Jose Pepe Palacios says his mission is to inform the U.S. government and LGBT Americans that at least 89 LGBT people in Honduras, including gay rights advocates, have been murdered since military leaders ousted his country’s elected president in a 2009 coup.
Palacios, a resident of the capital city of Tegucigalpa, began a seven-city U.S. tour in Chicago on Jan. 30. He was scheduled to arrive in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, where, among other appearances, he was to speak on Friday at noon at a public gathering at the offices of the National Council of Churches at 110 Maryland Ave., N.E., on Capitol Hill.
He told the Washington Blade that he hopes to build support in the U.S. for a coalition of LGBT and progressive groups in his country that seek to peacefully challenge anti-democratic forces they believe are responsible for many of the murders.
“The Obama administration has said they will promote human rights and LGBT rights,” Palacios said. “And Hillary Clinton said that human rights are gay rights. So one of the reasons I’m doing this is to ask for support to pressure the Honduran government to investigate these cases and also to create awareness of the number of these cases.”
Palacios was scheduled to meet this week with members of the staff of U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.).
Andy Thayer, co-founder of the Chicago-based Gay Liberation Network, which is one of the sponsors of Palacios’ U.S. tour, said human rights activists in Honduras believe many if not most of the LGBT murders following the 2009 coup were motivated by political retribution. According to Thayer, a majority of the LGBT community in Honduras has been supportive of a resistance movement that has opposed the post-coup government and participates in demonstrations against government leaders.
Palacios said that among the LGBT people murdered since the coup were gay activist Walter Torchez and gay candidate for the Honduran Congress, Eric Martinez Alvia, an organizer for the Liberty and Refoundation Party, or LIBRE, which represents many of the resistance groups protesting against the current government.
Palacios is a founding member of Diversity Movement in Resistance (MDR), an LGBT advocacy organization. He is also a member of the National Steering Committee of the Honduras National Front of Popular Resistance (NRP), which has staged protest demonstrations against the government.
Thayer called the LGBT murders “a systematic campaign of targeted hate crimes and political assassination.” He said that as the country gears up for its first contested election since the coup, set to take place in November, “many fear that the violence will get even worse.”
The LGBT murders come at a time when Honduras has the distinction of having the highest murder rate of any country in the world. The U.S. State Department’s country report on Honduras says many of the murders are related to warring drug cartels and abject poverty that forces desperate people to commit armed robberies often resulting in killings.
The report acknowledges that some of the murders are due to political rivalries. Human rights observers have said corrupt police officers or law enforcement officials allied with entrenched political factions are also believed to be responsible for some of the murders, including the slayings of LGBT activists.
Palacios said that of the 89 LGBT murders since 2009, 52 of the victims were transgender women.
“The United States is focused on helping the Honduran government combat impunity, resolve murder cases, reform the Honduran police, and strengthen human rights institutions,” said Evan Owen, press officer for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.
The 2009 coup, which resulted in the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya, took place amid a constitutional dispute over whether Zelaya had authority to call a non-binding referendum to determine whether public support existed to hold a constitutional convention and make significant changes in the nation’s political system.
As an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Zelaya’s move toward constitutional changes alarmed the conservative factions in the country, who feared he would put in place a Chavez-style socialist government. Supporters, including many LGBT activists, believed Zelaya was seeking to make needed reforms to lift the majority of the country’s population from conditions of poverty and despair.
The Obama administration denounced the coup and called for an immediate restoration of the country’s democratic institutions. But activists in the U.S. and Honduras have said the U.S. appeared to have been privately supportive of the coup. Palacios said it is widely known in the country that Honduran military leaders, who took Zelaya into custody, flew him to a U.S. military base in Honduras before flying him to Costa Rica, where he remained in exile for several years.
Further suspicions of U.S. motives surfaced a few months later, when the U.S. gave its backing to elections called and arranged by coup leaders under supervision of international observers. The country’s current president, Porfirio Lobo of the conservative National Party, won that election.
Owen of the State Department declined to comment on allegations by activists that the U.S. support for the current government was giving tacit support for violence against gays and others by corrupt elements, including police, associated with the government.
“We strongly support the rule of law and respect for the constitutional separation of powers as well as a fair and transparent democratic process,” Owen said of the U.S. policy toward Honduras. He said the U.S., among other things, is providing assistance to the Honduran government to “strengthen its investigative capacity” to combat possible human rights abuses.
With that as a backdrop, the left-leaning LIBRE Party last year nominated through a primary election Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro, as its candidate for president in the November 2013 election. In a development that has thrilled LGBT activists, including Palacios, the LGBT supportive Castro (who’s not related to Cuba’s Fidel Castro) has emerged as the leading candidate in a Gallup Poll conducted in January.
Her husband, who can’t run for president under the constitution’s term limit provision, is running for a seat in the Congress.
In what LGBT advocates consider a historic development, a transgender woman and an openly gay man ran in last year’s primary for congressional seats as LIBRE candidates. Both lost their races, but Palacios called their candidacies and the LIBRE party’s support for LGBT equality a major advance for his country.
With the candidates from the two longstanding “establishment” parties — the right-wing National Party and the center-right Liberal Party — trailing Castro in the polls, Palacios said he fears conservative forces will manufacture a “crisis” in an attempt to postpone or cancel the election. None of the other candidates have expressed support for LGBT rights, Palacios said.
“That’s why we are asking a number of organizations from the international community to go in delegations in November to observe the electoral process and make sure it’s a just process.”