Friday, June 28, 2013

Four years after the Honduran coup

On June 28, 2009, Honduras President Mel Zelaya was arrested in the early hours of the morning and flown to Costa Rica.

Departing from my usual blogs that relate more to my personal experiences, I think it is important to reflect on what I see as the results of that event. These reflections are rather opinionated, but reflect what I see and feel from my ministry among the poor in western Honduras.

Zelaya, with all his many faults, had been moving closer to positions that favored the poor and undermined the power of the political and financial elites in Honduras. One move that especially threatened them was his proposal for a new mining law that would put more controls on the mining industry, would prohibit open pit gold mining (with its use of cyanide), and would impose higher taxes of the mining industries (which typically paid a 2 or 3% tax.)

The coup resulted in months of conflict and repression by government forces. The Resistance was largely peaceful though there was some minimal violence by the Resistance – throwing rocks and burning tires – but they lacked the weapons of governmental forces.

The coup resulted in a withdrawal of much international aid, except from the US. I believe it also permitted the increase of the influence of drug traffickers and organized crime in the country, even among the police, the military, and many levels of government.

The poor justice system which left most crimes uninvestigated and few convictions worsened. Impunity increased.

The power of the elites increased, especially in the National Congress which recently passed new mining legislation and a law that will permit setting up areas controlled by foreign governments or corporations as types of model cities.

In the face of this violence has increased to extreme levels, with multiple causes – poverty, drug-trafficking, organized crime, growth of gangs, vengeance killings (because the justice system doesn’t operate well), corruption in the police and military  - as well as in many other government agencies.

There is also increased repression of groups and people who work for social change, by both mining interests and large agribusiness leaders. There have been over 100 killings of campesinos in the Aguan region in northern Honduras because of conflicts between campesinos and the rich owners of African palm plantations.

The violence became so pronounced in the north coast department of Atlantida that not only the Claretian missionaries but also the bishops and the diocese issued statements, found on the Caritas website here.
An English translation of the statement of the diocese of La Ceiba can be found here

A Resistance movement began soon after the coup and garnered support of many sectors of society. The Resistance and other groups began to hold workshops on citizenship and consciousness-raising. The Resistance also formed a political party and chose the wife of Mel Zelaya, Xiomara Castro, as their candidate. According to most polls, she holds the lead among all the candidates. I have my reservations about the transformation of the Resistance into a political party, mostly because I believe that the process of transformation needs a process of political formation and consciousness-raising that the Resistance began but which seems to be less of a priority now than winning the elections this November.

But where are we now?

I believe the governmental system here is broken, partly because of the rigid two-party system that has shared power in the last 120 some years, partly because of the collaboration of police, military, with organized crime.

This week the national office of Caritas released a video and a study on violence in Honduras. The press release was pointed:

7. As factors and actors which generate crime and violence, they highlight: a) organized crime and drug-trafficking which have subordinated the gangs and have penetrated the institutions of the state; b) the gangs of young people, together with the “angry neighborhoods;” c) common crime; d) the illegal traffic of arms and the permissiveness of the Control of Firearms Law; e) the police and the military; and f) the communications media which, before informing and educating, contribute to the promotion of a culture of fear and violence.

8. Among the causes of violence and criminality these stand out: a) the institutional weakness of the State and of the whole system of citizen security; b) the social inequalities and inequity which exclude 25% of the youth from education, employment, and income; c) the transnational character of criminality; d) the violence within families and the migrations; e) the lack of public spaces and of recreation sites; f) the high consumption of drugs and alcohol, which is growing among the youth.

9. The [government] policies to prevent violence have not been made concrete in long-term actions. What have happened are temporary actions to react in the face of the phenomenon and not to prevent it. The experiences which arise from the citizenry have not been valued and have lacked the accompaniment of the States to these initiatives in such a way as to become public policies of prevention….

The evening of the day of the Caritas press conference Honduran President Pepe Lobo reacted with a speech that reflects several aspects of the problem here. A translated text can be found here.

Here are example of some problems I see in his approach:

“We managed to curb the rising trend of violence since 2006, combining prevention and control tasks to regain peace for all Hondurans in communal living spaces.”
Many would contest this.

“We decided to bring the military into the streets, as the majority of Hondurans feel safer.”
The militarization of police functions is, I believe, misguided, and many people fear a return to the 1980s when the military was responsible for torture and repression. The lack of a civilian police, based in the communities, with careful control of police personnel is a major cause of the problems of violence and crime.

“We have a deep conviction that the answers begin with the community; In that sense, my government has emphasized programs such as 10 Mils Bono, Bono Solidario for our seniors, Computers for Children, and has achieved 113 days of continuous classes, so we can say that the classrooms are open.”
These programs, except for achieving 113 days of continuous classes, are largely “charitable” projects which, I believe, help create dependency and are easy ways that political parties can use the bonos [free money or articles] to create political dependencies that make Tammany Hall look good.

Where can Honduras go from here?

I’ll leave that to another day, when I’ve had a chance to look at the Caritas study in depth.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Travel warning

The U. S. Department of State of State has issued another travel warning for Honduras.

Today a priest friend asked me why this was being released.

I told him I didn’t know.

I mentioned that an early travel warning released on November 21 last year, led to St. Thomas Aquinas cancelling its spring break trip.

We speculated, even whether the release of the warning was so that more police and military aid could be given to Honduras by the US, to influence the Honduras government and allow the US continue a military presence in the country, not only at the Palmerola (Soto Cano) airbase where there are close to 600 US military but also in other parts of the country.

At first I was a little skeptical of this explanation, but reading the document leads me to wonder if there might be some truth in this.

The warning states that “the Government of Honduras lacks sufficient resources to address these issues [of crime and violence].”

Though this is on the surface true, it hides the fact that the police and the military are notoriously corrupt and that there are concerns of the involvement of police in organized crime.

[Coorrection: the sentence before the one quoted above reads: "Members of the Honduran National Police have been known to engage in criminal activity, including murder." But this is hardly a careful analysis.]

In addition the warning states the “The Government of Honduras lacks sufficient resources to properly investigate and prosecute cases, and to deter violent crime.”

This hides the problems in the investigative unit and the role of corruption and involvement of police and civil authorities in organized crime, drug trafficking, and more.

I wrote a little about this a few days ago in a post here.

There is much more that I could write about the warning. I particularly find that it is too generalized and de-contextualized. For example, it notes that the department of Copán has a high homicide rate. But Copán is a large department and, as I see it, most of the violent crime is in a few municipalities. Santa Rosa is one of the most peaceful cities in the Central American region. The four municipalities in the Dulce Nombre parish are not especially dangerous. It’s more dangerous in some areas of Chicago and New York City than in Santa Rosa and the Dulce Nombre parish.

This is not to say that there are not problems of violence and crime. Many Hondurans suffer from these evils – which are not un-related to the poverty and massive inequality in the country. (This was something that Bishop Romulo Emiliani mentioned in his short talk at the youth assembly last Saturday.)

I do not feel insecure or unsafe. I take precautions – not driving after dark in the countryside (partly because of night vision problems), not walking in some areas of Santa Rosa after 9 pm, and other precautions I take wherever I go.

Moreover, I know many people in Santa Rosa and in the parish of Dulce Nombre and innumerable times I have been helped by strangers – especially when my pick-up has broken down. They have shown a concern for me that I haven’t found as widespread in the US.

But I think that the Travel Warning plays into the fears of people in the US. I may be wrong but I think there is an over-emphasis on security in the US. We have to be sure that we are absolutely safe. This is an impossibility. Life is risky.

As my priest friend earlier suggested, it may be a problem of spirituality. Are we afraid to take risks, always trying to be absolutely safe?

There is a hymn here: Arriesgate. Hay algo más – "Risk yourself. There's something more."

Risking means moving beyond our comfort zones.

Maybe that’s where we will find true peace – meeting Christ in the poor.

 At least that has been my experience.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Diaconal service

Yesterday two deacons were ordained for the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán. The diocese decided to use the event to gather the youth of the diocese. 

Hundreds of young people from throughout the diocese gathered at the Catholic University and walked in procession to the stadium -  about two kilometers away.

The two young men – Edwin born and raised in San Martín, El Salvador and Cesar is from the diocese – have studied in the Honduran seminary in Tegucigalpa and then spent a pastoral experience here in the diocese. I met Cesar when he led a music retreat in Dulce Nombre last year.

They will serve several months in parishes in the diocese and be ordained priests sometime in the near future.

Santa Rosa Bishop, Darwin Andino, ordained them but San Pedro Sula auxiliary bishop, Romulo Emiliani, was there – as were a good number of the priests of the diocese.

I found the event a little disappointing and the two young men only had a few minutes to speak at the end of Mass. It also seemed a bit disorganized, as a priest friend also noted.

The first deacons were meant to serve the Greek-speaking widows of the early Chirstian community, as we heard in the second reading from Acts 6.

Bishop Andino did mention that deacon means “servant” and that the diaconate is meant to be a sign of service for the community.

I do hope and pray that Edwin and Cesar are real servants of the People of God.

But I found a real example of diaconal service after the event was over.

I decided to take a taxi home, since my feet were hurting. The taxi driver had one customer. When we got to his stop the driver got the man’s wheelchair from the trunk and held it as the man moved from the front seat to the wheelchair.

He got a call and asked if he could make a detour to pick up two customers. No problem, I said, since you have to make a living.

It was an older woman and a younger woman taking care of her.

As we passed from there to my place I watched as he leaned over to talk to the woman – who seemed to suffer a mild case of dementia. His gentleness was inspiring.

Getting home I thought of his manner of working – which seemed really diaconal, a way to serve others by his daily labor.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Corpus Christi in Dulce Nombre

The Eucharist is central to the devotional life of the people in Honduras, especially those in the countryside.

Even though they often do not have Masses in their villages more than a few times a year, Jesús sacramentado is a part of their piety.

This is especially apparent in the holy hours (usually on Thursdays) in the churches where they have the Blessed Sacrament reserved as well as in the processions for the feast of Corpus Christi.

 This year I attended the Mass and procession in Dulce Nombre de Copán on June 2.

The procession was preceded by Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for Forty Hours in the church of San Antonio in one of the neighborhoods of Dulce Nombre. I remember Forty Hours from my childhood which was celebrated at different times throughout the year, remembering the forty hours Jesus was in the tomb.

At about 9:00 am on Corpus Christi, June 2, a small group of people gathered in San Antonio, began the procession with Padre German carrying the monstrance and little girls putting flower petals on the path before the monstrance.

Along the way the crowd stopped several times to pray. People knelt in the dirt as we prayed for the church, for the parish, and for Honduras.

After the first stop, some came with the canopy to carry over the monstrance.

What I found rather intriguing is that Padre German invited several members of the parish to carry the monstrance - first of all one of the sisters who work in the parish. It would have been quite a burden to carry the monstrance the whole procession, which was along a route of about two kilometers.

The last time we stopped was at 9:00 am, the hour when Pope Francis was beginning a world-wide hour of prayer before the Eucharist. I had printed out the pope's prayer intentions and Padre German asked me to read them.

We entered the church and celebrated the Mass.

During the Mass about sixteen young people were to receive their First Communion. Father called them up to the altar to profess the Creed together, before the assembly.

At the end of the Mass, Padre German called me forward and decided I needed to be doused with water to celebrate my birthday the day before. Luckily, the day was warm.

These are the types of celebrations where I find my faith nourished, by the simple faith of the people, as can be seen in the face of this altar boy, praying the Lord's Prayer during Mass.


A collection of Corpus Christi photos from the last five years in the parish of Dulce Nombre can be found here.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Police in Honduras

I grew up outside Philadelphia knowing that the police were there to help. Sadly, that it not the situation here in Honduras.

Recent events make that clear.

On Monday, the US government stopped the aid it was giving the Honduran Dirección de Investigación y Evaluación de la Carrera Policial (DIECP), a relatively new agency that was set up to test Honduran police to see if they were trustworthy. See here for an analysis.

On Tuesday this week, a Honduran court issued arrest warrants for five National Police officers accused of killing seven gang members in 2011. See here for a newspaper report.

On Wednesday about 1400 police, all the officers of the DNIC, the police investigations unit, were suspended indefinitely, subject to confidence testing. Supposedly this was done because of concerns about links between this unit of the police (which is about 10% of the entire police force) and organized crime. Read a report here

On Thursday, after protests from about 100 officers of DNIC, the Honduran Security Ministry is going to permit the officer to return to work; they will have to take two days off to take polygraph tests. Here is a short note.

Such a quick turn-around, with such a small demonstration, does not engender confidence in the workings of the security ministry among the people here.

The National Police is a national entity, controlled from the central government. As I understand it, police can be sent to any part of the country. They therefore lack the connection with the local community which we experience in the US and other parts of the world. They are often strangers to the people in the parts of the country where they work.

I have also heard reports of involvement of the police in drug-trafficking and other crimes.

But I continue to marvel at the inefficiency of the police.

For the past few weeks, on the road I take between Santa Rosa and the turn off to Dulce Nombre, a distance of about 12 kilometers, there were two traffic roadblocks – one by the National Police and one by the military, each with about 6 to 10 police or soldiers – often within three kilometers of each other. They stopped an occasional car or truck, mostly to check license and vehicle registration. I saw they looking into a few vehicles.

I was stopped a few times and asked where I was coming from and where I was going. Once I was asked if I was a priest. Once I was told that one of my headlights was weak.

Now there is only one patrol, run by the National Police.

We shall see where these problems of policing end, especially as the National Congress approved a new unit, the Tigers, which is supposed to deal with organized crime and “terrorism,” among other responsibilities, to “prevent and dissuade” crime. Report in Spanish here.

While corruption continues at a massive scale and poverty increases, while the judicial system is seriously inadequate, will a new national police unit really help?

In the midst of all this, we in the religious community here need to continue seeking ways to help the people take responsibility for their lives, develop ways to transform and resolve conflicts without violence, and work toward a culture of justice and peace.

That's not an easy task - but ever little bit we can do may help.

UPDATE: Honduras Culture and Politics blog has an update on what's happening with DNIC and DNSEI, with the concern over the possible militarization of the police.

UPDATE ON SATURDAY, June 8: Friday the Minister of Security, Arturo Corrales, maintained that "the operations of DNIC are suspended, not the agents." An article in Spanish is found here. It still seems odd and a bit of back-tracking.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Why I'm here in Honduras

Six years ago, on June 13, I stepped into life here in southwestern Honduras as a volunteer with the Catholic diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán.

Why did I come here? to be of service to those in need.

When I was discerning whether to come, my spiritual director asked me why? My original answer was “to serve those most in need.”

I’ve changed it because serving means “I” do the serving, whereas “being of service” has the sense that the people here have something for me to do – or, better, to be.

I’ve done a variety of things, especially in the first two years: tried to do campus ministry at the local campus of the Catholic University of Honduras, helped found a lunch program for kids, helped in a literacy class in the prison run by a Spanish Franciscan sister who lives near me, helped in a kindergarten in a poor neighborhood here in Santa Rosa de Copán, visited the home for malnourished kids under 5 run by the Missionaries of Charity, began to help in the parish of Dulce Nombre de María. In January 2009 I began helping in the diocesan Caritas office.

I’m no longer doing a lot of what I did. The lunch program never reopened after the diocese got a new bishop; I moved on from campus ministry for a number of reasons. I still visit the kindergarten and the home for kids once in a while.

Much of my time is with Caritas and with the parish of Dulce Nombre, though I hope to move on to more involvement in the parish.

In the parish, I’m helping with formation of pastoral workers, preparation of materials, visiting communities, and serving as a bridge with several sister-parishes in Iowa.

But what give me life is being with the people, spending time with them, sharing with them about our lives. I ask the men, How are the crops? I ask young people, Are you studying in school? I ask about family members.

Today I asked a friend how his father was doing, widowed a few months ago after more than forty years of marriage. I also asked him about his son who had surgery last week to put a pin in his leg after a traffic accident.

The other day I asked a catechist how the situation was in her village, after someone had been killed there about two weeks ago.

I love working with groups, mostly of pastoral workers, in educational and formation workshops. What is most challenging and satisfying is struggling to find ways to help people learn in a manner that respects their dignity and knowledge, that helps them discover themselves and God. So often they have been talked at. For me teaching is a mutual process, where we learn together. Sometimes I see my role as helping them put a name on what they already know.

This entails a lot of accompanying the people.

In the past few months, I’ve often accompanied the new priest on his visits throughout the parish, partly to get to know him, partly to just get out to be with the people.

I’m hoping soon to begin looking for funding for a few agriculture projects in the parish, but these have to come from the capabilities and desires of the people. Projects just to have projects waste money and time.

But when I look back on my past six years, I am here to be here.

It’s a joy to be here.

Yes, there are difficulties: a car that usually works but that has needed more than $2,300 for repairs and new tires and battery this past year; occasional stomach and bowel maladies; blackouts of electricity.

And there are personal challenges: feelings of loneliness and inadequacy; lapses in understanding what someone is trying to tell me in Spanish; frustrations of various sorts.

But I am where I need to be.

And what more can I offer than my presence, sometimes just by holding a baby.

But, above all, it's a matter of washing feet - as the Master did.

And getting soaked on my birthday.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Working with catechists

This month we’ll be training the catechists in the Dulce Nombre parish on how to use the material to prepare parents and godparents for the baptism of infants and children under seven.

Up till this point, parents who wanted their children baptized had to be in base communities. The parish is still promoting base communities, but is opening up baptism to all families who want their children baptized. this doesn’t mean merely dispensing sacraments; the parents and god-parents will have to participate in five sessions and a short retreat.

I prepared the material and Padre German and I reviewed it – correcting my errors in Spanish.

The material is participative, with several questions for the participants. This is a change since many people here are accustomed to receiving or giving  charlas –talks – where one person talks and everyone else listens.

Padre German and I will be doing the training sessions in four places in the parish.

He couldn’t make the first one yesterday because of a clergy meeting and so I did it solo in the village of Agua Buena Concepción.

I arrived just in time and found 24 catechists ready to begin. After personal introductions, a song, and a prayer, we went outside the church where we met and I ask them to line up according to age, without speaking. It sort of worked, but what I found encouraging was that about half of those present were under thirty, including two fourteen year olds. (I was NOT the oldest participant, though.)

I began by walking through the rite of baptism – with “parents” and “godparents,” using a statue of the baby Jesus for the infant.

Then we worked on the material together.

I think it went well and I know they were appreciative of the different methodology. I just hope that they get used to using a participative approach.

The only major problem we had was the rain.  Usually during this time of the year it only rains late in the day, but yesterday heavy rain storms started in the late morning. In the tin-roofed church it was hard to hear and I had to shout to make myself heard.

I planned to finish at 1:30 but they had so many questions about the new policies that Padre German has for the parish that we didn’t leave until 2:30. It was great to experience their openness about the past and about the new policies. I'm hopeful.

I made it back to Santa Rosa about 4 o’clock but went straight to the mechanic, since there was a strange noise coming from the right front tire. I even stopped once since I thought I might have a flat tire. It ends up that they’ll have to install a new “bomba de frenos,” a brake pump, which they might have to send for from San Pedro.

Ah, the “fun” of a twenty-year old pick up which navigates terrible roads.

I fee very good about our workshop and I’m looking forward to others.

I even got to hold a super-friendly baby during the workshop, while her mother worked in a small group or ate lunch.

Monday, June 03, 2013

So called gang truce in Honduras - more thoughts

There’s an interesting article on Bishop Romulo Emiliani in ACI Prensa (accessible here in Spanish)on what many are calling a truce between the two major gangs in Honduras.

Bishop Emiliani said, “they have made a declaration of principles for reconciliation, with God, the society and the government; both gangs have concurred on this, without speaking with each other.”

Many commentators have spoken of a truce that included no crimes, no violence, and no extortion. I was skeptical about the promise of no extortions, which I had not heard. Up to this point, that gangs have been demanding “war taxes” or what we might call “protection money” from taxi drivers, bus companies, small businesses.

But,as Bishop Emiliani notes, one gang leader promised no crimes against the civilian population and the other said no more extortions.

It is a long process, which, according to the bishop, could last decades. He called it a process of “iluminación” – illumination, based in the desire of the gang members to stop the suffering of their children.”

What I heard in the statements of the gang leaders was a concern that there are no jobs, there is no real commitment to rehabilitation in the jails, there is discrimination against gang members, there are cases where the police violate their right and even, some say, kill gang members without cause. They want their children to have real jobs, real opportunities.

It is thus a process which needs not only dialogue and reconciliation between the gangs as well as between the gangs and society; it needs the involvement of the government, which, according to Bishop Emiliani, is participating in the process very timidly.

There is hope – but it’s a long journey.

Meanwhile, violence continues and people suffer the effects of structural poverty.