Chabelo Morales: Symbol of resistance

Chabelo Morales is a different kind of leader. He’s a symbol of that ordinary peasant whose every right is constantly violated just for being poor and having little education, of the hundreds of thousands of excluded Hondurans. His life is that of all those who suffer the consequences of Honduras’ system of impunity, discrimination and injustice.

by Ismael Moreno

Chabelo” is short for José Isabel, but everyone also calls him “Chele,” because of his unusually light complexion. a peasant who never got beyond second grade and never held a post as a grassroots leader, he never imagined that he would become a symbol for the agrarian struggle, a symbol of freedom, challenging the Honduran justice system. That system, aided by the corporate media and the big landowners of eastern Honduras’ Aguán Valley, has made it its business to convince the government, the churches, the nongovernmental organizations, the international community and the country’s own population that this peasant of few letters simply committed a common criminal act.

The thread of Chabelo Morales’ case is very long and very tangled. It reaches deep into the core of the Aguán Valley’s intense agrarian conflict, which, as in the rest of the country, has been building since 1991. It is interwoven with the neoliberal policy expressed in the approval that year of the Law of Modernization and Development of the Agricultural Sector, the implementation of which turned the Agrarian Reform Law of the early seventies into an instrument that legalized the sale of agrarian reform land to big landowners and agroindustrial businesses. The thread then necessarily got caught up in a politicized system of justice manipulated at the whim of the power groups behind the scene. Totally lacking in scruples, those on top sent the message to those down below—the poor peasants and ordinary citizens—that the law that governs Honduras is the law of the jungle.

Six years in jail

Chabelo Morales, the father of four children, turned 38 on August 26 of this year… in prison. He used to work the land in the morning and sell ice cream cones and play soccer every afternoon, but as of this October 17, he has served 6 years of a 17½-year sentence for murder. While in prison his 3-year-old daughter drowned after falling into a water trough while playing, his father was killed by his own 22-caliber weapon which accidentally went off as he was working the land, and his grandfather died of sadness.

Chabelo was captured a little over two months after a tragedy occurred on August 3, 2008 near the “Guadalupe Carney” agrarian community of several hundred families, of which his was one. Through the agrarian reform, those families had received land used in the early eighties by the US Army’s Regional Military Training Center (CREM). After a rather strange negotiation by the US government in 1983, the land had come into the hands of the Honduran State, which then turned it over for agrarian reform use as stipulated by law.

The August 2008 tragedy

The event that landed Chabelo in prison happened at a house occupied illegally by the family of Henry Osorto, an upper-level police official who had received military training on National Security Doctrine from the US Army at the CREM. Following many threats, confrontations and violent acts by Osorto and his family, and after the killing that same day of Arnulfo Guevara, a member of the community, other members finally decided to confront Osorto’s relatives and guards, who weren’t allowing them to recover their murdered friend’s body.

According to various testimonies, some 300 fed-up community residents had decided to go together, armed with shovels and machetes, to retrieve the body. As they approached Osorto’s house, the guards opened fire. The infuriated people didn’t retreat. Somehow the house caught fire. The official version is that the peasants set fire to it by shooting, but witnesses say it was due to the amount of gunpowder and munitions the police official kept inside, which caused an explosion that left ten dead, all of them either family members or guards of Osorto.

That day was a Sunday and Chabelo Morales had gone out early to sell ice cream cones on his bicycle. In the afternoon, having sold all his ice cream, he went off to play soccer with other young men from the community. He was chasing after the ball when he heard about Arnulfo Guevara’s death. He ran to Osorto’s ranch and was one of those who helped carry his friend’s body while the others were battling the guards and Osorto’s relatives, the house by then engulfed in flames.

How they arrested him

Two months after the tragedy, the Trujillo courthouse issued an arrest warrant against 32 members of the agrarian community, Morales among them, accusing them of homicide. In an assembly, the community agreed that none of the 32 would leave the community grounds and that the other families would take over their field work. But despite the warrant, Chabelo showed up at the Trujillo courthouse the next Friday, October 17, just as he had for most of the previous year to sign in after he and five other community members had been tried—without due process—and convicted of the theft of African Palm oil from a truck belonging to Osorto. He hadn’t been incarcerated on that occasion but had to sign in every week. “I like to obey the law,” he explained when the community came down on him for imprudence and indiscipline by not respecting its decision. The judge let him sign the book then immediately ordered the police to arrest him. After interrogating him for hours, they took him by helicopter to the penal center of La Ceiba, in Atlántida.

The State in the dock

The bloody events of that August 3 was the culmination of a period of disputes between the Guadalupe Carney agrarian community and the followers of Henry Osorto, who for the previous eight years had persisted in hanging onto a piece of land that belonged to the community’s families. It also culminated a period of negligence by the state institutions, which had never enforced the law violated by the land usurpers. The responsibility for that day is shared first and foremost by the Honduran State, followed closely by the usurper group but also by the community.

The State belongs in the dock for its responsibility, or more to the point its irresponsibility, for what has happened over the 25 years leading up to that day. Its agrarian authorities and enforcers of justice are responsible for many of the deaths that have occurred in Aguán, particularly in the conflict between the Guadalupe Carney agrarian community and the zone’s big landowners, which has gone on unabated and unresolved since 1983.

Puerto Rican-American Temístocles Ramírez owned the land used by the CREM for military training. After compensating him in 1983 for alleged damage to the land ny the military activities, the State took possession of it and turned it over to the agrarian reform. Nonetheless, the state institutions of justice never sanctioned Trujillo’s mayor and other municipal officials when they illegally sold that land to the big landowners, cattle ranchers, merchants, lawyers and high-roller politicians in Henry Osorto’s group in 1991. Nor was that sale officially invalidated.

In 2000, Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé’s government decided to resolve the problem. Aníbal Delgado, minister of the National Agrarian Institute (INA), established that the CREM land was national and thus the municipal government had no jurisdiction over it. Having determined that it was agrarian land and should therefore be turned over to the peasants, the State also decided to compensate the people to whom the municipal government had sold the land for the amount of their investments.

On May 14, 2000, the State officially gave the land over to 700 peasant family members of the Aguán Peasant Movement (MCA). That same day the families decided to found the Guadalupe Carney Agrarian Community and live together on it, naming it for a US-born Jesuit missionary priest who had become a naturalized Honduran citizen and ministered to peasants and leftwing insurgents before being executed by the country’s military forces in 1983.

Despite having been compensated, however, those who had occupied the lands did not leave, and the state ooked the other way. This obviously created a growing climate of tension and confrontations between the peasants and the usurpers. Instead of evicting the latter, the state institutions participated in the violation of the law both by commission and omission.

Finally, on April 29, 2008, eight full years later, by then during the government of Manuel Zelaya, the Congress approved
a decree granting authority to expropriate the lands occupied by the cattle ranchers and assign them to the MCA’s peasants. The next month, the peasant business “Luchemos Unidos” as well as “Santa María de los Ángeles,” which Chabelo’s family belonged to, recovered part of the land the State had originally awarded them but that the Osorto family had then promptly usurped. A month after that, on June 1, Irene Ramírez, also a member of “Santa María de los Ángeles,” was killed, presumably in reprisal by Osorto’s security guards, whose job was to terrorize any peasants who appeared determined to comply with the decree that had given them the right to recover the lands that were legally theirs.

The usurpers on the dock

In second place, then, those responsible for what happened on August 3, 2008, are the usurpers of the agrarian reform lands. Even after the State finally rectified the Trujillo municipal government’s illegal sale of the land and they had been returned their investment, they continued illegally occupying it.

Henry Osorto has abused his authority as a police officer by blackmailing, threatening and promoting the death of peasants, emboldening other usurpers and conditioning the enforcers of justice to at least retard if not violate their rulings in accord with the law. The usurpers also used their privileges to cast themselves as defenders of the rule of law and present the authentic owners of the lands as its violators. The peaceful ones were painted as violent and subversive while the strong-arming ones appeared as peaceful victims.

The peasants on the dock

The Guadalupe Carney agrarian community has lived under constant uncertainty and fear since its founding in 2000. Its members have not only been stalked by the usurpers of their lands, but also threatened by the forces of public order and the Army, which have repeatedly accused them of training and protecting guerrillas, stashing weapons and engaging in destabilizing actions against the State.

Nonetheless, they also have a share of responsibility for the August 3 tragedy. While defending their right to hold a wake for Arnulfo Guevara and give his body a Christian burial, the community members let themselves be led by desperation and indignation at the State’s negligence and the usurpers’ impunity. In deciding to take justice into their own hands, they fell into the temptation of a violent response and in so doing ended up participating in the violation of the right to life. But at least some of them feel they had been pushed beyond their limits. “If the State left us orphans after having granted us the right to the land, we had no other path than to defend ourselves and struggle to recover the land that has given our life its sustenance,” said one of the MCA and community leaders.

The “law” of the jungle king

If the community didn’t have enough on its plate having to defend itself from the likes of Osorto with precious little help from the State and has even been treated as the enemy by the very state forces that should by law be supporting them, the community has also had to confront the powerful business magnate Miguel Facussé Marjum. Among his many other possessions, he argues that he is the rightful owner of the “Tumbador” hacienda, located within the perimeter of the properties previously belonging to Temístocles Ramírez.

According to INA, the hacienda is on land that forms part of the nearly 6,000 hectares granted to the families organized in the MCA. But Facussé argues that it wasn’t covered by the compensation Ramírez received because he had bought it well before the lands in the area were used by the CREM installations. Today, it is the law and the decision of the State against the word of the powerful Facussé. And in Honduras the balance inevitably tips toward the law of the jungle, i.e. of the most powerful. Armed to the teeth, Facussé is hanging in to his hacienda. He enjoys massive protection by the Honduran Army and hundreds of private guards, most of them trained by Colombian specialists.

The bloody events of August 3, 2008, weren’t the end. The blood continued to flow. In a context of ongoing threats, turbulence and confrontations, Facussé’s private guards murdered five more peasants from the agrarian community and wounded another 15 when they entered his hacienda grounds on November 15, 2010, knowing that by law it belonged to them.

The State has remained mute regarding the agrarian conflict in the Aguán. The deaths of those five peasants went unpunished, even after Facussé admitted that his private guards had shot them. Neither the INA authorities nor the enforcers of justice have wanted to take any position in this dispute that would more clearly delimit the ownership of the lands. The MCA peasants have ended up paying a high price in human lives, have seen their struggle for their own land criminalized, and are under constant threat and persecution by the area’s landowners, the police and the Army.

The national media reinforced the vision that the MCA members are a band of criminals destabilizing the area and by their subversive actions halting the development the successful businessman Miguel Facussé Barjum is promoting with so much effort. This version has taken such root that the guards of El Porvenir penal center refer to Chabelo Morales as “Chele Masacre,” as if pinning all the blame for the bloody events of August 2008 on him.

The Morales family’s patriarch

Chabelo Morales was born in 1976 in the community of Loma Alta, Azacualpa, at that time the municipality of Macuelizo in the western department of Santa Bárbara. At age 4, when he and his sister Susana were the only two of the fourteen children his parents, Antonio and Ramona, eventually had, his paternal grandfather, whose name he bears, got the itch to emigrate. Don Chabelo had heard good things about the migration in the late seventies of hundreds of families to the promising fertile lands of the Aguán valley, induced to organize African palm growing cooperatives.

At that time, his grandfather was a medium-sized coffee grower and cattle rancher with enough land to bequeath each of his children their own plot. But he sold it all and with cash in hand took all his children, both married and single, to the eastern department of Colón. There he bought properties in the valley and slopes of the Nombre de Dios mountain range, on the far side of the Río Aguán, facing Trujillo’s coastline. There he and his family began a new life in the young community of San José de la Montaña, some eight kilometers from Ilanga, one of the Aguán valley’s oldest population centers.

Unlike the others, he worked his own land, because he never believed in collective work or in cooperatives. “The single ox scratches itself,” he would say from his hammock, rejecting any suggestion that he would do better in the palm cooperatives. He didn’t trust that yoked into a team with others, they would all carry the same weight.

A house with open doors

The extensive Morales family of practicing Catholics follows deep-rooted religious tradition. “You can skip doing anything on Sunday except attend the celebration of the Word or the Mass when the priest comes round,” was a family motto that all the children learned from the moment they began to be aware of the world around them. Grandson Chabelo only attended school for a short time, but he never missed the catechesis, the celebration of the Word and the Mass. The Morales family’s first public action when a new baby was born was to baptize it as soon as was possible.

The grandparents’ house was always full of children and grandchildren. Because don Chabelo and his wife Martina Gavarrete were so dedicated to working the land, no one went away without having eaten a plate of beans with tortillas. Any pastoral visits by priests, nuns and seminary students to the small community of San José de la Montaña—most of whose residents were Moraleses—or to Los Ángeles, the larger neighboring community, always began or ended in that house.

“Born to work”

Young Chabelo was one of the grandsons who from a very early age worked at the service of his father and grandfather. In such a traditional peasant family, the most important thing to the parents was that their sons learn to work the land young and their daughters learn domestic chores. Scholastic education was never a priority. That’s why little Chabelo never got passed second grade.

On one occasion, a priest and seminary student who had just arrived on their way somewhere else recall Chabelo’s grandmother preparing a succulent chicken soup to offer them. But before serving the guests, doña Martina shouted at the top of her lungs: “Chabelito, come eat; hurry!” From a distance, the boy’s voice came back with the question, “What for?” “You come when I tell you to,” doña Martina yelled back; “your plate’s ready!” The priest asked doña Martina why she insisted that Chabelito come eat right away. “So they’ll know that they can’t be doing nothing, that they were born to work,” his grandmother explained,” and if I call them to eat before the others, it’s so they can go back out and water the animals, bring in firewood, go feed the pigs…”

The autumn of
the Patriarch Morales

Life for the peasant families on the far side of the Río Aguán turned out not to be easy. It didn’t take them long working those lands to discover that it was the only arid zone in the otherwise fertile Aguán. For some reason, probably having to do with the winds brought by the sea that whistle across the saddle of the Nombre de Dios range, the clouds don’t stay, rain is scarce and the land produces much less than in other areas of the valley and foothill slopes.

Soon the families that had settled there had to move again. They had all become impoverished. That same bad luck befell the Morales family. At the beginning of the eighties, when they were new to the zone, they were among the most prosperous of those who weren’t organized in agrarian reform cooperatives, so they didn’t receive the attention from the State given to those organized in African palm producing cooperatives.

Some of don Chabelo’s children—Agapito, Gregoria and Manuel, together with Pedro, the eldest of his grandchildren—were the first to migrate to the United States. Don Chabelo sold both land and cattle to pay the coyote who would guide their illegal entry. Other sons, sons-in-law and grandsons followed, which contributed to the drastic reduction of the grandfather’s capital. Some managed to start a new life in the US, while others were caught and deported. Others of don Chabelo’s offspring, including his namesake’s parents, ended up selling what remained of their lands and left that arid zone.

Decapitalized and ill, don Chabelo decided to split up the little property he still had among his remaining sons and grandsons and with the small amount of money he had left he bought a house in the populated area of Ilanga. His youngest daughters married and moved away to live in the city of Tocoa. After having been the firm patriarch who looked after the whole family, don Chabelo became a beaten-down old man in a wheelchair, dependent on the help his sons and grandsons could provide.

His illnesses worsened after his grandson Chabelito was sent to prison. “It is my greatest shame and pain,” he said among tears one day to a visiting priest friend. “I never imagined I’d have someone from my family in jail, because I educated them all to do honest work. We lived poor, but with dignity and our head held high.” With that suffering, death took him on January 29, 2012, sad and grieving because he had been unable to ever see his grandson free again.

The “cone guy” joins the coop

At the beginning of 2000, the opportunity came up to join the MCA and participate in the agrarian reform land, and the social pastoral of the Tocoa parish offered the construction of houses in the area locality where the CREM installations had been. By that time Chabelo Morales’ family, which hadn’t left, was in critical shape so Antonio Morales signed up for the new organization, seeing in it the chance to get land, work it, and thus improve their precarious economic situation. By that time, 23-year-old Chabelo was in a relationship. His first son was born in 2003, but he separated from the baby’s mother only months later. With Juana, his second partner, he procreated three children.

He joined his father and several brothers in entering the MCA and together with hundreds of other organized families they took up the struggle to defend those lands. The Morales family sought every honorable way to get ahead while still fighting to prevent their plots from being snatched away. Some went in search of odd jobs in Tocoa or hired on as day laborers in neighboring haciendas. With some money Chabelo was able to squirrel away he bought a bicycle and an ice box, with which he went around selling ice cream cones all over his and nearby communities. They called him the “cone guy.”

Victim of a flawed
and illegal process

Chabelo was arrested on October 17, 2008, and two weeks later they also arrested young Carlos Antonio Maradiaga, another of the 32 from the agrarian community. Both were accused of a multitude of crimes.

They weren’t tried until June 2010. In the meantime they were held in El Porvenir penal center, near the city of La Ceiba. Maradiaga was absolved of all accusations, but Chabelo was convicted of homicide. In violation of article 188 of the penal procedure code, he wasn’t sentenced for another three years, in 2013. That article establishes that no person may remain deprived of liberty for more than two years without sentencing. The defense attorneys filed suit for violation of the law, but no one in the justice system paid them the least mind.

Once the sentence was handed down, the defense filed suit to quash it and the Supreme Court of Justice accepted it, declaring the trial null and void. But unlike the United States, where one can’t be tried twice for the same crime, in Honduras the Supreme Court’s decision obliged that it be repeated. This decision from the Court’s Penal Bench ipso facto should also have at least freed Chabelo until the next trial, according to the defense lawyers who had voluntarily taken on his case as well as many other juridical experts. But the invisible forces who know the visible power of Police Commissioner Henry Osorto bowed to his wishes, keeping the peasant “cone guy” behind bars until early 2014, when he was finally retried.

After various new anomalies and arbitrary maneuvers, including false witnesses who brazenly twisted the testimonies from the first trial, Chabelo was again found guilty and sentenced to 17½ years in prison for murder. Another suit filed to vacate that sentence is still awaiting a response from the Supreme Court in a process that is obviously political and responds to the law of the jungle.

Good luck and
bad luck in prison

Inside the prison, Chabelo Morales has won over the sympathy of most authorities, other prisoners and their visitors. Initially, due to threats by his cellmate, they moved him to a separate cell. Later, given his behavior and his obliging nature, the authorities moved him again, this time to share rooms with the police.

The authorities also delegated him the task of cutting the grass of the penal center’s yard. One day—it just happened to be August 26, 2011, his 35th birthday—the grass cutter broke and two of the pieces flew into Chabelo’s face. One took out a piece of his tongue and the other lodged in his right eye. For lack of either immediate or proper attention he permanently lost his sight in that eye. In January of that same year he had lost his father and a few months earlier his little daughter.

A different kind of leader

Chabelo Morales wasn’t before and isn’t now a peasant leader in the sense that peasant, grassroots or other social organizations understand the term. He was never elected for a directive post at any level. He was just another grassroots agrarian fighter, one among thousands of young peasants who have suffered discriminations of all kinds for no other reason than being poor and rural and uneducated. He has earned his living, meager though it is, honestly and with honor, coping with a life that has been unkind, denying him opportunities.

No lack of organizations have remained silent or have washed their hands of his case because Chabelo doesn’t have a CV that accredits him with a recognized leadership trajectory. Those same organizations that have been impassive toward Chabelo’s case have taken up others with alacritous belligerency when the person persecuted or attacked by the State or private enterprise has been a renowned grassroots, social, peasant or indigenous leader.

Chabelo Morales symbolizes your garden variety peasant, the kind whose every human and social right is violated without so much as a second thought. He is a symbol of the hundreds of thousands of Hondurans who are similarly excluded, left out. His life mirrors that of many other people in our country who unjustly suffer the consequences of discrimination and racism.

An emblematic prisoner

As a prisoner, Chabelo Morales has awakened the consciousness of many. He has been a beacon for others who, like him, have suffered so much discrimination. A simple human being deprived of his right to freedom who represents huge numbers of other simple people who every day are denied the freedom to express themselves, defend their rights and fight for their dignity.

“If I get my freedom, I won’t settle for that,” he says with characteristic simplicity. “I’ll dedicate myself to struggle for my people who suffer, because I’ve felt the many people who love me and are fighting for me, so I’ll do the same for others.” Even in prison, Chabelo has discovered the dignity that comes from fighting for others’ freedom. That consciousness of struggling for a collective cause has elevated him to the level on which we put such emblematic political prisoners as Ghandi, King or Mandela.

Surrounded by solidarity

The solidarity his case has awakened has helped Chabelo establish an important number of human relations with individuals and groups, both national and international. One day a man from Chicago named Gregory who didn’t speak a word of Spanish showed up in the conflictive Aguán zone to learn about the situation up close. After visiting Chabelo in prison he decided to stay for a few months longer. That was more than three years ago, and he’s still there, living with Chabelo’s family.

He has learned to speak Spanish very well, and if it weren’t for his height and corpulence, which has inspired the locals to nickname him “tres pisos” (three floors) and to ask if he came from the planet of the giants, he’d be taken for just another member of the Guadalupe Carney agrarian community. His great personal solidarity with Chabelo Morales and his family has been infectious, extending to the organizing of solidarity among US grassroots organizations and activists.

Between late February and early March of last year some 300 individuals from national organizations and international human rights agencies walked 200 kilometers from Sula Valley to the capital in 10 days. The main demand of their demonstration, which they called “Sovereignty and dignity, step by step,” was Chabelo Morales’ freedom, although they also pushed for the repeal of the Mining and Model Cities Law.

Over these years many organizations and institutions have visited the penal center where Chabelo Morales is being held to express their solidarity with him. Among others they include movements and organizations from the United States such as La Voz de los de Abajo de Chicago (The voice of those below of Chicago); Witness for Peace, which has worked in Central America since the eighties; the Honduras Accompaniment Project (PROAH); the Chicago-based Honduras Solidarity Network; and religious communities such as Ashland, Oregon’s United Church of Christ, the Sisters of Mercy order based in Washington and the Secretariat of the US Conference of Jesuit Provincials.

Chabelo Morales, that grassroots agrarian fighter with only the little formal education he received as a child, condemned for being a peasant, is today a symbol of the resistance to the impunity of Honduras’ justice system, of the struggle for an agrarian reform that guarantees the peasant population the full right to work their land with dignity and to freely and sovereignly decide their present and their future.

Ismael Moreno, sj, is envío’s correspondent in Honduras.


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