Jose Isabel “Chavelo” Morales Lopez has been imprisoned in Honduras for more than three years without evidence, sentencing, or justice.
Three of the seats in the fifteen-passenger van are taken up with luggage, but there are still fourteen people on board. So it is packed, perhaps not by Honduran standards, but still pretty full. Starting out at 7:00 in the morning, we are all making the two-hour drive from the town of Tocoa in the state of Colon to La Ceiba in Atlantida to visit the prisoner.
Here is a break down of who is riding in the van: there is me. Then there is the driver. He is a young guy from Tegucigalpa who may have gotten more than he bargained for when he signed on for this trip. He has a wife and a couple of kids back in the capitol. For a few years he was on the farm team for a professional soccer team, but now he is a mechanic. He got recruited to drive the van when the regular driver couldn’t make it.
Also on board are six human rights activists from Chicago. Their group, La Voz de los de Abajo, organized the trip because they are dedicated to human rights and justice in Honduras. There is not much for them to be optimistic about. Maybe they can exert a little international pressure in the case of the prisoner.
The leader of the group is a little tense this morning. She was at a meeting with Honduran human rights groups late into the night. The meeting may have been under surveillance. A white truck may have followed the van back to our hotel. She asks us to be on the look out for license plate “pad 0075”.
A radio journalist from Boulder, Colorado has joined the group to go to the prison. She is squeezed in with a digital recorder in one hand and an I-phone in the other. Sometimes she records conversations and interviews with one, sometimes with the other, sometimes with both.
Sitting in the jump seat back among the luggage is a handsome, muscular Honduran man who works at a community radio station. He is dedicated to human rights, but is also looking forward to getting home because he has 3,000 coffee plants he needs to get in the ground. Hopefully in three years he will be harvesting and selling coffee.
The other Honduran activist traveling in the van is a pretty woman who supports landless people in finding abandoned property they can legally occupy. These land occupations are allowed under Honduran law to a very limited extent, but even when they are probably legal they are always contested and conflictual. Much violence occurs when the owner of record realizes land he has abandoned is being claimed by groups of poor people for sustenance farming. The compañera is articulate and fierce in her advocacy for poor people, especially poor women. She recently learned that one of her sons is in a detention center for undocumented immigrants in Texas.
The rest of the space in the van is taken up by the prisoner’s family; his mother, his young, pretty wife, one of his teenage sisters and his youngest brother. The prisoner and his family are from a small town in the Aguan Valley called Guadalupe Carney. The town is named after a radical Catholic priest. It is located on abandoned military land. A group of compesinos organized and occupied it. After years of murder, bloodshed, disappearances, torture, and intimidation, the community was collectively given title to most the land they had claimed. It is not great land. Much of it may be contaminated by waste left by the military, but it can grow enough beans and rice to live on. There is a radio station, a school, a health care center, a sewing collaborative, an open air barber shop, and a small restaurant under a thatched roof. Everyone is dirt poor, but for now they own the land. Guadalupe Carney is a model of what can happen when land is redistributed to those who need it most.
The prisoner became the prisoner over a piece of land in Guadalupe Carney that was still under dispute.
The prisoner’s mother has been up most the night cooking. She has prepared a five-gallon bucket full of nacatamales, still warm and steaming in their banana leaf wrappings. Everyone will have something delicious to eat for lunch when they are visiting her son. She has also baked enough bread and cakes to fill a large plastic basin covered by a clean embroidered cloth. She sells the baked goods to prisoners, visitors, and guards to cover the cost of these trips to see her son. The mother is diminutive and energetic. She has given birth to eighteen children. The prisoner is her second oldest son. I bet she is at least ten years younger than me.
The prisoner’s youngest brother is eleven year old. He is only in the van fifteen minutes when he is looking for a plastic bag to throw up in. One of the members of the Chicago delegation wants to help him out. He offers him Dramamine. This man has two kids of his own back in Chicago. He is an attentive father. He video chats with his family whenever he can find a wifi connection. After the correct dosage has been figured out and the boy has downed the Dramamine tablet, the man from Chicago gives him his smart phone to play with. This boy may well be the only kid from Guadalupe Carney to ever play Angry Birds. He seems to forget about being carsick. It is too soon for the pill to have kicked in. I am thinking the Droid is better medicine than the Dramamine, but then, twenty-minutes later, he pukes in the plastic bag. His mother and sister clean him up and he goes back to the game.
At 8:00 AM the van stops so we can eat breakfast. I watch the Honduran boy and think about my own nine grandchildren. One of them has his own sailboat that he races on Narragansett Bay. Another is an avid baseball player and fan who has been to major league games in stadiums on both coasts. They all have computers, cell phones, and various configurations of X-Box, Play Station, and WII. While their lives have not been problem free, none of them has seen a neighbor shot in the face. Nor have they had their community surrounded by masked soldiers in flack jackets carrying automatic weapons longer than they are tall. Nor have they had people from their town that they see on the street everyday get taken away in the middle of the night never to be seen again. Nor have they had their beloved older brother put in jail on trumped up charges and held for three years without sentencing.
Before the prisoner was the prisoner he sold ice cream to the kids in Guadalupe Carney. He and his beautiful, young wife had a little daughter. The little daughter died while the prisoner was incarcerated. Then his father passed away. He was not allowed to attend either of their funerals.
In the restaurant where we are having breakfast, I ask the prisoner’s youngest brother if he wants to play a game. I have him sit opposite me at a table and I put a quarter in the middle of the table between us. I show him how to make a goal by placing his index finger and pinky on the tabletop. I tell him when it is his turn he can flick the quarter three times to try and get into my goal. I beat him five to four in a hard fought match. Then the van driver beats him five to three. Then the van driver effortlessly beats me five to two.
About 9:00 AM, the van passes through the city of La Ceiba, the third largest city in Honduras. A few years ago, probably in 2006, I was in La Ceiba for the annual carnival. Part of the celebration was a parade through the streets. Mel Zelaya, then the newly elected president of Honduras, rode by on a white horse. From the crowd, I waved to him with carnival beads strung around my neck. Just three years later, Zelaya woke at 6:00 AM to find himself surrounded by 150 masked soldiers in full riot gear carrying automatic weapons. They put him on a small plane, flew him to Costa Rica, and left him standing on the runway still in his pajamas. That was the end of Honduras’ brief, twenty year, experiment with democracy. Before he was deposed Zelaya was trying to settle the land disputes. In a country with no safety net, no welfare, no food stamps, no social security, he was inclined to view favorably the notion that landless people should have a few acres on which they can scratch out a living. There was nothing radical about his positions, but they were consistent with his center-left leanings. The coup set off a downward spiral in which politically motivated killings happen with sickening regularity and complete impunity. The legal system, barely functional to begin with, has lost all legitimacy. It is plausibly stated in Honduras that if you are poor and a rich man wants your head; it will be rolling in the street before the sun goes down. Not coincidentally, violence related to gangs and drug trafficking has exploded since the coup prompting the United Nations to declared Honduras the most violent country in the world.
Just past La Ceiba, the van turns off the highway onto a dirt road running through a pineapple field. In the morning light, this field is breathtakingly beautiful. There is green everywhere. Spiky green, waist-high pineapple plants radiate out in symmetrical rows seemingly for miles. Each plant has one immature fruit that is still green rather than yellow or golden. Around the perimeter are green palm trees and beyond the green palm trees are green mountains; undulating, folded green mountains. In the middle of the beautiful pineapple field is the prison.
The prisoner’s mother and the leader of La Voz de los de Abajo approach the main gate and speak with the guards. In fifteen minutes the prisoner comes out and arrangements are made for us to have lunch in a shady area off to the side. Benches are carried out and placed in a “U” shape. While his mother hands out nacatamales and bread, the prisoner stands in front of the group and introduces himself. His name is Jose Isabel Morales Lopez. He is known as Chavelo. Some of the inmates also call him Chele, the generic Honduran nickname for guys with light skin.
Chavelo has told his story many times. There is interest in his case among international human rights activists. He gets quite a few visitors who want to do what they can to support him and advocate for his freedom. The details of the events that happened three years ago and turn Chavelo into the prisoner will always be contested. There will always be other versions of the story told by other people.
The land in dispute in Guadalupe Carney was claimed by the camepsinos and by a wealthy landowner with adjacent property. It is likely that the landowner would have prevailed as the case went through the process of determining ownership. However, he was not willing to let that process play out. Instead, he installed a force of private guards on the adjacent property with the intent to run off the occupiers. Tensions escalated. Both sides were armed. Shots were fired. The guards ran to a cinderblock building and continued firing from inside the building. Those occupying the disputed land shot back. There were wounded on both sides. The gunshots brought people running from the more settled section of Guadalupe Carney. The scene became more and more chaotic. Then suddenly the cinderblock building exploded and was consumed in an intense fire. Perhaps it had been used to store armaments or fuel. In the gunfire and the flames five of the landowner’s guards died, including his nephew.
In the middle of the chaos, Chavelo was tending to one of the wounded. Someone took a picture of him with a wounded man in his arms. The photo established that he was on the scene. He was quickly arrested and has been in prison ever since. There is no evidence that he fired a shot or that any of his actions resulted in the deaths.
As Chavelo tells his story and answers questions I draw him. He is a very handsome man. His right eye is blind, its center dark and dead. Since he’s been the prisoner he was struck in the face by a strand of barbed wire from a weed cutting machine. There is no regular medical care at the prison and his family can’t afford to hire a doctor to come and take care of him. As I try to get a likeness to emerge from the lines and marks I am making, I see that there is a way in which his strong, defined features are concentrated in the center of his face. His cheeks and chin are broader, smoother, more serene. The most intense point in his face is where his eyebrows and the bridge of his nose come together. Although I haven’t asked permission, Chavelo knows I am drawing him. He smiles at me a couple of times in the middle of his story. Line by line, mark by mark, I’m storing Chavelo’s beautiful, damaged face in my memory.
The sun is shinning. Chavelo’s mother urges everyone to eat another nacatamale. Chavelo has his arm around his wife. The youngest brother has found a scrawny kitten to play with. My drawing is much admired. There is laughter. The human rights activists pledge their support. The reporter from Boulder records it all on digital audio files. Soon we will pile back in the van and head toward the airport where the gringos will catch flights back to the United States. Jose Isabel “Chavelo” Morales Lopez will still be the prisoner.