For over 30 years, a group of human rights defenders in Honduras has been a beacon of hope for people whose rights have been violated.
Ebed Yanez, 15, left his house in Tegucigalpa late at night on 26 May 2012, without telling his parents. Riding his father’s motorbike without a licence, he went to meet a girl. But going out at night in the Honduran capital is dangerous. Ebed never came home.
The next day, his worried parents looked for him everywhere, until they found his dead body at the morgue. He had been shot.
Wilfredo Yanez, Ebed’s father, wanted justice for his son. He followed leads and collected evidence, putting himself at great risk. A few days later, Wilfredo discovered that soldiers had shot Ebed after he failed to stop at an army checkpoint.
Wilfredo complained to the Public Prosecutor, but he didn’t hold out much hope that they would help him. After the 2009 military coup, Honduras’ state institutions became even weaker than before. And the already worrying human rights situation worsened.
According to UN statistics, Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate, and only 20 per cent of all criminal cases are investigated. It is one of the poorest countries in the Americas, with 60 per cent of the population living in poverty.
The police are notoriously corrupt, and often linked to organised crime. As the drug trafficking cartels expand their reach, the authorities have responded by putting more soldiers on the country’s streets.
No strangers to danger Standing up for human rights in Honduras is dangerous. Journalists, lawyers, trade unionists, Indigenous and peasant farmer leaders have been killed because of their work to defend human rights.
COFADEH’s activists have received text messages threatening them with sexual violence and been physically attacked. Their offices have been broken into many times. But none of this has stopped them promoting and defending human rights in Honduras for over 30 years.
The organization was founded in 1982 by the relatives of political activists, students and trade union leaders who were “disappeared” by the security forces during a previous military government.
Since then, it has continued to collect testimony from victims, protecting people at risk and supporting people who, like Wilfredo, are searching for justice.
Shot on a fishing trip Visiting COFADEH’s office in central Tegucigalpa is a memorable experience. People wait patiently to tell their stories to their lawyers, hoping that they can help. Many have travelled far to get here.
Many victims of human rights abuses we spoke to said that they didn’t report crimes to the authorities because they don’t trust them and are scared. They prefer to file a complaint with COFADEH, who then pass it on to the prosecutors.
When Amnesty last visited the organization in May 2013, we met Wilmer Sabillón, a young man. A few weeks before, he had been shot by a navy officer during a fishing trip. Wilmer didn’t get proper medical help and is still recovering.
Wilmer was very relieved to have found COFADEH. Within hours, it had arranged for Wilmer be examined by a forensic doctor. It also filed a complaint with Honduras’ Human Rights Prosecutor, and got the case moving through the legal system.
Throughout the day, a COFADEH representative stayed by Wilmer and his family’s side. And in August, a navy officer was officially charged with Wilmer’s attempted murder.
Keeping the memory alive Wilmer is just one of many people COFADEH has represented. It has become the victims’ voice, and the place to go for people who want justice.
Passing on historical memory is also fundamental for its activists. They don’t want the state’s responsibility for around 200 disappearances in the 1980s to be forgotten.
Honduras has a very young population, and many are at risk of joining gangs. Under COFADEH’s wings, a national youth activist network has grown.
In workshops and seminars, seasoned human rights defenders now teach young people how to recognise and document violations. They encourage them to participate in their local communities, and to promote values such as equality and solidarity.
Bertha Oliva, COFADEH’s founding member and general coordinator, told us that young people are the organisation’s strength.
Hope and international support International solidarity is just as important. In the main hall of COFADEH’s offices hangs a red banner with doves – their logo – sewn on it (see above). It’s a gift from Amnesty members in the UK, celebrating the organization’s 30th anniversary last year.
“People feel moved when they look at the doves,” Bertha told us. “Now more than ever, it’s important to keep the solidarity campaign going, and demand that the Honduran state respects human rights defenders’ work. They can try and clip our wings, but they won't be able to”.
COFADEH are still supporting Wilfredo’s fight to get justice for Ebed. One soldier is currently detained and facing criminal charges.
As Honduras just elected a new president in November, the importance of their human rights work – and the risks they face – will grow. Please write a letter on their behalf - your words can help support and protect the members of COFADEH.