Archive for March, 2019

pray to my dead daughter, says mother from Honduras

By Vanessa BuschschlüterBBC News, El Progreso
  • 12 March 2019
Edita Maldonado is 71 and lives in a small brick house outside of the Honduran town of El Progreso.
Edita Maldonado holds a picture of her late daughter Rosa
Despite the town’s name, there is little sign of improvement here. Most of its inhabitants live in “colonias”, poor neighbourhoods criss-crossed by dirt roads, large parts of which are controlled by criminal gangs.
Those who have jobs tend to work in nearby “maquiladoras”, foreign-owned factories where local workers spend long shifts sewing clothes for wages that do not even cover their basic needs.
Edita’s daughter, Rosa, was working in one such maquiladora in 1995. She was 25 and trying to save enough money to build a small house for herself. But after she was robbed three times of her wages on her way home from work, she decided to leave.
“We’re leaving because here we’re not getting ahead,” Rosa told her mother before packing up with her partner and her younger brother hoping to reach the United States.
Edita received a letter from the three after they had crossed into Mexico. But there, things went awry. The group was separated after a run-in with Mexican migration officials. Rosa’s partner and her 16-year-old brother managed to continue on their way and made it into the US, settling in Los Angeles.
Out of touch
Rosa was left behind on her own in the southern Mexican town of Tapachula, and after sending one more letter, all communication from her stopped – for a full five years.
During this time, Edita joined the Committee of Families of Disappeared Migrants of El Progreso (Cofamipro). Desperate to find their missing children, the members of Cofamipro were planning to launch a caravan of mothers that would retrace the routes most migrants take north, handing out flyers with photographs of their loved ones on the way.
■   The caravan of mothers looking for their lost children
While organising the first caravan in 2000, Edita received a letter from her daughter. Without saying why she had not been in touch, Rosa wrote that she had settled in Tonalá, in central Mexico, and that she was doing well.
Rosa stayed in Mexico for the next four years with little contact with family. She visited once and sent a handful more letters. From what her mother managed to piece together, her life was much more turbulent than she had at first let on.
Locked up in a brothel
What initially happened in Tapachula is not entirely clear. Rosa told her mother that after being left behind, she was tricked into working in a brothel.
Rosa’s sister, Sandra, has a slightly different story.
She tells me that Rosa was sold into prostitution by her Honduran partner: “When he came back here, he boasted about it in the local bar, I myself heard him say it, he said he’d sold Rosa because he needed money to make it to the US.”
What is clear is that she was held against her will in the brothel. She managed to escape after two weeks by pretending it was her birthday and convincing the guard at the brothel to get her a celebratory bottle of alcohol, which she then shared with him.
With the guard drunk and fast asleep, Rosa and two other women managed to flee from the brothel, which had been withholding their wages as well as keeping them locked up, Rosa told her mother.
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After her escape she met a Mexican man with whom she settled down.
According to Rosa’s mother, “he was very jealous” and would only let Rosa write the occasional letter home and only allowed her one visit to Honduras, during which he closely watched her.
Sandra takes an even bleaker view of how her sister was treated by her Mexican partner.
“He kept her as a domestic slave, working in his family’s bakery, not as a wife but as his servant.
“He hid her letters while telling Rosa he had posted them and he didn’t even let her answer the phone.”
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From bad to worse
When Rosa’s partner died, things only got worse. Alone in the home they had shared, she was sexually assaulted by one of his male relatives. Covered in dirt and with her clothes torn, she went to the police to report the crime. Her assailant was eventually jailed, but her actions earned her the enmity of the man’s family.
In 2004, Rosa’s health suddenly deteriorated and Edita finally managed to convince her to come home to Honduras. However, by the time she arrived in El Progreso, Rosa was in such a state of confusion that she no longer recognised her family. She died within two months of coming home. Doctors are unsure about the cause of her death.
“I think of her all the time,” Edita tells me. “I still have some of her clothes. Sometimes I take them out and hold them close, but then I roll them up again and hide them because seeing them makes me cry.”
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“There are times when I speak to her as if she was coming back some day, I tell her ‘here’s your dress still looking lovely, just waiting for you’.”
Edita says she considers herself lucky: “At least I know where my daughter is buried, so many other people do not know what happened to their missing relatives.”
She knows this only too well because she continues to work for Cofamipro, the organisation searching for missing migrants, but even more so because her own granddaughter is one of those searching for a missing migrant.
Sirly, 20, and her four-year-old son Leonel live with Edita part of the week.
Sirly’s boyfriend, Leonel’s father, decided to emigrate when the child was one year old. He had been struggling to get a steady job, occasionally working as a security guard but when his motorcycle was stolen – his main mode of transport to get to and from work – he decided to leave for the US.
The last contact Sirly had with him was the evening he was going to attempt to cross the US-Mexico border. That was in March 2016.
Sirly fears he was killed by a gang. Central American migrants often fall victim to Mexican cartels that try to forcibly recruit them or use them as drug mules. Those who refuse are often kidnapped or killed.
Sirly has reported him missing and the Mexican authorities have taken DNA samples from his relatives but so far no trace of him has been found.
She is clinging to the hope that he may have been arrested in the US after crossing illegally. Asked why he would not communicate with her or his family, she says he may be trying to protect them.
Sirly has not yet told Leonel that his father his missing. “I just don’t know what to say to him,” she says. “I’m hoping that by the time he is old enough to understand, well, I hope that by that time his Dad will have reappeared.”
Leonel is playing with his two-year-old cousin Yeremi while Sirly’s 23-year-old sister, Greicy, watches over them.
Greicy’s partner, Yeremi’s father, is also absent. He left Greicy three years ago when she was pregnant with the baby.
Unlike her sister, Greicy knows where her son’s father is. He fled abroad after running into trouble with local gangs.
Greicy does not miss her ex-partner, she says. He broke up with her two months into her pregnancy telling her he had “got mixed up in bad things”.
She says he is unlikely to ever return to Honduras. At first, she says, she would call him and speak to him, but he recently broke off all contact and blocked Greicy from his social media accounts.
Greicy has since moved in with a new partner who, she says, “treats Yeremi well” and who she hopes will be a better role model for him than his biological father.
All four women are undeterred in their struggle to carry on.
Edita continues to work for Cofamipro helping other mothers to search for their missing migrant children. Her daughter Sandra has also become an activist, campaigning for migrants’ rights on the US-Mexico border after joining the migrant caravan that left Honduras for the US last year. Sirly is dreaming of doing a nursing course and Greicy of creating a stable home for Yeremi with her new partner.
With Sandra, Greicy, Sirly and the two children all gathered around Edita in her tiny living room, she holds up an old photograph of Rosa, taken before migration ever touched their lives.
“Sometimes when I’m not feeling well, I pray to Rosa and ask her for a cure or to take me to where she is. But look, here I still am,” she tells me while her great-grandchildren, oblivious of their fathers’ fate, carry on playing.

The Indigenous Rights Leader Fighting Back After Her Mother’s Assassination

https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/vbwyxj/indigenous-rights-leader-honduras-bertha-zuniga

Honduran environmentalist and activist Berta Cáceres was killed in 2016. Her daughter Bertha Zúniga is picking up her mantle through her work for the indigenous Lenca community.

Bertha Zúniga holding a poster of her mother, Berta Cáceres. Photo courtesy of CADEHO Alemania

Bertha Zúniga never thought she would grow up to help lead a movement that fights for the rights of the Lenca, the biggest indigenous group in Honduras. But the March 2016 assassination of her mother, the renowned activist and indigenous leader Berta Cáceres, inevitably changed the course of Zúniga’s life.

A year before her murder, Cáceres won the prestigious Goldman Prize—known as “the Green Nobel”—for her work with the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). The organization campaigned against the construction of Agua Zarca, an hydroelectric dam that would divert the Gualcarque River in western Honduras. The project threatened to destroy natural habitats, affect access to water, and potentially displace local Lenca people.

“The Lenca’s use of the river is based on satisfying daily needs that have to do with agriculture, fishing, the use of water for domestic and recreational activities,” Zúniga, 28, says, over the line from La Esperanza, the capital city of Intibucá, Honduras.

But the Gualcarque also holds deep cultural and spiritual value for the Lenca community. They believe that the river is inhabited by sacred spirits—Zúniga describes the indigenous group’s value system and their way of making sense of the world as “cosmovision.”

“We have used this as an argument,” she says, “and businessmen have discredited—even made fun of—the spiritual value of the river.”

Her mother’s dogged campaign against the dam triggered a wave of repression. Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), the company behind the dam construction, even allegedly attempted to bribe Cáceres to stay silent. COPINH campaigners faced continuous harassment and death threats; Zúniga says that four community members were killed and four others nearly died in violent reprisals.

According to Global Witness, at least 123 people taking a stand against dams, mines, logging, and agribusiness were killed between 2010 and 2016 in Honduras. That makes the country the deadliest place in the world for environmental activism.

Bertha Caceres

Berta Cáceres (center) was assassinated in 2016.

Zúniga was completing a Master’s degree in Mexico City when she moved back home after her mother’s death. In November 2018, seven of eight suspects were convicted of the murder, including a former DESA security chief, two former US-trained military officers, and a DESA communities and environment manager.

The trial however, was plagued with irregularities. The decision was deemed “partial justice,” as only the hitmen directly involved with the killing were sentenced. “We remain concerned that the intellectual authors and the financiers of the crime have still not been investigated, prosecuted and sanctioned,” UN experts said in a statement.

All three foreign investors—including Dutch bank FMO, Finnish finance company FinnFund, and the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (CABEI)—have withdrawn from the project, putting the construction project on indefinite hold.

However, DESA owns the concession for 50 years, Zúniga says, meaning the company has the exclusive right to work the land until 2059. “They have not given up and apparently have no intention of abandoning the project altogether.”

DESA did not respond to a request for comment, but has denied any involvement in ordering Cáceres’ killing. It issued this statement in February when DESA CEO Roberto David Castillo was charged with masterminding Cáceres’ murder: “DESA bluntly rejects the accusation against honorable and innocent people, trying to link them with acts that have absolutely no relation to their actions.”

A memorial for Berta Caceres

At a memorial for Berta Caceres.

Growing up as the children of a high-profile activist, Zúniga and her siblings were aware of their mother’s battle from an early age. “It was a demand of hers that we weren’t indifferent to the reality of Honduras, so one way or another we were always involved,” she says.

COPINH was founded by Cáceres in 1993 out of an urgent need to recognize indigenous rights. Over time, its purpose has expanded to fight “a system of multiple oppressions that have different facets,” including sexism and racism, Zúniga says. “If they are not fought integrally, there will be no real freedom for the communities,” she adds.

In May 2017, she assumed the role of COPINH coordinator, acting as a spokesperson and travelling abroad for meetings and conferences. Though she plays a key role in the organization, Zúniga emphasizes its collective nature by using nosotras (the feminine pronoun “we” in Spanish) to talk about her work, which she insists, has more to do with “multiplying [her mother]’s resistance” than being the “heiress” of Cáceres’ legacy.

Tensions around the river can be traced back to the country’s political collapse in 2009. After a coup ousted the democratically-elected president José Manuel Zelaya, Congress issued laws that awarded concessions to hundreds of mining and energy ventures across the country, including projects in Lenca territories. Companies and local governments failed to seek the consent of affected communities—even though this is a requirement by law.

As a result, the country produces more energy than it needs at the expense of the people, Zúniga says. “We have so many hydroelectric centrals [in Honduras], and yet most of the rural population has no access to energy and so they continue to cook with firewood and work it out without electric power.”

Many experts believes that the US, which has a long history of intervention in Honduras, is partly to blame for the climate of human rights abuses and impunity. It took Cáceres’s murder to spark debate in the US over the administration’s investment in the country, including in training security forces meant to protect the population. In June 2016, a former Honduran soldier told Guardian journalist Nina Lakhani that the late activist’s name had been on the hit list of a US-trained military unit. The Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act (HR 5474), which would suspend funding to Honduran security forces, was introduced by Democrat congressperson Hank Johnson in June of 2016, and again in March of 2017.

“We believe in building a national project where development is not that of international corporations.”

Dana Frank, a former history professor at University of California and the author of The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup, explained over email: “Most of the [US] military aid remains non-transparent, and continues to flow to security forces with deep links to drug trafficking and established, brutal records of human rights abuses.”

Corruption runs deep in Honduran politics. The brother of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández was charged with drug trafficking in November, and members of his National Party have been accused of diverting almost $12 million in public funds.

“US ‘development’ aid has not been proven to actually improve economic circumstances, and can support the same elite economic interests that are destroying livelihoods,” Frank explains. President Donald Trump has been a proponent of cutting aid to Honduras—not to end abuse, corruption, and judicial impunity, but because Honduran authorities have failed to stop migrant caravans headed for the US.

Both Frank and Zúniga agree that cutting US aid would send a powerful message to the Honduran people. For the professor, it would mean the US stops legitimating a dictatorial political regime. Zúniga thinks it would provoke real change: “The government, which is very contested in this country, would lose its base and probably be removed from power if it wasn’t for the military protection that it enjoys.”

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Until that happens, COPINH is fighting to imagine a new development model in which humans and nature are viewed as precious in their own right and not “understood as commodities to exploit,” Zúniga adds.

“We believe in building a national project where development is not that of international corporations,” she says, “where development is not centered on money—but rather on life, humanity, and environmental diversity.”