"There exists the belief – on the part of those who utilize violence – that humans and entire populations suffer from historical amnesia. That is to say that they quickly forget unjust and traumatic deeds. This affirmation requires reflection because if there is anything that registers in memory, it is trauma."
- Juan Almendares, Executive Director, Center for the Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Families, Hondura
For more than two decades, the 62 year old Honduran physician, Juan Almendares, has been something of a legend, not only in his native Honduras but in many parts of the world. During the troubled 1980's, the entire Central American region was convulsed by popular uprisings, confrontations between the armies of the area and leftist insurgents, and a full-scale campaign of terror and repression. The dreaded death squads, which often consisted of members of the security forces, operated with impunity.
It was during this critical period of Honduran history that Juan Almendares became known internationally, first as the respected dean of the faculty at the National University of Honduras, and later, in 1979, as the university's president. In spite of open opposition from the military, Juan Almendares was re-elected for a second term in 1982.
During a period when many professionals and intellectuals were forced into exile, Juan Almendares stayed in Honduras and became a prominent defender of human rights. The result was to be expected: the outspoken university president found himself on the list of paramilitary death squads and was himself subjected to torture.
Over the years, Dr. Almendares's contributions have been considerable, diverse and far-reaching. In 1995 he co-founded the Center for the Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Families (CPTRT). A curandero (traditional healer), Juan Almendares has successfully adopted an integrated approach to health and well-being, utilizing both herbal and western medicinal practices and actively taken into consideration the belief constructs of his patients. He has lent his voice to the expressed concerns and grievances of the peasant and indigenous populations, and spoken openly against environmental abuse and industrial contamination.
A societal change agent, Dr. Almendares has worked to decrease the prevalence of domestic violence against women in a machismo society and to safeguard the welfare of children. In his hours away from CPTRT, he administers a no-fee medical clinic for the poor and visits prisons and detention centers. Sixteen-hour workdays are often the norm.
Dr. Almendares's own upbringing in poverty and his early exposure to violence has served to solidify the connection between the healer and his clientele.
"I have always considered that the best way to develop observation and reflection is by beginning with ourselves. One method by which to analyze a human subject is to start with his or her story of pain and suffering. Because love and compassion for those who suffer move us to share and transform the reality of another and at the same time our own reality."
"In my own story, only until five years ago did I begin to explain to myself why I wake up to work each day at 3:00 in the morning. When I was eight years old, at the same hour, I was informed by my Mother that my Father had been assassinated."
According to Finn Kjaerulff, who nominated Juan Almendares for the Barbara Chester Award :
"Juan has been safeguarded primarily because he is well known. He was a dean at the university in the 1980s; before that he was the head of the medical faculty. As such Juan has taught many of those government officials who are now in high positions. He works in a non-condemnation way – compassionate, love, coexistence, everyone has a right – he considers all aspects. It is inspiring to see him – there always is someone to see him wherever he goes. Everybody knows him – he's a public foundation."
Language of Terror
"It was one of the most difficult and painful periods in our history," recalled Juan Almendares during his stay in Copenhagen for a seminar. "Several close friends were killed in those years, my house was machine-gunned, we were forced to sleep on the floor for fear of new assaults, my children were threatened, and for two years I had to change houses daily. There were times when no one dared to be in the same room with me."
"It was a manifestation of terror and, at the same time, a deliberate attempt to destroy both my family and me. I honestly do not believe that we would have survived without the support expressed by the international medical and academic community."
Over the last decade, Honduras has been converted into a scene of violence where the security forces, both military and the military-controlled police, use police-state methods, torture, organized violence and death-squad activities to break down the opposition. There has been a rapid increase in the use of high-caliber arms by the military, and paramilitary groups carry out their own "justice" outside the law.
Private security companies have become big business and comprise a 'parallel army' with an even larger number of 'soldiers' than the armed forces. The owners of this parallel army are the military leaders themselves. As a consequence, much of the population lives in a situation of constant fear, terror, and insecurity.
Bombs are frequently used to influence constituent democratic components of society, such as the National Congress, the Ministry of the Economy, local courts, as well as human rights organizations. The kidnapping, extortion, and hired assassinations of business people are very common in the country and the violent removal of rural workers' (campesinos) families from land that they have lived on for years while cultivating their corn and beans has become routine.
Recent events illustrate the grave situation that exists in Honduras with regard to violence, in justice and lack of respect for human life. Military fugitives responsible for 184 disappearances and acts of torture continue to act with total impunity. In spite of a court order for their capture, these fugitives from justice organized a press conference and the authorities were not capable of capturing them.
Since 1994, the country has begun a process of transferring the police, hitherto controlled by the military, to civilian control. This process has generated a national debate because the armed forces continue pressing for military control of the civilian police authorities. Despite the existence of a number of honest judges, much corruption exists in the judicial system, such as in cases where military members are involved in the 'disappearances'. Though allegedly involved in drug trafficking, theft of vehicles, and the violation of human rights, these officials remain at large, without conviction.
An alliance between certain members of the congress, the military and the private sector, representing powerful political and financial interests, has opposed the creation of a non-political and independent judicial system. The result is a weak judicial system unable to give individuals facing criminal charges a swift and fair trial. Apart from granting something close to general immunity to members of the military and the political and social elite, the system has failed to the extent that 80 to 90 per cent of Honduras's prison population is incarcerated without having been convicted or having had their cases tried in court. The majority have been beaten and tortured by the military and the police during detention before going to prison. A constant lack of resources produces miserable conditions for the prisoners including severe overcrowding, undernourishment and horrible sanitation.
Economics and Violence
In a historic sense, Dr. Almendares describes the country as being "in a state of permanent emergency." One of the very poorest of Latin American countries, the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 in which more than 5,000 people died and much of the country's infrastructure was destroyed put Honduras "in the intensive care unit." According to the World Bank, the Honduran external debt in 1999 was over 4,400 million U.S. dollars.
According to Juan Almendares, "poverty creates the condition of violence. The hungry are induced to see their bodies (prostitution, traffic of children) and the land. The reconstruction process has favored the wealthiest people, with more exclusion of the poor a great potential to develop violent confrontations among the social groups."
The Honduras government has encouraged mining and timber companies, making fundamental changes in the Mine Code to further protect the interests of the industry. As a result, two-thirds of the river basin has been deforested, and over 30% of national territory is now controlled by mining companies. Contamination of the land with cyanide and heavy metals has been well documented and is increasing.
Taking Care of Victims
Initially, the majority of victims of torture who were treated by Dr. Almendares were conscripted soldiers, often peasants, who were, allegedly, coerced into military service. "Other victims were peasants who tried to reclaim land that had been cultivated for generations by their community, and from which they had been driven violently by the military or paramilitary security forces."
In an effort to repress the protests against forced conscription and removal from indigenes' ancestral lands, the practice of torture became "commonplace". Because these incidents occurred in rural areas, "many cases of torture or ill-treatment of prisoners never reached the newspapers or become public knowledge."
Torture in prisons became "routine" and still occurs today. The survivors have been reluctant to publicize their experiences during their extended periods of illegal detention. Much of Dr. Almendares's present work takes place within the confines of Honduran prisons and jails.
In 1995, Dr. Almendares and colleagues established the Center for the Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Families (CPTRT). The Center serves a double purpose: "On the one hand, it treats survivors of torture. On the other, it works to prevent the practice of torture. If authorities know that we are able to document this kind of institutionalized abuse, they may be afraid of the resulting international attention."
Some positive changes have been forthcoming as a result of Dr. Almendares's and CPTRT efforts. The government has permitted human rights organizations to work in the prisons and police detention centers to help prevent future abuses. Some police and military have been disciplined and incarcerated for their abusive behavior. A more cooperative working relationship has been developed between the CPTRT and the Minister of Security and Attorney General's personnel. Discussions have begun to increase sensitivity in regards to the treatment of women prisoners and children.
During the last two years, the Honduras center has treated about 100 "intensive care" cases utilizing a multidisciplinarian approach. During this same period of time another approximate 1,200 people have presented at CPTRT as a result of being victims of organized violence. These figures do not represent Dr. Almendares's and the CPTRT's team's work efforts in the prisons or with health workers in rural areas.
"We need not combat violence with violence. It is necessary that we contribute with all of mind and heart to national reconciliation and transform the policies that breed hatred, violence, poverty and injustice. True security lies in the love and respect of human rights."
The era of the guerilla has subsided, and the period of military dictatorships in Honduras officially came to an end in 1981, when general Policarpo Paz handed over political power to the civilian president, Roberto Suazo Cordoba, the first popularly elected president for more than 20 years. But the threats and violence have not stopped.
"We have seen the emergence of the military as an important, economic factor. Whereas the role of the Honduran military was originally to safeguard the interests of the traditional economic elite, many high-ranking officers are now key players in the economy. This is obvious by the number of privatized state enterprises that are controlled by the top brass. The officers own banks, financial institutions – even undertakers' businesses and a cemetery on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, the capital. It is because of these holdings that a saying has been going the rounds among many Hondurans: When the soldiers kill you, the officers can make money from your funeral."
During the 1980's, Honduras became a relevant U.S. military base and a place for the operation of counter-revolutionary forces of Nicaragua (contras). Today, in spite of the peace process in Central America, Honduras is one of the most important U.S. military bases in Latin America. Over 5,000 United States troops are now stationed in Honduras and U.S. military maneuvers are routinely conducted. Drug traffic and arms smuggling have becdome very important issues in the country. As a geopolitical zone, Honduras is close to: Cuba, Miami, Chiapas (Mexico), Puerto Rico, Panama, and Columbia. The country has frontiers with El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.
Despite the public appearance of democracy, there is a tremendous gap between the authoritarian government and civil society. Face-to-face communication with the overwhelming majority of the people – the impoverished – is almost absent. The media is controlled by the traditional parties and by the government. The people are informed after policies are made. Civilian distrust in politicians and the government is widespread. The national tribunal of elections has discussed changing the date of elections.
Indigenous demonstrations protesting forced dislocation and government economic policies and practices continue to be met with military and police brutality. In the last five years more than 40 indigenous and black leaders have been killed and the rate of kidnapping and "disappearances" have increased without explanation by government authorities. Paramilitary groups have been organized with cooperation from the military. Testimonies describing these killings and related human rights abuses are well documented (ref., July 18, 2001 testimonial entitled "Teresa and the Children of Gualaco" by Juan Almendares, and recent Amnesty International reports).
Regarding the Barbara Chester Award
The USD $10,000 Barbara Chester Award was used to lend support to, and provide care for poor communities in Honduras. These communities are poor and subjected to much violence, and torture.
The Award funds also helped us to achieve greater communication with the world on the people, the environment, and the fight against torture. I support my own personal needs with my $600 monthly pension and provide free services at our clinic.
I continue the work at the Center for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture and their Families (CPTRT).
I keep the silver feather sculpture in my office, always wondering about the Barbara Chester Award. The sculpture provides recognition of the efforts of the fight against torture.