Honduran special prosecutor for protection of journalists is left without mandate to investigate murders

*By Leonardo Aguilar

**This is the second article in a series about the investigation and persecution of cases of violence against journalists in Latin America.

Illustration of hand with gavel hitting a block

(Pablo Pérez - Altais)

Honduran cameraman and TV presenter Ricardo Ávila told his boss that, without explanation, he lost control of his WhatsApp account, something he saw as a possible hacking of his phone.

A week later, on May 26, he was killed with a shot to the head while driving to work in Choluteca in the southern part of the country.

With this violent act, 93 journalists and communicators have been killed in Honduras since 2001.

In a statement released on May 24, the National Human Rights Commissioner (CONADEH, for its acronym in Spanish) said that impunity in the murders of journalists exceeds 91%. Likewise, it explained that between 2016 and April 2022, the Internal Forced Displacement Unit (UDFI) received around 67 cases of journalists (20 women and 47 men). Of those, 51 are at risk of displacement and at least 16 have already been victims of forced internal displacement, due, in 81% of cases, to threats, followed by attempted homicide, extortion, injuries and family violence.

“Of these more than 90 murders, the rate of criminal investigation is very low, we only have four cases where there is a sentence for the crimes of homicide or murder; approximately 22% of that is under investigation, the other cases are completely in impunity and we assume that they will remain that way because between 15 and 20 years have passed,” Osman Reyes, president of the Association of Journalists of Honduras (CPH), told LatAm Journalism Review (LJR).

The office that exists in the Central American country specifically to investigative violence against journalists and protect this vulnerable group is the Special Prosecutor for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, Communicators and Justice Workers (FEPRODDHH in Spanish), but it has only five prosecutors – all based in Tegucigalpa – without assigned investigators and without legal jurisdiction to investigate murders or assassinations.

How do the mechanism for protection and the special prosecutor for journalists and social communicators operate in Honduras? 

Honduras has the Protection System for Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, Social Communicators, and Justice Operators, which came into effect in 2015 and, as of November 2021, recorded 126 active cases.

This protection mechanism is called to work in coordination with the CONADEH and with the public prosecutor.

Periodistas, camarógrafos y medios de comunicación esperan la llegada del presidente de México Manuel López Obrador, en Casa de Gobierno en Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Journalists, camera operators and media outlets wait for the arrival of Mexican President Manuel López Obrador, at the Government House in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on May 6. (Photo: ContraCorriente/Jorge Cabrera)

Both the CPH and the Honduran Bar Association (CAH) withdrew from the protection mechanism in 2021 as a form of protest, alleging passivity of the protective space.

“We have this protection mechanism for journalists, lawyers, people from vulnerable groups, but it is not acting as a response to these complex situations," Reyes said.

But, since 2018, Honduras has also had the Special Prosecutor (FEPRODDHH), but its presence is not visible, according to Reyes.

Despite the fact that Reyes is the president of the CPH, he said that for two years he has not heard anything about the FEPRODDHH and that he does not even know who the head of said prosecutor's office is.

"I understand that at the time this special prosecutor's office was created to deal with these cases, we were in contact two years ago with the Prosecutor Keila Aguirre, who had formed a team and with them we allocated some cases, but she contacted me one morning and told me that they had already rotated her from the prosecutor's office, and to this day I don't know who remained, I don't know if that prosecutor's office still exists, if it continues to work, because at least in my capacity as president of the Association of Journalists I never had contact with that prosecutor's office again," Reyes said.

Reyes added that he met with Security Minister Ramón Sabillón in 2022, but that he was presented with the same data and advances given by previous governments.

“We had meetings with three security ministers from three different governments, the same presentation made by the first was made by the second and the number of advances is the same as that of the third. The classic answer is always: we are investigating and the routes lead nowhere,” Reyes said.

Amada Ponce, director of the Committee for Freedom of Expression (C-Libre), a coalition of journalists and civil society organizations, agrees with Reyes and said that C-Libre’s experience with FEPRODDHH is unsatisfactory because the majority of the cases don’t receive the necessary attention.

“As of last year, there were only two prosecutors assigned,” she told LJR.

Vulnerable groups statistics“The majority of cases that we have filed with these prosecutors have not been attended to in the more than three years that we began to file claims, particularly one of the most difficult experiences to deal with has been with the cases that have been brought from communicators and human rights defenders who are in the territories, where the human and investigative resources are very limited,” Ponce said.

Ponce said that FEPRODDHH does not have access to the photographic voter registry of the National Register of Persons (RNP) to identify aggressors of these vulnerable groups.

“This prosecutor does not have access and we thought it was an impressive thing. We are talking about identification of an aggressor, a task that does not represent any effort or expense. Access to a photographic registry only means a password and entering that registry. Other prosecutors have it, but this one does not.”

Ponce said that they have presented more than 300 complaints before the public prosecutor, but “to date, none of the cases has been concluded with a final sentence, not that we know of.”

Complaints FEPRODDHH“This gives us the feeling that this prosecutor’s office was created, let’s say, with the name well-placed, very nice, but not to bring to justice the aggressors of vulnerable groups,” Ponce said.

No cases being tried

LJR obtained that 252 complaints have been formally filed with FEPRODDHH since the creation of the prosecutor’s office in 2018.

Prosecutor Jerry Vallardes, head of FEPRODDHH, told LJR that there are no sentences and that currently that are no pending cases against aggressors of journalists, communicators or human rights defenders being tried in courts or criminal tribunals. Vallardes only mentioned that there is a case that could possibly go to oral and public hearing, but that involves a judicial operator.

To understand why the cases of the FEPRODDHH do not advance, or why sentences that generate precedents to protect journalists are not obtained, Valladares explained that many of the cases are referred to a justice of the peace, where they are settled by way of conciliation, while other cases known by FEPRODDHH are referred to other prosecutors, such as Crimes Against Life or Ethnic Groups.

Fachada del edificio donde funciona el Ministerio Público (MP). Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Facade of the building where the public prosecutor works. Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Photo CC / Fernando Destephen.

In the hearings of the justice of the peace courts, the victims are exposed and directly confronted with the aggressors who in many cases can be police or military.

According to Amada Ponce with C-Libre, most of the attacks against journalists and social communicators are committed precisely by police and military.

"This is common in a country like Honduras, which is very weak on the issue of human rights and access to democracy," she said.

Since the 2009 coup d'état, protests have been a constant in the country against the deterioration of institutionality and the displacement of vulnerable populations from their territories. The protests persist today despite the fact that a government has entered that previously represented a good part of the political and social opposition. In this environment of continuous protests, the repression of the police and military has been constant and among the most affected have been journalists and social defenders.

“Most of the cases we have are cases of threats and personal injury. However, in accordance with the Code of Criminal Procedure, although these are crimes of public action, consequently, a particular instance is required, that is, that the victim authorizes us or gives his consent to initiate the investigation and to be able to prosecute the case in accordance with article 26 of the Code of Criminal Procedure,” Valladares said.

Regarding how they attract the cases, Vallardes said that “in most cases, the complaints come through organizations or through the protection mechanism.”

The chief prosecutor of FEPRODDHH said that the cases that are not remitted to a justice of the peace on most occasions fade away because the victims “unfortunately” don’t trust the judicial operators.

One of the ways in which the FEPRODDHH turns the case over to another prosecutor's office, Valladares said, is based on the “causal link,” meaning, they assess whether the aggression against the journalist occurred due to the exercise of his or her work or if it happened because of a personal issue. If they cannot confirm that a journalist has been attacked or threatened because of his or her work, they pass the case on to another prosecutor’s office.

Fachada del edificio donde funciona la Secretaría de Justicia y Derechos Humanos. Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Outside the building where the Secretariat of Justice and Human Rights operates. Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Photo CC / Fernando Destephen.

Vallardes does not see any problem that FEPRODDHH does not have jurisdiction to handle cases of murders of journalists, because in his opinion "the issue of crimes against life is a fairly complex, complicated issue, even having information centralized to be able to clarify criminal structures, criminal conduct, relationship with firearms, relationship of people, then it was determined that all crimes against life be investigated by the Prosecutor for Crimes Against Life, there are deaths against women, politicians, journalists, vulnerable groups," he said.

“Currently, we only have an office in Tegucigalpa and we have jurisdiction and scope to hear cases throughout the country. Regarding the logistics issue, we have the necessary support, the vehicles to make the journeys, the support with the travel expenses, we have not had limitations in the budget issue, to cover emergencies in San Pedro Sula, La Ceiba, Choluteca, but I think that the Achilles' heel is that we do not have investigators," Valladares explained.

He added that the FEPRODDHH only has five prosecutors, including him, and all of them concentrated in Tegucigalpa, with powers only to hear some crimes related to the "limitation of fundamental rights,” meaning, threats, injuries, among others.

In the absence of investigators, these five prosecutors also have to act as investigators.

“That void is filled with the same prosecutors, who become investigators, when we need to go, we go,” explained Valladares, who said that “by function of scope,” ATIC (the investigative arm of the public prosecutor’s office) only deals with crimes of high impact, crimes of corruption, organized crime, homicides, murders, “so we are limited to be able to work cases with the ATIC,” he said.

Valladares said that FEPRODDHH does not have the technical knowledge to be able to identify the origin of cyberattacks.

“The real situation in the country is complex because let us remember that these social networks, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, operate freely in the country, but there are no representatives of all these companies in the country, all their representatives are based in the U.S., when we require information from these companies it is impossible to access this information and especially with this type of crime,” he said.

Fachada de la oficina en donde funciona la Fiscalía Especial para la Protección de los Defensores de Derechos Humanos, Periodistas, Comunicadores Sociales y Operadores de Justicia (FEPRODDHH) dentro del edificio del Ministerio Público

Facade of the office where the Special Prosecutor for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, Social Communicators and Justice Operators (FEPRODDHH) operates inside the public prosecutor’s office in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Photo CC / Fernando Destephen.

Osman Reyes, CPH president, said he’s concerned with the situation of journalists in Honduras.

“We are in a complex situation as a profession, to the case of Ricardo Ávila, a cameraman for one of the largest channels in the south of the country, we must add the threats suffered by journalist Manuel Santiago Serna, one of the veterans of journalism in the city of San Pedro Sula, who is receiving harassment through the telephone, calls, messages, from numbers registered in Colombia, they have even sent him private photographs of his own family,” he said.

Reyes said that similar threats, with numbers registered abroad, have been received by the former president of the CPH, Dagoberto Rodríguez: “in this same way of operating he is receiving threats, so we can say that we are at a critical moment, that far from improving, far from getting out of a critical situation, we see that it tends to worsen in recent days.”

A murder in southern Honduras

At the beginning of the investigation into the murder of 25-year-old social communicator Ricardo Ávila, police said it was a traffic accident. Then they put forth the hypothesis that it was a robbery. Now, after the emergence of evidence, they said it was a murder.

Amada Ponce, director of C-Libre, said that MetroTV, the channel where Ávila worked, is one of the few channels that covers social movements in Choluteca.

Ricardo Avila

Photo of Ricardo Ávila working. Courtesy: MetroTV.

Over the last three years, C-Libre has issued a total of 11 alerts about threats and harassment that journalists, camera operators and communicators from MetroTV in Choluteca have received.

A week before his murder, Ávila notified the owners of MetroTV that he lost control of his WhatsApp account, which was internally interpreted as a threat.

Alejandro Aguilar, owner manager of MetroTV, told LJR that he gave instructions to the staff to block Ávila's number.

"We didn't know who was using his WhatsApp. But we never imagined what would happen a week later. We did not imagine the tragedy,” he explained.

Although Aguilar said that he didn’t know the reasons why Ávila was killed, he is interested in obtaining measures of protection both for himself and for the employees at his channel.

X-ray examination of the skull of Ricardo Ávila on May 26, 2022.

X-ray examination of the skull of Ricardo Ávila on May 26, 2022. Courtesy MetroTV

Aguilar said that in the hospital in southern Choluteca, at first it wasn’t clear that Ávila had been shot in the head. Then, the X-rays came.

“When the person in charge of X-rays arrives, he looks at me and asks: ‘Has Ricardo ever been shot?’ And I tell him no. And he tells me: ‘Come on, look at the pictures.’ You could see the bullet entrance in one part of his head, and a bullet inside, in his brain. So the staff got worried.”

According to Aguilar, the doctor had a chat with the person in charge of X-rays to make sure that on the stretcher where Ávila had been placed there was no object that could have caused an effect in the X-ray results.

While the doctor and the person in charge of the X-rays tried to understand what happened with Ávila, Aguilar took the time to make a pair of phone calls.

“I called a man... I woke him and asked for help: ‘They tell me that Ricardo had an accident, but I need you to go to see, because they said that the moto is still on the edge of the street. Help me, if it’s possible, pick it up and then tell me. When you arrive, I need you to find the helmet and take a picture of it.’ The man later called me and told me: ‘I just got here and the moto is being taken by the police.’ I said to the man: ‘ask them to give you the helmet.’ He sent me the photos of the helmet and there you can see the bullet hole.”

Aguilar showed the images of the helmet to the surgeon, who, surprised, told him that it matched the X-rays. “‘It was a shot,’ the surgeon told me,” he remembered.

Later Ávila was transferred to the Teaching Hospital of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, where he died on May 29.

El casco que usaba Ricardo Ávila el día que recibió el disparo el 26 de mayo en horas de la mañana cuando se conducía a su trabajo

The helmet that Ricardo Ávila used on the day he was shot on May 26 in the morning while driving to work. (Foto: Courtesy MetroTV)

LJR contacted the spokesperson of the National Police in the department of Choluteca, Officer Gerson Escalante, who said no one has been captured but they have identified “suspects” that caused Ávila’s murder.

“The investigations regarding the social communicator continue, everything points to those suspects belonging to a criminal group from Marcovia,” Escalante said.

The version provided by Escalante to LJR said that the patrol from the National Police received a 911 call reporting a road accident with a motorcycle.

“Then in the hospital in the south, it was observed that the person had a wound caused by a firearm without an exit wound, then the National Police went to where the injured person was found to carry out an examination of shell casings and to carry out investigations there, information was collected on who the suspects were and to start there were two hypotheses,” Escalante said.

Escalante affirmed that the first hypothesis centered on a robbery.

“It was purported to be an attempted robbery, but according to investigations, that is being ruled out.”

The police spokesperson added: “it was a targeted attack. The goal was to end his life. So far, I do not have the information on what was the reason for these criminals to have taken his life, this data is managed by the DPI (Police Directorate of Investigations).”

“There are two teams investigating this homicide of the social communicator. There is a team from Choluteca and a team from Tegucigalpa investigating,” explained Escalante, who added that violence has increased in Choluteca in recent months.

What does the Minister of Human Rights say about the murder of Ricardo Ávila?

Natalie Roque, secretary of human rights, told LJR that the murders of Ricardo Ávila and a prosecutor in Nacaome, which occurred on May 29 and 27, respectively, added to the threats that some journalists are experiencing, are due to a rearrangement of organized crime in the face of the new government.

“Not just the murders, but also the threats show a very strong reaction on the part of organized crime structures, as they regroup to keep control and use other types of violence,” Roque said.

Natalie Roque

The Minister of Human Rights, Natalie Roque. Tegucigalpa, Honduras. File photo CC/ Fernando Destephen.

Prosecutor Karen Almendarez was killed on May 27. It also happened in the southern region of the country, specifically in the municipality of Nacaome, Valle department. Almendarez was assigned to the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office.

The secretary of human rights said that as long as the structural conditions for violence remain and that it is focused on human rights defenders, journalists and judicial operators, there will be no prosecutor’s office capable of putting a stop to the violence.

“It must be recognized that in the case of the Human Rights Secretariat, it has the National Protection Mechanism, but this needs a profound restructuring since it has not been a guarantor for the life of this sector of the population either,” the secretary said.

Roque views the actions of prosecutors in different offices with much concern and said that the levels of impunity are enormous.

“As long as we continue with these problems of impunity and weakness in the investigative processes, we are not going to have guarantees of rights,” she said.

“We have seen the recent threats, murders, aggressions, against judicial operators, journalists, defenders of human rights and this tells us also that we must redouble, triple and multiply efforts, because the actions of some prosecutors are very limited due to lack of resources, there may be will but if there is no support it is difficult to guarantee rights,” Roque concluded.

Two teams investigate the murder of Ricardo Ávila

Amada Ponce regrets that it is a different prosecutor's office, such as Crimes Against Life, that carries out these types of cases, and that there is no special prosecutor's office trained to investigate deaths of journalists and social communicators, because, in her opinion, it is evident that in the case of Ricardo Ávila there has been a bias since the beginning of the investigation.

"The police were insisting, from the beginning, that the murder of Ricardo Ávila was a robbery or common violence in the area, however, we know that absolutely nothing was stolen from the journalist, in his possession was the backpack, money, his belongings, cell phone, the keys in the motorcycle, and how is it that they robbed him if all the things he was carrying were in his possession?,” she asked.

The media outlet where Ricardo Ávila worked had previously made 11 complaints for which C-Libre issued alerts, stating that they felt vulnerable due to the exercise of their journalistic work. During Ávila's funeral, on Monday, May 30, part of the journalistic union of Tegucigalpa and the southern zone demanded justice for the death of the communicator.

"We call on the authorities of the State of Honduras to clarify this criminal attack that led to the loss of life of colleague Ricardo Alcides Ávila, with the aim of presenting those responsible before the courts,” C-Libre said in a statement.

*Leonardo Aguilar is a lawyer and journalist. His studies have been carried out at the National Autonomous University of Honduras in the Sula Valley (UNAH-VS). He has worked in radio, print, web and investigative journalism. He has collaborated with organizations defending the environment and in investigations on forced displacement for reasons of violence linked to drug trafficking.

**This is the twelfth report in a project on journalist safety in Latin America and the Caribbean. This LatAm Journalism Review project is funded by UNESCO's Global Media Defense Fund.

Read other articles in the project at this link.