Archive for the ‘Berta Caceres’ Category

European Banks Pull Out of Honduras Dam Project After Killings of Activists

 http://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/european-banks-pull-out-honduras-dam-project-after-killings-activists-n780696

Two European development banks financing construction of a controversial dam project in Honduras have pulled out following the murders of local activists including Berta Caceres, a 2015 winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.

Image: HONDURAS-CRIME-VIOLENCE-WOMEN
File photo of a woman lighting a candle during a demonstration over the 2016 murder of Honduran environmental activist Berta Caceres and others killed in Honduras. ORLANDO SIERRA / AFP – Getty Images

The Netherlands Development Finance Institution and the Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation said in a joint statement Thursday that the decision to halt their involvement in the Agua Zarca dam was reached after extensive local and international consultations.

The statement said the banks believe the dam would be a positive development for nearby communities and the Central American nation. They expressed hope that a dialogue will emerge in which local stakeholders decide whether they want the project.

“The lenders’ exit from the project is intended to reduce international and local tensions in the area,” it read.

Caceres, a 40-year-old activist who was awarded the Goldman prize for leading a years-long fight against the dam, was killed in March 2016 by gunmen who invaded her home. The dam was to be built on the Gualcarque River, considered sacred by Caceres’ Lenca people.

Two weeks later another activist from her indigenous organization known as Copinh, Nelson Garcia, was killed. And last July the body of another Copinh activist, Lesbia Janeth Urquia, was found.

Among those arrested in Caceres’ killing was a security employee working on behalf of dam developer Desarrollos Energeticos SA, or DESA.

However in announcing their withdrawal, the development banks said “no proven connection has been established between DESA and allegations regarding any illegality.”

The London-based environmental rights organization Global Witness applauded the decision but criticized the lenders for not acting earlier.

“These same investors were silent when dozens of death threats were made against (Caceres). … Investors have a duty to speak out when activists opposing their projects are threatened,” Global Witness campaign leader Billy Kyte said in a statement.

The organization says Honduras is the world’s most dangerous country per capita for environmental activists, with 120 of them murdered since 2010.

European investors drop support of controversial Honduran dam

FMO and FinnFund, two of the biggest funders of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project in Honduras, today announced their exit from the venture. This comes more than a year after the murder of the Indigenous rights defender Berta Caceres and a subsequent campaign by Oxfam and allies pushing them to drop the project.

George Redman, Oxfam’s country director for Honduras, said: “This is a long-awaited and important step in the hard road Berta’s family and her organization, COPINH, have travelled in their fight for justice and respect for the rights of the Lenca people.

“History cannot repeat itself. Finnfund and FMO must work more closely with communities on the ground to ensure they only back projects that fully respect international and national laws. Any complaints of irregularities in their investments must be taken seriously and responded with swift and appropriate action. Profits cannot come before people.”

Oxfam notes that the biggest investor, CABEI, has not made any public announcement on the project since April of last year, when they said they would act in tandem with FMO. The longer this silence continues, the more questions will be asked of CABEI’s true priorities and values, and the more this project will become a stain on their record.

Oxfam calls on other companies still connected with the project, including the German firms Voith and Siemens, to also withdraw.

“Today’s announcement does not mean justice has been done in Berta’s case. While the capture of eight suspects in her murder is a positive step, their trials have been beset by delays and irregularities, and the intellectual authors remain at large. Until those individuals, and others responsible for threats, attacks, and killings of community members are brought to justice it, the conditions required for the dialogue amongst local communities that FMO wishes for will not exist. We will continue to follow the case closely.”

Notes to editors:

Berta Caceres was murdered on March 3, 2016. Days later, Oxfam called for FMO and FinnFund to drop their support for the Agua Zarca project, and soon after launched a public campaign aimed at pressuring the companies to act.

Winnie Byanyima, visited Berta Caceres’ family in Honduras last year, and marked the anniversary of Berta’s death by again calling for justice to be done.

Contact information:

 

Simon Hernandez-Arthur 

simon.hernandezarthur@oxfam.org

+1 585 503 4568

@SimonHernandez

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)

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.”

Guilty by Association: How the United States is Permitting Human Rights Abuses in Honduras

 By Jessica FarberResearch Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

 Guilty by Association: How Washington is Complicit in Human Rights Abuses in Honduras

In an opinion piece that appeared in the New York Times on August 11, titled “How the Most Dangerous Place on Earth got Safer,” Sonia Nazario paints a misguided picture of Honduras as a country that was once ravaged with violence, but has since been bravely rescued and is now stable thanks to aid from the United States.[i] On the one hand, the author highlights an important point: some violence-prevention programs funded by the United States in Honduras are indeed working, and their focus on human capital and social justice is a welcome departure from the “iron-fisted” security measures that have characterized U.S. aid in the past. What the author neglects to mention, however, is that an enormous portion of the same aid package is also funneled to a government that, in conjunction with a corrupt military and police force, is carrying out massive human rights violations against its citizens. Given the increasing number of activists killed with impunity under the rightwing government, whose power the United States helped to consolidate following the 2009 coup against democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya, continued funding to Honduras deserves additional scrutiny.

A Contradictory Approach

As Nazario rightfully acknowledges, the withdrawal of all funding to Honduras could be harmful because it would interrupt successful violence-prevention initiatives at the local level. The pilot programs she describes, in which the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S.A.I.D.) partners with community leaders to implement programs that engage and counsel gang members and other vulnerable youth, are both novel and exemplary. With such programs, the United States finally seems to acknowledge that simply intensifying security measures to kill off gang members does nothing but fuel the fire. Nazario admirably emphasizes the need to address the long-term structural factors behind gang violence and advocates for the implementation of more of these types of programs throughout Central America. Furthermore, in “a striking rebuke against the rising isolationists in American politics,” Nazario highlights the positive impact that U.S. spending can have for both Americans —in terms of stemming the flow of migrants— as well as for marginalized populations in the developing world.[ii] The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a longtime proponent of grassroots and social justice programs, applauds Nazario for her intentions in this respect.[iii]

While Nazario is not wrong to shed light on the specific U.S. initiatives that are succeeding in violence prevention, it is far too soon to claim that the United States has single-handedly created a dramatically safer Honduras. On the contrary, such a position ignores the complex roots of the violence in Honduras, and leads one to question whether the author is not trying to obfuscate U.S. complicity in the violence. As Nazario mentions in her article, crime and violence are major issues plaguing Honduran society, but she erroneously attributes most of this violence to gangs, narco-trafficking and other forms of organized crime that the Honduran government needs help in dealing with. To genuinely contribute to the overall sustainable development of Honduras, it is essential for the United States to acknowledge that much of the gang and drug-related violence, as well as the scores of uninvestigated murders of activists, are politically motivated and are carried out at the urging of elements of the military and the police. The article effectively distracts readers from the government’s abysmal human rights record and its own role in perpetuating violence in a country where 98 percent of crimes go unsolved.[iv] Amnesty International’s Marselha Gonçalves Margerin recently told National Public Radio that “the U.S. government has been treating these [Central American] governments as victims of organized crimes and not really making them responsible for how they are treating, and failing to protect, their citizens.”[v]

Berta Cáceres: A Symbol of Impunity

This year, the collusion between private actors, the military and the government in Honduras, was placed in the international spotlight. The assassination of indigenous activist Berta Cáceres six months ago is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of human rights violations in Honduras over the past seven years. Her death, however, is the “smoking gun” that makes it impossible for the United States to turn a blind eye to the Honduran government’s complicity in human rights violations against opposition activists.

Just before midnight on March 2 of this year, 44-year-old Berta Cáceres, founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Hondurans (COPINH), was gunned down in her home. In the months leading up to her death, Berta had been carrying out a peaceful yet vocal campaign to prevent the construction of the Agua Zarca dam on a sacred river belonging to the indigenous Lenca population. While the government was entirely aware of the threats to Berta’s life, and was repeatedly urged by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to offer her protection, any protection given was clearly inadequate. Given Berta’s stature as the winner of the international 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, and an inspiring leader of a global movement to preserve indigenous rights, her death triggered fear among activists all over Honduras.

The response of the Honduran government to Cáceres’ death was wholly inadequate and emblematic of the way it deals with human rights violations against opposition leaders. Instead of immediately interviewing individuals from any of the 33 construction companies against whom she had lodged complaints of death threats, the government selectively interrogated individuals within Berta’s own COPINH organization. It was not until May 2, exactly two months after Berta’s assassination, that the government finally launched a so-called “comprehensive” investigation to find the culprits.[vi]

This state-led “Jaguar Operation,” initiated in large part due to growing international scrutiny over the government’s inaction, finally resulted in the arrests of five individuals. Unsurprisingly, two of the charged individuals were linked to the construction company behind the dam, Desarollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA), two others were active members of the military and one was a retired military officer. Yet evidence increasingly indicates that the assassins were not alone in plotting the attack, and that they received their orders from the state.[vii] In a previous article, COHA referred to the Jaguar Operation as a “sham investigation” that “was designed not to serve justice,” but was rather a “strategy to protect the masterminds behind Berta Cáceres’ murder.”[viii]

What the inherently biased investigation did reveal, however, is “the blatant collusion between private interests linked to DESA, active members of the Honduran army, and a corrupt administration,” according to COHA Research Associate, Emma Tyrou.[ix] A June report in The Guardian exposed further proof of the state’s ties to the murder. The article disclosed testimony from a former Honduran military sergeant Rodrigo Cruz, suggesting that Berta’s name had appeared on a military “hit-list.” “I’m 100% certain that Berta Cáceres was killed by the army,” he told the newspaper.[x] The government’s reluctance to interview the sole eyewitness to the murder—Mexican activist Gustavo Soto who was also a victim of the attack—as well as its initial attribution of the crime to little more than a failed attempt at burglary, further suggests the government’s likely role in scuttling the investigation.[xi]

In the six months since Berta’s death, the administration of President Juan Orlando Hernandez has continuously neglected the pleas of her family and the international community to allow an independent investigation to take place. Since the IAHCR derives its mandate from the Organization of the American States, and is therefore a competent authority in Honduras, it is the only body that can create a commission of independent experts to carry out an impartial investigation.[xii] “The Honduran state is too closely linked to the murder of my mother to carry out an independent investigation,” Berta’s youngest daughter, Laura Cáceres, 23, told the Guardian in May. [xiii] “It is the government who awarded the dam commission and the government who sent military and police to work with DESA’s private security guards, who threatened my mother.”[xiv] To date, the Honduran state has refused to allow experts from the IACHR into the country, further suggesting it has something to hide.[xv]

As the closest ally of the right-wing Honduran government and the country’s largest bilateral donor, the United States is uniquely positioned to pressure President Hernandez to do something about the appalling state of human rights in Honduras. At the very least, such pressure could seek to persuade him to allow an independent investigation of the Cáceres murder to take place.

The Honduran government’s murky role in the case of Berta Cáceres illustrates the controversial nature of U.S. aid to the country. Berta’s assassination is not an isolated incident and the United States cannot view it as such—she remains a symbol of the hundreds of Honduran activists targeted and killed by government, military, and police forces. Just days after Berta’s death, environmental activist, Nelson García was killed, and in July Lesbia Yaneth Garcia, another COPINH employee, was found dead with a machete wound in her skull. At least one member of the military and one man working on the hydroelectric project she was protesting have been implicated in Yaneth García’s death.[xvi] Global Witness recently reported that Honduras is the second most deadly country in which to be an environmental activist, and the Spanish newspaper, El País, described the nation as “a field of death for environmentalists.”[xvii] So while the overall number of homicides in the country may have decreased over the past few years, as Nazario notes in her article, the number of activists killed has markedly increased. Since 2010, 114 environmentalists have been murdered in Honduras.[xviii] And environmental defenders are not alone; anyone who publicly voices opposition to the state faces similar danger. According to the National Human Rights Commissioner of Honduras (CONADEH), 43 journalists were murdered between 2010 and 2014, and only twelve of the alleged murders had been brought to trial by the end of that year.[xix] The IACHR received reports of the murders of 86 legal practitioners and 22 human rights defenders in the same period.[xx] The Human Rights Watch World Report 2016 also found that peasants’ rights activists as well as LGBTQ activists have been victims of hundreds of uninvestigated attacks.[xxi] Essentially, it is no longer possible to express dissatisfaction with the government without becoming a target of the state.

 Towards a “More Safe” Honduras

The uptick in activist murders can be traced back to the period directly following the 2009 coup d’état against President Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya had supported rural peasant and environmental movements, such as Berta’s, in their fight against land dispossession and mining. However, after 2009, the new administration led by President Porfirio Lobo cut subsidies for social programs, rolled back progressive land reforms, and sought to open infrastructure construction to foreign investors, declaring in 2011 that Honduras was “open for business.” [xxii] Encouraged by the United States, the successive rightwing governments have proceeded to grant mining concessions and dam-building contracts to foreign companies, displacing many indigenous communities in the process.[xxiii] This has made peasants’ rights groups and indigenous activists —who argue that the affected communities were not properly consulted by the foreign firms—political opponents of the government.[xxiv] As Greg Grandin reported in The Nation, “since Zelaya’s ouster, there’s been an all-out assault on these decent people—torture, murder, militarization of the countryside, repressive laws, such as the absolute banning of the morning-after pill, the rise of paramilitary security forces, and the wholesale deliverance of the country’s land and resources to transnational pillagers.”[xxv]

While the existing evidence is not sufficient to prove the United States’ involvement in plotting the coup, it is now clear that the State Department under Hillary Clinton was a key player in legitimizing the post-coup government and effectively prevented Zelaya from running for re-election. Though the Obama administration initially criticized the military coup that put Roberto Michelletti in the presidency and other leaders of the coup in his cabinet, the United States was the first to recognize the new Porfirio Lobo government that was put in place by elections months later.[xxvi] This recognition was granted despite the fact that all opposition candidates had boycotted the elections and all international observers (besides the U.S. Republican party) withdrew, refusing to recognize the elections’ legitimacy.[xxvii] While the U.N. General Assembly called for the “immediate and unconditional return of Zelaya,” and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) refused to recognize the outcome of the elections, the U.S. State Department blocked the Organization of American States’ (OAS) resolution to not recognize elections held under the de facto government.[xxviii] Instead the United States praised Lobo for “restoring democracy” and promoting “national reconciliation.”[xxix]

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Washington continues to stand idly by as the rule of law in Honduras deteriorates. While former Secretary of State and current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton continues to deflect criticism of her involvement in the 2009 coup and her running mate, Tim Kaine, touts his time in Honduras as the most formative eight months of his life, the U.S. government maintains its commitment to propping up the very agents who are perpetuating injustice. Since 2009, the U.S. has sent $200 million USD in aid directly to the military and police force in the name of fighting crime and drug trafficking.[xxx] Instead, this money has allowed the state and the military to maintain the status quo, which is the violent repression of its citizens. Only a shallow analysis could describe such aid as a heroic contribution towards a safer Honduras. By solely focusing on the role of non-military spending in Honduras, Nazario’s article upholds the narrative that an infusion of U.S. taxpayer dollars will help to pull Honduras from the depths of poverty and violence. Last year, Congress approved a $750 million USD budget for the Alliance for Prosperity Plan (APP) to be administered by the U.S., Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran governments. The plan aims to address the “push factors” of violence in the so-called Northern Triangle. As analyzed in previous COHA articles, the APP could, in theory, be beneficial, but an alarming 60 percent of the funds to Honduras go to military financing and training.[xxxi] It remains to be seen how the vague conditions on this aid play out in practice.[xxxii]
With so much money invested in the training of the Honduran security forces, the United States cannot remain oblivious to the mounting evidence that the military is behind the recent murders. Fusina, one of the units of the military that allegedly received the “hit-list” with Berta Cacéres’ name on it, receives direct military training from the U.S. Marine Corps and the F.B.I.[xxxiii]

The Honduran police force teems with corruption as well. Marvin Ponce, Vice President of the Honduran Congress estimates that over 40 percent of the police force is involved in organized crime. [xxxiv] Additionally, Human Rights Watch reports that “the use of lethal force by the national police is a chronic problem… Investigations into police abuses are marred by inefficiency and corruption … and impunity is the rule.”[xxxv] Perhaps even more concerning, the assassinations of two Honduran investigators (in 2009 and 2011) looking at the complicity between drug traffickers, police leaders, and organized crime, were found to be linked to top Honduran police officials, according to leaked documents.[xxxvi] Of course, the Honduran government has fiercely refuted claims that either the state or the military are involved in human rights violations.[xxxvii] Following President Hernandez’ lead, U.S. State Department spokesperson John Kirby claimed at a June 22 press briefing that “there’s no specific credible allegations of gross violations of human rights” in Honduras.[xxxviii]

So why is it that the United States so steadfastly supports the Honduran state, despite all the evidence that it is allowing its citizens to be murdered with impunity? The answer stems from the strategic economic and military importance of Honduras. Honduras holds the United States’ only air base between South America and the United States, and since the contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, Honduras has served as the regional hub for U.S. military operations in Central America. American corporations also have extensive mining and hydroelectric investments in Honduras, as well as banana companies like Dole and Chiquita, and apparel, auto industry and other manufacturing plants. Out of all the Central American governments, the Honduran government is also the most ideologically aligned with the United States.

Public Pressure Mounts in the United States

Aside from Berta Cáceres’ three daughters who have traveled the world in recent months to call for international pressure on the Honduran government, international organizations, civil society groups, and U.S. policymakers alike have urged the Obama administration to leverage its financial support of the Honduran state to call for justice. Ever since 2009, in the face of mounting evidence that the United States is funding a criminal regime whose collusion with private interests is now well-documented, pressure on the U.S. government has grown. In 2010, thirty congressmen sent a letter to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, urging the Obama administration to stop funding the Honduran state, especially the police and military, until the culture of impunity is addressed. [xxxix]

After years of similar pressure on the State Department, including another congressional letter to Secretary John Kerry last year with lackluster results, opposition to the funding reached a crescendo this summer after Berta’s death. In June and July, a vocal campaign to “Stop Aid to Honduras” gained traction in the United States, using the U.S. Leahy law as the crux of its argument. Under this law, the State Department and Department of Defense are prohibited from contributing funds to any foreign military unit where there is “credible evidence of human rights abuses.”[xl] The United States is also prohibited from providing funds to a government instituted through a military coup.[xli] Despite a Wikileaks-exposed email from the U.S. ambassador to Honduras stating that the overthrow of Zelaya undoubtedly “constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup,” the Obama administration has avoided calling it a military coup so that aid can continue unabated.[xlii]

On June 14, Henry C. Johnson (D-GA) proposed the Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act, which offers the opportunity for the United States to hold the Honduran government accountable for its actions. The bill would halt all aid to Honduras for military operations, training, and arms until the government carries out exhaustive and transparent investigations into the deaths of activists that have been linked to the Honduran police and military.[xliii] This is the bill to which Nazario refers in her article, classifying the legislation as “an attack from the left.” Though she acknowledges that the human rights concerns that the bill represents are legitimate, she claims that its passage “would be a mistake,” due to the beneficial violence prevention programs carried out by the police.

Conclusion

Because of the United States’ tightly bound relationship with Honduras—most importantly, the Honduran government’s dependency on U.S. aid—Washington has a responsibility to the Honduran people to make a serious commitment to ending the ongoing human rights crisis. Simply providing the government funds to “reform itself” will no longer suffice. It is time for the United States to recognize its complicity in funding a criminal regime, and halt all aid to the Honduran military and police until that government can prove its own commitment to justice. Once this happens, the United States can continue to fund beneficial social justice programs such as the ones Nazario mentions in her article. Until that happens, however, human and environmental rights defenders will face extreme peril at the hands of a government that does nothing to protect them and is in collusion with the very actors who use violence to maintain control over marginalized groups. In Berta Cáceres’ own words in her acceptance speech of the 2015 Goldman Prize, “Despertemos, despertemos humanidad, ya no hay tiempo”—wake up humanity, we’re out of time.

By Jessica FarberResearch Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Original research on Latin America by COHA. Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and instituional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to LatinNews. com and Rights Action.

Featured Photo: Crowd. Taken from Flickr.

[i] Nazario, Sonia. “How the Most Dangerous Place on Earth got Safer.” 11 August 2016. New York Times. Accessed 26 August 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/opinion/sunday/how-the-most-dangerous-place-on-earth-got-a-little-bit-safer.html

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Farber, Jessica. “War in Peace: Exploring the Roots of El Salvador’s Gang Violence.” 18 July 2016. Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Accessed 26 August 2016. http://www.coha.org/war-in-peace-exploring-the-roots-of-el-salvadors-gang-vio-lence/

[iv] Farr, Sam. “Obama Asked to Curtail Assistance to Honduras.” 19 October 2010. The North American Congress on Latin America. Accessed 26 August 2016.  https://nacla.org/news/obama-asked-curtail-assistance-honduras

[v] Gonsalves Margerin, Marcelha. “Seeking Justice after the Murder of Honduran Activist Berta Cáceres.” National Public Radio. 27 April 2016. Accessed 26 August 2016. http://www.wnyc.org/story/seeking-justice-after-murder-honduran-activist-berta-caceres/

[vi] “Una amplia y exhaustiva investigación basada en métodos técnicos y científicos,” statement issued by the Public Ministry of Honduras, published on social media by the Honduras media TN5 Estelar. May 2, 2016. Accessed July 7, 2016. https://www.facebook.com/TN5Estelar/photos/a.330734023616440.77404.326888920667617/1113789491977552/?type=3&theater

[vii] Lakhani, Nina and Ed Pilkington. “US investigating allegations Honduran military had hitlist of activists to target.” 8 July 2016. The Guardian. Accessed 26 August 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/08/honduras-military-hitlist-activists-us-investigation

[viii] Tyrou, “The Symbol of Berta Cáceres Continues to Expose Criminal Coup Regime and its Deadly Extracgive Formula for Honduras.” 12 July 2016. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Accessed 26 August 2016. http://www.coha.org/the-symbol-of-berta-caceres-continues-to-expose-criminal-coup-regime-and-its-deadly-extractive-formula-for-honduras/#_ftn11

[ix] Tyrou, Emma. “Justice for Berta Cáceres: Yet Another Murder Proves that Death and Impunity Prevail.” 11 July 2016. Washington Report on the Hemisphere, vol. 36, issue 11. Accessed 26 August 2016.

[x] Lakhani, Nina. “Berta Cáceres’ name was on Honduran military’s hitlist, says former soldier.” 21 June 2016. The Guardian. Accessed 26 August 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/21/berta-caceres-name-honduran-military-hitlist-former-soldier

[xi] Birss, Moira and Gustavo Castro-Soto, “In Crisis, we Find Hope.” 28 April 2016. The North American Congress on Latin America. Accessed 26 August 2016. http://nacla.org/news/2016/04/28/crisis-we-find-hope

[xii] Oscar Arias Sánchez to President of the Republic of Honduras Juan Orlando Hernández. April 27, 2016. Accessed 26 August, 2016. http://bertacaceres.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Ex-Costa-Rican-president-and-Nobel-Peace-Prize-winner-Oscar-Arias-urges-JOH-to-allow-IACHR-investigation.pdf

[xiii] Lakhani, Nina. “Berta Cáceres murder: four men arrested over Honduran activist’s death.” 2 May 2016. The Guardian. Accessed 26 August 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/may/02/berta-caceres-murder-four-men-arrested-honduras

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Blitzer, Jonathan. “Should the U.S. Still be Sending Aid to Honduras?” 17 August 2016. The New Yorker. Accessed 26 August 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/should-the-u-s-still-be-sending-military-aid-to-honduras

[xvi] Associated Press. “ Police in Honduras arrest three in slaying of activist.” 13 July 2016. The Los Angeles Times. Accessed 26 August 2016. http://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-honduras-activist-arrest-20160713-snap-story.html

[xvii] “New Data on the Murder Rate of Environmental and Land Activists in Honduras, the Highest in the World.” 4 March 2016. Global Witness. Accessed 26 August 2016. https://www.globalwitness.org/en/press-releases/global-witness-releases-new-data-murder-rate-environmental-and-land-activists-honduras-highest-world/

[xviii] Planas, Roque. “U.S. Aid to Honduras in Doubt after Killings of Activists.” 11 August 2016. The Huffington Post. Accessed 26 August 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/honduran-aid-activist-killings_us_57acf39fe4b007c36e4dec10

[xix] “The World Report 2016: Events in Honduras in 2015.” The Human Rights Watch . Accessed 26 August 2016. https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2016/country-chapters/honduras

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] “Honduras is Open for Business.” 26 July 2011. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Accessed 26 August 2016. http://www.coha.org/honduras-is-open-for-business/

[xxiii] Carasik, Lauren. “Blood in Honduras, Silence in the United States.”16 July 2016.  Boston Review. Accessed 26 August 2016. http://bostonreview.net/world-us/lauren-carasik-blood-honduras-silence-united-states

[xxiv] Isacson, Adam, and Sarah Kinosian. “Which Central American Military and Police Units Get the Most U.S. Aid?” Washington Office on Latin America. April 15, 2016. Accessed July 08, 2016. https://www.wola.org/analysis/which-central-american-military-and-police-units-get-the-most-u-s-aid/

[xxv] Grandin, Greg. “The Clinton-Backed Honduran Regime is Picking Off Indigenous Leaders.” 3 March 2016. The Nation. Accessed 26 August 2016. https://www.thenation.com/article/the-clinton-backed-honduran-regime-is-picking-off-indigenous-leaders/

[xxvi] Frank, Dana. “Honduras: Which Side is the US on?” 22 May 2012. The Nation. Accessed 26 August 2016. https://www.thenation.com/article/honduras-which-side-us/

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Zunes, Stephen. “The U.S. Role in the Honduras Coup and Subsequent Violence.” 19 June 2016. The Huffington Post. Accessed 26 August 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-us-role-in-the-honduras-coup-and-subsequent-violence_us_5766c7ebe4b0092652d7a138

[xxix] Frank, Dana. “Honduras: Which Side is the US on?” 22 May 2012. The Nation. Accessed 26 August 2016. https://www.thenation.com/article/honduras-which-side-us/

[xxx] Blitzer, Jonathan. “Should the U.S. Still be Sending Aid to Honduras?” 17 August 2016. The New Yorker. Accessed 26 August 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/should-the-u-s-still-be-sending-military-aid-to-honduras

[xxxi] Iesue, Laura. “The Alliance for Prosperity Plan: A Failed Effort for Stemming Migration.” Council on Hemispheric Affairs. 1 August 2016. Accessed 26 August 2016. http://www.coha.org/the-alliance-for-prosperity-plan-a-failed-effort-for-stemming-migration/

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Isacson, Adam, and Sarah Kinosian. “Which Central American Military and Police Units Get the Most U.S. Aid?” Washington Office on Latin America. April 15, 2016. Accessed July 08, 2016. https://www.wola.org/analysis/which-central-american-military-and-police-units-get-the-most-u-s-aid/

[xxxiv] “Ponce claims 40% of police tied to organized crime.” 21 July 2011. Honduran Weekly. Accessed 26 July 2016. http://www.hondurasweekly.com/joomla-pages-iii/archieved-articles/53-news/national/6730-ponce-claims-40-of-police-tied-to-organized-crime

[xxxv] Frank, Dana. “Honduras: Which Side is the US on?” 22 May 2012. The Nation. Accessed 26 August 2016. https://www.thenation.com/article/honduras-which-side-us/

[xxxvi] Malkin, Elizabeth and Alberto Arce. “Files Suggest Police Leaders Ordered Killing of Antidrug Officials.” 15 April 2016. The New York Times. Accessed 26 August 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/16/world/americas/files-suggest-honduras-police-leaders-ordered-killing-of-antidrug-officials.html?_r=0

[xxxvii] “HONDURAS: Government Denies That Military Killed Cáceres” Latin News, June 24, 2016. Accessed July 8, 2016. http://www.latinnews.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=69211&uid=17952&acc=1&Itemid=6&cat_id=802664 &utm_content=buffer7ec07&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[xxxviii] “Press Briefing with John Kirby.” 22 June 2016. U.S. Department of State. Accessed 26 August 2016. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2016/06/258980.htm

[xxxix] Farr, Sam. “Obama Asked to Curtail Assistance to Honduras.” 19 October 2010. The North American Congress on Latin America. Accessed 26 August 2016.  https://nacla.org/news/obama-asked-curtail-assistance-honduras

[xl] Carasik, Lauren. “Blood in Honduras, Silence in the United States.”16 July 2016.  Boston Review. Accessed 26 August 2016. http://bostonreview.net/world-us/lauren-carasik-blood-honduras-silence-united-states

[xli] Ibid.

[xlii] “A Selection from the Cache of Diplomatic Dispatches.” 19 June 2011. The New York Times.  Accessed 26 June 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/11/28/world/20101128-cables-viewer.html?hp&_r=0#report/cables-09TEGUCIGALPA645

[xliii] “H.R. 5474: Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act.” 14 June 2016. Govtrack Accessed 26 August 2016. https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/114/hr5474/text

Blood in Honduras, Silence in the United States


Protesters look on at a vigil for activist Berta Cáceres, who was murdered this March. / Photo by Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos

Honduran indigenous and environmental rights leader Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated by masked gunmen in the spring, had long lived under the shadow of threats, harassment, and intimidation. The slain leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) was gunned down in her home in La Esperanza on March 3 after months of escalating threats. She was killed, it appears, for leading effective resistance to hydroelectric dam projects in Honduras, but she understood her struggle to be global as well. For Cáceres, the fight to protect the sacred Gualcarque River and all indigenous Lenca territory was the frontline in the battle against the unbridled transnational capitalism that threatens her people. She felt that as goes the Gualcarque River, so goes the planet. Her assassination sent shockwaves through the Honduran activist community: if an internationally-acclaimed winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize can be slain, there is little hope for anyone’s safety.

The Agua Zarca Dam, which put Cáceres in the crosshairs, is one of many to have been funded by foreign capital since the 2009 Honduran military coup. The ousted president, Manuel Zelaya, had alarmed the country’s elites—and their international allies—with his support of agrarian reforms and increased political power for laborers and the disenfranchised. After his removal, the Honduran government courted investors, declaring in 2011 that Honduras was “open for business.” Among the neoliberal reforms it undertook, which included gutting public services and cutting subsidies, the government granted large mining concessions, creating a demand for energy that heightened the profitability of hydroelectric dam projects. The aggressive privatization initiatives launched the government on a collision course with indigenous and campesino communities, which sit atop rich natural resources coveted by investors. The ensuing conflicts between environmentalists, traditional landowners, and business interests have often turned lethal.

These killings have taken place in a climate of brutal repression against labor, indigenous, and LGBTI activists, journalists, government critics, and human rights defenders. Cáceres, a formidable and widely respected opposition leader, was a particularly jagged thorn in the side of entrenched political and economic powers. Miscalculating the international outcry the murder would incite, Honduran officials at first couldn’t get their story straight: Cáceres’s murder was a robbery gone wrong, perhaps, or internal feuding within her organization, or a crime of passion. However, activists within and outside Honduras have successfully resisted all efforts to depoliticize Cáceres’s killing.

“It’s like going back to the past,” she said. “We know there are death squads in Honduras.”

Unfortunately, Cáceres’s death was not the first violent assault on COPINH leaders, nor has it been the last. In 2013 unarmed community leader Tomás García was shot and killed by a soldier at a peaceful protest. Less than two weeks after Cáceres was murdered, COPINH activist Nelson García was also gunned down, and just last month, Lesbia Janeth Urquía, another COPINH leader, was killed. Honduran authorities quickly arrested three people for Urquía’s murder, characterizing it as a familial dispute, but members of COPINH dispute this. “We don’t believe in this [official] version,” Cáceres’s successor, Tomás Gómez Membreño, told the Los Angeles Times. “In this country they invent cases and say that the murders have nothing to do with political issues. The government always tries to disconnect so as to not admit that these amount to political killings.”

Urquía was murdered soon after an explosive report in The Guardian in which a former member of the Honduran military said Cáceres’s name was at the top of a “hit list” of activists targeted for killing. The list, he said, was circulated among security forces, including units trained by the United States. The Honduran government vehemently denies these claims, despite evidence supporting many of the allegations. Cáceres had previously said she was on a list of targeted activists. At a U.S. congressional briefing in April, Honduran human rights activist Bertha Oliva Nativí testified that activists had not faced such dangers since the 1980s. “Now, it’s like going back to the past,” she said. “We know there are death squads in Honduras.”

After an initial investigation into Cáceres’s murder that was tainted by multiple missteps, officials arrested four suspects, including an active member of the military, and later detained a fifth man. But many believe that the orders for her murder were issued higher up the chain of command, and that the government cannot be trusted to police itself. However, state officials have refused calls for an independent international investigation.

Nonetheless the United States continues to send Honduras security assistance that aids the government in militarizing the “war on drugs” and enforcing the aggressive neoliberal policies Washington favors for the region. Some American lawmakers have been paying close attention, sending letters to the U.S. State Department expressing concern about the role of state security forces in human rights abuses. In a sign of increasing impatience with State Department inaction, Representative Hank Johnson of Georgia and other legislators introduced a bill in Congress on June 14, the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, which seeks to suspend “security assistance to Honduran military and police until such time as human rights violations by Honduran state security forces cease and their perpetrators are brought to justice.” As the bill’s original cosponsors argued in an op-ed in The Guardian, “It’s even possible that U.S.-trained forces were involved in [Cáceres’s] death,” since “one suspect is a military officer and two others are retired military officers. Given this information, we are deeply concerned about the likely role of the Honduran military in her assassination, including the military chain of command.”

As the hit list story broke, State Department spokesperson John Kirby maintained at a June 22 press briefing that “there’s no specific credible allegations of gross violations of human rights” in Honduras. That assertion is contradicted by the State Department’s own 2015 human rights report on Honduras, which documented “unlawful and arbitrary killings and other criminal activities by members of the security forces,” findings echoed by the United Nations. The Guardian reported on July 8 that the State Department is reviewing the hit list allegations, repeating the claim that it had seen no credible evidence to support them. U.S. ambassador to Honduras James Nealon told the Guardian, “We take allegations of human rights abuses with the utmost seriousness. We always take immediate action to ensure the security and safety of people where there is a credible threat.” Under the Leahy Law, the State Department and the Department of Defense are prohibited from providing support to foreign military units when there is credible evidence of human rights violations. Yet the mechanics of compliance with the Leahy law are shrouded by state secrecy, making it difficult to have confidence in the legitimacy of an investigation into the conduct of a close ally. And satisfying Leahy law obligations alone is insufficient. Half of the $750 million in aid that Congress approved in December for Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador comes through the Plan of the Alliance for the Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, a package of security and development aid aimed at stemming immigration from Central America. And disbursement of that money is conditioned merely on the Secretary of State certifying that the governments are making effective progress toward good governance and human rights goals.

In the aftermath of Zelaya’s removal, Secretary of State Clinton helped cement the post-coup government.

This is not the first time the Obama administration has undermined human rights in Honduras. In the aftermath of Zelaya’s removal, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton helped cement the post-coup government. Cáceres herself denounced Clinton’s role in rupturing the democratic order in Honduras, predicting a dire fallout. As historian Greg Grandin told Democracy Now, “It was Clinton who basically relegated [Zelaya’s return] to a secondary concern and insisted on elections, which had the effect of legitimizing and routinizing the coup regime and creating the nightmare scenario that exists today.”  The election held in November 2009 was widely considered illegitimate.

When questioned by Juan González during a meeting with the New York Daily News editorial board in April, Clinton said that Washington never declared Zelaya’s ouster a coup because doing so would have required the suspension of humanitarian aid. In so doing, she relied on the technicality that an aid cutoff is triggered by the designation of a military coup. Therefore the term was never officially used, despite the military’s clear involvement in removing Zelaya from the country. Clinton claimed the legislature and judiciary had a “very strong argument that they had followed the Constitution and the legal precedents,” despite nearly universal condemnation of the coup, including by the United Nations, the European Union, and the Organization of American States. And Clinton’s account is contradicted by then U.S. ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens, who concluded in a leaked cable “there is no doubt” that the ouster of Zelaya “constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup,” a characterization repeated by the State Department many times. Yet the administration stalled the suspension of aid to Honduras, in contrast to much quicker cutoffs following coups in Mauritania (August 2008) and Madagascar (March 2009).

The dire human rights situation in Honduras may receive more attention following Clinton’s selection of Tim Kaine as her running mate. The Virginia senator, who touts the nine months he spent in Honduras as a Jesuit volunteer as a formative experience, has added his voice to those pressuring Secretary of State John Kerry for a thorough investigation into Cáceres’s death. But Grandin argues that Kaine “has consistently supported economic and security policies that drive immigration and contribute to the kind of repression that killed Cáceres.” This critique of U.S. economic policy was recently echoed by one of Cáceres’s four children, Laura Zuñiga Cáceres, who joined a caravan from Cleveland to Philadelphia demanding justice for her mother. She was among those protesting outside the Democratic National Convention, linking Washington’s trade policy with the misery it engenders in Honduras. “We know very well the impacts that free trade agreements have had on our countries,” Zuñiga said. “They give transnational corporations, like the one my mom fought against, the power to protect their profits even if it means passing over the lives of people who defend the water, forest and mother earth from destruction caused by their very own megaprojects.”

Washington is again signaling to Honduras that stability and its own self-interest trump human rights concerns. Historically the United States has been agonizingly slow to cut off support for repressive Latin American governments so long as they advance its geopolitical and economic agenda. But there have been pivotal moments in history when the tide has turned against U.S.-allied repressive states, such as the killing of Jesuit priests in El Salvador in 1989, which spurred international condemnation of the Salvadoran government and prompted Washington to rethink its support. The death of Cáceres should be one of those moments. This time, Washington should act quickly to stop its money from funding human rights abuses in Honduras before more blood is spilled.

America’s funding of Honduran security forces puts blood on our hands

We should not work with Honduran police and military until the government defends human rights and holds security forces responsible for their crimes

honduras
‘The murder of Berta Cáceres illustrates a bleak state of affairs in Honduras.’ Photograph: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

On 2 March 2016, armed men burst into the home of Berta Cáceres, a prominent environmental and indigenous activist in Honduras, and shot her to death. Earlier that day, the government had rescinded Ms Cáceres’s meager security detail, leaving her unprotected. Of the 33 threats against her, including death threats, none had been investigated. Members of the Honduran military have been implicated in her murder, and requests by the global community for an independent investigation have been ignored.

Until the Honduran government protects human rights and holds its security forces responsible for their crimes, we should not be working with its police and military. As long as the United States funds Honduran security forces without demanding justice for those threatened, tortured and killed, we have blood on our hands. It’s time to suspend all police and military aid to Honduras.

Berta Cáceres10Ms Cáceres’s murder fits an ongoing pattern of violence against organizers, activists, and civilians since the 2009 coup deposed Honduras’ democratically elected government. It’s even possible that US-trained forces were involved in her death – one soldier alleges that Berta Cáceres’s name appeared on a hit list distributed to an elite Honduran military police unit that is part of the national interagency security force (Fusina). Fusina was trained last summer by 300 US military and civilian personnel, including Marines and FBI agents.

Despite this dangerous track record, the United States continues to pour money into Honduran security forces. The US has already allocated at least $18m to Honduran police and military for 2016. Barack Obama’s 2017 budget request calls for increased funding for the Honduran police and military. In addition, the Inter-American Development Bank has lent $60m to the Honduran police, with US approval.

The Honduran police are widely documented to be corrupt. In August 2013, a government commission charged with cleaning up the police admitted nearly three-quarters of the police force were “beyond saving”. Human Rights Watch reports: “The use of lethal force by the national police is a chronic problem. Investigations into police abuses are marred by inefficiency and corruption … and impunity is the rule.”

Leaked documents implicate top Honduran police officials in the 2009 and 2011 assassinations of two police investigators, Julian Aristídes Gonzales and Alfredo Landaverde. Those men were investigating the connections between police leaders, drug traffickers, and organized crime.

But even the work of Gonzales and Landaverde may have been directed by the corrupt Honduran government. A New York Times article suggests the Honduran government may have fabricated elements of the police corruption as an excuse to clean up the police by replacing them with the military. President Juan Orlando Hernández’s personal commitment to cleaning up the police is questionable. He reappointed Hétor Iván Mejía, an alleged human rights abuser, as chief of operations for the national police, for example, and has a track record of supporting the coup and undermining the rule of law on multiple fronts.

This scandal is one of many with the alleged involvement of the Honduran military and police. Over 100 small-farmer activists have been killed in the Aguán Valley since 2009. In July 2013, Tomás García, a peaceful Lenca Indigenous activist was killed. In December 2015, two Afro-Indigenous men were killed as they attempted to push a car out of a sandbank. Despite documented involvement of Honduran security forces, none of these crimes have been properly investigated, and the cases remain in impunity.

President Hernández’s response is misguided. He’s extended the military into domestic policing, in violation of the Honduran constitution. The expanded military police have killed unarmed men passing through checkpoints. They’ve tear gassed and beaten members of opposition party Libre inside the main hall of Congress. They’ve arrested and beaten a prominent advocate for children, Guadalupe Ruelas, after he criticized the government. Creating a military police is clearly not the solution.

The murder of Berta Cáceres illustrates a bleak state of affairs in Honduras. Corruption, impunity and judicial and institutional weaknesses have created a human rights crisis in which no one is safe – not even a world-famous recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.

Recently, five suspects were arrested in Ms Cáceres’ case – one suspect is a military officer and two others are retired military officers. Given this information, we are deeply concerned about the likely role of the Honduran military in her assassination, including the military chain of command. Our colleague Senator Patrick Leahy observed in the Senate that the Honduran government was “complicit in condoning and encouraging the lawlessness that Ms Caceres and her community faced every day”.

In multiple letters to the secretary of state, stretching back to 2010, we have joined with our colleagues in the House to call for an immediate suspension of security aid to Honduras. Enough is enough – it’s past time to suspend the aid and instruct the US Treasury department to vote no on all loans from multilateral development banks to security forces in Honduras.

The Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act (HR 5474) would suspend those funds – and prohibit international loans providing for security assistance – from being dispersed unless Honduras makes serious inroads to addressing blatant human rights violations by police and military forces.

Once justice is restored and impunity for human rights abuses ends, we’ll reconsider.


Three members of same Honduran environmental group have been murdered over the past 4 months

Patrick J. McDonnell and Cecilia Sanchez

Berta Cáceres13The murder of Berta Cáceres, an internationally acclaimed environmental activist in Honduras, briefly focused global attention on embattled grassroots efforts to protect indigenous lands from government-backed hydro-electric projects in the Central American nation.

Cáceres, a recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, was gunned down at her rural home on March 3 in what appeared to be a targeted assassination. The killing sparked worldwide condemnation and allegations of the involvement of government officials and private entrepreneurs.

While initially suggesting that the murder was a crime of passion, Honduran authorities have since arrested five suspects, including an Army officer and at least one employee of a company running a dam project that she opposed.

In the meantime, two other activists affiliated with the same group as Cáceres — the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras — have also been murdered.

Yanet Urquia

Yanet Urquia

The string of slayings has raised alarms about a possible systemic effort to target the group, which has been at the forefront of regional opposition to the government-backed privatization and exploitation of natural resources.

Government officials have denied any involvement in the slayings and defended hydro-electric projects as necessary for generating electricity across the country.

The latest victim was Lesbia Janeth Urquia, a 49-year old mother of three who was apparently hacked to death with a machete last week.

Denying a political motive, prosecutors said this week that she was killed in a family dispute over an inheritance and announced the arrest of Urquia’s brother-in-law, the alleged plotter, and two men he allegedly hired to carry out the murder.

But Honduran activists immediately rejected that account as a cover-up and suggested that Urquia was killed for publicly opposing a controversial hydro-electric project on the Chinacla River.

“We don’t believe in this [official] version,” Tomas Gomez, head of the indigenous environmental group, said Thursday in a telephone interview. “In this country they invent cases and say that the murders have nothing to do with political issues. The government always tries to dis-connect so as to not admit that these amount to political killings.”

He said the group would continue to push for thorough investigations of all three murders of its members and called for support from international organizations.

Critics of various hydro-electric projects said they would cut off water and otherwise damage the lands of the Lenca people, Mayan descendants who constitute Honduras’ largest indigenous group.

The activists allege widespread collusion in Honduras between government officials and large companies seeking to profit from hydro-electric and other projects affecting native lands.

Olivia Marcela Zuniga, the daughter of Cáceres and an environmental activist herself,  called for an international investigation into the three killings.

“We don’t believe the government,” Zuniga said Thursday in a telephone interview from Honduras. “Here they murder social activists, peasants, indigenous people, women. Members of the government are involved. That’s why we call them political assassinations that almost always remain unresolved, with impunity.”

In the case of her mother’s homicide, Zuniga noted, authorities initially suggested that her killing  was the result of a “crime of passion.”

The suspects arrested in that case “were poor people” and not the masterminds who planned and financed the killing, she said. Before her slaying, Cáceres had received dozens of death threats because of her high-profile opposition to the Agua Zarca dam project on the Gualcarque River.

Weeks after that murder, Nelson Garcia, another Honduran activist affiliated with the indigenous environmental council, was killed in what police have said was an apparent robbery attempt. Activists have rejected the official version and called for more investigation.

Urquia’s body was found last week near a garbage dump in the highland town of Marcala, west of Tegucigalpa, the capital. She had last been seen going out on her bicycle, her family said. Her head showed signs of trauma from machete blows, according to accounts in the Honduran media.

Honduras has one of the world’s highest rates of murder. Many killings remain unresolved amid widespread gang violence, a proliferation of arms  and allegations of official links to criminal bands.

Global Witness, the  London-based environmental advocacy group, labels Honduras the most dangerous nation for environmental activists. More than 100 activists have been killed in Honduras since 2010, according to the group.

Sanchez is a special correspondent.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Honduras Lenca Communities Reject Energy Project After Murder

http://www.telesurtv.net/english/news/Honduras-Lenca-Communities-Reject-Energy-Project-After-Murder-20160711-0015.html

Friends and supporters gather near the coffin of Lesbia Yaneth Urquia, member of COPINH, before her burial, in Marcala, Honduras, July 8, 2016.

Friends and supporters gather near the coffin of Lesbia Yaneth Urquia, member of COPINH, before her burial, in Marcala, Honduras, July 8, 2016. | Photo: Reuters

Although the local population is overwhelmingly against the Los Encinos dam, their resolution is non-binding, and unlikely to deter government officials.

Lenca communities in the western Honduran region of La Paz have voted overwhelmingly against a controversial hydroelectric dam in their territory against the construction of a hydroelectric dam, which sparked an Indigenous resistance movement following the 2009 U.S.-backed coup. 

 

Ninety percent of the 1,200 Hondurans who cast ballots in 15 pollintg places across nine communities Sunday voted against the dam on the Chinacla river in the municipality of Santa Elena.  The Lenca Indigenous Movement of La Paz, also known as MILPAH, has been fighting for recognition of their land rights since 2010 when the redevelopment project by the corporation, Los Encinos, was approved without any community input.

The struggle launched into the international spotlight last month, when local activist Ana Mirian Romero won the annual international Front Line Defenders Award for her commitment for fighting for human rights despite threats against her life.

The communities consulted in Sunday’s vote also rejected the creation of a land register that would have pave the way for further division of Lenca territories.

 

The vote comes after another member of MILPAH’s sister movement COPINH, Lesbia Yaneth Urquia, was murdered last week, just four months after internationally-renowned leader Berta Caceres was shot dead in her home on March 3. Another COPINH member, Nelson Garcia, was assassinated less than two weeks after Caceres.

Romero and other MILPAH activists have also faced death threats and a slew of other personal harassment and intimidation as a result of her involvement in the movement.

Leading up to Sunday’s vote, over a year in the making, MILPAH accused local officials, including the mayor of Santa Elena, of trying to frustrate their attempts to hold the consultation. The movement insisted that the “intimidating acts,” including Yaneth Urquia’s murder, would not stop the vote from going forward.

Hydroelectric companies and other developmen5t projects began surfacing in Santa Elena and surrounding Lenca communities, following the 2009 military coup against former President Manuel Zelaya, which was supported by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. That was the same time that Hondurans indigenous communities began experiencing an escalation of government repression.

The Los Encinos hydroelectric project on the Chinacla river, a sacred site in Lenca spirituality and important for the subsistence of local communities, has also been controversial for its links to the country’s political elite. According to the human rights organization Rights Action, the dam is part of an energy project funded by Gladys Aurora Lopez, a lawmaker with the ruling right-wing National Party and Vice President of Congress.

COPINH has specifically singled out Lopez — along with the Honduran government and military — for responsibillity in Yaneth Urquia’s murder and a  “permanent source of threats” in La Paz by promoting controversial energy projects.

But while the nine Lenca communities have ratified their rejection of the Los Encinos dam with a resounding “no” vote, the overwhelming precedent in the country suggests that the government will continue to violate the community’s internationally-enshrined Indigenous right to free, prior and informed consent for all development projects on their traditionally territory.

COPINH and other Indigenous movements have repeatedly called for an end to all corporate projects on Lenca territory to “put a stop to death, impunity, and injustice” in Honduras.

In the Aftermath of the Murder of Berta Cáceres: Squashing Indigenous Resistance and Discrediting International Observers in Honduras

by James Phillips

http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/07/12/in-the-aftermath-of-the-murder-of-berta-caceres-squashing-indigenous-resistance-and-discrediting-international-observers-in-honduras/

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 10.23.18 AM

People who work for human rights, the rights of Indigenous communities, protection of our global environment, and social justice, are demanding justice after the murder of Berta Cáceres. She was killed in early March when gunmen broke into her house and shot her. It is abundantly clear to many Hondurans and international supporters and observers that her killing was political. Cáceres was the charismatic leader of COPINH, an organization begun in 1993 by Lenca communities in Honduras to promote their rights and protect their traditional lands, and to work with other Indigenous and popular organizations.

In the three years before her murder, Cáceres led COPINH in actively opposing construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam across the sacred Gualcarque River that runs through traditional Lenca lands in western Honduras. For her work she was awarded the international Goldman Prize in 2015 for Indigenous environmental activism. Cáceres helped to bring the Lenca struggle into global awareness, delivering an impassioned acceptance speech upon receiving the award in San Francisco. In Honduras, the Lenca and other Indigenous communities are widely seen as the front line of defense of the environment and the nation’s natural resources.

But Cáceres’ work also roused the fear and concern of those who wanted the dam as part of a larger economic development plan for Honduras that promoted foreign investment and large-scale resource extraction (mining, lumber, tourism, agribusiness) at the expense of hundreds of indigenous and peasant rural communities. These interests included the Honduran government and its powerful supporters, as well as U.S., Canadian, Chinese and other foreign interests. The Honduran company Desarollos Energéticos (DESA), with government support, held the contract for the Agua Zarca dam.

The dam builders cleared a dirt road to the construction site through traditional Lenca land without asking Lenca permission. Honduras is bound by national and international laws and treaties, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and International Labor Organization Convention 169 that prohibit taking or using indigenous lands or resources without “full, prior, and informed consent” of the affected communities. The Lenca claimed they were never consulted about the dam or the road. The company, DESA, also ordered them to stop using the river that had been central to their lives for many generations. In addition to private company security guards, a unit of Honduran military guarded the company’s construction compound, as if to emphasize the government’s interest in completion of the dam.

Beginning in April, 2013 and for more than four months, COPINH and the Lenca continued peaceful protest, sometimes leading processions or protest walks along the road, attracting Hondurans from other areas as well as international observers from the U.S., Europe, and Latin America. During one of these protests a Honduran soldier in the military unit guarding the dam construction compound shot and killed Lenca protester Tomás Garcia and seriously injured his teenage son, Alan.

Blaming the victim or innocent third parties is a common strategy of oppression and control. Authorities accused Cáceres and two other COPINH leaders–Tomás Gómez and Auriliano Molina–of fomenting violence, and claimed to have found a gun in Cåceres’ vehicle. DESA officials accused the three of causing economic damage by delaying the dam’s construction. After a court hearing at which more than one hundred Lenca and others gathered in support of Cáceres, she was ordered to stay away from the area of the dam protests and from any other protest activities. She was later forced into hiding for a time as authorities briefly sought her arrest, and for months before her assassination she continued to receive death threats. She reported at least thirty-three to the authorities, she said, but they did nothing, even though the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (an arm of the Organization of American States) had mandated the Honduran government to extend protective measures to Cáceres and other COPINH activists.

In the days after the murder of Cáceres, Honduran police held and interrogated COPINH leaders Gómez and Molina and Mexican citizen Gustavo Castro, director of Mexico’s Friends of the Earth. Castro was visiting Cáceres when she was killed. He was shot but survived and was given refuge in the Mexican Embassy when Honduran authorities refused to allow him to leave the country. The police later released Gomez and Molina, but only after a hint of suspicion had been planted against them. In response, COPINH’s lawyer Victor Fernandez said, “Blaming people close to Berta is part of the crime. Leaders are murdered to terrorize communities, contaminate organizations, and squash resistance movements. This is the pattern.”

After two months of widespread popular demonstrations and protests in Latin America, the U.S., and Europe, the Honduran judicial prosecutor’s office announced charges against four men in Cåceres’ death. The identity of the four is revealing of the forces arrayed against the Lenca. Government and news sources reported that three of the four were active or retired military officers, and two are or have been DESA personnel. Sergio Rodriguez served as engineer for the Agua Zarca dam. Douglas Bustillo is a retired military officer and former head of security for DESA. Mariano Chavez is an active member of the Honduran military, and Edison Duarte is a former military officer. Before her death, Cáceres reportedly identified at least one of these men among those who had threatened her. In addition to these arrests, there are calls for the investigation and arrest of the intellectual authors of the crime, since many believe the murder was ordered, or at least condoned by higher authorities in Honduras. DESA officials have denied any responsibility.

In Honduras it is rare that prominent or powerful individuals are charged with crimes. A culture of official impunity allows the powerful literally to get away with murder. Impunity is the linchpin of the whole system of control and oppression. Some observers believe that because of the widespread and continuing concern and protests after Cáceres’ murder–concern that also aroused members of the U.S. Congress–the Honduran government was forced to show that it was treating this particular murder seriously and to bring credible charges.

Since the killing of Cáceres, COPINH members have been subjected to ongoing threats and attacks. On July 6, 2016, the body of Lesbia Janeth Uruquía, 49, was found stabbed to death near the municipal dump in Marcala, western Honduras. Like Cáceres, Uruquía was the mother of several children. She was a COPINH member and a leader in the effort to stop construction of a private hydroelectric dam on the Chinacla River. This construction project was headed by Gladys Lopez, president of the ruling National Party and vice-president of the National Congress that had authorized the project. As of this writing, no one had been charged in Uruquía’s murder.

Cáceres saw the conflict over the Agua Zarca and other such projects in the context of the support shown by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the 2009 coup against the government of Manual Zelaya. The coup is widely blamed for ushering in the current era of rampant resource extraction, violence, and repression in Honduras. In Hard Choices, Clinton writes that she advocated swift recognition of the coup and the post-coup government as an exercise in “clear-eyed pragmatism,” even as most of the hemisphere’s governments withheld recognition and demanded the restoration of the elected Zelaya government.

There is a history behind this. In the early 1980s, the Reagan Administration sent the Honduran government a blueprint for economic development (popularly known as Reaganomics for Honduras) that emphasized turning Honduras into a country wide open to foreign investment and resource extraction. Honduran government plans almost exactly mirrored this, until the Zelaya government seemed to deviate from the plan by listening to the voices of the country’s rural, peasant, and Indigenous people. The 2009 coup ended that challenge by removing Zelaya. It appeared that rhetoric about democracy and human rights clashed with the model of economic development the U.S. needed in Honduras.

Both the Agua Zarca project and the Chinacla River project are part of the larger national development plan that includes as an integral component the construction of hydroelectric dams across many of the country’s major rivers, including the Patuca (one of the largest Honduran rivers) that runs through the lands of at least three Indigenous peoples—Miskito, Pech, and Tawahka—in eastern Honduras. The electricity to be generated by these dams is intended, at least in part, to serve the needs of major mining operations in various parts of Honduras—mining projects (Honduran and foreign) that displace Indigenous and peasant communities without ever seeking their “free, prior, and informed consent.” Since the 2009 coup against Zelaya, the post-coup governments have granted a flurry of such mining concessions to U.S., Canadian, Chinese, and other foreign interests.

Murder and community displacement are two costs of such “development” projects. Another is the inequitable appropriation and use of essential resources that local communities need. Geology and hydrology experts estimate that a medium-sized mining project such as some of those proposed for Honduras can consume as much water in a few hours as a rural Honduran family would consume in a year.

Many Hondurans have long criticized this model of development. In 1980, Honduran Central Bank economist Edmundo Valladares referred to “the misery financing the model of development.” By contrast, World Bank president Jim Kim recently (April 2016) responded to the murder of Berta Cáceres in an address at Union Theological Seminary by expressing regret at her murder, then adding, “You cannot do the kind of work we are trying to do and not have some of these incidents happen. We just have to be honest when it happens, admit it, and then try to face it as best we can.” Was he implying that the killings of Indigenous and other leaders were an acceptable price for constructing the model of development? The World Bank has denied any involvement in the Agua Zarca dam project.

With its charismatic director eliminated and ongoing threats to those that remain, COPINH relies more than ever on the support of the international community. Lenca often express gratitude for the interest and support of foreign individuals and the global community. Observers from the United States, Canada, Latin America, and Europe have been present at Lenca and COPINH events. Recently, however, several international observers were public denounced by government officials and in media with questions such as, “Why is this foreigner present at a COPINH event?” In at least one case, an Italian human rights observer was deported after a campaign to discredit her.

At the same time, Honduran authorities have taken much uncharacteristic and seeming friendly interest in COPINH. Critics call this “mobbing,” a tactic of killing with kindness. The new attention is designed to confuse and co-opt COPINH’s remaining leaders and the Lenca people. But as human rights activist Ismael Moreno, SJ (Padre Melo) said several years ago after a long protest walk led by COPINH and the Garifuna organization OFRANEH, “The Indigenous peoples were highly disciplined and resistant…They were the most firm on the journey. They have resources that the rest do not have: their long history of resistance.”

Foreigners can help the Lenca and other Indigenous people of Honduras by becoming aware of the corporate and government interests and investments that their own countries have in Honduras. This extends also to foreign development and security aid and the conditions and accountability in which this aid is used. Some members of the U.S. Congress are beginning to demand this of their own government.

James Phillips, Ph.d., is a cultural anthropologist at Southern Oregon University. His book, Honduras in Dangerous Times: Resistance and Resilience, was published by Lexington Books in 2015