Special Reports


Journalist murders spotlight Honduran government failures

Seven journalists are murdered in a matter of weeks. After minimizing the crimes, Honduran authorities are slow and negligent in pursuing the killers. The government is fostering a climate of lawlessness that is allowing criminals to kill journalists with impunity. A CPJ Special Report by Mike O’Connor

President Porfirio Lobo during a televised press conference in January. (AP/Esteban Felix)

Posted July 27, 2010

JUTICALPA, Honduras
From the first of March to the middle of June, seven Honduran broadcast journalists were shot to death, an astonishing number of murders in such a short time in a country of 7.5 million. Six of the murders occurred in the span of just seven weeks, and most were clearly assassinations carried out by hit men. Adding to fear among journalists—and to their questions about who would be next—was the national government’s response: Its initial silence was followed by a period in which a top official dismissed the murders as routine street crimes.

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“I guarantee that in all of them there is nothing to indicate that it is because of their journalistic work,” Minister of Security Óscar Álvarez was quoted as saying on May 3 by the Tegucigalpa newspaper La Tribuna, a comment he repeated in several other venues. That he made such a broad, conclusive assertion so soon after the killings and without citing evidence raised alarm among journalists that the government was not acting in good faith. Then, in the weeks that followed, authorities did little to raise confidence that they were investigating the crimes aggressively.

As a result, many journalists fear the murders have been conducted with the tacit approval, or even outright complicity, of police, armed forces, or other authorities. This concern is further fueled by the breakdown in society that followed the June 2009, military-supported coup that ousted leftist President Manuel Zelaya. Since that time, Zelaya supporters, journalists, and other critics have reported ongoing repression that has included violent attacks.

Soldiers block journalists from filming near the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa following the June 2009 coup. The government censored and obstructed news outlets after President Zelaya was ousted. (AP/Esteban Felix)

“You get the impression that the government wants you in terror so you don’t know what to report. Is this story about drugs too dangerous? What about this one about political corruption? At the end you don’t report anything that will make powerful people uncomfortable,” said Geovany Domínguez, a senior editor of Tiempo newspaper in Tegucigalpa.

A CPJ investigation has found evidence that the victims in at least three cases were slain in relation to journalism, and that work-related motives could have played roles in the others. CPJ also found an alarming pattern of impunity in these cases, as evidenced by the authorities’ inability or unwillingness to take obvious steps to investigate the crimes and arrest the perpetrators. In one case, the government ignored a directive from the Organization of American States to provide protection to a journalist under threat—a television anchor who was later gunned down.

While CPJ’s examination did not confirm a political conspiracy or coordinated effort behind the killings of the seven journalists, it did find that the murders occurred in a politically charged atmosphere of violence and lawlessness. The government’s ongoing failure to successfully investigate crimes against journalists and other social criticswhether by intention, impotence, or incompetencehas created a climate of pervasive impunity.

The conditions for many journalists in Honduras were described by Víctor Jiménez, the manager of a tiny rural radio station, Radio Excélsior, in Juticalpa. “Narcotics gangs now are stronger than the government. The powerful families that have been running parts of this country for generations, some of the politicians who have personal power, local military leaders—all of them work outside of the government’s power. The government is on the margin, it has the least power. That is why we have legal impunity, because the police and the courts don’t mean anything. The people won’t talk to them; the people are afraid of the real power.” 

The U.S. State Department’s most recent human rights assessment of Honduras, published in March 2010, speaks in unusually harsh terms of a country with which America has friendly relations. Referring to politically motivated murders, it says, “Following the June coup, there were reports that the de facto regime or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.” The State Department’s report also gave a bleak picture about the voices that might speak out against the regime: “A small number of powerful business magnates with intersecting commercial, political, and family ties owned most of the country’s news media.”

Lobo's election has not eased concerns about human rights and press freedom issues. (AP/Arnulfo Franco)

After five months in which the country was led by an interim government, presidential elections in November 2009 brought the conservative Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo to power. Although Zelaya supporters decried the vote as the tainted product of an illegal regime, the new government was accepted by the United States and a number of other nations. Yet there is still wide domestic opposition to the new government, spread through organizations such as the People’s National Resistance Front and the Unified Movement of the Peasants of the Aguán. Some members of these groups claim their leaders have been abducted or killed by government agents or private groups. And there is a theory that at least some of the murdered journalists were killed because they, too, were seen as enemies of the state.

A Latin American diplomat who deals closely with the Honduran government put it this way: “What I see is an organized effort by private groups to repress opponents—social leaders and journalists. Not a plan by the government, but something the government can’t control or maybe doesn’t want to control. It is these powerful private groups that could be threatening and killing for political and commercial reasons.” The diplomat, who asked for anonymity to protect continuing relations with Honduras, said general lawlessness in the country serves the purposes of a small elite class that wishes to advance its business and political interests without being subjected to societal scrutiny.

The OAS can play a key role in reversing abuses in Honduras. OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza speaks with reporters in Tegucigalpa. (AP/Eduardo Verdugo)

While the United States directly pressured Honduras on the question of human rights, most countries in the Western hemisphere have used the Organization of American States, or OAS, to demand human rights reforms from the Honduran government. They have some leverage: The Honduran government has been seeking re-entry to the OAS after being expelled after the coup. Said one international diplomat stationed in Honduras: “It is certainly a major priority of the Lobo government to restore good relations with the OAS—and in that sense these cases of the journalists are very important.” The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the human rights arm of the OAS, issued a statement on May 19 expressing deep concern over continued human rights violations in Honduras, including the killings of journalists.

On June 4, finally awakening to the widely held perception that it was indifferent to anti-press crimes, the national government announced that it had asked for help from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Such help, though, is more symbolic than real. The FBI assigned one agent, who began work three months after the killings began, and often had only scant physical evidence and incomplete investigative reports to review. Much more needs to be done.

Here are detailed capsule reports on the seven journalist murders.

 

JOURNALISM-RELATED
CPJ has found evidence that these three murders were related to journalism.

Nahúm Palacios Arteaga, Channel 5
March 14, Tocoa

Nahúm Palacios was 16 when he walked from the remote flat hamlet dominated by green African palm and orange tree orchards to the town nearby. The hamlet was Rigores, where maybe 30 peasant families made a living by working other people’s large land holdings. There was only one future for Palacios in Rigores. It was to work his whole life swinging a machete for someone else, as his father still does today. Palacios had been doing that kind of work since leaving school after the third grade, his family said.

When he got to the town, Tocoa, he found that he had a skill in calling play-by-play for soccer games. His friends said he caught on with Radio Tocoa and worked for nothing because he loved doing it and it made him someone—the kid from Rigores on the radio. That was the 1980s. Radio Tocoa became Channel 5 TV and Palacios became the unofficial adopted son of the family who owned it. He became the main anchor of the main TV station in the region; he was face of journalism and the voice of his people, the country folk and the destitute.

Journalism is different in Tocoa. Reporters never studied the subject, or perhaps studied much at all, according to journalists in Tocoa today. They learned from watching each other, and ethics were murky. The owners of the newspapers and broadcast stations were business people; they were looking for profits. They all learned one thing without a doubt. You could make a lot of money on the side by extorting businesses and public officials.

According to reporters in Tocoa, Palacios’ status as the top journalist in the region gave him the most clout at extracting money. Adán Fúnez, who was mayor of Tocoa until January, said Palacios asked him to forgive local taxes on several large businesses. Fúnez said he refused. Several reporters said Palacios then unleashed a campaign of unsupported accusations that charged Fúnez with theft and corruption. Reporter Rigoberto Brizuela smashed his right hand into his left palm repeatedly to emphasize the strength of Palacios’ attacks. “He just kept hitting and hitting and hitting.” 

José Heriberto Palacios has many questions about his son's murder. (CPJ/Rubén Escobar)

Palacios’ father, José Heriberto Palacios, interviewed next to the orange orchard where he works, machete at his feet, denied his son could ever have been dishonest. “They killed him because he was honest and was not corrupt,” he said.

To the thousands of people in the region who had come to love Palacios, the stories of alleged extortion were largely unknown and almost certainly unimportant. He was the country boy who had made it. He looked like them and spoke like them, and when a hamlet or a family had a problem, he went to bat for them. The problems usually had a government institution or a rich man as the villain and Palacios as the hero. “He was sincere when he went to war. He felt the people’s problems because he was one of them,” said Mario Ramírez, a reporter in Tocoa. “There is a lot of abuse here and nobody wants to stop it. Nahúm could do something about it, much more than anyone else. He saved people’s homes. He got their children cured. He protected whole villages.”

Then came the events that changed everything.

On June 28, 2009, the Honduran military overthrew President Zelaya with the support of most of the legislature and the country’s wealthy. Soldiers rousted Zelaya early in the morning and sent him in his night clothes to Costa Rica. The country split between those who thought it was right and those who opposed it. The de facto regime reacted strongly against Zelaya’s supporters on the streets and in the press. Some opposition news organizations were shut down or harassed by soldiers. People opposing the coup considered themselves under armed attack by the government or by clandestine groups that the government allowed to operate.

Palacios opposed the coup and turned the TV station into an openly opposition channel, his colleagues said. Military personnel appeared at his house and detained him and his family for several hours in June 2009. That episode, along with other threats from the military, was strong enough that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued an order to the government of Honduras to protect Palacios’ life. According to the commission, it was one of more than 400 such orders issued for journalists and activists in Honduras this year and last. The government is required by international treaty to follow the directives, but it appears to have to ignored most of them, adding to the suspicions of many that it is colluding in violent repression.

The military ousted Zelaya and installed an interim government led by Roberto Micheletti, right. (AP)

The government said it did not receive an order in the Palacios case, but the Inter-American Commission has a signed document from the country’s Supreme Court showing that Honduran authorities did receive the directive, according to Catalina Botero, special rapporteur for the commission. Botero said the new government has refused to provide details of how it is carrying out most orders of protection, and has rebuffed commission requests to send its own investigators into the field to determine problems.

Regardless, when hit men lay in wait for Palacios at his house on March 14, the journalist had no protection. He arrived about 10 p.m. with a cousin in the back seat of a double cabin 4-by-4 pickup, and his girlfriend, a doctor, in the passenger seat. Neighbors told local reporters that at first there were a few shots, apparently from a lookout, and then a fusillade as the other gunmen joined in. Palacios died at the scene. Dr. Yorleny Sánchez, badly injured, died two weeks later. Palacios’ cousin was not injured, local press reports said.

In the months before, Palacios had openly taken the side of a group of several thousand peasants who had been demanding vast tracts of land they said rightfully belonged to them. They claimed that a few large landowners, in violation of agrarian reform laws, had greatly underpaid them for land many years back. Some of the land has been retaken by the peasants—simply stolen, according to the landowners—and there were occasional armed encounters. Landowners’ security guards and police were accused of massacres. Peasant activists said some of their leaders had been abducted and disappeared, or singled out and killed. Palacios, according to journalists in Tocoa, made no attempt to cover this issue in a balanced way. He sided with the peasants, but then, so did most of the people in the area because they were poor peasants, too.

This made Palacios a leader among Tocoa journalists and a representative of the landless, but according to his colleagues it also put him on top of the list for assassination. First, he had the trouble with the military because of his stance against the coup, from which he never backed down. Then, he was going after the most powerful men in the region by repeatedly attacking them over the issue of land takeovers.

The area of Tocoa seemed to be burning with resistance to the government and support for the peasants’ efforts to take back the land. Of all the orders to provide protection to citizens issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a disproportionate number are for people in and near Tocoa. Former mayor Fúnez is among those on the list. He said soldiers stormed his house to arrest him after the coup, but he had been warned by the deposed president’s brother and was able to go into hiding.

No evidence has been made public in Palacios’ case. Aside from the wide belief that his killing was politically inspired, there is a theory that he angered a powerful local drug gang with a news story about a cartel-linked kidnapping, a story that ran the week Palacios was murdered. And the possibility that the killing was motivated by extortion cannot be dismissed entirely. Despite all this, prosecutors say they have no leads at all—and little wonder given their investigative failures.

Palacios' remains are exhumed for an autopsy three months after his slaying. (CPJ/Rubén Escobar)

Almost three months after Palacios was gunned down, something very strange happened in his hamlet of Rigores. A team of investigators came to his grave, dug up his body, and at the graveside, in the open, conducted an autopsy. The coroner had never examined the body after the murder; it went straight from the murder scene to the funeral home. Investigators also started asking news photographers if they had any pictures of the crime scene because, somehow, police had no photographs of their own. Standing a few feet away while the autopsy was in progress, the prosecutor in charge of the case, Arody Reyes, conceded to CPJ that though the gunmen had lain in wait for hours at Palacios’ house, police had not been able to retrieve any evidence from the scene.

Reyes claimed that Palacios’ family had initially refused to allow an autopsy, an assertion Palacios’ father called untrue. José Heriberto Palacios said the family was never consulted at all about an autopsy. Police gave varying explanations as to why they had no crime scene photos of their own, according to local journalists. Camera batteries had gone dead, cameras were damaged, film was lost. Taken together, the remarkably inadequate police work gives the impression that someone powerful decided at the very outset that this case was not to be investigated. Prosecutor Reyes said the exhumation and autopsy were suddenly important because authorities needed something to show the FBI.

Fúnez, the former mayor, was asked by CPJ to analyze the lapses in the investigation in the Palacios case. Is Tocoa too small a place to know how to investigate a murder?

Former mayor Fúnez says something is terribly wrong with the Palacios investigation. (CPJ/Rubén Escobar)

“Our police can investigate murders. We have murders,” he said. “They investigate and they find the responsible person. They have the ability and the equipment and if we need something we wait and ask for help from a large city. Nahúm Palacios was such an important person that there is something completely wrong in this case. These problems speak very loudly.”

The anchorman who replaced Nahúm Palacios was a graphic designer until a few months ago. Melquisedec Alvarenga said he’s been afraid since he took the job. “Let’s be clear, Nahúm was on the left and I have a different style. I’m in the center. The station is in the center now,” he said. “But I’m still scared about the stories we do. On the street I look at the cars and I wonder who is coming for me.” Alvarenga said he knows that since Palacios was murdered, it is a message that no journalist is safe. As he was sitting at an outdoor café for an interview with CPJ, a car braked and gave a small squeal. The new anchor for Channel 5 lurched forward and down. He swiveled his head as if he were looking for the gunmen.

David Meza Montesinos
Radio El Patio, Radio America, Channels 7, 45 and 36
March 11, La Ceiba

On March 13, the city of La Ceiba, a regional capital on the northern coast, simply stopped for hours. Nothing moved but the funeral cortege of David Meza. Press accounts called it the largest funeral in the city’s history. For two decades Meza had been the most prominent journalist in the city, the one people felt was closest to them. In the afternoon two days earlier, he had been chased through the streets in his car by gunmen who finally shot him to death at the doorstep of his home. For hours that day and night, the local radio and TV stations where he worked had broadcast nothing but calls from citizens, many in tears, lamenting his death.

Abrahám Mejía, a longtime colleague, thinks Meza may have criticized the police too heavily. (CPJ/Rubén Escobar)

Aside from his wide popularity, there are other parallels between Meza and Nahúm Palacios. They started very young in the business, both in sports. Abrahám Mejía, the patriarch of local broadcasting, recalled giving Meza a job pulling cables for radio broadcasts of local soccer matches. This was back when Meza was about 10 years old, just over 40 years ago. Later, Mejía and Meza shared anchor duties on Channel 45 television for 22 years.

Meza was also the city’s most renowned street reporter. And like Palacios, he specialized in helping people who had been mistreated by government or business. So, like Palacios, he was known as the poor person’s representative. “This is a city of abuses. The government abuses the poor. The rich, the businesses, abuse the poor. Even the middle classes take what they want from the people at the bottom,” said Julio César Rodríguez, La Ceiba correspondent for La Tribuna. “Who is to stop them? David Meza stopped them, and for years.”

Rodríguez continued: “But David was a coin with two sides. On the other side he was corrupt.” Mejía, his Channel 45 co-anchor, put it this way: “He had his virtues as a reporter, but his weaknesses too. I have to admit that. He abused his power to get money from officials and ads from businesses. Sometimes he wouldn’t stop after he was paid off.” Meza’s son, also named David, said the family had no comment on anything relating to the case. “The only thing we have to say is that we believe in the justice of God,” Meza said.

There’s a gang in La Ceiba called Los Grillos, allegedly very heavy in the drug world. According to journalists, the gang will take a contract to kill for the equivalent of US$260, perhaps more if it’s someone famous like David Meza. While a CPJ representative was in La Ceiba, another TV journalist, Pablo Zapata, received a text message saying that as they had done with Meza, the Grillos were going to kill him. There was no way to verify who had sent the message. Zapata said all he had done was to tell his viewers that if they had information about two murders in which the Grillos were suspects they should call the police.

Meza had become very critical of local police, colleagues say. (Diario Tiempo)

Mejía strongly favors one theory for Meza’s murder. Mejía thinks Meza went too far in his on-air attacks on local police. For about two months before he was murdered, Meza was constantly criticizing the police as corrupt incompetents, a point of view that was not hard to sell. And, he invited callers to share their own unpleasant experiences, according to local journalists. It became a war between the Meza and the cops, said Mejía and other journalists. “David thought he was too big to lose the fight,” Mejía said. “But the police can’t stand to be humiliated, not that way. So they had to react.” La Ceiba Police Chief José Ayala did not respond to CPJ messages seeking comment.

Paradoxically, many journalists claimed, the police are very close to the Grillos gang, so if it was the police who had Meza murdered, they likely would have used the gang to do the job.

Arrest warrants were issued on June 4 for four suspects, but a local prosecutor told CPJ he would not discuss a motive or any other details. On July 14, long after the suspects could have fled, the government released wanted posters with the suspects’ pictures to be placed at bus stations and airports near La Ceiba.

Joseph Hernández Ochoa, Channel 51
March 1, Tegucigalpa

Joseph Hernández Ochoa, 25, was just starting out. He was a university journalism student and had a weekly entertainment show with bits of news about music and stars on Channel 51, a small, private TV station. On the side he had an interest in a disco called Toque de Queda, according to press reports. He was shot to death on March 1, a day before he was to start a new program on government-run Channel 8.

Hernández was killed while giving a ride to one of the country’s most controversial journalists, Karol Cabrera. Most of the bullets hit Hernández, who died instantly, but Cabrera was seriously injured as well. As soon as she could give interviews she repeatedly denounced the attack as being directed against her, in connection with her work as a radio commentator. On the air, she has been one of the most outspoken, some say divisive, broadcasters in the country. Her critics say she encouraged physical attacks against opponents of the government. Cabrera told CPJ: “I am only an investigative journalist. I investigate these people, then I expose them to the public. It is the truth that makes them angry.”

Cabrera believes she was a target. (La Tribuna)

Last December, on the same road where the journalists were shot, Cabrera’s 16-year-old daughter, Katherine, eight months pregnant, was also ambushed. She was killed and the baby, though initially saved, died as well. Cabrera, who was under police protection at the time, said she believes her daughter was seen as vulnerable and was attacked as a result.

While many Honduran journalists see the murders of at least some of the seven journalists as the result of a clandestine program to silence government critics, Cabrera told CPJ it is the government’s opponents who tried to kill her. “The resistance killed my daughter and my grandchild. The resistance was there on the street shooting at me that night.” But she goes further. If the left in Honduras sees the wealthy on the right as running death squads and having penetrated the police in order to kill journalists and activists, Cabrera says it is the left that controls cells of police officers to kill people on the right. “In the operation to kill me there were two senior police officials on motorcycles directing everything. There are witness statements to prove that, but the police have hidden them.” A spokesman for the national police said Cabrera’s assertions were “absurd.”

Police have arrested two young street gang members in the murder of Cabrera’s daughter. They are men, according to press accounts, with no connection to the political left. But Cabrera says that is only more proof of how far the police will go to protect the left. Police would say nothing about the investigation into the attack on Hernández and Cabrera, except that the case was moving forward.

After she recuperated from her injuries, Cabrera stayed at a military base, saying it was the only place she and her two children would be safe. On June 10, according to press reports, she and her children resettled in Canada.

MOTIVE UNCONFIRMED

CPJ’s investigation found that journalism could have played a role in the slayings of these four journalists. It continues to examine the motives and circumstances of these cases.

Luis Arturo Mondragón, Channel 19
June 14, El Paraíso

Mondragón had just finished the evening newscast at Channel 19, the station he owned. When he walked outside, two men in a vehicle were waiting. They shot him several times, according to press accounts. Local reporters and his family say Mondragón was probably too pointed in his stories about corruption, the narcotics trade, and the illegal lumbering business that is stripping the forests nearby. “Those are dangerous topics here,” said Osmin Garcia, correspondent for the national newspaper Tiempo. “He talked about them on the newscast without giving names, but that wasn’t enough protection.”

Mondragón also had a police record, although he was not prosecuted. He had been charged in two violent crimes—including an alleged sexual assault—and in one theft. Officials in the regional prosecutor's office told CPJ that a judge had dismissed some charges and that Mondragón had reached private arrangements with alleged victims in other cases.

One of Mondragón’s sons, Carlos, told CPJ, that his father had brought the family together in a recent meeting to talk about death threats he had been receiving, the nature of which were unclear. Actually, Carlos Mondragón said, there had been threats for years, but recently they had increased and seemed more serious. “But my father had the attitude that he was going to go ahead anyway. He said he had to continue. He said, ‘If they are going to kill me they won’t threaten first, they’ll just do it.’” The son said the list of people in El Paraíso who could have ordered the killing is short, and that everyone knows who they are.

Contacted by CPJ, police would not discuss any aspect of their investigation.

Jorge Alberto Orellana, Channel 10
April 20, San Pedro Sula

Protesters in Tegucigalpa decry violence against journalists. (AP/Fernando Antonio)

Chief Prosecuting Attorney Rafael Fletes is a man tense with frustration and certainty. On July 2 he charged Joseph Cockborn Delgado with the murder of journalist Jorge Orellana, the only case of the seven in which a suspect has been both detained and charged. Fletes said he has witnesses who put the Cockborn at the scene of the murder. And there is other solid evidence that Fletes said he can’t reveal. What frustrates him, he said, is that he has only half a case; he is still missing a motive and he doesn’t know who ordered the killing. But he is absolutely sure this was a paid assassination.  

He ran down the details of the killing. Orellana, a well known, even beloved broadcaster in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second city in size, was leaving the TV station on April 20, where he had just finished his nightly hour-long interview program. He crossed the street to his car, put the keys in the door, but left them there to take a cell phone call. He walked about 15 feet behind the car, and paced, speaking on the phone. The killer came up behind him, shot him once in the head, and then took the cell phone.

Fletes runs an office that is responsible for about 10 percent of the country. “We have eight or nine murders a day in my region. The investigators, let’s call them investigators, go from crime scene to crime scene but there is no time for investigation,” he said. “I think that 10 percent of the murder cases are solved, and those are the easy cases where we find the killer standing next to the body. The Orellana case is different. His murder is an attack on the whole society, on the people’s right to be informed. I have people who are working only on this case.” If Fletes is correct, the next step in the investigation, establishing the motive, could be the truly dangerous one. It could lead to those who wanted to keep Orellana silent.

But nothing seems straightforward when it comes to the murders of Honduran journalists. The chief of police of San Pedro Sula, one of the first people on the scene of the murder, the man who deployed his officers to find witnesses, said he is absolutely certain that Orellana was murdered by a common criminal who wanted only to steal his cell phone.

The chief, Commissioner Héctor Mejía Velázquez, took a CPJ representative to the crime scene to re-enact the murder. “The killer was hiding in this clump of trees,” said Mejía, pointing just outside the single-story, salmon-colored TV station. “He followed Orellana across the street,” he said, demonstrating. “The man put a gun behind his right ear and said, ‘Give me the phone.’ We have a witness to that. Orellana turned to resist and the man killed him. There was no paid assassin. It was a common crime. That’s all.”

Mejía said there were no keys in the car door, so even in the small details the two most senior officials in the investigation can’t agree.

Adding to the mystery is the fact that Orellana’s widow, Silvia, told CPJ that he was carrying the equivalent of US$950 in cash, which is not accounted for. That would strengthen the idea of robbery as a motive. Orellana had withdrawn the money to make two car payments. But she said, “The police are famous for taking cash from murder victims.”

Silvia Orellana has two young boys to raise and wants the questions about how or why her husband was killed to be put aside so she can now handle the rest of her family’s life. She looked straight ahead and spoke slowly and steadily, as if to convince herself: “I want to believe it was a common crime. That’s the best for my family. If it was an assassination, we will never learn why and it will be dangerous for me to ask. What about my children, if I ask why they killed my husband? I will never be safe if I ask the wrong questions.”

If Jorge Orellana’s murder was a paid assassination, it is hard to find a clear motive. Personally, his friends say, he was on the left politically, putting him against the government and the very wealthy business interests that are so powerful in the country. But, on the air, they say, he was a moderate, with guests on his show from all sorts of organizations. Unlike some other broadcasters in San Pedro Sula, he was not strident, according to Patricia Murillo, who heads the journalism department at the National Autonomous University of Honduras in the Valley of Sula. She taught Orellana and was later his colleague when he taught classes there. She said his program was the most balanced on the air. 

But since the coup, balance has been out of fashion and people see conspiracies at work on the other side of wherever they stand politically. Even if Orellana was truly impartial on his program it might not have been nearly enough to protect him these days in Honduras.

José Bayardo Mairena and Manuel Juárez
Channel 4, Radio Excélsior, Radio Patria
March 26, Juticalpa

They were two men on the edge of journalism in a remote town in the sparse center of the country, scratching out a small income from a TV show with mostly old music videos and a radio show with commentary, chit chat about spirituality, occasional clippings from the local press, and listener phone calls. Why would they be ambushed on a country road and shot to death on March 26?

They were only minutes away from their hometown of Juticalpa after leaving a tape of their program at Radio Patria in Catacamas. It was a routine run, but this time a vehicle was waiting on the side of the road. It crossed in front of theirs and blocked them. The bullets were sprayed along the front side of their car and the driver’s side, local journalists told CPJ.

Mairena was a broadcast veteran. (Francisco Sevilla)

Mairena had been at the business of broadcasting for more than 20 years, from one thing to another. He bought airtime on a local TV and radio station, produced his own shows, and then sold the commercials. It’s the way most broadcasting is done in Honduras, even newscasts. He was the senior partner. Juárez had joined him as an assistant and on-air sidekick about three years ago.

Local journalists said that except for one thing, they stayed away from any topic that could cause them trouble. They certainly didn’t talk about local corruption, a fruitful subject. They didn’t talk about the police, whom no one likes. They didn’t talk about the drug cartels that dominate the region, the police, and the politicians, and use the area as a springboard as they transport product from South America on to Mexico. Still, it can’t be discounted that somehow they slipped up and said something the cartels decided to kill them for saying. Or, that despite their caution, they touched on something else that someone thought was too sensitive to let them live. Juticalpa is a very rough area.

At election time, they talked about politics, but that may have been for the money involved. There were political ads to consider. So they talked about the candidates who sponsored them, journalists said. As their radio station manager, Víctor Jiménez, put it, in this part of Honduras, “We practice journalism of the stomach, which means journalism that gives us food. It makes for difficult questions of ethics.” But no journalist CPJ spoke to in Juticalpa thought they were killed for supporting a political candidate on the air.

No, the consensus is that it was something more basic than that. This was the one thing they talked about that could have brought their deaths. It was the feud between two powerful large families in Juticalpa, one where perhaps dozens have been killed this year and last, local reporters told CPJ.

Mairena was close to the owner of Radio Excélsior, Arnulfo Miranda. And Miranda, in turn, was very close to one of the feuding families, according to local reporters. This meant that every time Mairena broadcast something complimentary about Miranda, it was angering his boss’ lethal enemies. The theory is that by March, Mairena and Juárez were added to the list of the people who had fallen victim to the feud.

CPJ tried to reach Miranda for comment, but station employees said he has not been seen for several months. They said they believed he was in hiding because of the feud between the two families.

Police would not discuss any aspect of their investigation into the murders.


Impunity is the common thread

Impunity is killing journalists in Honduras.

Impunity doesn’t give the orders to kill. It doesn’t round up SUV-loads of assassins and send them on their mission. But impunity ensures that a gunman will always feel safe, that a mastermind will never have to worry. And impunity is a creation of government. In the Nahúm Palacios case, the initial investigative failures suggest that authorities had no intention of apprehending the perpetrators. In the David Meza murder, the same local police who were targeted by the journalist for criticism have disclosed no evidence of progress in their investigation. In the Jorge Orellana investigation, the two top officials cannot agree on whether it was a paid assassination or a cheap robbery.

Police wage an anti-crime operation in Tegucigalpa (AP/Eduardo Verdugo)

The Honduran government has failed to exert necessary oversight over the national police, who are responsible for investigating these crimes. Over the long term, the legislature and executive branch have chosen not to allocate necessary resources and training to police, choices that have had entirely predictable results. Diplomats and journalists say police have also been infiltrated by criminal gangs.

In the short term, top government officials have set a dangerous tone. They not only failed to publicly denounce anti-press violence, one top official went out of his way to minimize the crimes. Authorities brushed off OAS protective orders, at least one which, if enforced, could have prevented a murder of a journalist. Together, the government’s actions created a climate of lawlessness in which criminals felt perfectly free to kill their enemies.

If the Honduran government is to be treated as a responsible international partner, it must move immediately and aggressively to correct these failures. It must assign disinterested and trained investigators to these cases; investigations must be transparent and free of conflicts of interest.

President Lobo and top officials in his government must begin to speak out, in a forceful and timely way, against anti-press violence. His government must respect its obligation to the OAS and enforce orders of protection for journalists and other social critics.

The international community, including the OAS and the United States, must demand the Honduran government immediately undertake these meaningful, measurable, and lasting steps. Calling in the FBI long after murder cases have grown cold is nothing more than window dressing. Only a long-term commitment by top government officials, in tone, tactics, and resources, will end the climate of impunity. It can be done, and it needs to start now.

Mike O'Connor is a CPJ consultant based in Mexico City.

July 27, 2010 12:01 AM ET |

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