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19 Jul 2021

Diana Figueroa Prado, Centro de Información sobre Empresas y Derechos Humanos

Truth and justice must prevail over economic interests: One year after the disappearance of four young Garífuna from Triunfo de la Cruz

The criminalisation of the Garífuna people reached one of its greatest and most tragic expressions a year ago with the forced disappearance of Alberth Centeno Tomas, Suami Mejía García, Gerardo Rochez Cálix and Milton Martínez Álvarez. On 18 July 2020, in what appeared to be a police operation of around 30 heavily armed men, the detention and disappearance of these young men took place in the community of Triunfo de la Cruz, the same community whose ancestral rights over the territory were recognised by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) on 8 October 2015.

This judgement, which recognises the historic struggle of the Garífuna people for their territory against states, companies, powerful individuals and organised crime groups, also ordered the Honduran state to investigate the deaths of four members of the Honduran Black Fraternal Organisation (OFRANEH): Jesús Álvarez, Óscar Brega, Jorge Castillo Jiménez and Julio Alberto Morales. However, acts of aggression and intimidation targeting the Afro-descendant movement are on the rise, with new strategies reported with the aim at dispossessing and dismantling the group.

Judicial harassment is a silencing tactic that has been on the rise globally and has disproportionately affected OFRANEH in recent years. In the report "SLAPPed but not silenced: Defending human rights in the face of legal risks", the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre identified that, of the 3,100 attacks against business-related human rights defenders recorded between January 2015 and May 2021, 40% constituted forms of judicial harassment, including abusive strategic lawsuits against public participation, known as SLAPPs, usually brought by companies and individuals with business activities.

Latin America is the region where this practice is most clearly widespread, with 39% of lawsuits that bear the hallmarks of SLAPPs against human rights defenders, followed by Asia-Pacific with 25% and Europe and Central Asia with 18%. Honduras is the second country in the region with around 45% of cases filed directly by private sector entities.

OFRANEH defenders are frequent targets of this judicial harassment strategy, along with the Municipal Committee for the Defence of Common and Public Goods of Tocoa in defence of the Guapinol River, the local organisation Alternativa de Reivindicación Comunitaria y Ambientalista de Honduras (ARCAH) and the Independent Lenca Indigenous Movement of La Paz-Honduras (MILPAH).

In Honduras, this situation stands out not only because of the massive number of legal proceedings initiated against human rights defenders, but also because of the use of new and more serious criminal offences such as forced displacement to silence them. Garífuna defenders Silvia Bonilla Flores, Marianela Mejía Solórzano and Jennifer Sarina Mejía Solórzano were the first to be arrested for this crime, accused along with 29 other people by the company Sociedad de Responsabilidad y Bienes Raíces (JUCA), allegedly of Canadian ownership.

OFRANEH - IM-Defensoras

Faced with this extreme situation, OFRANEH members have organised to demand justice and the right to defend their human rights. The organisation formed the Committee for the Investigation and Search for the Disappeared of Triunfo de la Cruz (SUNLA) in order to be included in the investigations into the disappearance of the four Garífuna defenders. However, it has been reported that the Honduran State has not made any progress in the investigations nor has it allowed SUNLA to participate in the process, in line with the resolution of 2 September 2020 of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

This indicates that far from fulfilling its obligations to demarcate Garífuna lands, issue their collective property title, protect their communities against any aggression and investigate human rights violations committed against their members, the Honduran State and private capital have accelerated the implementation of economic projects in the territory. The opposition of broad sectors of society against the model cities (or special zones for economic development, ZEDEs), including Garífuna communities, is currently the backdrop for the increased persecution of the Garífuna people.

Meanwhile, truth, justice and reparation for the Garífuna people must be demanded, in particular the presentation of Alberth Centeno Tomas, Suami Mejía García, Gerardo Rochez Cálix and Milton Martínez Álvarez alive, as well as SUNLA's incorporation into investigations as to their whereabouts and the prosecution of the authorities and individuals responsible.

Part of the following timelines

Honduras: One year after the disappearance of four Garífuna defenders, who struggled for their territory and culture against companies, impunity persists

OFRANEH (Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras) receives 2023 Human Rights and Business Award