‘They’ve hidden the past from us’: New bill in Honduras seeks to rectify 1980s human rights violations

In Honduras, family members of the victims of state violence in the 1980s have been marching for 40 years to demand justice for the disappearance and death of their loved ones. Now, there’s a chance they may see reparations. An unprecedented bill that would provide compensation for the family members of the victims is working its way through Congress.

The World
Merced Plaza.Michael Fox/ Under the Shadow
Merced Plaza.
Michael Fox/ Under the Shadow

In June 1981, Oliva was three months pregnant and had only been married for four months when she witnessed the kidnapping of her husband by the country’s death squad.

“I was there when they took him away from me,” she said, adding, “I am a witness to the brutality. I am a survivor of that moment.”

Back then, Honduras — unlike its neighbors — wasn’t immersed in war, but its government was authoritarian and violent. The United States fueled that violence by using the country as the staging ground for military operations in the region. The US founded and trained the country’s notorious death squad, Battalion 3-16, which took action against students and radical leftist organizers. 

Bertha Oliva posing in front of the remembrance room at the COFADEH.Michael Fox/ Under the Shadow
Bertha Oliva posing in front of the remembrance room at the COFADEH.
Michael Fox/ Under the Shadow

Oliva, alongside other family members of the nearly 200 detained and disappeared, started the Committee of the Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras, or COFADEH, the year after her husband’s kidnapping. 

Outside of Congress, on a square referred to as the ‘Plaza of the Disappeared’, COFADEH held monthly rallies seeking justice for the victims. Today, there’s a chance they may finally see reparations. The activists helped draft an unprecedented bill that Congress began debating in early April, which seeks justice for the victims of the state’s violations of human rights during the 1980s.

Bertha Oliva posing in front of the photos of some of the 200 detained and disappeared.Michael Fox/ Under the Shadow
Bertha Oliva posing in front of the photos of some of the 200 detained and disappeared.
Michael Fox/ Under the Shadow

Lawmaker Oved Lopez Rodriguez, a member of the governing leftist Libre Party, has endorsed the bill.

“Many countries in Latin America have already advanced with this type of legislation. Many countries have already done justice. Not us,” Lopez Rodriguez said. 

“We still have these conservative sectors that don’t want us to debate this issue here,” Lopez Rodriguez added.

All of the lawmakers who spoke on the day the bill was delivered, echoed Lopez Rodriguez’s sentiments. But the bill has opponents — both inside and outside of Congress who believe that the country should just move on and leave the past in the past.

A window of opportunity 

German Perez was just 4 years old when his father disappeared in 1982. 

“We are just in front of Congress where they’re holding important meetings for a law to create the necessary policies to look for justice,” he said

Photos of the detained and disappeared.
Michael Fox/ Under the Shadow

“It’s late, but it’s important for those of us who have long been fighting for this,” Perez added.

Felix Molina is an independent Honduran journalist who today lives in Canada. He fled the country in 2016 after an attack on his life

Molina said that there is a window of opportunity for the bill to pass under President Xiomara Castro’s government.

“This initiative to compensate the victims includes the principles of transitional justice, which is greatly absent in the Honduran scenario, which is why the historic wounds of the evils caused by the State remain open,” Molina said.

This is important. If approved, the law wouldn’t just compensate victims but would create public policies to remember the past and ensure it is never repeated. This is something COFADEH has been working on independently for years.

‘We want them back alive’

At COFADEH headquarters, located in a two-story, colonial-style building near the Merced Plaza, the walls are covered with black-and-white pictures of many of the people who disappeared in Honduras in the 1980s. Among the victims are US citizens like Rev. James Carney.  

Photo of Rev. James Carney hanged at the COFADEH. Michael Fox/ Under the Shadow
Photo of Rev. James Carney hanged at the COFADEH.
Michael Fox/ Under the Shadow

At the top of the wall written in Spanish, it says: “You took them alive. We want them back alive.” 

“This place is sacred,” Oliva said. “When I’m feeling tired or weak, I come here and I find strength. I communicate with them.” 

Last December, COFADEH inaugurated a new museum north of Tegucigalpa. It’s called the Museum Against Forgetting. It’s in a former clandestine detention center where people were held, tortured, executed, and disappeared.

In a video made for the inauguration, Oliva sits along a white wall with tiny marks along it. 

Oliva said that when they tested the walls, they found traces of blood stains. 

 “They’ve hidden the past from us,” she says in the video, adding, “And now, it’s like we are opening the windows to the past.”

And that is what her group hopes Congress will do, as well.

This story comes to The World from Michael Fox’s history podcast Under the Shadow, about U.S. involvement in Central America. It is co-produced in partnership with The Real News and NACLA. You can listen on Spotify, Spreaker, Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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