Honduras: showdown at border as Zelaya attempts to return

More than two weeks after the Honduran military blocked his jet at the Tegucigalpa airport, deposed President Manuel Zelaya made a second attempt to return to the country July 24—sparking another confrontation between his supporters and security forces. This time, he approached by land from Nicaragua, in a motorcade that that included journalists, political supporters and the foreign minister of Venezuela, as well as an escort of Nicaraguan police. At the Honduran border post of Las Manos, a thick line of soldiers held back hundreds of Zelaya supporters chanting “Viva Mel!”

Zelaya supporters defy curfew, roadblocks
The 400 or so protesters who made it to the border were those who evaded or pushed past a military checkpoint established some six miles into Honduran territory, where a much larger crowd gathered and demanded their right to pass. Soldiers fired tear gas in an effort to disperse the crowd. Those who made it through in the chaos marched to the border chanting “We are not afraid!”

At a morning press conference in the northern Nicaraguan town of EstelĂ­, Zelaya pledged to “return peacefully to Honduras… We come with a white flag of peace to proclaim the reconciliation of the Honduran people.”

But the Los Angeles Times reports that officials in Washington urged Zelaya to postpone his attempt to return, in order to avoid bloodshed. The LA Times also quoted Honduran National Police Chief Manuel Escoto, who said that Zelaya would be arrested if he stepped on Honduran soil. He said the entire police force had been deployed across the country, with roadblocks and searches being carried out in the border region. Aasked about fears for Zelaya’s life, Escoto said: “We will respect his physical integrity.”

But military spokesman Ramiro Archaga told AFP the armed forces could not guarantee Zelaya’s security if he attempted to return to the country. An ominous official statement from the armed forces said: “We cannot be responsible for the security of persons who foment generalized violence in the country. They are subject to be attacked, including by their own followers with the aim of turning them into martyrs.”

A daytime has been imposed in the border zone, with all residents ordered to stay indoors from noon on Friday the 24th until 6 AM the next morning. The rest of the country remains under a midnight-to-4:30 AM curfew.

In the end, both sides backed off a little. Zelaya did cross the border, slipping under the chain across the road that separates Nicaragua from Honduras, and exulted in the cheers of his supporters gathered there. But he proceeded no further into Honduran territory, and returned to Nicaragua after some 30 minutes. Because he stayed in the no-man’s-land along the border, the authorities did not arrest him. Zelaya said he retreated to avoid being the spark for a violent confrontation. “I am not afraid, but I also am not stupid,” he told reporters before heading back to Nicaraguan territory. (LAT, July 25; LAT, AFP, AP, Comun-Noticias, Honduras, July 24)

Protest actions keep up the pressure
On the 23rd, protesters again blocked roads throughout the country. Beginning at 8 AM, a takeover started at the Durazno police post on the Pan-American Highway just outside Tegucigalpa. Highway takeovers were also reported at the bridge to Puerto Cortes in Choloma; and near the highway exits to Comayagua and La Paz. Marches were held in Progreso, Cofradía, Santa Bárbara, Colon, Islas de la Bahía and other towns.

In Tegucigalpa, occupations were launched of several public institutions, including the Social Security administration, the National Agrarian Institute (INA), the National Electrical Energy Corporation (ENEE), the Francisco Morazán National Pedagogical University and the Telecommunications Corporation (Hondutel). The army was deployed and tanks mobilized at several locations. A confrontation between army troops and protesting workers was reported at the Hondutel building, with several protesters detained. Students also staged occupations at high schools and primary schools throughout the country. (National Front Against the Coup via Honduras Resists, July 23)

Police on strike
In an uncomfortable development for the de facto regime, more than 300 National Police agents at the Barrio Belén station of the Tegucigalpa Metropolitan command, on the northern outskirts of the capital, went on strike July 23 to protest that a wage increase they had been promised was never implemented. Congress president Alfredo Saavedra said the new budget would include salary hikes for the police and military, but there is fear the strike could spread at a time when the security forces are already overstretched. The National Police force is 10,000 strong across the country. (EFE, Comun-Noticias, July 23)

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  1. Honduras: army blocked thousands of protesters
    According to both resistance organizers and international wire services, thousands of Hondurans headed to the border with Nicaragua when they learned that President Zelaya would try to reenter there at the Las Manos border post in El ParaĂ­so department on July 24. The military responded by deploying a large number of troops to stop the movement toward the border. The de facto regime also imposed a round-the-clock curfew on the department.

    Witnesses reported 14 to 20 military roadblocks along the 100-kilometer route from Tegucigalpa to Las Manos. Protesters were also detained when they tried to come from Choluteca and Olancho departments. Two teams of investigators from COFADEH headed by the group’s general coordinator, Bertha Oliva, were stopped at Arenales, 7km from DanlĂ­, El ParaĂ­so. Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the president’s wife, was also stopped there for several hours, along with the couple’s daughters and the president’s mother, Hortensia Rosales. Protesters who managed to get through some roadblocks found themselves trapped by others; they were unable to go forward or back, and had to sleep outdoors. The military also blocked food shipments and medical supplies. A number of protesters were sick from exposure, while others were suffering from the effects of tear gas or beatings by the police.

    The Reuters wire service reported that by July 26 many protesters were discouraged and were trying to head for home. “We’re tired and there’s no food,” protester CĂ©sar Castro told Reuters. “We’re going to withdraw to Tegucigalpa, where most of the people are,” Lilian Ordoñez, a school teacher, explained. “We have to change our strategy.” (Minga Informativo de Moviemientos Sociales, July 25 from VĂ­a Campesina, July 25 from ComĂşn Noticias; Prensa Latina, July 26; La Jornada, July 26 from Reuters)

    But others were circumventing military roadblocks by cutting across the countryside. Four resistance leaders—Salvador Zúñiga and Berta Cáceres from the Civic Council of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), and Miriam Miranda and Alfredo López from the Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH)—set out with a group of about 230 protesters to reach the Las Manos border post through the mountains during the weekend of July 25. Supporters lost cellular contact with the four at about 6 AM on July 26 and reported them missing, but they were contacted in the evening and said they were still trying to get to Las Manos.

    According to the Mexican daily La Jornada, in the 1980s the rugged terrain at the border around Las Manos was the site of encampments by some 20,000 US-backed contra fighters seeking to overthrow Nicaragua’s leftist government of the time. The de facto Honduran government’s foreign minister, Carlos LĂłpez Contreras, was foreign minister then too, from 1986 to 1990; one of his jobs was denying that the contras were operating in Honduran territory, which led many to call him “Carlos LĂłpez Contras.” In his current position as foreign minister, he has been demanding that foreign governments “respect [Honduran] sovereignty.” (LJ, July 26 from Notimex, 27 from correspondent)

    From Weekly News Update on the Americas, July 26