The massacre of 68 inmates of a prison in Honduras by security forces in 2003 shocked even a country accustomed to violence and human rights abuses, but it was the attempted cover up that followed that really showed what the country thinks of its prisoners. The second part of this two part story examines the search for justice following the El Porvenir killings.
Ten years later, sitting at a bar in Tegucigalpa’s hotel district, Arabeska Sanchez reflects on the massacre. It is clear that she is happy someone cares about the dead after so much time has passed, and in a country that still shamelessly applauds various forms of social cleansing.
What had arrived at Arabeska Sanchez’s table did not look like a bullet. That piece of deformed metal could have been anything, and even assuming that it was a bullet, it would be impossible to track down the weapon it was shot from. The rotund, shortish woman frowned, squinted her tiny eyes even harder behind her glasses and tried to find some kind of clue in that shard of lead, but finally gave up. She had seen scenes of the massacre in El Porvenir prison on TV and she was being eaten away by the desire to help identify the culprits. But of the hundreds of bullets and shells collected by the Public Ministry after the killings, her scrap of metal was the most useless. Uncomfortable, she placed it back in the bag in which it had been labelled as evidence and wrote in her report: “The fragment has lost mass, class characteristics and individual characteristics. It has no analytical value.”
Sat in the least noisy part of a bar that tried to be bohemian, in the middle of Tegucigalpa’s hotel district, Arabeska Sanchez grips a glass of ice and Seven Up while recalling her attempt to decipher the secrets of that piece of lead. I have not managed to get her to accept a beer or have a glass of gin with me. She says she needs to get up early tomorrow.
“Can’t have any alcohol if you have to work.”
She is, and she shows it in every sentence and every gesture, a serene woman. Strict, aggressively opinionated, but serene. I assume that only someone who is grounded in that serenity could have seen all the death of Honduras pass before their eyes and continue to believe that this country can be saved from itself.
That April of 2003, as if it were taking pity on her frustration, fate had it that her failed investigation opened a bigger door into the official probe surrounding the massacre. Seeing as she was the only member of the laboratory that did not present ballistics evidence at the trial, the prosecutor of the case assigned her a new task: reconstructing, with the highest possible precision and using her colleagues’ reports, the massacre in the courtyard of El Porvenir prison. Without asking for it, she had become a key player in proving how the Honduran state, in collaboration with a gang of thugs, brutally assassinated six dozen human beings in two hours.
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She asserts that, more than the massacre itself — despite it seeming so merciless — it was the long and intense trial that followed that demonstrated the level of scorn the Honduran government held for the lives of the prisoners.
“If you want to know, even 10 years later, what the Honduran prison system is like, find and study the El Porvenir case. It was the first time in which all its weaknesses were laid bare.”
Arabeska does not say it, or she says it with other words: the story of El Porvenir does not belong to the past. Even today the most violent country in the world upholds, as an unofficial policy, the systematic extermination of its prisoners.
The trial for the El Porvenir massacre began in March 2008 and was a powerful move by the Honduran state against itself. While the Public Ministry struggled to solve the 68 deaths, the Executive put all its efforts into the cover-up. It was proven that the management of the Prison System had altered its events register the hour at which the massacre began. It was proven that the news reports of the Preventative Police had been falsified records to show that the alarm had been sounded late and that the police operation had lasted an hour less than in reality. It was proven that the police chief in charge of the operation lied in his report and wrote that his agents had been greeted by bullets from the gang members and had only fired in defense. The Security Secretary paid the guards’ lawyers, contracted ballistics experts and even hired investigators from the Public Ministry to argue against the plaintiff’s evidence.
With a hardened look behind her glasses, Arabeska Sanchez explains the feeling of disadvantage felt by the prosecutor’s team during the entire process, which lasted 159 days — slightly more than five months.
“There were four of us: two prosecutors, one forensic pathologist and me, and in front of us we had a board of 60 defendants, a huge amount of people. We felt a terrible amount of pressure.”
“Did you receive any threats?”
“There were suspicious vehicles following the car of the Prosecutor General’s Office that we use in La Ceiba, so we requested a support vehicle to accompany us every time we went from the hotel to the hearings. After each session we had to lock ourselves indoors. They shot a guy in the parking lot of my hotel, and there was also gunfire outside of the hotel in which the prosecutor was staying.”
The tribunal hearing rooms in La Ceiba were too small for proceedings of that scale, so the trial was held in the local headquarters of the bar association. Every day a police cordon would circle around the building, in which mainly police officers were being judged for the murder of prisoners. Though it was argued that this was for security reasons, to the prosecutor’s team it formed one more intimidation tactic. During the hearings, the judges would ask the plaintiffs not to go to the toilet during recess in order not to expose themselves to attacks. A few days after the start of the trial, a bomb threat forced the whole building to be evacuated and the hearing to be suspended for a number of hours.
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All of La Ceiba became hostile territory for Arabeska Sanchez and her colleagues. While the accused and their family members celebrated with barbecues at night, the four members of the prosecutor’s team would eat alone at their hotel. No one who wanted to sit with them, nor could they allow themselves the luxury of walking freely along the streets of the coastal city.
The evidence and testimony was, in any case, overwhelming. During the trial, video footage was shown in which agents could be seen hitting dying gang members along with “rondines” — prisoners who, under the leadership of another inmate, impose discipline, act as the real authority in the prison and decide over the life and death of the other detainees.
The ballistics reports confirmed that the majority of victims had been killed by shots from weapons assigned to police officers and soldiers. It was also demonstrated that some of the murder weapons were never handed over to the Prosecutor General’s Office by the police. They simply disappeared.
Twenty-one out of the 33 accused were declared guilty and received sentences ranging from three to 1,035 years in prison. The police chief who lead the operation, Carlos Esteban Henriquez, was found guilty of neglect in 19 assassinations and sentenced to 17 years in prison. The manager of the prison, Danny Alexander Rodriguez Valladares, on the other hand, was not even accused because on the day of the massacre, although he did not have permission to be on leave, he did not turn up for work. The year after the massacre he was transferred various times and managed the prisons of Santa Barbara and Danli, and in 2012, as if in Honduras mockery was a state policy, he was sent urgently to replace the director of Comayagua prison, who had been suspended on the spot following the fire that claimed the lives of 361 people.
Since June 2013, Rodriguez has been the manager of San Pedro Sula prison, the second biggest in the country. There, just like in El Porvenir a decade earlier, he shares the power with a team of armed rondines. As if there were no trace of the past and the death of the 68 were but a side note, an anecdote, in the doctrine of the system and in the career of a state employee.