AJS-Honduras was founded in 1998 by a group of four Hondurans and a North American couple working in Honduras, Kurt Ver Beek and Jo Ann Van Engen. After years of working in development, AJS’s founders realized that despite their best efforts, their initiatives were failing because too many laws, policies, and systems in Honduras did not respect the needs and rights of the poor. In short, these efforts failed because of injustice. Since 1998, AJS has worked to promote justice, especially for the poor and the oppressed.
AJS-US was founded in the United States in 2000 as a sister organization to AJS-Honduras. AJS seeks to respond to the Biblical call for Christians to “do justice” (Micah 6:8, Isaiah 56:1, Proverbs 29:7, Isaiah 10:1-2), and has focused on supporting efforts to create a “more just society” both in Honduras and around the world.
AJS-Honduras started out of a garage, with one part-time employee, and the founders’ volunteered services. They asked what issues most affected Hondurans – and found that many issues came down to a lack of legal systems to protect people and keep them safe. AJS began their work fighting for land titles for indigenous groups whose livelihoods were threatened by developers claiming ownership to communities’ historic homes.
AJS took these cases to court, helping community members navigate the complex legal system and to obtain justice in difficult cases. Encouraged by early successes, they also began to advocate for better property laws, as well as defend labor rights. Instead of treating proximate causes of poverty – lack of resources or education – they tried to get at the root and address unequal structures that privileged the rich and powerful.
From the beginning, AJS workers in Honduras knew that their work was dangerous. Their advocacy pitted them against some of the wealthiest and most powerful actors in Honduras. As the organization grew and took on bigger and bigger cases, this became more and more evident.
Dionisio Díaz García was an AJS lawyer working on labor rights, representing vulnerable security guards and cleaning women who worked without benefits and often received unjust cuts in pay. In December 2006, he was driving to court to present a case against a major security guard company when he was shot and killed by professional hitmen.
This assassination was a watershed moment for AJS’s work in Honduras. Targeted for his work protecting the labor rights of vulnerable employees, Dionisio became a symbol of the risk that AJS employees were taking on in their fight for justice – and as the organization mourned his death, they learned that being brave Christians can cost everything. But rather than giving in to fear, AJS staff chose to continue the fight, and continued to work towards justice.
More about the impact of Dionisio’s life, sacrifice, and impact.
Violence is, and has long been, one of the gravest problems facing Honduras. Even as AJS was doing good and meaningful work in land and labor rights, leadership found they could no longer ignore the violent deaths of their neighbors. In 2005, AJS began working in one of the most violent communities in Honduras’ capital city, a small neighborhood where murders were happening every week.
AJS staff worked to build bridges of trust between victims and legal systems. Using a comprehensive methodology combining criminal investigation, legal expertise, and psychological support for victims and their families, the project worked with the Honduran government to bring murderers to justice and to help victims find peace. In an environment where fewer than 10% of murders would ever be investigated and only 4 percent would earn a conviction, AJS’s near-perfect conviction rate sent a strong message that crime had consequences. As people began to go to jail, witnesses began to trust that the system could work. The work of just three brave staff members dedicated to the community made a huge impact: violence dropped by 75 percent, and the program later expanded to more neighborhoods, saving hundreds of lives.
Soon after, AJS would start youth clubs in the same target neighborhood, engaging the children and teens most at risk of violent behavior or gang involvement. Through sports clubs, family counseling, and the teaching of values and life skills, the clubs work to give young people alternatives to the violence they see around them.
While AJS worked in the field, working directly with communities and on criminal investigations, they also realized how important it was to work on a national level, advocating for better courts and police. With their expertise in earning convictions in difficult cases, they began to train local justice actors and share their information and methodology.
To make Honduras’ systems of laws and government work for everyone, AJS realized they would have to address another central issue – corruption. Fighting against the use of power and position for personal gain had always been a common thread in AJS’s work, but new alliances brought this work to the highest levels of Honduran government.
In 2009, AJS brought people together to rally around public education and the public health system. Their coalition “Transformemos Honduras” (Let’s Transform Honduras) brought together churches, schools, nonprofit organizations, and concerned parents and set them to work auditing and overseeing the government’s management of two essential programs – public schools and hospitals. They used the social movement, along with detailed audits created by AJS investigators, to successfully pressure the government to change.
In 2012, AJS helped form the Alliance for Peace and Justice, a coalition of dozens of organizations and religious groups that presented a united front against corruption and mismanagement in the justice and security sectors. The goal of this coalition looked to supplement AJS’s work in the fields – to make the legal system just for all Hondurans, fighting against rampant corruption in the courts and in the police.
That same year, worldwide anti-corruption organization Transparency International invited AJS to represent them as their national chapter in Honduras, joining them to a network of corruption fighters around the world.
Over the past 18 years, AJS has become one of the most respected and influential organizations working in Honduras, receiving recognition from around the world for their bravery, persistence, and innovation. From a single part-time employee, AJS has grown to a busy and still-growing office over 150 employees working actively for peace, security, and transparency in Honduras.
In some ways, AJS has come a long way from its improvised garage office 18 years ago, but the core of the organization has remained the same. Whether entering the most dangerous neighborhoods to reach out to vulnerable children, or denouncing corruption in the highest levels of government, we have never wavered from striving to be brave Christians who are dedicated to doing justice in Honduras and to inspiring others around the world to seek justice in their own contexts.