A pioneer in the movement for human rights in Honduras, Zenaida Velásquez Rodriguez is the sister of Manfredo Velásquez, who was abducted and disappeared by Honduran security forces. On September 12, 1981, Manfredo was kidnapped in broad daylight in the parking lot of a movie theater in downtown Tegucigalpa. He was never seen again. At the time of his abduction, Manfredo was thirty-five years old, a graduate student, and a teacher. He was also the Secretary-General of the Student Union and a well-known political activist. The Honduran security forces frequently targeted such community leaders who were perceived as threats to the regime.
Zenaida’s Efforts to Find Her Brother and Hold the Killers Accountable
Zenaida immediately devoted all of her efforts to finding Manfredo and securing his release, but she was unable to save him. It is believed that security forces killed Manfredo after his abduction. In 1981, Zenaida filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., alleging that the Honduran government was responsible for her brother’s disappearance. Between 1981 and 1984 the Commission received three additional petitions that reported similar disappearances: Saul Godinez, Francisco Fairen Garbi and Yolanda Solis (Cases 7951 and 8097).
In 1984, Zenaida made plans to meet with Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, an Argentinian who had come to Honduras to investigate human rights abuses. Zenaida had wanted to share a list of individuals who had been disappeared in Honduras with Perez Esquivel. As Zenaida entered the lobby of the hotel where he was staying, policemen took her from the lobby and, after a struggle, forced her into a car. They handcuffed her and drove off. Zenaida was able to get the attention of a friend she saw passing on the street. From inside the car, surrounded on either side by armed police, Zenaida lifted her cuffed hands to the window and waved them so her friend could see. Her friend immediately notified Honduran activists and other members of the international human rights community, who contacted Perez Esquivel, who announced he expected her freed to meet with him by that evening. Calls from organizations from around the world flooded the office of the Honduran Foreign Minister and Zenaida was released.
During her detention, Zenaida was verbally harassed. At one point, she was informed that the police had been conducting surveillance on her. Zenaida responded with the courage and integrity that characterize her life’s work. She replied, “I am glad you follow me—then you know that all my efforts are devoted to finding my brother and the other disappeared.”
In 1986, the Commission concluded that the Honduran Government was responsible for Manfredo’s disappearance. The Government, however, refused to cooperate on both the administrative and judicial levels, and failed to provide the Commission with requested evidence and information about the disappearance. In response, on April 18, 1986, the Commission submitted the case to the Inter American Court of Human Rights. In 1987, the Court held hearings regarding the case from September 30 to October 7. In 1988, when it became apparent to the officers of the Court that more witnesses, including former military and government officials would be available to testify, the Court ordered additional hearings. These hearings took place from January 18 to 20.
Witnesses scheduled to testify against the government began to receive death threats. Although the Commission pleaded with the Government to protect them, two witnesses were killed. Miguel Angel Pavon was assassinated following his testimony about the pattern of abuses perpetrated by security forces in Honduras. Sergeant José Isaias Vilorio, a member of the security forces who may have been involved in Manfredo’s disappearance, was killed on a public street 13 days before he was scheduled to testify.
Despite long delays in the Inter-American case, Zenaida’s efforts were not in vain. In 1988, the Inter-American Court issued a ground-breaking decision that a government can be held liable for disappearances and unlawful killings once it is proved that the individuals were last seen in the custody of government agents. Accordingly, the Court held the Government of Honduras liable for the disappearances and deaths of Manfredo Velásquez and the other three victims represented in the case, and ordered the Government to pay the families damages. The case, titled Velásquez Rodriguez v. Honduras, is a leading international decision on the crime of disappearance.
Zenaida did not limit her efforts solely to Manfredo’s death. In 1982, she founded the Committee for the Families of the Detained & Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), an organization that provides support for families whose loved ones have been abducted or murdered by security forces and death squads. Between 1981 and 1989, more than 180 civilians were disappeared by the security forces.
Zenaida herself received several threats and finally decided in 1988 to leave Honduras for the United States. She received asylum in 1994 and became a US citizen in 1996.
Zenaida’s Work in the United States
Today, Zenaida is a public health educator for the county of Santa Clara, California. She continues her efforts to bring human rights abusers to justice as well as to improve the enforcement of human rights in Honduras and around the world. She frequently speaks at universities and schools throughout California and has testified before the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva. In 1995, she represented local non-governmental organizations at the World Conference on Women’s Human Rights in Beijing. She is a member of the Board of Directors and a vice-president of Our Developing World (ODW), a non-profit group that focuses on improving education around the world. ODW provides schools with visual, print and hands-on training materials for teachers. They also maintain an extensive lending library.
Zenaida is one of six plaintiffs in a civil suit filed in U.S. federal court by CJA against Juan López Grijalba, the former head of Honduran military intelligence. At the time of Manfredo’s disappearance, López Grijalba was the chief of the National Investigations Directorate (DNI) whose members are alleged to have participated in Manfredo’s abduction and murder. The complaint charges that López Grijalba “planned, ordered, authorized, encouraged or permitted subordinates in the Honduran military and paramilitary forces to commit acts of torture, disappearance and extrajudicial killing,” and then helped to cover up the abuses, including Manfredo’s disappearance. The complaint further alleges that López Grijalba exercised command responsibility over members of Honduras’s most notorious death squad which came to be known as Battalion 3-16. The other plaintiffs are Manfredo’s son Hector Ricardo Velásquez, Oscar and Gloria Reyes, who were both tortured by security forces in 1982, and two other Hondurans living in the United States whose brother was disappeared and killed.
Zenaida’s Reasons for Bringing the Suit with CJA
When asked why she felt it was important to pursue this case, especially in light of the fact that she had already won her case before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Zenaida replied:
“The case that I brought to the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights was a landmark case because it held the Government of Honduras responsible for the disappearance of my brother Manfredo and established the precedent that, when a person is last seen in the custody of government agents, the government has the burden of proving what happened to that person. But the Government never admitted culpability, no one was ever punished, and the culture of impunity in Honduras was not changed. Moreover, the Government never even told us where Manfredo’s remains were. We did not want money. We wanted to find Manfredo’s remains so that we could give him a proper burial. Our wounds will continue to bleed until we can bury our loved ones.
This case that CJA is bringing will not help us recover Manfredo’s remains, but at least it will enable us to hold a high-ranking official responsible and thereby begin to pierce the culture of impunity. That is a crucial step in deterring future crimes. In addition, based in part on the evidence that CJA collected in this case, an immigration judge ordered that Lopez Grijalba should be detained without bail while he is fighting his deportation back to Honduras. If we win our case, and if Lopez Grijalba is deported, that will have a tremendous impact in Honduras.
With the help of CJA, we can break the impunity that criminals like Colonel López Grijalba have enjoyed and realize the dream shared by the families of the disappeared and tortured people everywhere – that cases addressing crimes against humanity will be heard in any court, in any nation, and at any time. The penalty we hope to achieve with this lawsuit cannot compare to what the perpetrators did to our loved ones, but CJA is helping us to achieve a moral victory. We are motivated by love for the ones we lost, and also by a voice of conscience that says we must do everything in our power to stop the cycle of impunity that leads to more human rights abuses. We are vindicating the memories of our family members. We can’t give up.”