Centroamérica / Violence

After Spate of Violence, Calls for International Action Echo Across Garifuna Diaspora

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Roman Gressier

The Honduran Consulate in Manhattan is a small property tucked between a midtown deli and an off-brand clothing store two blocks north of Penn Station. As a family waited at the curb at 10:00 am on Monday, June 20 for an appointment, a consulate worker communicated with the family through the cargo entrance instead of opening the steel night grate covering the main doors. The consulate is supposed to open by 8 am. Nearby, a group of protesters—many wearing traditional Garifuna attire—had assembled with neon signs, musical instruments, and Honduran and Garifuna flags. 

“Vivos se los llevaron; vivos los queremos,” the group of roughly 20 Garifuna and Honduran people called and repeated outside the consulate before beginning their march to the New York Times building and the seat of the United Nations. “They took them alive; we want them alive!” It’s a rallying cry that gained prominence after the 2014 kidnapping and forced disappearance of the Ayotzinapa 43, a group of indigenous school teachers, in Guerrero, Mexico. The protestors invoked those same words to denounce the most recent incidents in a sprawling history of state and state-sanctioned violence against Garifuna communities in Honduras.

The five people who were kidnapped from the coastal Garifuna community of Triunfo de la Cruz included the president of the local council, three land rights activists, and an additional local resident. The recent kidnappings come one month after the disappearance and murder of a key witness in a Garifuna land rights suit before the Interamerican Court of Human Rights, and in the context of repeated kidnappings and murders of Garifuna leaders as the government of President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) displaces Garifuna communities in the construction of coastal ‘charter cities.’ The protestors called for the safe return of the kidnapped, the restoration of their land in accordance with a 2015 international court ruling, sanctions against Honduras, and the extradition of JOH—a faithful regional Trump ally who has been multiply implicated in drug trafficking schemes and the illegal use of national funds—to the United States.

“We are at war with our own government. They have openly terrorized our community. Every time someone rises up to protect the community, they kill, kidnap, or disappear him. We need this to stop, in communities all along the coast,” said Mirian Herrera, who spoke with me on behalf of the group. 

Demonstrators assembled outside the New York Times building on Monday, July 20 to protest recent state-sanctioned violence against Garifuna communities along the Honduran coast and the sustained partnership between the Trump administration and the Honduran government. Photo: Roman Gressier/El Faro
Demonstrators assembled outside the New York Times building on Monday, July 20 to protest recent state-sanctioned violence against Garifuna communities along the Honduran coast and the sustained partnership between the Trump administration and the Honduran government. Photo: Roman Gressier/El Faro

On Saturday, June 18, the Fraternal Organization of Black Hondurans (OFRANEH)—the organization that represents the collective interests of the Garifuna community councils at the international level—reported via Twitter that a squad reportedly wearing bulletproof vests issued by the Honduran Criminal Investigation Bureau (DPI in Spanish) entered into the coastal Garifuna community of Triunfo de la Cruz at 6:00 am, kidnapping five people: Snider Centeno, president of the local council; Suamy Mejía, Gerardo Róchez, and Milton Martínez—who, like Centeno, are members of OFRANEH; and a fifth resident, Junior Juárez, according to Amnesty International. Members of the group assembled in New York noted that eyewitnesses had reported the kidnappers were in police uniform, but that doubts linger about their identity. Traffickers moving cocaine north along the Caribbean coast of Central America also navigate their land, and the Garinagu have historically also faced threats from residents of neighboring municipalities encroaching on their land.

A day after the New York protest, residents of Triunfo de la Cruz formed a roadblock along the highway to demand information about the kidnappings from local authorities. Meanwhile, riot squads with shields reading “POLICE” assembled on the other side of a pile of smoldering debris. “As you can see, the first to arrive were the police, but we won’t leave until we get an answer. It’s been 72 hours since the disappearance of our fellow community members,” a woman stated in a video uploaded by OFRANEH to Twitter. 

“They’ve been doing this for many years—coming in, pulling our people out, and killing them,” said Bronx resident Nelson Bolívar, 55.

“There’s no need for nobody to go through these injustices and cruelties in the world. We just want our brothers back,” added María Suazo, a New York resident, outside the consulate. “Find them as soon as possible.”

The recent kidnappings come one month after the forced disappearance of Antonio Bernárdez, a community elder and key witness in the case filed by OFRANEH against the Honduran government before the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), Garifuna Triunfo de la Cruz Community and its Members v. Honduras. In its watershed 2015 ruling, the IACHR found that the state of Honduras violated the American Convention on Human Rights by encroaching on and failing to respect the autonomy of ancestral Garifuna land, among other violations. The Triunfo de la Cruz community recovered Bernárdez’s body on June 19th, according to the Center for the Study of Democracy, a Honduran non-governmental organization.

A History of Struggle

The afroindigenous Garinagu—plural for Garifuna—reached the Caribbean coast of Central America after exile from St. Vincent amid the transatlantic slave trade at the turn of the nineteenth century, establishing communities across Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize. There are also some 200,000 Garinagu in New York, primarily in The Bronx, according to OFRANEH, and smaller populations in major metropolitan areas across the United States. “The Garinagu are one,” said Arnold Ciego, a Garifuna community journalist from Livingston, Guatemala who hosts the program Conversando con Arnold Ciego via Facebook to highlight news across the diaspora. “So the struggle of our siblings in Honduras belongs to all of us.”

In 1950, Honduran president Juan Manuel Gálvez granted the Garinagu a communal title to over 380 hectares of coastal ancestral land, according to an IACHR case summary in the Loyola of Los Angeles International and Comparative Law Review. Over the ensuing four decades, the Garinagu filed various reports with the National Agrarian Institute of Honduras of encroachment by trading companies and neighboring municipalities onto the land. In 1992, the Honduran congress passed the Agrarian Reform Law, which made way for the Garinagu to successfully file for full, undisputed and unconditional ownership—a step above a communal title—of a major portion of their land the next year. 

But by the end of the decade, death threats against the Garinagu resumed due to territorial disputes in local municipalities such as Tela. In 2000, Honduran president Carlos Roberto Reina established the Punta Izopo National Park, which encompasses parts of the communal land, without consulting the communities. Following continued threats and violence from local municipalities, the Garinagu filed for full ownership of other sections of its communal land that it had not been granted in 1993. 

Then, in 2003, OFRANEH petitioned the IACHR claiming that the Honduran state was guilty of human rights abuses including the right to property, right to a fair trial, right to a hearing within a reasonable time, right to judicial protection, right to life, obligation of non-discrimination, and obligation to give domestic legal effect to rights. Nine years later, the commission found the state guilty on all these counts, recommending that the state restore land and other rights to the community, punish those guilty of violence and other abuses, and make reparations. 

By 2013, the government hadn’t complied, so the commission recommended the case to the Interamerican Court of Human Rights (IACtHR). 2013 marked the end of the first term of the government—which many see as illegitimate—that had deposed democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya in a 2009 military coup with the backing of the U.S. State Department. In the 2013 elections, Juan Orlando Hernández would emerge victorious from a presidential bid widely viewed as fraudulent. 

The case before the Interamerican Court, which would last two years into Hernández’s first term, resulted in a second guilty verdict, a protective order for Garifuna land, and an order of reparations from the Honduran state. Yet one of the core grievances of the protestors this Monday was that the ongoing violence is evidence of the Honduran state’s systematic failure to uphold the international court’s ruling; under the Hernández government, Garifuna land—particularly at and around Trujillo, Colón—became the site of a major libertarian development project which some proponents would dub the “Hong Kong in Honduras.”

Charter Cities and Strategic Allies

The spate of recent threats, disappearances, and murders illustrates the recurrent state-sanctioned violence, forced displacement, and impunity that have ravaged Honduran Garifuna communities amid the construction of luxury tourist destinations and a legally autonomous charter city in Trujillo, Colón under the Hernández administration. The ‘charter cities’—originally proposed by Stanford University economist Paul Romer during the early years of the coup government—are so-called free-trade zones owned and run by international actors.

“We call the efforts to remove people in order to turn over those territories to charter cities a death project,” said Carla García, coordinator of international relations for OFRANEH. “Laws are being implemented for the government to repossess the land. The people no longer have any place to harvest or fish. [...] It used to be illegal for foreigners to acquire property near the beach but now they are starting to do so. They are creating their own private compounds and refusing to employ local residents.”

Estimates of the recent violence of Honduran security forces against the Garinagu vary. Herrera claims they have killed 21 people in Garifuna communities over the past year and 10 since the start of the calendar year. Pablo Blanco, a Bronx-based Garifuna musician, activist, and community historian who carefully monitors events in the diaspora, says the number is closer to 30. OFRANEH, meanwhile, asserted that there were 17 deaths in all of 2019.

In 2017, Juan Orlando Hernández won his reelection bid in a process that the Organization of American States refused to certify and called for a do-over. Yet the Hernández government has become a key regional ally to the Trump administration, especially its Department of Homeland Security and their efforts to impede regional emigration toward the United States. The cooperation culminated in the signing of a asylum cooperation agreement and the prosecutions of leaders of migrant caravans originating in San Pedro Sula since late 2018. The Hernández administration also allowed for the expansion of U.S. biometric capabilities, as well as ICE and CBP presence in the country. Like Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, Hernández has also acquiesced to the U.S. evangelical lobby’s foreign policy toward Israel, including in the relocation of embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. 

“Your partnership touches nearly every corner of the United States government, but the Department of Homeland Security is especially fortunate to enjoy such a strong and productive bilateral relationship with you,” acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf said of Hernández in a state visit this January.

State and state-sanctioned violence directed toward the Garinagu during Hernández’s two terms have been key factors in the flight of thousands of Garifuna people to the United States, according to OFRANEH. “We’re facing a serious immigration problem fueled by the loss of our land,” said Carla García, noting that many of the protection claims filed by the Garinagu in U.S. immigration court have dragged on unresolved for up to six years. “We have a lot of people from Garifuna communities who are in exile seeking asylum in the United States when the United States is denying us the help, when Donald Trump gives money to CC-4,” echoed Mirian Herrera.

‘CC4’ is a pseudonym for Juan Orlando Hernández, taken from the Southern District of Manhattan’s indictment of his brother Tony Hernández as the coordinator of an extensive drug trafficking ring reaching up into high levels of the Honduran government. U.S. prosecutors are currently investigating Hernández, among other high-ranking officials who have risen to power since the 2009 coup, though it is official policy not to prosecute a sitting president. Both Juan Orlando and Tony Hernández have denied all allegations.

“No es un presidente; es un delincuente,” chanted the Manhattan protestors, many of whom carried signs referencing CC-4. “He’s not a president, he’s a criminal.” #GarifunaLivesMatter, read another sign. As long as the Hernández government continues in power, abuses against the Garinagu will continue unabated, argued Herrera. In addition to the safe return of the missing leaders, the group called for suspension of aid to the country, and the extradition and prosecution of Hernández in the United States.

Despite the odds and the fresh wounds of recent aggressions, one of their chants captured a bold resiliency: “Y va a caer, y va a caer. La dictadura va a caer.” 'The dictatorship will fall,' they said.

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