Reflection by John Johns

ICUJP Reflection by John Johns

Aug. 29, 2014

My reflection this morning is about the human condition or more accurately the human spirit. The good and bad of it. From recent trips to Guatemala and Honduras as part of a human rights delegation, I want to share with you a few stories of people that reflect the cavalier and duplicitous, the courageous and the wise.

Our delegation attended Catholic mass in the Lenca indigenous community of Rio Blanco, Honduras.  Being isolated they only get a visit twice a year from a priest and mainly to perform the sacraments. None the less they are devout Catholics who have not submerged their own culture. The simple little church where mass was held could hold about 125 people. Every space was filled and the crowd spilled outside. There was a strong feeling of community within the walls and a timeless beauty even though there wasn’t a stain glass window, gold chalice or marble statue within 250 miles. It was the beauty of generations living together and of shared struggle. The celebrant of the mass gave a very wise and moving sermon essentially saying that there is God’s law and there is man’s law but often man’s law is immoral and so you have to follow one’s conscience. It could have been written and delivered by Martin Luther King.  

As many of you know there is a ritual in the middle of the Catholic mass were people greet each other and say, “Peace be with you or the peace of Christ be with you.”

And it is meant exactly as that. A greeting of peace.

Standing behind me at the main entrance were three armed men in military uniforms and sunglasses. When the senior officer shook my hand, it marked the first time in my life that a uniformed soldier with a loaded shotgun said, “Peace be with you.” Not doubting his sincerity, I sincerely hope that the sermon was not lost on him.

The Lenca are superb ecologists. And it is demonstrated in the health of their forests. Their community in Rio Blanco is in complete resistance to the development of a hydroelectric dam which will destroy their habitat, their community, their culture and the river that has been their communal property for 25 generations.

Adjacent to the church is a regional office for the National Police. The National Police had never set foot in the region until powerful interests decided to build this dam.  Since then several members of the community have been killed.

The U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa is a high tech maximum fortress with lots of large men surrounding the building who talk into their lapels. They fit into suits that are a size and half too small for them.  

Previously, we had been told that we could not meet the new Ambassador. But five minutes into our meeting, career diplomat James Nealon, came bounding in like a eager sales manager closing deals at a Chevrolet Labor Day sellathon.

“I’m so glad you folks are here. Human Rights are our number one priority here at the Embassy. You know I just came from the big, bad Southern Command, I know everybody thinks its evil. But I learned all about human rights from a great general who was in charge of the Southern Command. Just an incredible amount of knowledge about human rights from him, four star Marine Corp General John Kelly. And, General Kelly always said that there wasn’t a security unit in the world that hadn’t committed a human rights violation. But as a matter of course we will always investigate any violation.”

Shouldn’t the State Department be teaching the Marines about human rights?

Is there anything more wonderful in the human experience than a teenage girl who loves, admires and wants to walk in her father’s footsteps? Is there anything more wonderful than a teenage girl with a big smile and even bigger heart? Is there anything better than a teenage girl who loves and emulates her father-especially when he is a poor, humble but very courageous man.

That describes Merilyn Topacio Reynoso Pacheco, a tiny 16 year-old girl, four feet seven inches tall and 81 pounds from the village of Mataquesscuintla about an hour southwest of Guatemala City. Topacio as she is called, is a poet, and a singer who plays the guitar and the marimba and who dreams of becoming a doctor and serving her community. As a pre-med student she is immersed in her studies. 

As we speak, her community is under dire threat from the Escobal Mine, located just 7 miles from Topacio’s home. The mine is owned by Tahoe Resources, a huge Canadian corporation, largely owned by US investors.

The Escobal Mine when fully operational will be 12 miles wide in circumference. For every ounce of gold it will produce 30 tons of waste. Large scale gold, silver, and tin mining operations require the damming of rivers to provide hundreds of millions of gallons of water and the use of chemicals such as cyanide to flush out these metals.

For Topacio and for thousands of other Guatemalans mining is death not wealth. Being surrounded by mine is the equivalent of living next to a nuclear waste dump.

A few miles from Topacio’s community lies Lake San Rafael las Flores. Just a few years ago it was a beautiful pristine lake as pretty and about the size of Lake Tahoe. Today because of the tons of tailings and cyanide runoff from mining, the lake is completely toxic. Any bird or animal or human that drinks from it dies instantly.

With her community facing extinction, Topacio and her father Alex, have been leading their community’s resistance to mining. Topacio’s dad founded, Peaceful Resistance in Defense of Natural Resources of Mataquesscuintla.

Last year the two of them organized a referendum against the Escobal Mine Project. In spite of threats, intimidation and attempted bribery from the company, so effective and successful were the Reynoso’s in their campaign that 96% of community voted against mining. Topacio, working alongside her father led the community’s teenagers by organizing rallies, putting up posters and making speeches. All of which are subversive activities subject to arrest and torture.

Guatemala is ruled by Otto Perez Molina, a former general, who is linked to the genocide of the 1980’s, has placed the region under a state of siege giving him carte blanche to arrest anyone suspected of being in opposition to the mines.

In Topacio’s village, once the referendum was held retributions began. Immediately, a local manager for Tahoe resources filed criminal charges falsely accusing seven community members involved in the referendum of crimes including kidnapping and terrorism. Then random arrest warrants and raids of homes of those in the campaign were executed under the state of siege.

Last fall Topacio started receiving death threats. But it didn’t deter her.   She continued to organize, she continued speak out and she continued to lead her community. But as expected the violence and the repression grew.

Topacio continued to receive death threats. They increased in number and in venom. She received them at school, at home and wherever she went. This still didn’t deter Topacio or her dad as they fought on to save their community.

Then late on Sunday evening April 13th   Topacio and her father were walking home from a community event in a neighboring village when a car pulled along side them. At point blank range two gunmen shot and seriously wounded her father.  Then they opened fire on Topacio killing her instantly.

Her voice is now stilled but not her spirit. At her funeral the entire community turned out. They sang her favorite songs, they recited her poetry, and they celebrated her courage. Her assassination has galvanized her peers. Now as best they can teenagers throughout Guatemala have picked up her banner.

In Guatemala, anyone who speaks out knows they will be silenced. They know that their demise will be brutal.

What this tiny little teenager stood for is the right of a people and a community to self-determination.  She would not be bullied or intimidated by the threats of the mining industry, which operates with impunity with the full cooperation of a tyrannical government that has murdered its own people for generations and financed by the US taxpayer. This is organized crime in its most pernicious form.

This technique of intimidation, bribery, criminalization and assassination is also used in Honduras.

Jose Isabel “Chabelo” Morales Lopez, 38, is a small farmer, a campesino, whose family is part of Honduras’ agricultural communities in the Aguán Valley in the heart of the African palm-producing region of the northern coast. He has been in prison for 6 years for a crime that he did not commit. His arrest and imprisonment are aimed at punishing and criminalizing the campesino movement in Honduras.

Chabelo’s community, Guadalupe Carney, was founded after the campesinos took possession of an abandoned US military base in 2000. The government’s Agrarian Institute recognized the campesinos’ right to the land, and over the years most of the community’s cooperatives were granted land titles. Former military officials and other large landowners who refused to participate in the government’s settlement in favor of the small farmers illegally acquired land title prior to and after 2000. One of these is Henry Osorto, ex-military official and current Chief of the National Police. Another is Miguel Facussé, the largest landowner in Honduras. The community has lost numerous leaders and members to violent attacks by private paramilitary guards hired by Osorto and Facussé. Osorto is also in charge of the prison system and is essentially Chabelo’s judge, jury and executioner. Both Osorto and Facusse were the leaders of the 2009 coup.

In meeting Chabelo in prison and later in staying with his mother and brothers, they stated that international pressure and accompaniment has kept him from being executed. He had been tortured and his health is deteriorating. He looks 20 years older than his age. He is a father and has a one year old whom he has never seen.  

Impunity is the operative word for life in Guatemala and Honduras. It is a fact of life that society is organized for the benefit of each country’s oligarchy and the multi-national companies they do business with. All of this under the watchful eye and long arm of the U.S. government. This is a criminal element that will not surrender power nor share any resources or wealth. It is as bad if not worse than the old South.

The spirit of Guatemalans and Hondurans fighting for the life of their communities and culture can be summed up by the words that a Lenca elder said to us in Rio Blanco.

We live with the great spirit of our ancestors. They had the courage to fight off and resist the Spanish. The land is us and we are the land. It gives us life, its gives us food, it gives us trees which gives us clean air to breath. The dams will give us none of that. The outside people only bring death and destruction. We love our children and we are fighting for them. We love our ancestors and we are fighting for them. The outsiders will have to kill us before we will leave. We are not afraid to die.

Let us live like Topacio and her dad, like Chabelo and his brothers, and like the Lenca and Garifuna and the Mayan. Let us live as they do unafraid to speak to truth to power no matter the consequences. Let us honor Topacio’s life, Chabelo’s perseverance and the Lenca’s resistance by living as courageously as they have.


Their lives are priceless, gold and palm oil are not.


John Johns,

School of the America’s Watch


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