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Saturday, 19th April 2014

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Honduras: the hooded face of dictatorship

It was a beautiful sunny Friday afternoon in Honduras when I came face to face with the masked gunmen of the coup regime.

I was travelling in a convoy of sixty cars and buses towards the border with Nicaragua. The convoy included the first lady of Honduras, Xiomara Castro, and her family. She was hoping to be reunited with her husband, Manuel Zelaya, the country’s elected president.

Last month, Zelaya was kidnapped by the army and expelled from the country, and that Friday morning he had vowed to re-enter Honduras at a border crossing where thousands of his supporters had already gathered to greet and protect him.

Just before midday, the coup leader, Roberto Micheletti, went live on air to announce an immediate curfew. His aim was to provide legal cover for what his illegal regime had being doing all morning: preventing ordinary citizens from moving freely about their own country.

We listened to Micheletti’s announcement on Radio Globo, one of only two radio stations still daring to oppose the coup regime. We had two choices: turn around and drive back to the capital, Tegucigalpa, or continue towards the border in open defiance of the military. We choose to do the latter.

As we neared what was to be the first of a series of military roadblocks, I witnessed soldiers stopping public buses and ordering the passengers out onto the roadside. If these citizens were to make it to the border or to their homes, they would now have to do so on foot.

The army roadblock consisted of a truck parked sideways across the road and a couple of dozen soldiers together with their shame-faced commanding officer. After half an hour of fruitless negotiations, the driver of the car in front of us took a calculated gamble and began to drive around the roadblock. Four soldiers moved in front of the car and raised their guns, and then moved aside to let it pass. We followed, along with the rest of the convoy.

 

And so this battle of nerves continued, roadblock after roadblock. On each occasion we dared the army to shoot, and each time they declined to do so, possibly disobeying orders. In this manner, we inched closer and closer to the border, buoyed by the support of local peasant families who cheered and applauded as we passed.

But just when it looked like we were going to reach our intended destination, the situation took a terrifying turn. Our convoy was joined by two truckloads of hooded gunmen, each them wearing black balaclavas with only tiny slits cut out for the eyes. They wore police uniforms.



I recorded on tape describing what happened next (my voice is shaking as I speak):

“This is an absolutely incredible scene. We have 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 police officers with what appears to be pump action guns and they are all wearing balaclavas and fully masked up. I am standing directly in front of them.

“There are police vehicles to my left, and there is a huge army truck in front of me. I am going to walk as far as I can towards the military checkpoint here... I am now at the very front of the military checkpoint and I can see a line of army personnel in helmets carrying riot shields. And they are being confronted by the wife of President Zelaya, who is now standing directly in front of a line of armed police. They have clubs and batons ready to attack us… they are holding their clubs up in the air.  

“The crowd are now chanting. The president’s wife is on the phone, possibly to her husband or possibly she’s talking with the international media. The line of military police have batons drawn and are standing literally three yards away from where we’re standing… this is an unarmed peaceful demonstration. I am now going to retreat, as the military have now spread out across the fields and are taking up positions with guns, surrounding us. This is an extremely scary situation.”



Later, we spotted three snipers high up on a mountain to our right, moving around like little ants; one dressed in a white shirt, the others in army green.

Thankfully no-one in our group was shot or killed that day, probably because the presence of the first lady provided us with some protection. Others have not been so lucky. As of 24th July, human rights organisations had already documented that seven opponents of the regime had been killed and two more were missing since the coup on June 28th, with the real figure probably much higher.

I left on Friday night by car, travelling back to the capital under the curfew. Shortly after sunrise, the body of Pedro Magdiel Muñoz Salvador, a 23 year old opponent of the coup regime, was found where it had been dumped, 400 metres from the checkpoint. His body bore multiple stab wounds and other marks of torture.

Pedro Magdiel Muñoz Salvador

The rest of the group remain trapped by the military, without food, water or shelter. Disease is spreading, but the army have refused to allow in the Red Cross.

Not everyone in Honduras is against the coup. The upper and middle classes, who describe themselves as ‘civil society’, are mobilising in support of the regime. When I attended their state-sponsored rally earlier in the week, I was told that there is no repression in Honduras. I now know this to be a lie.

Hondurans are being intimidated, arrested, and killed. Censorship of the media is almost complete. Obama says that he is against the military takeover, but he has yet to formally declare it a military coup. Were he to do so, US law stipulates that all military and economic aid to the regime must be stopped. And despite the US administration's refusal to recognise the coup regime, and the USA's declaration that Manuel Zelaya remains the only legitimate president of Honduras, Hilary Clinton and the State Department have made clear that they are opposed to the efforts by Zelaya to return to his country.

On Saturday morning, the pro-coup daily newspapers in Honduras (as befits a military dictatorship, there are no anti-coup daily newspapers) triumphantly announced Clinton's declaration that Zelaya's attempt to cross the border from Nicaragua was 'provocative'.

The coup regime in Honduras survives by virtue of the equivocation of the United States. In order to end the coup d'etat, the US administration needs merely to make two public announcements. One is that all military and economic aid to the regime is immediately suspended; the other is that the United States gives its full and practical support to the immediate return of Manuel Zelaya to his country, to take up his rightful office as president.

If Obama will take these steps, the dictatorship in Honduras will fall in a day. It is surely now time that he does so.