May 19, 2000

From Serial Massacres To Migration Hazards - Fiesty Radio Station A Voice For Honduran Voiceless

EDITOR'S NOTE: Early in April, the popular news director of Radio Progreso, a 43-year-old AM station serving listeners across Honduras' hurricane-ravaged Atlantic Coast, survived gunshots to his head as he drove home from work on his motorcycle. Whether warning listeners of the dangers of migrating north, condemning bus fare hikes, or probing a serial massacre which bears the earmarks of social cleansing, Radio Progreso is emerging as the most important outlet for airing grievances and voicing concerns in Honduras.

By Mary Jo McConahay

El PROGRESO, HONDURAS — Every Saturday morning the most popular program on the number one radio station in this tropical metropolis sends listeners a stark message: Don't go to the United States!

The voices of mothers and wives plead for information about family members who disappeared on the trail north. Returned migrants recount tales of mistreatment on the road in Mexico or of watching companions fall under the wheels of speeding trains while trying to hitch a ride.

It is powerful stuff in a region where radio — not the Internet or even television — remains the most common form of communication. And Radio Progreso, an AM station that has taken on new and scrappy life since Hurricane Mitch devastated this Atlantic Coast area 18 months ago, knows it.

"We're not doing this to win ratings — we cut in if people get too emotional," says Bartolo Fuentes, 35, who created the program. "But families are disintegrating here because of migration." Every show criticizes the government for ignoring the outflow, for failing to improve conditions so Hondurans can make a living at home. They also demand a special office for migrants and investigations into the fate of the missing.

The program insists nevertheless that people have "a right to migrate to survive."

Radio Progreso's brash attitude has grown edgier since Hurricane Mitch passed this way, killing 15,000 in Central America — most of them poor rural residents — leaving many angered with the status quo.

When a national doctors' association came out against the popular presence of Cuban volunteer doctors working in underserved communities since Mitch, Fuentes' colleague Julio Pineda, 43, delivered a scathing editorial critique of Honduras's own medical establishment.

In a commentary about a recent report by a non-government Human Rights Commission condemning corruption in the judicial system, Pineda added supporting examples he knew of first-hand.

Airing grievances has its costs. On April 26, as Pineda pulled up to his house in nearby San Pedro Sula on a motorcycle with his wife and two small children, two gunmen emerged from a white van. One grabbed the helmeted reporter around the neck from behind and fired a revolver at his head as Pineda struggled; miraculously, the bullet entered at the hairline and exited the skull, continued through the helmet and ricocheted against the wall of the house, leaving Pineda crumpled and bleeding, but now recovering well.

The gunmen fled without a word in the van which had no license plates. Pineda's wife Ada, a grammar school teacher, told of threatening phone calls to their home in the week before the attempt and Pineda said a car followed him for miles one night until he gave it the slip by circuitous driving and hiding.

Pineda is convinced the attack is a reaction to editorial stands which "touched some political and economic sectors."

Fuentes, too, was injured in April, beaten up by bus drivers at a demonstration he was covering, where crowds were protesting a 30 percent hike in bus fares. Editorially, Radio Progreso had been against the hike — it was canceled — but drivers and others accused the station of "agitating." Station Director Omar Serrano denies this, but admits taking clear stands. "The radio in recent months has been examining various aspects of the reality of this area," said Serrano, and blames the attacks on editorial policy. Police have produced no results in their investigation.

The station gets little advertising from government agencies or political parties — an important source of media revenue in this region. It is running a series in which patients at the local public hospital give their accounts of horrific medical practice. This has led some clinics — pressured, Serrano insists, by the medical association — to stop advertising on the station. He believes that the dip in ads is temporary.

"I think the most valuable thing this radio has is its history of struggle, and its credibility," said Fuentes. The station has been around 43 years, even reaching outlying villages which sometimes have no electricity. And some of its credibility in this Catholic country comes from its being part of the Church network, owned by the Jesuit order.

The Rev. Ricardo Falla, Superior of the Jesuits in the Progreso area, is well aware the station is "bothering certain groups of power." Falla, an anthropologist, was among the first to document massacres by the Guatemalan army of unarmed civilians in that country in the l980s.

He is presently concerned about what appears to be a serial massacre of young men from poor Progreso neighborhoods, several a month in unsolved cases, beginning about 2 years ago. The bodies of three were found dead May 13. Whether they were killed by gang members, or by death squads connected to the police in a form of social cleansing, is not known. "But the police are doing nothing to investigate," charges Falla. Again, the Radio is on the case.

Until recently, the station's voice was more comforting than critical. In l979, when Radio Progreso took a strong line against the military government's repression of social movements including peasants, students, housewives and lay church leaders, the generals closed down the station. It reopened chastened, authorized to operate at only 5000 watts, its shortwave frequency taken away, and kept a low profile.

When Hurricane Mitch hit, the station "recovered its strong line," as one of the 25 staffers put it. "Mitch was a parting of the waters . . . we saw what the radio was, and how much people depended upon it," said Pineda. During the disaster the station broadcast around the clock and became an ad-hoc communications center, overseeing the opening of 76 shelters — more than the government Emergency Committee. A new director linked the station with networks of non-government organizations, often among the rural and urban poor, many of which also found new energy after Mitch. It stopped using commentaries taken from Catholic publications, and began running its own.

Today Radio Progreso's reporters go into the field with cellular phones, reporting live for instance from a banana company plantation where 30-year residents were ousted as squatters — an event no other station covered. But in a low-tech region, the radio also serves as a kind of personal e-mail system: immigrants who arrive in the United States will call in to ask the station to announce that they are all right, knowing someone from their family or village will be listening. Presenters often ask, by name, people in remote locales to come by and pick up mail sent in care of Radio Progreso.

Entertainment remains key: the host of the nightly ranchero music show often finds small gifts — a chicken, a pair of mangoes — dropped off by grateful listeners on a trip to town. Even Saturday morning's "Sin Fronteras" ("Without Borders") program is riddled with songs, some lighthearted about misunderstandings of U.S. culture, most from a genre of lament and homesickness grown out of decades of Mexican and Central American immigration: "I'm a wetback in Colorado / But it's in my own land I want to die."

Broadcasting in the Sula River valley, home to about 1.5 million, and sometimes heard as far away as neighboring Belize, the station nevertheless wants its power restored to 10,000 watts and would like its shortwave license back, too. But it is apparently not willing to blunt its sting. One popular weekly show brings in women who labor in the "maquiladoras" — which make brand-name clothing for U.S. markets — and gives them access to a free mike which they use to share workplace health advice, and denounce harsh conditions and low pay. Originally presented by staffers with workers as guests, the program is now run by maquiladora workers themselves. Recently, Pineda and Fuentes also turned over hosting duties on "Sin Fronteras" to former migrants. Even as well-honed editorials and Falla's inspirational commentaries continue, much of the station's programming is moving toward providing facilities where the voiceless themselves do the talking.

"This pain they suffer — as much as we try to make it ours, it is difficult for us to give it the same dimension," said Fuentes.

Mary Jo McConahay lived and worked in Central America for over a decade.

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