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Killings of journalists go unsolved in Honduras

The second assault on a Honduran journalist in less than a week comes with the usual measure of doubt over whether it was a personal attack, robbery or a way to silence a public critic in one of the worst countries for press freedom in the hemisphere.

No one has yet been arrested in the May 19 killing of Honduran TV station owner Luis Mendoza. Five men have been detained in connection with Monday's shooting of newspaper manager Manuel Acosta, though none has yet been charged. It is a rare case in which the victim survived: Acosta managed to drive home after being shot six times.

Despite the government's repeated assurances it is looking into the killings, press groups cite "a systematic failure" of law enforcement to solve all but two of 13 journalist killings over the past 18 months as well as many more non-lethal attacks.

Mendoza's case is in some ways typical in a country where reporting isn't very lucrative and many journalists have other jobs or business interests. In addition to owning the Channel 24 TV station, he had coffee, real estate and farming interests.

Police officials note that business owners in Honduras are often targets for extortion or kidnapping by street gangs or drug cartels.

But the way Mendoza was killed, and his car burned in the provincial city of Danli, didn't look like a simple robbery of a well-heeled media owner.

"The way they killed him suggest organized crime. They got out with AK-47 rifles and 9 mm pistols," said Carlos Lauria, the Americas coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Even in a violence-plagued country of 7.7 million people, where the homicide rate of about 77 per 100,000 puts it among the highest in the Western Hemisphere, many groups feel there just seems to be too many focused, selective attacks on journalists for it to be a coincidence.

The Inter-American Press Association said in a report last month that Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries for journalists in the hemisphere.

"Aggression, intimidation, and threats against reporters and media executives have continued, as a consequence of the political crisis of June 2009 and the surge of organized crime and narco-trafficking," the press group said, referring to a coup that deposed President Manuel Zelaya two years ago.

Other groups say they're targeted as well, including human rights activists for their work and bus drivers for extortion. Sympathizers of Zelaya, who is scheduled to return to the country as a private citizen Saturday, say opposition unionists, peasant leaders and teachers also are under attack.

Honduran officials deny that any particular profession is targeted or that killings disproportionately affect journalists.

"There is no relationship between the different cases," said national police spokesman Kelsin Arteaga. "Every one of the cases involves specific circumstances, and the majority of the killings do not have anything to do with the professional work of the journalists or of any other career."

Acosta, the manager of the daily newspaper La Tribuna, was ambushed as he drove home from work in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras. Attackers boxed him in between two vehicles and sprayed his car with gunfire. The 70-year-old somehow survived and drove home despite his wounds. His family took him to a hospital.

Co-workers said Acosta did not have other business interests, or known conflicts with anyone.

"Yes, the problem of common crime is shocking, but his car had 30 bullet holes in it," noted Lauria at the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Despite the government's claim, some attacks and intimidation seem clearly linked to journalists' work.

Arnulfo Aguilar, director of the opposition-oriented Radio Uno station in the northern city of San Pedro Sula, had publicly complained of threats before he was confronted by gunmen April 27, said Esther Major, the Central America researcher for Amnesty International.

At least eight armed men in ski masks lay in wait for Aguilar when he returned home from his station at midnight. They shouted threats and tried to block his car, and later surrounded his house, until police rescued him.

His station had just completed a report on purported weapons trafficking by the military.

Many fear the tension left over from Zelaya's ouster, which divided the nation, is responsible in part for the journalist attacks. Opposition media outlets such as Radio Uno suffered harassment and were intermittently closed down after the 2009 coup.

Others note that anti-Zelaya journalists have also been attacked, including Channel 8's Karol Cabrera, who fled to Canada in 2010 after surviving two attempts on her life.

Arteaga said that Honduras "is suffering a generalized violence unleashed by drug cartels" that results in violence against all walks of life.

Bertha Oliva, a leading human rights activist in Honduras, agrees on that point.

Widespread violence "attacks journalists, media owners, common people and even some people who have posts in the government," Oliva said. "The guilty party is the government, which has demonstrated an inability to investigate the crimes. That inability makes it an accomplice."

But media groups complain that in most of the attacks on journalists, no one has been arrested or even identified. Lauria calls it "a systematic failure by the authorities to solve these crimes."

"In these two (most recent) cases, it is going to be very difficult, almost impossible to determine in the current circumstances whether they were intended as messages to the media or not," he said.

In the past, authorities have mentioned jealousy or business deals gone bad as possible motives.

With Zelaya's return, the administration of elected President Porfirio Lobo hopes to remove the last obstacle to the country's readmission to the Organization of American States, from which Honduras was expelled after conservatives and the military hustled the leftist Zelaya out of the country aboard an airplane.

Respect for human rights and free expression are among the commitments the Honduran government has made as part of a campaign for international acceptance, but rights groups question whether it will live up to them.

"They're very keen to rejoin the OAS, so they're making a lot of verbal commitments on human rights," said Major, the Amnesty International researcher. "But they're not taking the steps necessary to give those verbal commitments any credibility."

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Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson reported from Mexico City.