his mother, who is single and in a precarious financial position, had to find the money to pay for an ambulance to transport her son to San Pedro Sula for the surgery which would save his hand[8].

At the end of their mission, COFADEH initiated legal cases on the incident by lodging official complaints with the Public Prosecutor’s Offices in Puerto Lempira  and La Ceiba[9], as well as later at the Head Office (Ministerio Público) in Tegucigalpa, with the presence of the victims’ relatives.

In their preliminary public report, COFADEH are not only demanding due support for the victims and their relatives, but also that both the US and Honduran authorities conduct investigations into the incident, which has had such a bitter cost in innocent lives[10].

[4]COFADEH – Preliminary Investigation Report – The Ahuas Case – 11 May 2012 – footnote 4 (P.7).

[6] COFADEH – Preliminary Investigation Report – The Ahuas Case – 11 May 2012 – P.9 and 10.

[7] Ibid. P.10 and 12.

[10] COFADEH – Preliminary Investigation Report – The Ahuas Case – 11 May 2012 – P.14.