By FREDDY CUEVAS and MARK STEVENSON, Associated Press May 25, 2011
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras – The second attack on a Honduran journalist is less
than week comes with the usual measure of doubt over whether it was a
personal attack, robbery or a way to silence a public critic in one of the
worst countries for press freedom in the hemisphere.
One thing more certain: No one has been arrested in either the May 19
killing of Honduran TV station owner Luis Mendoza or the serious wounding
Monday of newspaper owner Manuel Acosta, who managed to drive himself home
after being shot six times.
Despite the government's repeated assurances it is looking into the
killings, press groups cite "a systematic failure" of law enforcement to
solve all but two of 13 journalist killings over the past 18 months as
well as many more non-lethal attacks.
Mendoza's case is in some ways typical in a country where reporting isn't
very lucrative and many journalists have other jobs or business interests.
In addition to owning the Channel 24 TV station, he had coffee, real
estate and farming interests.
Police officials note that business owners in Honduras are often targets
for extortion or kidnapping by street gangs or drug cartels.
But the way Mendoza was killed, and his car burned in the provincial city
of Danli, didn't look like a simple robbery of a well-heeled media owner.
"The way they killed him suggest organized crime. They got out with AK-47
rifles and 9-mm pistols," said Carlos Lauria, the Americas coordinator for
the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Even in a violence-plagued country of 7.7 million people, where the
homicide rate of about 77 per 100,000 puts it among the highest in the
Western Hemisphere, many groups feel there just seems to be too many
focused, selective attacks on journalists for it to be a coincidence.
The Inter-American Press Association said in a report last month that
Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the
"Aggression, intimidation, and threats against reporters and media
executives have continued, as a consequence of the political crisis of
June 2009 and the surge of organized crime and narco-trafficking," the
press group said, referring to a coup that deposed President Manuel Zelaya
two years ago.
The report quoted Honduras' vice minister of security, Armando Calidonio,
as saying none of the murders of journalists in 2010 was related to their
Acosta, manager of the daily newspaper La Tribuna, was ambushed as he
drove home from work in Tegucigalpa. Attackers boxed him in between two
vehicles and sprayed his car with gunfire. The 70-year-old Acosta somehow
survived and drove home despite his wounds; his family took him to a
Co-workers said Acosta didn't have other business interests, and no known
conflicts with anyone.
"Yes, the problem of common crime is shocking, but his car had 30 bullet
holes in it," noted Lauria at the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Some attacks and intimidation seem clearly linked to journalists' work.
Esther Major, the Central America researcher for Amnesty International,
points to the case of Arnulfo Aguilar, director of the opposition-oriented
Radio Uno station in the northern city of San Pedro Sula who had publicly
complained of threats before he was confronted by gunmen April 27.
At least eight armed men with ski masks covering their faces lay in wait
for Aguilar when he returned home from his station at midnight. They
shouted threats and tried to block his car, and later surrounded his
house, until police rescued him.
His station had just completed a report on purported weapons trafficking
by the military.
Many fear the tension left over from Zelaya's ouster, which divided the
nation, is responsible in part for the journalist attacks. Opposition
media outlets such as Radio Uno suffered harassment and were
intermittently closed down after the 2009 coup.
Sympathizers of Zelaya, who is scheduled to return to the country as a
private citizen Saturday, and opposition unionists, peasant leaders,
journalists and teachers are being targeted.
Others note that anti-Zelaya journalists have also been attacked,
including Channel 8's Karol Cabrera, who fled to Canada in 2010 after
surviving two attempts on her life.
National police spokesman Kelsin Arteaga denies there is any common
denominator in the attacks.
"There is no relationship between the different cases," Arteaga said.
"Every one of the cases involves specific circumstances, and the majority
of the killings do not have anything to do with the professional work of
the journalists or any of the other (victims)."
Arteaga notes that Honduras "is suffering a generalized violence unleashed
by drug cartels" that results in violence against all walks of life.
Bertha Oliva, a leading human rights activist in Honduras, agrees on that
Widespread violence "attacks journalists, media owners, common people and
even some people who have posts in the government," Oliva said. "The
guilty party is the government, which has demonstrated an inability to
investigate the crimes. That inability makes it an accomplice."
But media groups complain that in most of the attacks on journalists, no
one has been arrested or even identified. Lauria calls it "a systematic
failure by the authorities to solve these crimes."
"In these two (most recent) cases, it is going to be very difficult,
almost impossible to determine in the current circumstances whether they
were intended as messages to the media or not," he said.
Arteaga, the police spokesman, disputed that view. "All the cases of
murdered journalists have been investigated," he said. "Some of the deaths
have been caused by personal conflicts."
In the past, authorities have mentioned jealousy or business deals gone
bad as possible motives.
With Zelaya's return, the administration of elected President Porfirio
Lobo hopes to remove the last obstacle to the country's readmission to the
Organization of American States, from which Honduras was expelled after
conservatives and the military hustled the leftist Zelaya out of the
country aboard an airplane.
Respect for human rights and free expression are among the commitments the
Honduran government has made as part of a campaign for international
acceptance, but rights groups question whether it will live up to them.
"You look at some verbal commitments the government has made recently both
in front of the U.N. Human Rights Council, and various other political
forums, they're very keen to rejoin the OAS, so they're making a lot of
verbal commitments on human rights," said Major, the Amnesty International
researcher. "But they're not taking the steps necessary to give those
verbal commitments any credibility."
Associated Press writer Freddy Cuevas reported this story in Tegucicalpa,
Honduras, and Mark Stevenson from Mexico City.