Latin America and the Caribbean

9 June 1997

Francisco's New Shoes
by W. E. Gutman

Centro Penal, San Pedro Sula, Honduras -- Francisco's new shoes are scuffed, caked with prison slime. They're the relics of freedom divested, pride reviled, the symbols of impermanence, the vestiges of a modest reward granted him for exposing evil with an unassuming eloquence that would come back to haunt him.

Francisco is back. He knows this odious place, the turf, the vile smells, the hideous faces of human jackals preying on the weak, the lonely. He's mastered the survival schemes, the tricks, the scams. He's faced fear, hopelessness, the immutability of time. Staying alive at the Centro Penal is no small feat. It's not so much because the flesh falls to the unbearable heat, the overcrowding, the biting insects, the vile food or the violence. It's that the soul rots like offal in the sun and the spirit yields to alternating fits of unspoken rage, madness and despair.

Especially despair. Like the vultures circling overhead in satanic formation, it waits its turn in a parade of malignant emotions that sap confidence, undermine self-reliance, exhaust the very will to live.

Two years ago, accused of petty theft but never charged, Francisco and his twin brother -- they were 16 -- were jailed, illegally for over 18 months in a compound occupied by hardened adult felons. Corrections officers and older inmates alike took turns harassing and beating them. They also witnessed the rape of young prisoners by guards and trustees, an indiscretion they paid by spending two weeks in a five foot square torture cell, along with a dozen other prisoners.

When Francisco and his brother returned to the compound, they discovered that the key to their locker had been stolen. They confronted a fellow prisoner. High on drugs, the prisoner lunged at Francisco with a knife, wounding him and killing his brother instantly.

Last October, following months of charges and counter-charges between him and Honduran authorities, Bruce Harris, Casa Alianza's Executive Director, presented this latest case of torture and other abuses to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in Washington. Purpose of the meeting was to inform the Commission of the endemic atrocities committed against minors in the country's 24 penal institutions and to seek swift punishment of the perpetrators.

Accompanying Harris were various dignitaries, including the Honduran representative to the Organization of American States, Ambassador Marlene de Talbot, and Public Defender, Linda Rivera. But, without a doubt, the most important member of the delegation was Francisco Jacu himself.

In a riveting testimony to the Commission, Francisco described in detail his experiences as the SPS prison. He spoke of the abuse, physical and sexual, adult prisoners commit against minors and he sketched a stark image of the terrible living conditions they must endure. He told his galvanized audience about the torture chamber in which he and a dozen or more inmates were herded and where they slept standing up in the intense heat, about the plastic bags in which some foul meal was served once a day and how he and his fellow prisoners were forced to relieve themselves in the very same bags. Choking back the tears, he recounted how guards would come by at night, throw buckets of water into the cell then apply live electric wires on the metal grating against which the exhausted men were leaning.

"The guards were amused. They enjoyed the spectacle of sweating, hungry, tired, humiliated men squirming in pain every time they sent another jolt of current...."

When Francisco returned to Choloma, his home town, Casa Alianza bought him two pairs of shoes. It was to be a good luck gift, his send-off on a steadier course, a more auspicious road ahead. But he had become something of a celebrity and, from hereon in, the easy target of an unrepentant and vengeful judiciary.

Predictably, Francisco was re-arrested in November and remanded to the SPS penitentiary on trumped-up charges, hearsay and circumstantial evidence that would have been summarily dismissed had Honduras' inquisitorial system not prevailed. Months of investigations and dozens of writs of habeus corpus filed by Casa Alianza's Legal Aid Office were systematically thwarted. He was still in jail last month when I paid him a visit. Casa Alianza's lawyer, Gustavo Escoto, Public Defender, Hector Arzu and this writer spent a day poring over Francisco's files at the Third Judicial District in San Pedro Sula. None found any proof of wrongdoing. Worse, Francisco has yet to be charged. Naked revenge by the State for his testimony in Washington and for the ensuing embarrassment Honduras suffered in the court of public opinion cannot be discounted. An appeal has been filed.

Shy, not given to idle chatter, his eyes and thoughts turned toward Choloma where his mother and young brothers and sisters live, Francisco spits in his fingers and rubs the shoes' once lustrous leather face. Some of the former sheen yields briefly to his gentle strokes but the elements and neglect are unforgiving and the gray dullness soon reappears, hastened by the burning sun and the hot swirling dust at his feet, as if to mock him.

His selfhood impugned, his faith in human institutions shaken, Francisco waits for justice. In Honduras, in very special cases, innocence alone will not buy freedom.

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