(all photos: The Nation Report)
MIAMI-Leaving your home, family, and community because everyone wants to kill you was a hard decision for Merlin Morales who was born and raised in the northern Bajo Aguan region of Honduras. He had already been wounded in a 2010 massacre and had received years of death threats. Leaving was a decision that didn’t come lightly, but staying meant his life was in danger and also put his whole family and community under ongoing threat. The sacrifice he eventually made landed Morales in Broward Transitional Facility, an immigration detention center in Pompano Beach, Florida.
Broward is a 700-bed for-profit prison for those who have come to the US seeking asylum, seeking residency, challenging their potential deportation, or are in the process of deportation. Broward, owned by the private corporation The GEO Group Inc., profits off of the number of filled beds per day at the many detention centers that it owns nationwide.
On visiting day The Nation Report entered Broward to talk to Morales and hear his story:
Unlike the GEO immigrant prison in Aurora, Colorado where visits are behind a glass barrier and where phones on each side are the means of communication, Broward is a contact visitation center. This means that there is nothing separating a detainee and a visitor and both are allowed to hug and kiss when they greet.
Detainees are dressed in orange jumpsuits and enter a lunchroom where their loved ones are waiting at lunch tables to visit. Visitors sit at separate tables with their backs to the entrances. I didn’t know this and was immediately told to sit at the opposite side that I was sitting. There was a variety of people waiting for their loved ones. The first detainee to enter the room met with what must have been his partner judging from their kiss. They spoke Russian. The second to enter also met his partner and spoke what sounded like an East African tribal language, and the rest of the four detainees spoke Spanish.
Morales was the last to enter and came with an armload of paperwork expecting that the visit had to be from his attorney since he wasn’t expecting a visit from anyone else. The guards had him take the paperwork back to his cell explaining to him that I was not his lawyer.
Morales told me that he left his village Guadalupe Carney in the Bajo Aguan on February 18, 2016 and joined with others he met along the way. He said that he walked for a month and at times hopped The Beast, the train to reach northern Mexico. He paid a guide to take him across the border and was arrested by immigration agents at a house where the guide was temporarily housing him.
He was taken to Port Isabel Detention Center north east of Brownsville, Texas. Once international groups got word, they came to his support. Organizers with the group La Voz de Los De Abajo of Chicago have a long history of accompaniment of the Morales family in Guadalupe Carney and have provided support for other threatened members of the Honduran community including Morales’ brother Isabel (Chabelo) Morales while he too received death threats as a political prisoner through his seven-year wrongful imprisonment.
La Voz de Los de Abajo came to his defense by finding legal representation to begin an asylum case but in the middle of that process, Morales was transferred from Port Isabel to Broward in the middle of the night.
Since the June 28, 2009 US backed military coup in Honduras an escalation of assassinations has taken place of those who opposed the coup and the new regime that was put in place by the oligarchy who fought the granting of land titles to community cooperatives. Before the coup, President Manuel Zelaya had introduced land reform measures that granted land titles to small farming communities including el Movimiento Campesino del Aguan (MCA) in Guadalupe Carney, a group to which Morales had belonged and had been an official.
Honduras is controlled by a small group of about ten families who own most of the wealth, the land, the corporations, the media, the government and the power. Future profit of these families was threatened by the granting of these land titles and in turn many community and social organization leaders have been assassinated since the coup. Morales himself had reported threats that were documented by La Voz de Los de Abajo of Chicago, Rights Action of the US and Canada, and in Honduras by the Permanent Human Rights Observatory of the Aguan (OPDHA), and the Committee of the Families of the Detained or Disappeared (COFADEH).
This human rights crisis was documented by the Organization of American States (OAS) – International Human Rights Commission, the United Nations, Amnesty International, and The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).
Not unlike other global locations, simply working for societal change in Honduras can be a death sentence. But being a leader in the agrarian land rights movement, publicly denouncing the coup, being an environmentalist in opposition to mining devastation of the land, opposing mega-tourist projects and corporate colonialism that impact the natural environment and resources, multiplies exponentially a danger to the person who publicly works on these issues.
On November 15, 2010, Merlin Morales was one campesino who was wounded in a massacre while five other MCA farmers from Guadalupe Carney were killed. The Tumbador Massacre was carried out by private paramilitary guards working for the Dinant Company owned by the late Miguel Facusse, the head of one of the ten ruling elite families. Francisco Ramirez (left photo) was another campesino who was wounded. At the time and since, the Dinant Company was disregarding the land titles granted to MCA by the previous Honduran government. That morning the MCA farmers were working their land when they were attacked by Facusse’s guards and hundreds of Honduran military over which Facusse had influence.
Morales survived but as a result has confronted ongoing acts of intimidation and death threats, including again, by paramilitary guards, police and the national military. The well-documented (as for example here) violence against small farmers was and continues to be facilitated by a smear campaign against campesinos and farming coops carried out by the elite-owned media. Human rights observer Greg McCain who has lived in the Bajo Aguan region for four years writes of the massacre, “The military planted their own AK-47s and other arms on the bodies of the massacred to spin it that the campesinos were nothing more than insurrectionaries usurping land. Later the Public Minister’s office and the local police, in a rare moment of honesty, discounted this version stating that the campesinos had nothing more than their machetes and other tools to harvest the land.” The fabricated scene was further difficult to pull off given that Honduran law prohibits the general population from owning arms and by the fact that most campesino communities maintain a sustenance living off of the land rendering the existence of disposable income for owning arms prohibitive.
These landowners’ links to organized crime was documented in 2004 and exposed through Wikileaks publications. The US Ambassador to Honduras pointed to Facusse and disclosed his involvement with the drug cartel, a relationship already obvious to the locals but kept from the eyes of the national and international media.
But Facusse, the largest landowner in Honduras and his paramilitary weren’t the only factions to use repressive tactics. Police commander and former military official Henry Osorto also challenged the land titles granted by government to the small farmers and subjected community members to threats, assassinations and other violence to make it impossible for the small farmers to work their land. Both Facusse and Osorto publicly applauded the coup that in effect protected large landowners and facilitated their ability to acquire more land from those without the financial resources to defend their right to it.
On June 11, 2008 Irene Ramirez, a campesino and fellow MCA member who was a leader in the organization was fatally shot after publicly supporting the land reform measures of the government of President Manuel Zelaya, in office at the time. These measures confirmed the right of MCA to the land. Osorto’s guards then waged an attack on Guadalupe Carney and MCA where one campesino was killed and where also some of his guards-which included some of his family-were also killed.
Osorto then publicly threatened the entire village with death or incarceration leading President Zelaya to issue protective measures for the community of Guadalupe Carney. To repeat, protection orders were issued to protect an entire village from the private security and the police!
The International Human Rights Commission (IACR) of the Organization of American States (OAS) ordered precautionary measures (a sort of blanket protection) for the entire community of Guadalupe Carney because of the threats and violence.
As was seen by the regional community as a retaliatory measure, arrest warrants were issued for random villagers from the area after the attack. One of those was for Jose Isabel Morales (Chabelo), Merlin’s brother. Contrary to Honduran law Jose Isabel Morales was held at the time for more than three years without trial. An international outcry and multiple visits by human rights delegations probably contributed to an eventual Supreme Court trial where he was eventually acquitted, but it was the high-profile and relentless work of his brother Merlin Morales that kept the issue in the international public eye.
International human rights organizations wrote letters, made phone calls, visited embassies, held rallies and marches for the “Free Chabelo” campaign including a several hundred mile march across Honduras to the capitol. International human rights observers including Greg McCain worked round the clock on this campaign. The call was also for the investigation of Osorto, Facusse, and various other similar actors.
Supporters also were not accepting the guilty verdicts of the first two trials which were heavily attended by international human rights observers who heard no evidence placing his brother at the scene of the violence and multiple witnesses placing his brother in another part of the village during the attack on the village. The first two trials were both appealed.
Merlin Morales was a public high-profile forefront organizer of the work to free his brother and became increasingly the target of elite landowners who enjoy ongoing impunity free of judicial scrutiny. His face is a familiar one to the Honduran public having completed numerous media exclusive interviews and having participated in numerous public events and press conferences nationwide.
The third trial went to the Supreme Court and yielded a not-guilty verdict in October 2015 but unfortunately the threats and intimidation continued and even escalated. The Nation Report was on location for the trial and verdict during which time Merlin Morales reported an unfamiliar truck to the village of Guadalupe Carney that entered without a license plate. And on another occasion that week at three in the morning, an unfamiliar person holding a back-pack was seen standing outside his mother’s house next door.
It’s not clear whether all of the threats are coming from Henry Osorto but it is clear that he openly sends verbal threats to the Morales family. A member of the military in Honduras during the Central American conﬂicts in the 1980’s, Osorto was linked to the 316 Battalion of the Honduran Army which has been documented by numerous human rights organizations as a military unit in charge of illegal, death squad activities in the Aguan Valley. After the end of the Central American conﬂicts, Osorto became a high ranking police ofﬁcial in the National Police in the northern region and he was promoted again last year.
Other credible threats came from former security factions that were fired before Morales was hired to a community cooperative called Salama last summer. The firing of the former guards followed the discovery of their infiltration into the cooperative. Later the fired workers launched an offensive of revenge against Morales by staging various crimes and attempting to set-up Morales as responsible. When unsuccessful, the group resorted to intimidation and threats against Morales and others in his community.
The human rights crisis in Honduras continues with little attention from international media until the assassination of Morales’ friend and colleague Berta Caceres in March earlier this year. Caceres and Morales worked together on his brother’s case to the end but they also worked for many of the same issues to include the preventing of mega-mining, tourist, and resource extraction from their communities. Confronting mega-international corporations along with local mega-agricultural magnates has always meant confronting violence and threats to themselves as well as to their communities and colleagues. Two weeks after Caceres’ assassination, another member of her organization, Nelson Garcia, was also assassinated.
Most members of the general public and US legislators have little access to information and reports from on location. Before Caceres was murdered, over 125 campesinos had been assassinated or disappeared since the coup and more have since been killed. Though rarely investigated due to Honduras’ non-functioning judicial system and high impunity rate, locals attribute the assassinations to the armed guards of Facusse and Osorto along with other large landowners. The bodies are usually found buried or hidden inside plantations of the large landowners that employ armed guards.
Because of a case that was rendered idle after his relocation from one detention center to another, Merlin Morales is again in the middle of his asylum case from Broward with the backing of several groups that have submitted letters of support and from other groups that have contributed to his bail. According to US law, someone seeking asylum must first physically present him or herself on US soil. It seems that for someone who risked his life fighting for the safety and well-being of others, that the last place that Morales belongs is behind bars.
The staff of The Nation Report
In breaking news Henry Osorto along with 27 other police commanders were suspended by current president Juan Orlando Hernandez on Friday in Honduras in what some say is an attempt to improve the image of the country that has consitently held first place for murders in the world outside of war.