Archive for June, 2017

Meet Miriam Miranda, Honduras

https://nobelwomensinitiative.org/meet-miriam-miranda-honduras/

Photo via Upside Down World
Photo via Upside Down World

“We live almost on the sea, right on the beach. It’s a blessing but recently it’s also become a curse, because of course all those with power want to have a place on the beach. The displacement of communities and the loss of cultures that come with the development of tourism is growing… but the Garífuna women, many of them elders, have incredible strength. They participate in meetings, in actions, tearing down walls that are built on the beach. They’re sustaining the Garífuna youth so that they know who they are, without shame.”

Miriam has dedicated her life to defending the cultural and land rights of the Garífuna people in Honduras. Miriam’s brave, unwavering leadership is currently guiding the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH).

Miriam was born in Santa Fe, Colon, a small Garífuna village located near Trujillo on the north coast of Honduras. Like many other Garífuna in Honduras, Miriam and her family eventually had to leave their village in order to find work and educational opportunities. As a young adult, Miriam moved to the capital city Tegucigalpa to study at the public university.

Still a student, Miriam immersed herself in social movements that worked closely with women living in poor neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa. Miriam traveled to these neighbourhoods to listen to the women’s stories and speak to them about their rights. In these conversations, Miriam’s lifework as a feminist took root.

Miriam’s pride as a Garífuna woman lies at the heart of her activism. After years of working alongside mestizo, or mixed indigenous women, Miriam decided to shift her focus to promote the rights of her own people—the Garífuna.

The Garífuna people are descendants of West Africans who escaped the slave trade and found refuge on the island of San Vincente, an island in the Caribbean, in the early 1600’s—where  they intermarried with Carib, Indian and Indigenous peoples. Following expulsion from San Vincente in 1797, the Garífuna people arrived on the coast of Honduras. Approximately 100,000 Garífuna now live in Honduras, but there are also community strongholds on the coasts of Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Garífuna culture is intrinsically linked to the land and access to the sea.

Land reforms in Honduras have disregarded cultural land titles, and have made it easy for foreign tourism and real estate investors to displace Garifuna communities to build hotels and retirement communities. Illegal drug cartels also steal Garífuna land for their operations. The Honduran government has failed to protect Garífuna land titles against foreign interests and, in many cases, has been directly involved in their displacement.

Under Miriam’s leadership, OFRANEH and the Garífuna people have organized to defend their land and their culture. They currently have two cases against the state of Honduras pending at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). Most recently, the Garífuna succeeded in bringing Canadian investor Randy Jorgensen to trial in Trujillo, Honduras for his mega-tourism project illegally built on Garífuna land.

Miriam’s activism has come at a cost. She faces incredible risk for the work she is doing and has been threatened many times and kidnapped. Miriam and her colleagues are regularly arbitrarily detained and portrayed as criminals in the media. In the face of these threats, Miriam is not backing down from her struggle to ensure the Garífuna people’s land and culture is protected.

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Politics of Death: ‘Am I next?’ Deadly waiting game for Honduras land activists

by Anastasia Moloney and Nicky Milne | @anastasiabogota | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 20 June 2017 23:01 GMT

Inline images 1

Watch ‘Worth Dying For?’: our new film about how the murder of famed activist Berta Caceres has unleashed a wave of activism across Honduras (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJOvVc1zuuc&feature=youtu.be)By Anastasia Moloney and Nicky Milne

http://news.trust.org/item/20170620230258-qpxb1/

LA PAZ, Honduras, June 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Every night, land rights activist Felipe Benitez and his wife wedge shut the doors and windows of their home and pray gunmen do not break in to kill the entire family – and with due reason.

Honduras has been named the world’s most dangerous place for environmental activists like Benitez – local people battling big business to preserve their ancestral lands from mining, damns, logging, tourism and other mega-developments.

“In Honduras, one of the ways to get you out of the way is murder,” said Benitez from his home in the Honduran mountain top village of Santa Elena in western La Paz province.

The area of lush mountains and sweeping valleys has become a focal point in a nation on the front line of land activism, with scores of active disputes – and murders – along the way.

Benitez fears he could be next – along with his wife and children – as he leads opposition to Los Encinos hydroelectric dam on land he claims for the indigenous Lenca people.

Four activists have been killed since 2013, including one whose dismembered body was found in a river in 2015, said Benitez, and campaigning has stalled construction of the dam.

Norma Allegra Cerrato, Honduran vice minister of human rights and justice, said the government is working to stem violence against activists while other government departments push for the projects they argue are needed for the economy.

“Currently we’ve had a lot of problems with big interests, we even have had deaths and we have to try to avoid this from happening in the country,” Cerrato said.

Honduras is the deadliest place on earth for environmental activism, according to a January report by UK-based watchdog Global Witness, with about 120 activists killed since 2010 but most crimes going unpunished.

The dangers involved hit the spotlight when renowned environmentalist Berta Caceres – a prize-winning grassroots campaigner – was gunned down in her home in March last year.

Hundreds march in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam. TRF/Nicky Milne

Since Caceres’ murder, at least seven more activists have been killed, including other members of the organisation co-founded by Caceres – the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (COPINH), according to Global Witness.

The latest victim, Jose Santos, an indigenous leader and land rights defender, was shot dead in February in his home.

TIME FOR CHANGE

Experts says violent conflicts between indigenous groups, companies and the country’s business and political elite will continue unless more is done to protect the rights of indigenous people and consult them about projects planned on their land.

Under an International Labour Organization (ILO) agreement that Honduras signed in 1989, the government is obliged to ensure projects on indigenous lands win “free, prior and informed consent” from locals.

But Honduran indigenous leaders say this rarely happens.

“Our territories, our rivers have been stolen and we haven’t been consulted,” said Margarita Pineda, whose own fight focuses on land around her native San Jose, another village in La Paz.

Margarita Pineda is pictured in San Jose, La Paz, where she works as co-ordinator for MILPAH, (Lenca Indigenous Movement of La Paz). TRF/Nicky Milne

According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the top rights commission in the Americas, there are nearly 840 mining projects, most for gold, in the pipeline or under consideration, covering a third of Honduran territory.

Caceres led a decades-long campaign against the construction of the $50 million Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam that threatened to uproot hundreds of Lenca people and destroy livelihoods.

Both the government and Desarrollos Energeticos SA (DESA), the private company building the Agua Zarca dam, have denied any involvement in Caceres’ murder.

International backers of the dam – the FMO, the Dutch development bank, and a Finnish state investment fund, Finnfund – suspended $20 million in funding following Caceres’ murder.

In March 2016, Finnfund said in a statement: “FMO and Finnfund will not, for now, make disbursements to the project.”

“FMO is currently in discussion with the other lenders, the independent facilitator, DESA and other stakeholders in order to realize a responsible exit,” the FMO said on its website.

Fellow activists vow to honour Caceres’s legacy.

Standing by a dried-out river bed, Pineda laments the disappearance of gushing rivers and waterfalls that ran through her forested mountains before a dam was built two years ago.

“They thought we would sit here with our arms crossed when Berta died. But we have strengthened our fight. We will all die one day so it may as well be for a fair fight,” said Pineda who says she has received death threats from armed men.

ARMED GUARDS

For Miriam Miranda, head of the Black Fraternal Organisation of Honduras (OFRANEH), danger is a part of life for campaigners.

“We’re facing a hard fight against companies that are taking over our territories,” said Miranda, who is opposing big tourism projects on the ancestral lands of the Garifuna people.

“I’ve been .. arrested and beaten by the police. I’ve been kidnapped by hired assassins who wanted to kill us for defending our territory,” she said.

The police would not comment on the alleged attacks.

Such is the danger that in recent years she and Benitez, along with Caceres and dozens of other Honduran activists, have been granted precautionary measures by the IACHR, which is part of the Organization of American States.

This means the IACHR deems their lives to be at risk, and has asked the Honduran government to take steps to protect them.

But some activists, including Caceres, refused the offer of government protection, citing mistrust of state security forces.

IMPUNITY

For rarely are the murderers caught. About 80 percent of murders in the Central American nation go unpunished, including killings of activists, according to IACHR’s latest report.

In Caceres’ case, eight people have been arrested in connection with her murder, including current and former Honduran military personnel.

But her family accuses the political elite and state security forces of orchestrating the murder and have demanded an independent investigation, a request the government has denied.

“I have encouraged them (Berta’s children) to continue with this fight,” Caceres’ mother, 80-year-old Austraberta Flores, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Of course it’s risky, but if we don’t make the sacrifice, it will be impossible to stop the destruction of the country.”

Honduras has pledged to do more to protect activists, bring criminals to justice and push forward a law that would better regulate consultations between companies and local communities.

Last year Honduras introduced a scheme aimed at keeping the activists safe – providing protection, including bodyguards and mobile phones, to about 74 people, mostly rights defenders.

State prosecutors continue to investigate the murder of Caceres and other activists, said vice minister Cerrato.

“Everyone wants immediate results,” she said.

“But I don’t think it’s that easy to obtain such fast results if we want to make an effective and in-depth investigation. We need to be a bit patient.”

Activists feel no safer – and vow to keep on fighting, and to the death if that is what is takes.

“Our territory is life itself,” said Pineda. “If we don’t protect it, who will?”

(Reporting by Nicky Milne, writing by Anastasia Moloney Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Central America braces for return of US military-led foreign policy

Trump’s homeland security chief to lead meeting on region’s economic and security issues, as experts say aid cuts and deportations could fuel instability

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jun/13/central-america-us-foreign-policy-deportations-aid

A woman looks at a bus burnt by gang members in Honduras.
A woman looks at a bus burnt by gang members in Honduras. Analysts fear a return of a ‘1980s drug-war model’ of US foreign policy. Photograph: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

Central America is bracing itself for a return to military-led US foreign policy amid rising fears that sweeping aid cuts and mass deportations could destabilise the region.

Gen John Kelly, the US secretary of homeland security, will this week lead a high-level meeting on economic and security issues in Central America, where violence, corruption and poverty have forced tens of thousands to seek refuge in Mexico and the United States.

The talks will be held in Miami at the base of Southern Command, which oversees US military operations in Latin America and which Kelly led before entering the Trump administration.

The two-day meeting comes less than a month after Trump proposed slashing foreign aid to Mexico and Central America while increasing funds for the Pentagon.

Analysts say such a move would in effect kill Barack Obama’s ambitious – though imperfect – policies to tackle some root causes of forced migration by investing in justice and security reforms, and prevention and development programmes.

“In the worst-case scenario, they will slam brakes on Obama’s more holistic, less military focus, and go back to the 1980s ‘drug war’ model and good old fashioned increases in military aid,” said Adam Isacson, a security expert at the Washington Office for Latin America.

During the cold war, the US directed billions of dollars of military aid to the region in support of dictatorships which confronting leftwing rebel groups in a series of interlocking conflicts which killed tens of thousands and forcibly displaced millions.

“Kelly’s department has taken over the direction of security policy for every country north of Panama,” he added.

Almost 15,000 people were murdered in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala – known as the northern triangle – in 2016, making it the most dangerous region outside of Syria. Impunity is rife across the region.

The UN refugee agency estimates that about 200,000 Central Americans crossing into Mexico each year are fleeing violence and would qualify for international protection.

Activists are alarmed by the leadership, location and scope of the Miami meeting, which appears to focus on boosting business and security, instead of helping build institutions and promoting the rule of law.

More than 100 organisations from across the region have signed a letter condemning the plans to “discuss US policy towards the region solely from a security and economic lens, without addressing the protection needs and human rights of families, individuals, and children from the region”.

Daniella Burgi-Palomino, senior associate at the Latin America Working Group, said: “We’re very concerned at the detrimental impact of Gen Kelly inserting homeland security into what should be foreign policy decisions, especially as he’s shown no understanding of the root causes driving migration and refugees.”

Last month Kelly said that the vast majority of asylum seekers were coached by smugglers to lie about threats and fears in order to stay in the US. Then, at a Senate hearing, he called a programme to help unaccompanied child migrants a “total scam”.

Government officials have seized upon the sharp drop in detentions at the US border since Trump’s inauguration as proof that Central Americans are coming in search of jobs, not safety.

Juan José Hurtado Paz y Paz, from Asociacion Pop Noj, which works with Guatemalan minors deported by the US, believes any reduction will prove temporary.

A Guatemalan girl, 14, waits along with more than 500 other migrants after a minor train derailment in Mexico.
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A Guatemalan girl, 14, waits along with more than 500 other migrants after a minor train derailment in Mexico. Photograph: Rebecca Blackwell/AP

“Trump’s policies have created a psychosis of fear, but fear subsides, and regardless of how many walls are built, people will find a way to reach the US unless the multiple root causes of migration are tackled,” he said.

There are signs this may be starting to happen: 14,535 people were apprehended on the US southern border in May, a 31% increase from April.

This week’s meeting is co-hosted by Mexico, which had been threatening to rethink a pact made during the Obama administration to detain and deport Central Americans.

Trump repeatedly attacked Mexico throughout his presidential campaign, threatening to rip up the North American free trade agreement and build a 2,000-mile border wall to keep “bad hombres” out.

But in recent weeks, Trump’s attention has turned to Central America, with pledges to deport members of the MS-13 gang to El Salvador.

In addition, plans are afoot to abandon the temporary protected status (TPS) – a special work visa sanctioned for a handful of countries prone to natural disasters – which could lead to the deportation of 250,000 Salvadorans and Hondurans.

Noah Bullock, director of the violence prevention organisation Cristosal in El Salvador, said: “Deportations that exceed the 2016 level could lead to great social instability and [such a policy] has little chance of reducing migration. Rather, it would likely feed the cycle of migration and insecurity that is already destabilizing the region.”

This week’s meeting is the latest evidence that the Pentagon is playing a central role in efforts to stop the migratory flow. In April, defence chiefs from across the region reportedly agreed to increase intelligence and information cooperation with US armed forces in order to conduct aerial, land and reconnaissance patrols on Mexico’s southern border.

In Honduras, the most dangerous country in the world for environmental and land activists, there are particular concerns about the US encouraging investment in large-scale extractive and agribusinesses.

Joaquin Mejia, from a Jesuit human rights group, said: “Experience tells us that police and military will be used as a mechanism to control and repress social conflicts generated by development projects imposed without proper consultation with communities.”

A hidden cost of corruption: environmental devastation

 June 16 at 2:22 PM
Sarah Chayes is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the author of “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security.”

In Honduras, corruption is leading to the devastation of the Patuca River and communities on its banks. (Eve Chayes Lyman)

Krausirpi, Honudras

The Patuca River is a long, shining serpentine — achingly beautiful — that travels through the last great swath of pristine rain forest in Central America. On the map, the region is a fat green stripe, indicating two national parks end to end. But the water, as I trail my fingers in the warm bath, is tawny brown. It is carrying way too much sediment: acres of dirt washed down by the deforestation that’s making way for cattle ranches along the supposedly protected banks, and tons more dumped by construction on a massive hydroelectric dam a day’s voyage upstream.

Both are existential threats to this place and its people. And both are products of the pervasive and sophisticated corruption that characterizes the Honduran government.

I have spent a decade living through and researching how corruption has helped fuel some of the world’s most significant security crises — from the expansion of violent extremism to revolutions and their bloody aftermaths. Last year, I began wondering if similar links exist between corruption and another grave threat: environmental devastation. It didn’t take long to find them.

Corruption, in this context, should not be understood as merely the opportunistic lapses of an underpaid game warden or a customs agent who looks the other way in exchange for an envelope. Rather, in Honduras and more than 60 other countries worldwide, senior officials, key business leaders and out-and-out criminals weave themselves into sophisticated networks for the purpose of maximizing personal gains. Natural resources are a principal source of the cash these kleptocrats capture.

One of the most lucrative is oil. Nigeria’s national oil company, to pick an egregious example, could not account for nearly $20 billion in revenue from 2012 and 2013 alone. A byproduct of such looting — and the predatory attitudes it engenders — is the oil-soaked Niger Delta. The once-vibrant web of winding creeks and inlets is black with sludge, its mangroves gone, grasses and palm trees reduced to tar-smeared stumps. People who once navigated their slender-bowed boats and swam, fished and gathered shellfish there now find an oily sheen in their well water. They suffer skin and lung ailments.

Royal Dutch Shell admits to more than 1,800 spills there in the past decade. In January 2015, Shell agreed to pay $84 million to settle a lawsuit about just two of these. Meanwhile, according to Amnesty International, Nigeria’s National Oil Spill Detection and Response Agency continues to certify visibly filthy areas as clean.

his pattern is consistent across the corrupt countries I have studied: Agencies charged with protecting the environment are rendered functionally inoperative — budgets are slashed, staff is short or demotivated, equipment goes missing. Predatory extraction of natural resources for personal gain requires lax enforcement of whatever regulations exist. In Nigeria’s case, the predators aren’t just the huge oil multinationals, whose behavior may be encouraged by the ambiguous nature of many of their dealings with officials they know are corrupt, but also host-country operators and outright thieves, who often work in partnership with government institutions. When they see the magnitude of the theft at the top of the pyramid, they consider themselves entitled.

In countries that lack hydrocarbons, other natural resources substitute. The investigative charity Global Witness has documented the Cambodian ruling clique’s control of an illegal logging syndicate that is stripping that country of its tropical forest.

The United States obviously does not fall into the same category as Nigeria or Cambodia when it comes to corruption. Still, certain trends should alarm Americans. Consider West Virginia, where, in 2004, the chief executive of Massey Energy smeared a judge and bankrolled the campaign of a previously unknown judicial rival, who, once elected, ruled favorably on cases affecting the coal company — including at least one the company had lost in a jury trial. Judge Brent Benjamin argued that there was no basis for presuming that the $3 million Massey spent on his campaign might affect his impartiality.

This is the same Massey executive who was sentenced to a year in prison for conspiring to violate mine safety rules in a 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners. Over the years, Massey has taken advantage of the lax enforcement guaranteed by the coal industry’s hold over West Virginia politics, not just to repeatedly ignore health and safety requirements, but also to decapitate forested mountains and routinely dump rubble, slurry and wastewater into the state’s rivers.

Another conduit for corruption: dams. Brazil’s sprawling corruption scandal has implicated several mega-dams in the Amazon. One of them, Belo Monte, would displace at least 20,000 people and extinguish some of the world’s most diverse habitats, in some areas flooding and in others drying up hundreds of square miles of rain forest and croplands, according to studies by International Rivers and others. It would produce more greenhouse gases than an equivalent fossil fuel plant, for at least 20 years. One executive in the construction consortium was sentenced to a 19-year prison term for corruption and money laundering, and the consortium is under investigation for allegedly paying millions in bribes to Brazil’s beleaguered then-ruling party to secure the concession.

Oxford University research published in 2014 indicates that most such dams worldwide will not recoup the cost of their construction, let alone improve standards of living for local populations. Such “white elephants” may not even be meant to serve their stated purposes. Rather, in the words of James Robinson and Ragnar Torvik, authors of an earlier study on large infrastructure projects in developing countries, “it is the very inefficiency of such projects that makes them . . . appealing” as vehicles for channeling money into the hands of a ruling coterie.


The construction site of the Patuca III dam, which is designed to generate 105 megawatts of power. There are currently no plans for it to supply electricity to the communities along the river whose lives will be impacted. (Eve Chayes Lyman)

Honduras’s Patuca III dam is just such a project. According to lawyer and veteran environmental activist Mauricio Torres, the river probably cannot build up sufficient pressure to generate the intended 104 megawatts: The water is too shallow and the topography too flat. A 2008 government-sponsored environmental impact assessment was “so weak,” according to a 2012 letter from the Inter-American Development Bank to the Honduran government, “that we could not even envision starting to study [Tegucigalpa’s request for project funding] seriously.”

Mario Vallejo, a specialist in environmental law, is not surprised by such meaningless environmental oversight. He says it’s the norm in Honduras. “There’s an evaluation process that must happen before construction on such projects can begin,” Vallejo explains. “But typically, work starts before the study is even completed. Developers get a license in a single day. It’s called temporary, but it won’t be revoked. And the impact assessments, when they’re completed, accommodate what the constructors want.”

When the IDB declined to finance Patuca III, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China stepped in with a loan. The Chinese engineering firm Sinohydro is racing to complete work by next spring, but the contract has raised eyebrows, even in kleptocratic Honduras. The somewhat independent Honduran National Anti-Corruption Council is investigating several officials at the national electricity agency for the alleged embezzlement of more than $4 million from the construction of the barracks that house Sinohydro’s technicians and laborers.

Among the failings the IDB’s assessment identified, the Honduran government neither adequately consulted with nor compensated affected communities. On a trip to the area last summer, two Honduran naturalists; my sister, artist and photographer Eve Lyman; and I amply confirmed that finding. Villagers told us they signed for government distributions of rice, for example, and those signatures were later used by the state electricity company as evidence that they approved of the dam.

According to media reports and numerous interviews, a 2015 protest against the project in Tegucigalpa was defused when the largest landowners — many of them wealthy absentee landlords — were paid off.

“The rich got a higher price for their land than we did,” said a farmer we met on the road, riding a mare with a chestnut foal trotting behind. “They asked us and we said no. This earth doesn’t have a price. But the rich said yes, and we’re backed into a corner.”

Late last year, when the second installment of promised compensation payments failed to materialize, landowners protested again, temporarily interrupting work on the project.

Every single person we interviewed along the river, above and below the dam site, detested the very idea of Patuca III. “It’s a barbarism to nature,” said a man who ran a small lunch counter by the worksite. “And the people living according to their ancestral traditions will be the worst affected.”


Children play near a small hydroelectric dam in the la Paz region of Honduras. The electricity produced powers three indigenous communities, and each family in the area sent a representative to supply the labor. The communities now own and maintain it. The dam allows a portion of the river to flow, thus not harming the ecosystem. (Eve Chayes Lyman)

To talk to them, the indigenous Tawahka and Miskito peoples who live downstream of the dam, we took to the river in one of the long wooden boats, “pipantes,” that are the only mode of transport along the sinuous, silver artery. “This river is the road for all these communities,” said Gil Cardones in Krautara, the first Tawahka village we visited. “Already the water’s so low it’s hard to navigate in winter.”

According to the IDB’s and other studies, changes in the river’s flow also threaten several species of migrating fish, as well as lizards, crocodiles and turtles. “Now our people are having to abandon fishing,” a young teacher told us at a community meeting in the largest Tawahka village, Krausirpi. “We are losing this whole part of our life and culture. The fish and turtles will go extinct.”

Until recently, the Tawahkas hunted and foraged and fished and interspersed crops with untouched ground and overgrown fallow, preserving this last uninterrupted stretch of rain forest. Patuca III will accelerate its destruction.

For mile after mile upstream of this village, we had seen it: trees hacked off with machetes, the splintered stumps jutting skyward. The tropical wood isn’t even salvaged. “They make boards to build their camps and burn the rest,” said a man who’d asked for a ride in our boat. “It’s too expensive to transport.” Lime-green, deathly silent grass takes over where once stood a vibrant, multi-story forest filled with countless varieties of trees, vines, air plants, orchids, a riot of birdsong and hundreds of endangered species.

Another hitchhiker helped us understand how even apparently petty local corruption contributes to the devastation. As she grew comfortable with us, she began excoriating the mayor who presides over that stretch of river. Government-funded small-scale development projects, such as village clean-ups, used to provide a trickle of cash that residents need to buy amenities, pay for boat rides to larger towns a few times a year or to purchase medicine, she said, enabling them to retain their lands in an area bereft of public services or access to local markets where they could sell crops.

But under Mayor Walter Bertran Gonzales, the cash-for-work stopped.

“He gets 25,000 lempiras (about $1,100) in public funding to spend on this project, 25,000 for that project, but he carries it off on his shoulder,” a farmer in the village of Bilalmo had told us the previous day. Newspaper reports echo the corruption allegations. As the projects dried up, depriving villagers of the meager wages they earned from making small repairs to public facilities, cleaning up their communities or other such efforts, residents turned to the only recourse they had: selling their land.

“In just the past year, almost all my neighbors have sold their land,” the hitchhiker told my sister. “People have no other way to get money.” The buyers “bring in outsiders to clear it and plant pasture for cows.” Several people displaced from this area are known to have fled north to the United States.

According to some who dared talk about it, many of the buyers are narco-traffickers or their proxies. In the article “Drug Policy as Conservation Policy: Narco-Deforestation ,” Kendra McSweeney and her co-authors note the “close correlation between the timing and location of forest loss and drug transit .” Buying and “improving” land by converting tropical forest into ranches is a good way to launder money. With two dozen villages about to be submerged or badly affected by this dam, and the pockets of wealthy absentee landlords suddenly flush with compensation, the hunger for land will only intensify.

But all of these transactions our passengers described are illegal. Under the 1999 decree that established territories downstream of the dam as a national park, its lands are either inalienable public patrimony or the collective property of indigenous peoples, and only inhabitants present when the decree was enacted may live there. The prosecutor’s office has pleaded lack of resources to investigate complaints, says Erik Nielsen, one of the authors of the narco-deforestation article, so the “sales” proceed unchecked.

Such pretexts are to be expected in a country that is almost a textbook case of the systemic corruption I have been studying. Economic activity is dominated by less than a dozen families. Congress, operating out of a dilapidated 1950s building, has passed law after law lavishing incentives on their businesses, and helping President Juan Orlando Hernández consolidate power and shroud government activities in secrecy.

Environmental activists — in the world’s deadliest country for them — have documented systematic bias on the part of the legal system, including persistent police harassment and false accusations leading to lengthy and expensive proceedings or unjust convictions. In the case of Berta Caceres, a locally beloved and internationally celebrated campaigner who was assassinated last year, the preposterous initial police suggestions that a botched robbery or a “crime of passion” had taken place, and the rush to investigate Caceres’s fellow activists, fit the pattern.

After intense international pressure, the former vice minister of environment is in jail pending trial for illegally issuing the permit for the dam Caceres was protesting. If the allegations are accurate, it would be another example of the Environment Ministry’s rubber-stamping that experts and practitioners describe.

Given Chinese President Xi Jinping’s high-profile anti-corruption campaign, Chinese businesses are beginning to think differently about corporate social responsibility in cases like this. In fact, in 2013, Sinohydro pulled out of the project Caceres died protesting.

Patuca III is far worse, yet Sinohyrdo continues work on it.

And it’s not as though its construction will improve ordinary Hondurans’ lives, even if it does generate electricity. With the country losing nearly a third of its power through poorly maintained transmission systems, the explicit objective is to sell electricity to neighboring countries, according to Giovanni Ayestas, head of social relations at UEPER, the government agency managing Patuca III. And thus generate a cash flow ripe for capture.

Stepping ashore as we nosed our boat onto the bank below her village, our hitchhiker summed up what we had been hearing for days: “That dam will kill us.”

It won’t leave the rest of us untouched, either. Irreplaceable environmental treasures such as the Patuca River and its surrounding national park belong to us all, not just a handful of kleptocrats. Only persistent public pressure can reliably protect the wild lands that are everyone’s birthright — whether they lie in national monuments west of the Rockies or in Appalachia or along the Patuca River.

schayes@ceip.org

“They captured me for defending our collective rights.”

Inside the efforts of Honduras’s Garifuna people to protect their ancestral lands from tourism development

Photos by Mónica González Islas

 http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/they-captured-me-for-defending-our-collective-rights
 

 

  • Medelin David Hernandez near the community of Guadalupe. OFRANEH members say that the land there was illegally sold to international developers.

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  • Derick Garcia works to make bricks for the community of Guadalupe. When OFRANEH members reoccupy their ancestral lands, they often build homes out of adobe.

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  • The Indura Beach and Golf Resort, one of several tourism developments on the Honduran coast that Garifuna members say have occupied their ancestral lands.

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  • Carlos Castillo, an OFRANEH member, has fought against what he says is the Indura Beach and Golf Resort’s illegal appropriation of Garifuna lands.

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  • Medelin David Hernandez, one of the cofounders of the Garifuna community of Guadalupe.

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  • Miriam Miranda, president of the Afro-Honduran organization OFRANEH, at a rally in the Honduran capital marking the one-year anniversary of the assassination of indigenous environmental leader Berta Cáceres.

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  • Juliana Flores, an OFRANEH member, works the land in the Garifuna community of Vallecito.

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  • A woman named Gabriela in the communal kitchen at the Garifuna community of Vallecito.

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  •  A woman in the Garifuna community of Guadalupe.

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  • A woman named Rosa works to clear the land for the construction of a home in the Garifuna community of Guadalupe.

Last February, I traveled to Honduras with photographer Mónica González Islas to report on the murder of indigenous environmental leader Berta Cáceres for Sierra. Before going to Intibucá—the territory of the indigenous Lenca people, where Cáceres’s organization, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), is based—Mónica and I traveled along the Honduran Atlantic coast visiting COPINH’s closest ally in its many years of struggle, the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, or OFRANEH.

OFRANEH began in 1978 as a grassroots group struggling against racism in the banana industry. It has since grown into an organization that continues to battle racism while also defending the cultural, spiritual, and territorial rights of Honduras’s Afro-Indigenous communities. The Garifuna descend from Africans who escaped from slave traders in the Caribbean and then formed alliances with the region’s indigenous societies. In Honduras, there are at least 46 Garifuna communities in four departments along the Atlantic coast. There are also Garifuna communities in Belize, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

Like many indigenous peoples across Central America and Mexico, a large number of Garifuna migrated to cities in Honduras and the United States looking for work in the 1980s and 1990s. In the wake of this out-migration, foreign, mostly Canadian, businesspeople began to purchase Garifuna lands along Honduras’s Caribbean coast and to set up various tourist enterprises—vacation homes, cruise-ship ports, luxury resorts, and restaurants. Many of those purchases were illegal. The Garifuna’s ancestral claim to the lands stretches back at least 200 years, and their legal claim to the lands dates to the communal land titles granted to them in 1901.

In recent years, under OFRANEH’s guidance, the Garifuna have been challenging the land sales in court, arguing that the titles used to sell parcels of land were falsified. At the same time, the Garifuna have engaged in direct action to reclaim their lands. OFRANEH has helped organize land reoccupations during which Garifuna families build adobe homes by hand and replant fields to re-establish their claims to the land. These largely subsistence communities stand in sharp contrast to the cruise-ship terminals, expensive hotels, and restaurants that serve international tourists.

The Garifuna’s struggle to secure their land rights has led to repression. Garifuna communities are routinely subject to police raids during which community members are sometimes arrested and charged with trespassing. Often the police and other armed men act with violence; OFRANEH members have been beaten and kidnapped.

An attempt to secure land rights to a property near the town of Guadalupe, in the department of Colon, offers a glimpse into the difficulties the Garifuna face in trying to reclaim their territories.

In the predawn hours of October 12, 2016, some 20 young men and women entered an unoccupied parcel of land adjacent to a small vacation-home enclave of eight houses that is owned by a Canadian company called Alta Vista. The group had already consulted with OFRANEH’s lawyers to begin the legal work of securing the land title; in the meantime, they would try to recuperate the abandoned property themselves.

When they arrived, around 4:30 A.M., no one was on the property, which was overgrown with weeds. Some people began working in the dark with machetes to open up the land. Others performed spiritual ceremonies to honor their ancestors. “The spiritual part of the struggle” is incredibly important, Medeline David, an OFRANEH activist, said. David was born in Guadalupe, but then left the area to study in the city of San Pedro Sula. She returned to Guadalupe in 2015 after graduating from university because city life left her “anxious and depressed.” She told me, “We took the initiative to recuperate this land, which lies within the ancestral titles of our community.”

David told me that women from Guadalupe used the contested property from about 2003 to 2009 as a rest and relaxation area. After two men were murdered on the nearby beach, women in the community were afraid to spend time there. Garifuna community members hired a local man to look after the property, but the custodian then sold the land (illegally, according to OFRANEH attorneys) to a Canadian investor in 2010 with forged land titles drawn up with a local judge.

“The first days here were hard,” David said. “There was nowhere to sleep at night. The first weeks were all hard work. But the system excludes us as young Garifuna so we are building our own communities with our own resources.”

It took less than a month for the authorities to attempt to push the Garifuna off the land. On November 10, at around 4:50 P.M., some of the land-rights activists were at the site looking for firewood when one of them got a call warning that the police were on their way. “We didn’t worry, because the police had come by several times,” David said. On that day, however, “they came on the land as if they were going to capture Chapo Guzmán [the notorious Mexican drug trafficker].” The police entered the property with their faces masked and their rifles aimed at David and the other OFRANEH members.

“They grabbed me,” David said, “and Antoin [her young son] screamed. That scream set me off and I struggled. The police started clubbing people. It took three of them to handcuff me. They took four of us to jail. But I never lost hope. I never got scared. I’m not a criminal; I’m not a narco.”

Three OFRANEH members were released after a few minutes, but David was held in custody for 24 hours. The police accused her of trespassing. “Imagine that,” she said, “trespassing. How am I going to trespass in my own community if I’m from here? They didn’t capture me for drug trafficking or any other criminal activity. They captured me for defending our collective rights.”

Mónica and I visited several other OFRANEH land recuperation sites. Speaking with OFRANEH members, we routinely heard anger about the sharp inequities between the posh tourism development and their own struggles to survive.

“Those boats that come here, they don’t benefit us,” Carmen Álvarez told me as we stood on a Garifuna-claimed beach on the outskirts of the coastal town of Trujillo. In May 2012, Álvarez was one of some 500 Garifuna who occupied the site and fought in court to restore the community’s formal title.

“Their cruise-ship docks out in the ocean—speedboats pick up the tourists and take them to a bus that takes them around the center of Trujillo and then to Banana Coast, and they stay there,” Álvarez said. “None of that benefits the Garifuna peoples at all. In no way. If someone has a restaurant near the beach, they benefit more from local or national tourism than from international tourism. Randy bought three restaurants on the beach. The whole network is only for him. This whole region has the same problem.”

The Randy she’s talking about is Randy Jorgensen, a Canadian businessman who made millions selling pornography before moving to Honduras and buying large parcels of land—illegally according to OFRANEH—on the Atlantic coast. My attempts to contact Jorgensen were unsuccessful. In an interview with a reporter from the China Global Television Network, however, Jorgensen said that the Garifuna were “foreigners, immigrants in Honduras” and that buying their land was perfectly legal because it “benefits” the Garifuna. When the reporter pushed him on OFRANEH’s claims, Jorgensen said, “If you are on a witch hunt, you need to go someplace else and look for a witch. Are we done now?”

“Before Randy showed up, international tourists used to come and enjoy the beach, but with Randy that doesn’t happen anymore,” Álvarez said. “Randy came here about 20 or so years ago. And about 10 years ago he started buying up land. They said it would benefit us, bring development. There is no benefit for us. All he does is create private property.”

“The titles to these lands are ancestral titles,” she continued. “The lands belong to us as Garifuna peoples. Sadly, we lost a lot of land, and we are struggling to recuperate it. I was arrested in 2014 for fighting for this land. Since we know they are our lands, we keep fighting. And we’ve recuperated this land here. We won this battle. Last year, they came twice to try and kick us off the land. . . . We didn’t let that happen.”

“You used to be able to walk the entire length of this beach. Not anymore,” Álvarez said. If you walk to Banana Coast, Banana Beach, that is private property. You can’t walk on the beach there. There are guards with huge dogs patrolling there. They want to dispossess us. They’re trying to force us off. If we grow weak, they’ll stay here. But if we stay strong, they’ll be the ones to leave.”

At one land encampment literally across the road from Jorgensen’s Banana Beach Resort, two brothers, Noel and Nilfor Flores, showed us around the Wani Leé recuperation camp, speaking with excitement about the coconut, banana, and mango trees they have planted, the many varieties of chilies as well as yucca, beans, avocado, and sweet potatoes.

“The struggle is hard,” Noel Flores told me after hours working in the communal orchards. “The investors are coming at us hard, and the government supports them. They are trying to take away our future and our children and grandchildren’s future.”

Since reclaiming this property, the Flores brothers and another 60 people have built their homes by hand and worked the land. Last September, police stormed the land site and burned seven cabins.

“Our lives were in danger that day,” Noel Flores said. “They came in here violently and started burning the cabins without asking us a single question, without asking whether or not there were women and children inside the cabins.”

“We know that this land is ours,” Noel Flores continued as we walked around. “All the documents saying that these people are buying land, they are false. And they’re suing us now. They flipped the whole thing and are suing us now. They should be suing the government for lying to them. But they’re suing the community of Sante Fe because we’re claiming our land back.”

The Garifuna’s strategy of using people-powered nonviolent direct action to reclaim their lands has been guided by OFRANEH’s charismatic leader, Miriam Miranda. Born in the Honduran coastal community of Sante Fe, Miranda was raised in a banana work camp where her father had migrated. She then went to university in Tegucigalpa. “While studying, I got involved in social movements and I never graduated,” she told me, remembering her 1980s-era student activism against the U.S. military’s cold war presence in Honduras, which was used as a base to support the Contra rebels in Nicaragua’s civil war. Miranda then started working with a women’s organization in the poorer neighborhoods of Tegucigalpa. “It made a major impact on me to see the way that women lived in those barrios. With one bucket of water, they would have to do all the day’s work: cooking, dishes, laundry.” The machismo was heavy there. “I would give women copies of a magazine we published and the women would have to hide it from their husbands,” she said.

Miranda emphasized to me that OFRANEH’s advocacy is cultural and spiritual as much as it is political and legal. The efforts to recuperate illegally appropriated lands are just one piece of a larger struggle that includes reclaiming—and being proud of—the Garifuna’s unique history. OFRANEH promotes instruction in the Garifuna language— a Arawakan language that also includes words from English, Spanish, and French—as well as activities such as traditional drumming. ““We need to strengthen our identity,” she said. “We are an Afro-Indigenous mixture. The state denies our indigeneity, and migration puts our indigeneity at risk. People who do not know their identity are more manageable.”

The movement is also grounded in feminist ideals. “The Garifuna are matrilineal peoples,” she said, emphasizing OFRANEH’s work with women and youth. “Women are leading many of the processes of struggle.”

Since the 2009 coup that removed from office president Manuel Zelaya, OFRANEH’s advocacy has had to grow to challenge the expansion of extractive industries like logging and mining. “They treat Honduras like some kind of private plantation,” she said, referring to multinational corporations that are conducting operations there. But the organization remains focused on reclaiming the Garifuna’s ancestral lands. “We don’t believe in projects; we believe in processes,” she said. “You have to defend what you are. That is terrible. It shouldn’t be like that.”

Such resistance has been dangerous for Miranda, just as it has been dangerous for OFRANEH’s rank-and-file members. In July 2014, Miranda and other Garifuna were abducted by heavily armed men as they traveled to visit an OFRANEH community where a few years prior drug traffickers had built an illegal airstrip. OFRANEH had demanded that the airstrip be destroyed and had traveled out to make sure it had been when they were abducted. Quick action by local community members—along with swift national and international condemnation of the kidnapping—forced the release of Miranda and her colleagues.

Given the political violence and impunity that pervades Honduras, I asked Miranda about what steps she and OFRANEH have taken to protect themselves. She told me, “Protection must be collective. There is no individual protection. The struggles have their roots, their reasons for being, and they must be supported. Otherwise, you can’t protect a single person.”

Under the Gun: An Investigation Into the Murder of Berta Cáceres

Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world to be an environmental activist

Photos by Mónica González Islas

  • A march in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, on the anniversary of Berta Cáceres’s assassination.

     

GUSTAVO CASTRO WAS IN BED, working on his laptop, when he heard a loud noise. It sounded like someone was breaking open the locked kitchen door. From the bedroom across the hall, his friend Berta Cáceres screamed, “Who’s out there?” Before Castro had time to react, a man kicked down his bedroom door and pointed a gun at his face. It was 11:40 P.M. on March 2, 2016.

Castro, a Mexican activist who had spent his life involved in a range of social justice campaigns, was in La Esperanza, Honduras, to coordinate a three-day workshop on creating local alternatives to capitalism. Cáceres—one of the most revered environmental, indigenous, and women’s rights leaders in Honduras—had invited Castro to conduct the workshop for members of her organization, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, known by its Spanish acronym, COPINH. When he accepted the invitation to travel to Honduras, Castro knew that it could be dangerous, though he had no idea exactly how grave it would turn out to be.

Berta Caceres Zuniga (daughter of Berta Caceres) stands next to the Gualcarque River, which her mother died protecting. Berta Cáceres Zúñiga (daughter of Berta Cáceres) stands next to the Gualcarque River, which her mother died protecting. 

In recent years, Honduras had become a global leader on lists having to do with violence: the highest number of homicides per capita, the world’s second-most-murderous city (San Pedro Sula), and the most dangerous place on the planet to be an environmental advocate. As the most prominent spokesperson for a fierce indigenous campaign to stop the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River, Cáceres was no stranger to threats. The struggle over the proposed Agua Zarca dam had become a major political controversy. On one side were the indigenous Lenca people of COPINH, who had staged road blockades, sabotaged construction equipment, and appealed to international lenders to halt financing for the project. On the other were some of Honduras’s wealthiest families, many of them with close ties to the military. Cáceres’s leadership against the dam had earned her much attention, both positive and negative. In 2015, she received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize—and leading up to it, she also had received beatings from security forces and some 30 death threats, and spent a night in jail on fabricated charges.

Castro and Cáceres had been friends for more than 15 years and had collaborated on opposing the Free Trade Area of the Americas, open-pit mining, water privatization, and militarization. Castro’s workshop in La Esperanza was focused on developing strategies for moving beyond protest-centered social movements, and Cáceres had been energized by the sessions. That day she left repeated WhatsApp messages for her daughter, Berta Cáceres Zúñiga, who had just left Honduras to resume her graduate studies in Mexico. “She was really happy,” Cáceres Zúñiga said.

After the first day’s workshop, Cáceres had invited Castro to spend the night at her home so that he could have a quiet place to work. They arrived sometime around 10:30 P.M. after driving a mile and a half down a lonely dirt road from the center of La Esperanza. Castro remembers commenting on how isolated the property was. “How is it that you live here alone?” he asked Cáceres as they pulled up to the house.

The old friends spent some time talking on the front porch, and then each went to their own room. It was nearing midnight when the gunmen forced their way into the house and he heard Cáceres’s screams. “That’s when I realized we were dead,” Castro said.

Berta Caceres's sister and motherBerta Cáceres’s sister and mother 

In the instant before a shot was fired at him, Castro looked past the gun barrel and into the gunman’s eyes. “When I saw in his eyes the decision to kill me, I instinctively moved my hand and head,” Castro told me, showing me the scar on the back of his hand and lifting up his hair to reveal where a bullet had removed the top of his ear. “The killer experienced an optical illusion that he had shot me in the head. Because in the instant that he fired, I was still. But a millionth of a second before, I moved my hand and head. If I had moved a millionth of a second later, we wouldn’t be sitting here.”

Castro threw himself to the ground and lay still, pretending he was dead. He was bleeding from his ear, which was covered by his thick, curly hair. The gunman turned and walked out of the house.

“A few seconds later,” Castro said, “Berta screamed, ‘Gustavo! Gustavo!’ And I went to her room to help her. But it wasn’t more than a minute before Berta died. I said goodbye to her, grabbed the phone, and went back to my room to start calling people so that someone could come and rescue me. It didn’t take more than 30 seconds, a minute, from the time the killers entered to when they left. Everything happened so quickly. They were there to kill her. It was a well-planned assassination. The only thing they hadn’t anticipated is that I would be there.”

It was two days before Cáceres’s birthday. She would have turned 45.

 

IN 2010, THE RESIDENTS OF RÍO BLANCO, a Lenca community on the banks of the Gualcarque River, noticed workers with heavy machinery. They were “making roads where they had no business making roads,” said Rosalina Domínguez, a community leader there. The Lenca wasted no time in making their opposition known. “We confiscated one of their tractors,” Domínguez recalled. “We didn’t let them get much work done.”

A few months later, a group of men arrived in Río Blanco to show promotional videos for the hydroelectric dam they wanted to build, and to tell the community about the studies they had already done on the proposed project. People were unimpressed by the gesture. “Who gave you permission to conduct those studies?” they asked. An engineer said that the dam would provide the community with jobs, schools, and scholarships for their children. “We told him that it sounded like a bunch of promises that they would never follow through on,” Domínguez said. “So the community told him that we wouldn’t accept the project and that if someday they decided to try and build it anyway, the community would stand up and fight.”

In 2012, the company behind the proposed Agua Zarca dam, Desarrollos Energéticos (or DESA), sought to buy the land along the riverbanks. According to Dominguez, out of some 800 community members, only seven wanted to sell. A year later, the company moved ahead with construction anyway. In March 2013, a number of indigenous farmers walked out to their corn and bean fields to find they were no longer there. “We decided to fight when we saw how they destroyed the cultivated fields without so much as talking to the owners,” Domínguez said. “They plowed straight through the ears of corn and the beanstalks. That is when we blocked the road.”

Indigenous environmentalist Berta Caceres's house, outside La Esperanza, HondurasBerta Cáceres’s home, outside La Esperanza, Honduras 

Two days after the Lenca community set up its road blockade, Berta Cáceres arrived. Domínguez and Cáceres had met in 2009, when Cáceres went to Río Blanco to give a talk about the international laws protecting indigenous communities’ rights and to make a case for the importance of protecting the river. When Cáceres returned in April 2013 at the start of the road blockade, “she joined the struggle unequivocally,” Domínguez said. “She stayed with us day and night.”

United in its determination to halt the dam, the community of Río Blanco possessed a clear moral and legal stature: International law states that indigenous communities must give prior consent for projects like Agua Zarca, consent that the dam builders had not received. Cáceres brought to the conflict a strategic savvy honed during 20 years of social-change organizing. Her life to that point had prepared her for this very struggle.

Berta Flores Cáceres was born in La Esperanza in 1971 to a politically active family. Her mother, Austra Bertha Flores López, worked for decades as a midwife, assisting thousands of natural births in the Honduran countryside. She was also—while working full-time and raising 12 children, of whom Berta was the youngest—three times the mayor of La Esperanza, once the governor of the department of Intibucá, and later a member of Honduras’s congress.

Berta took to politics early. At age 12, she ran for student council and began participating in street demonstrations. During political meetings at the family home, she met Salvador Zúñiga  the man with whom she would eventually have four children and share more than 20 years of grassroots struggle. When she was 17, the couple had their first child, a daughter, shortly before crossing the border into El Salvador to join the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrilla army during that country’s brutal civil war. Her mother speaks of this with pride: “She went to fight, rifle in hand.”

After the war ended, in 1992, Zúñiga and Cáceres returned to Honduras, had their second daughter, Berta, and made a pact to never go to war again. “We understood that war was repugnant,” Zúñiga said. “It was the worst thing that could happen to people.” They committed themselves to “active nonviolence” and together founded COPINH.

In the subsequent years, Cáceres, Zúñiga, and COPINH would lead major indigenous marches to Tegucigalpa, the capital, and establish two autonomous indigenous municipalities—the first in Honduran history. Using grassroots organizing and lawsuits, they were able to halt the voracious logging in Intibuca. They also founded a women’s health center and five indigenous radio stations and established a social-movement training and retreat center on 10 acres of land in La Esperanza. “The whole world admired her,” her mother said. “She traveled abroad to help, to give trainings, to give talks, and to carry the message of what was happening here. She had this immense ability to defeat, a little bit, the huge power of the businesses and the big landowners that were her enemy.”

When Cáceres arrived in Río Blanco in the spring of 2013 to help stop the proposed Agua Zarca dam, she brought with her not only the skills of a seasoned organizer but also a national profile that was essential to elevating the struggle. As the blockade continued, DESA engineers and security personnel repeatedly threatened Río Blanco community members, though Cáceres soon became the focal point for threats and intimidation. DESA charged that the Lenca people—though they were living in their communities and farming their ancestral lands—were trespassing. On several occasions, the police dismantled the COPINH roadblocks, and each time the community put the blockade back in place. In mid-May, the Honduran government deployed the military. Soldiers from the Battalion of Engineers established a base camp inside DESA’s facilities.

The close cooperation between the dam builders and the military was part of a larger relationship. DESA’s executives and board of directors come from the Honduran military and banking elite. DESA’s secretary, Roberto Pacheco Reyes, is a former justice minister. The company president, Roberto David Castillo Mejia, is a former military intelligence officer accused of corruption by the Honduran government’s public auditor’s office. The vice president, Jacobo Nicolas Atala Zablah, is a bank owner and a member of one of Honduras’s wealthiest families.

Within days of the soldiers’ appearance at the site, someone planted a handgun in Cáceres’s car. She had already been searched at several police checkpoints when a subsequent military search suddenly revealed a firearm in her vehicle. Cáceres was arrested and taken to jail. She was able to post bail, and the gun charges were dropped, but then DESA filed a lawsuit against her for illegally occupying company land, and the Honduran federal prosecutors added sedition charges for good measure. Fearful of being arrested again, Cáceres went underground as her attorney fought the charges.

Under the Gun: An Investigation into the Murder of Berta Cáceres

“Everything against Berta shows that there is a connection between the military and the company,” said Brigitte Gynther, who has been working in Honduras with the School of the Americas Watch since 2012. “It was the military that had Berta arrested. The collusion between the military and DESA has been a constant since the beginning.”

Then the standoff turned deadly. On July 15, 2013, COPINH staged a peaceful protest at the dam company’s office. The demonstration had barely started when soldiers opened fire on the COPINH activists at close range, killing community leader Tomas Garcia and wounding his 17-year-old son, Alan.

The military’s attack on unarmed protesters marked a turning point. In August 2013, the giant Chinese dam-construction company Sinohydro pulled out of the project, citing the ongoing community resistance. The International Finance Corporation, a private-sector arm of the World Bank that had been considering investing in the dam, announced that it would not support the project. With funding in jeopardy, work on the dam limped along.

In the spring of 2015, Cáceres traveled to the United States to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize for her leadership in the dam struggle. Sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize of the environmental movement, the award recognizes individuals who take great personal risks to protect the environment. In that sense, Cáceres was an ideal recipient. Since the dam conflict had begun, she had received many death threats. At one point, another activist had shown her a military hit list with her name at the top. (The Guardian later published an interview with a former Honduran special forces soldier who confirmed the existence of the hit list.)

Many of Cáceres’s friends and colleagues hoped the Goldman Prize would help protect her. “They gave her the Goldman, and I went with her [to the ceremony],” said Melissa Cardoza, a feminist organizer and writer who was a close friend of Cáceres’s. “And I thought, OK, she’s in the clear. This is going to back her up. Because for a long time she told me, ‘They are going to kill me because they won’t be able to put up with our winning this struggle.'”

 

GUSTAVO CASTRO WAS STILL bleeding from his wound when the cellphone of his dead friend rang. It was Karen Spring, a Canadian activist with the Honduras Solidarity Network. Spring was lying in bed around 1 A.M. on March 3, 2016, when she received a voicemail from a friend who said that Cáceres had been murdered and a Mexican activist was stuck in her house, wounded. When Spring called Cáceres’s number, Castro answered. “I asked him how badly he was injured,” Spring remembered. “He said that he was bleeding from the ear, that there was a lot of blood, but that he was OK.” Castro was terrified that the killers would return and was desperate to get out of the house. He asked Spring if he should call the police, and Spring said she would first try to get COPINH members to rescue him. “You can’t call the police,” Spring told me. “It’s like calling the mafia to the crime scene.”

From the beginning of the investigation, the police tried to blame the murder on someone from COPINH. They repeatedly interrogated Tomás Gómez Membreño, a veteran COPINH member who was among the first to arrive at the murder scene and help Castro. For two days, they detained Cáceres’s onetime boyfriend Aureliano Molina, even though he had not been in La Esperanza on the night of the murder. As detectives interrogated Gustavo Castro to draw a portrait of the man who had shot him, they ignored Castro’s descriptions and kept trying to draw a portrait of Molina. “I realized this days later,” Castro said, “when I saw his picture in the newspapers and I said to myself, ‘That’s the man they were trying to draw.'”

The police initially attempted to involve Castro in the murder. They kept him for days without medical attention, interrogating him at the crime scene over and over. After they told him that he was free to return to Mexico, he was nearly arrested at the airport. Fortunately for him, the Mexican ambassador was accompanying him, and she literally wrapped her arms around Castro and declared, “Consular protection,” allowing him to leave the airport, though not the country. After yet more interrogation, Castro was finally able to return to Mexico and reunite with his family almost a month later.

Two months after Cáceres’s murder, amid massive national and international outcry, Honduran officials began to make arrests. Analyzing phone records, prosecutors sketched an alleged web of complicity involving eight people: an active military officer, Major Mariano Díaz; two DESA employees, an Agua Zarca manager named Sergio Ramón Rodríguez and Douglas Geovanni Bustillo, an ex-military man who was DESA’s chief of security between 2013 and 2015; two former soldiers, Edilson Atilio Duarte Meza and Henry Javier Hernández Rodríguez; and three civilians with no known connections to DESA or the army, Emerson Eusebio Duarte Meza (Edilson’s brother), Óscar Aroldo Torres Velásquez, and Elvin Heriberto Rápalo Orellana. (According to the Guardian, both Díaz and Geovanni Bustillo received military training in the United States.) Honduran officials charged all eight with murder and attempted murder; all but one of the suspects have denied any involvement with the murder.

The arrests immediately cast a shadow on the Agua Zarca dam. Even after Cáceres’s murder, DESA had kept working on the dam. When federal police arrested two DESA employees in connection with the murder, the company halted work. The project remains suspended today. (DESA did not respond to interview requests via email and phone. In statements to the press, the company has repeatedly denied any connection to Cáceres’s murder.)

The Cáceres family and members of COPINH pointed out that investigators had failed to apprehend, or investigate, any possible high-level intellectual authors of the murder. “The public prosecutor accused her of being an instigator and of stealing from a company [DESA]. And now that same institution and the same individuals are the ones investigating her murder,” said Victor Fernández, COPINH’s attorney. “According to the prosecutor’s hypothesis, they have arrested the material authors and the intermediaries. But not the main perpetrators.”

COPINH and the Cáceres family also complained that the investigation had been compromised by political espionage that appears to have accompanied the police inquiry. The entire case file, for example, was supposedly stolen from the trunk of a judge’s car. Cáceres’s house was sealed and guarded by police and soldiers for five months after the murder, as the federal prosecutor’s office conducted its investigation. But when federal officials finally allowed Cáceres’s family back into the property, they realized the house had been broken into while under federal control. Police seals on the home and on Cáceres’s possessions inside were broken, and her two computers, three cellphones, and numerous external hard drives and flash drives were missing. “They stole all the information about COPINH that was in the house,” Cáceres Zúñiga said, referring to government officials.

The Cáceres family’s suspicions about the official investigation are inseparable from the broader atmosphere of distrust that has gripped Honduras since the country’s president, Manuel Zelaya, was overthrown in a 2009 military coup. Zelaya had raised the national minimum wage, proposed turning the massive U.S. military base in Honduras into a national airport, and made promises to indigenous and farmer organizations that he would grant their land claims. Such a program ran counter to the interests of Honduras’s entrenched elite, which deposed him in the middle of the night and put him on a plane in his pajamas. “The right wing didn’t just carry out a coup d’etat; they safeguarded their economic project,” Fernández said. “That is, they used the coup to produce a series of legislative reforms and institutional restructuring that gave them control over key areas and the whole process of remilitarizing the country.”

Soon after the coup, in 2010, a single act of congress granted 41 concessions for hydroelectric dams on rivers across the country. In April of that year, the Honduran government held an international investment convention called “Honduras Is Open for Business.” The country’s mining regulations were relaxed, and a moratorium on new mines was repealed. According to human rights groups, illegal logging increased in the wake of the coup. At the same time, threats against, and murders of, activists began to climb.

“Everything that is happening now stems from the coup,” Cáceres Zúñiga said. “It was the opening of everything that Honduras is going through now. All the violence, corruption, territorial invasions—that is the coup.”

Cáceres was a national leader of the resistance movement against the coup. She took to the streets and to the airwaves. She traveled to El Salvador to participate in a protest outside the building where the Organization of American States was meeting to discuss whether to allow Honduras back into the organization. By the time she took the helm of the struggle against the Agua Zarca dam, the coup government had identified her as an adversary. It was in this context that she became the target of a vicious smear campaign apparently orchestrated by DESA and Honduran officials. “There was this constant defamation campaign, especially for her as a woman. She was painted as this vicious, horrible person,” said Gynther, of the School of the Americas Watch.

Of the eight people currently under arrest and awaiting trial, only one, Hernández Rodríguez, has given detailed testimony that is admissible in court. Hernández Rodríguez was arrested in January 2017 while working at a barbershop in Reynosa, Mexico, and extradited to Honduras. He had been a Honduran special forces sniper with the rank of sergeant stationed in the Lower Aguán Valley and had served directly under Major Díaz. After he left the military, he went to work as a private security supervisor for a palm oil corporation, Dinant, also in the Lower Aguán (see “No One Investigates Anything Here”).

I was able to gain access to an audio recording of Hernández Rodríguez’s testimony. His description of the mechanics of the murder coincides with the physical evidence in Cáceres’s house and with Castro’s eyewitness testimony. While Hernández Rodríguez says that he cooperated with the assassination only under duress and that he didn’t carry a gun the night of the murder, his confession offers some new details. According to Hernández Rodríguez, the murder was planned well in advance: He and Geovanni Bustillo visited La Esperanza in late January and early February. Hernández Rodríguez admits to experience in this kind of political violence: Police have cellphone recordings of him bragging about committing a previous murder and discussing with Díaz what appear to be the logistics for the assassination of Cáceres. And he confirms, using their nicknames, the identities of the men who entered Cáceres’s house and shot Berta and Gustavo: Rápalo Orellana and Torres Velásquez.

Yet all of the physical evidence and testimony still do not answer the question of who, exactly, ordered the assassination. When asked this question by investigators, Hernández Rodriguez responded, “They only said that it was a job that had begun and that it had to be finished. That’s all they said.”

The long-running campaign against Cáceres—plus the alleged involvement of active and former military officers and DESA employees in the coordination and carrying out of the murder—has fueled suspicions that her murder was ordered by people highly placed in the Honduran government, military, and economic elite. (Honduran officials have denied any state connection to the murder.) But, according to COPINH members and Cáceres’s family, police have not sought to establish who was behind the assassination.

The question facing Honduran social movements and the Honduran government is, Will those responsible get away with murder?

 

A YEAR AFTER HER ASSASSINATION, I went to Cáceres’s home with her daughter. The small green house is surrounded by empty fields and a few other new houses and has beautiful views of the nearby mountains. Cáceres had only recently finished making payments on the home, with funds from the Goldman Prize, when she was killed. At the spot where her mother died, Cáceres Zúñiga maintains a thick circle of cypress and guava leaves from her grandmother’s backyard, arranged around a candle on the floor.

As Cáceres Zúñiga walked me through the property, explaining her understanding of what happened the night of the murder, she expressed frustration at how her mother has been remembered since the assassination. Too often, she scoffed, Berta Cáceres is reduced to being just an “environmentalist” or “Goldman Prize winner,” when in fact she was much more than that. I heard similar complaints from everyone who knew and loved Cáceres.

“It really hurts me when they only call her an environmentalist,” Miriam Miranda told me. “Berta was a feminist, indigenous woman of struggle who definitely fought for natural resources, but she was profoundly feminist.” Miranda is the leader of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, and over the course of 25 years of shared struggle, she and Cáceres developed a deep friendship. She has survived beatings and assassination attempts and, since Cáceres’s murder, has become probably the highest-profile social-movement leader in Honduras. “They ripped out a part of my life,” Miranda said. “[Berta] was always there with me in the hardest moments of my life.”

During the demonstrations and vigils marking the first anniversary of her murder, I heard the following chant over and over: “Berta did not die. She became millions!” In the wake of political murder, one task of survivors is to refuse the logic of killing: the fear, hopelessness, and paralysis. To honor the fallen and what they offered, one must not only continue the struggle but fight harder and become one of the millions in whom those like Cáceres live on.

“Her life’s work was insurrection,” said Melissa Cardoza, the feminist organizer and writer. “One day I was with her when she was being arrested. The police were taking down her information, and I was with her. And the cop asked her, ‘What is your profession?’ And she said, ‘I’m a professional agitator.’ The cop said, ‘I can’t put that down.’ And she asked why not? ‘Because it doesn’t exist,’ the cop said. And so she turns to me and says, ‘You tell them. I’m a professional agitator.’ And so I told the cop, ‘Well, it’s true. That’s what she does.’

“That was our Bertita.”

This article appeared in the July/August 2017 edition with the headline “Under the Gun.”

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández

A new report suggests that corruption in Honduras is not simply the product of malfeasance by individual actors, but rather comprises an institutionalized system that serves to benefit a tight circle of elites, mirroring other corrupt systems that have been uncovered in Latin America.

The report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, titled “When Corruption is the Operating System: The Case of Honduras,” highlights how a combination of historical factors has paved the way for the current corrupt political economy in the country.

The report’s author, Sarah Chayes, argues that “Honduras offers a prime example of … intertwined, or ‘integrated,’ transnational kleptocratic networks.”

In other words, powerful international business interests as well as criminal organizations with transnational ties have corrupted government institutions at various levels, with little resistance from public officials, who have also benefitted from this graft.

As InSight Crime noted in its investigative series on elites and organized crime in Honduras, the country’s economic history differs from that of most of its neighbors in the sense that “the most powerful economic elites have emerged from the service, banking, media, and telecommunications sectors,” rather than land-based agricultural and industrial sectors.

These “transnational elites,” often descended from Eastern European and Middle Eastern immigrants, have used both their international business ties as well as graft to further their economic interests. Similarly, both the “traditional” land-based elite and the “bureaucratic elite” — consisting primarily of military families and regional politicians — have engaged in corruption in order to maintain their socioeconomic status.

Chayes stresses that the three “spheres” of the kleptocratic system in Honduras — the public sector, the private sector and criminal elements — “retain a degree of autonomy, and are often disrupted by internal rivalry.” But at times, their interests do overlap and there may be a degree of coordination between them.

Echoing the findings of InSight Crime’s investigation, the report states that over “the past decade or so, both the elite public- and private-sector circles have been establishing increasingly close connections with the out-and-out criminal networks that run the narcotics trade as well as other types of smuggling, such as trafficking in people.”

And while the private and public sectors of the kleptocratic network are not identical, they are bound together by what Chayes calls an “elite bargain” that perpetuates corruption.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

Chayes says that this dynamic may be intensifying under the administration of President Juan Orlando Hernández, who took office in 2014 and is currently leading the field among contenders in the presidential election scheduled for November.

The report argues that Hernández has made a “strategic effort” to consolidate government power in the executive branch, thereby strenghtening a close-knit network of elites with ties to the public, private and criminal sectors that already wield disproportionate political and economic control.

As one person interviewed for the report put it, “The politicians are at the service of the economic elite.”

Prior to becoming president in 2014, Hernández served as the president of congress, which is in charge of all congressional proceedings. During this time, Chayes claims a “favorable legislative climate” was created by passing laws that benefitted “private sector network members.”

For example, in 2010, the creation of the Commission for the Promotion of Public Private Partnerships essentially funneled “public financing into private contracts via a nontransparent bidding process,” the report found.

Consequently, Chayes explains that this allows the president to “personally direct or approve” public-private projects, including terms and purchase guarantees. And when marginal improvements in oversight were proposed in 2014, officials resisted the measures.

As president of congress and eventually as head of state, Hernández also oversaw several other policy initiatives that bolstered the power of the executive branch while weakening congress, the judiciary and other institutions that could help put a brake on graft.

Hernández has strengthened the role of the military in internal security operations, packed the judiciary with top officials favorable to his pro-business agenda, and instituted a sweeping “secrecy law” that classifies as secret information “likely to produce ‘undesired institutional effects,’ or whose dissemination might be ‘counter to the effective development of state policy or normal functioning of public sector institutions,'” the report states.

According to the report, “The bulk of the actions or inactions of these agencies has served to facilitate or defend revenue maximization for the principal private-sector network members, or has provided siphoning opportunities for public officials.”

InSight Crime Analysis

Sophisticated corruption schemes are nothing new in Latin America, and Honduras is not the only country where widespread graft has had negative consequences for society in terms of political representation, economic opportunity and human rights. However, corruption networks in different countries function in different ways. And understanding these differences is key to formulating effective solutions for rooting out graft.

The picture painted by Chayes’ report suggests that the dynamics of corruption in Honduras are more similar to those observed in Brazil, for example, than those seen in Guatemala.

Former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti created a “mafia state” system, in which Pérez and Baldetti acted as the bosses, overseeing various corruption schemes and taking a cut of all the graft occurring under their supervision. In Brazil, on the other hand, corruption is not as centralized; rather, it has become a “rule of the game” in business and politics.

The case of Honduras is more similar to that of Brazil in that there is no unified leadership of a grand corruption scheme, but rather a sort of “elite bargain” to play by the rules of a system that encourages and ensures impunity for engaging in graft.

This is perhaps best exemplified by elite resistance to establishing an internationally-backed anti-corruption body in Honduras, which eventually came into being early last year as the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH). This parallels Brazilian elites’ ongoing attempts to derail sweeping anti-corruption investigations targeting dozens of politicians, including the current president.

SEE ALSO: Honduras Elites and Organized Crime

The main similarity among all three cases — Honduras, Brazil and Guatemala — is that corruption was used to further concentrate power in the hands of an already powerful elite.

In Honduras, for instance, officials and contractors siphoned massive amounts of money from the national social security system and used some of the booty to fund political campaigns for members of Hernández’s National Party (Partido Nacional) — something the president himself has admitted.

Similarly, in Guatemala, Pérez Molina and Baldetti were elected in 2011 in part thanks to illicit campaign contributions from businesses and individuals that they then paid back once in power by awarding their donors state contracts.

And in Brazil, a portion of bribes and kickbacks related to public works contracts was funneled into political campaigns and vote-buying in Congress, serving to enrich both private business interests as well as government officials on the take, while simultaneously ensuring the perpetuation of corruption.

Chayes says that the model of corruption represented by Honduras — and in certain respects mirrored in Brazil and Guatemala — is not unique to Latin America.

“This corruption model, I would say, is something that applies to some 60 or 70 countries around the world,” Chayes told InSight Crime. “And it works in different ways in each of those countries. However, there are the same kinds of overlaps between the public and private sectors where government institutions are bent to serve network purposes.”

Chayes stresses that moving forward it is important to first recognize today’s corruption as the “intentional operating system of sophisticated and successful networks.”

Today’s corruption is not merely “cash in an envelope,” Chayes argues, but involves powerful, often international networks of corrupt actors “writing the rules governing political and economic activity to their own benefit.”

The 10 countries with the highest child homicide rates are all in Latin America and the Caribbean

The 10 countries with the highest child homicide rates are all in Latin America and the Caribbean

Honduras was the most violent country for children under the age of 19 in the region, with a homicide rate of more than 30 children per 100,000 inhabitants — some ten times higher than the global average, according to Save the Children’s 2017 “End of Childhood” report.

Venezuela, El Salvador and Colombia each had child homicide rates of more than 20 per 100,000, while Brazil, Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, the Dominican Republic, Panama and Belize all had rates of more than 10 per 100,000.

17-06-06-ElSalvador-Chart

(Graphic courtesy of Save the Children)

InSight Crime Analysis

The report links the high rates of child homicides in Latin America and the Caribbean to persistently high levels of crime and violence throughout the region over many years. And indeed, child homicide rates appear to more or less correlate with broader regional trends in violence.

El Salvador, Venezuela and Honduras were the region’s most violent countries in 2016, with overall homicide rates of 81.2, 59 and 59, respectively, per 100,000. Save the Children’s report found that these same countries also had the highest rates of child homicides.

In El Salvador, the report found that gang violence was a primary contributor to the high rates of child homicides — a notion that is backed by other evidence. In other countries in the region, however, the dynamics of the relationship between child homicides and crime were different.

Mexico, for example, did not fall within the list of countries with the top ten highest child homicide rates, despite having a presence of strong organized crime groups that has contributed to high levels of overall violence.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Homicides

This is likely because Central American gangs are known to aggressively target children for recruitment. Those who do join the gangs face an increased risk to their physical security due to their increased exposure to criminal violence. Those who refuse are often killed.

But this is not the case in Mexico. While street gangs sometimes use children as lookouts, or for extortion and other petty crimes, Mexico‘s most powerful criminal organizations are sophisticated cartels that have not been known to employ children as extensively due to the relative complexity of their criminal activities.

In Colombia, on the other hand, the country’s decades-long armed conflict has involved numerous child soldiers, which has likely contributed to its elevated child homicide rate. Nearly 50 percent of adult combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) were “inducted as minors,” according to a 2012 report on their involvement in the armed conflict.