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Environmental activist Berta Cáceres was assassinated in 2016, after her decade-long campaign against the construction of a dam in Honduras.

Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

A Honduran court has convicted seven men of the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated in a home in western Honduras in 2016. Cáceres had been leading opposition to the construction of a dam over the Gualcarque River, and her murder brought renewed attention to the dangers environmentalists face in Central America.

In a telephone interview from Oakland, Calif., Cáceres’ nephew, Silvio Carrillo, spoke with NPR. “Just because there was a conviction, doesn’t mean the justice system works in Honduras. There are still masterminds out there, and there’s no indication that they are going after the masterminds,” Carrillo said.

Judges convicted two former executives of Desa, the company with the concession to build the dam, including Sergio Rodríguez, Desa’s director of environmental and social development, and Douglas Bustillo, the company’s security chief.

A top executive of Desa, Roberto David Castillo, was arrested in March, and will be tried separately.

Robert Amsterdam, international counsel to Desa, told NPR the company’s executives are innocent of the charges against them. “Simply the court had none of the evidence to convict. In respect to Sergio Rodriguez and the references to Desa, they are all without foundation,” Amsterdam said. “Human rights organizations have stampeded the court in Honduras, which is subject to a tremendous amount of political pressure, into rendering a judgment that is flawed.”

“We consider it a fair step towards justice … but still we have some concerns. The process had many flaws,” Marcia Aguiluz Soto, the director for Central America and Mexico at the Center for Justice and International Law, a human rights group that has worked with Cáceres’ family, told NPR. “One of our main concerns is that the masterminds of the assassination are not being judged yet. Basically the tribunal that convicted the seven persons say that they know, and they have proof, that stakeholders and managers of the Desa company planned for the assassination of Berta Cáceres, and paid for it.”

Cáceres, a Lenca woman, had waged a 10-year fight against construction of the dam, which was to be built over water considered sacred by the indigenous Lenca people, who also said the dam would endanger their water resources. She led a campaign which “involved filing legal complaints against the project, organizing community meetings and bringing the case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission,” according to The New York Times.

In 2015, Cáceres’ won the Goldman Environmental Prize, which is given to grass-roots environmental leaders, and the award gave her work international attention and acclaim.

44-year-old Cáceres was murdered just a year later, when two gunmen broke down the door of the home where she was staying in the town of La Esperanza, which translates to “hope” in Spanish, and shot her six times.

Cáceres’ nephew, Carrillo, says he was dumbfounded by news of her death. “There is just a constant denigration of my family, of the indigenous people in Honduras, and a lack of respect. This is what Berta was fighting for. They deserve the respect that anyone of us do, whether we’re white, brown, black, it doesn’t matter. This is the root of the problem in Honduras, where the wealthy control the power structure, and the impoverished don’t have a voice,” Carrillo said.

According to the organization Global Witness, 14 environmental activists were killed in reprisal for their work in Honduras last year, and more than 120 people have been killed in the country since 2010 for protesting against companies that pollute the environment.

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Berta Cáceres: seven men convicted of murdering Honduran environmentalist

  • Indigenous campaigner Cáceres, 44, was shot dead in 2016
  • Four also guilty of attempted murder of Mexican activist
The former manager of Desa Sergio Rodríguez, right, and the seven other people accused of killing the Honduran environmental leader Berta Cáceres, wait to hear their sentence at a courtroom in Tegucigalpa.
The former manager of Desa Sergio Rodríguez, right, and the seven other people accused of killing the Honduran environmental leader Berta Cáceres, wait to hear their sentence. Photograph: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

Seven men have been found guilty of conspiring to murder the Honduran indigenous environmentalist Berta Isabel Cáceres. An eighth defendant, Emerson Duarte Meza, was cleared and freed on Thursday.

Cáceres, a winner of the Goldman prize for environmental defenders, was shot dead on 2 March 2016 – two days before her 45th birthday – after a long battle to stop construction of an internationally financed hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque river, which the Lenca people consider sacred.

Seven men were convicted of murder by a court in Tegucigalpa on Thursday: Sergio Ramón Rodríguez, the communities and environment manager for Desa, the company building the dam; Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, the former Desa security chief; Mariano Díaz Chávez, a former US-trained special forces major who served in the army with Bustillo; Henry Javier Hernández, a former special forces sergeant who served with Díaz; Edwin Rapalo; Edilson Duarte Meza; and Oscar Torres.

Gustavo Castro, a Mexican environmentalist, was shot in the same attack but survived by playing dead. Hernández, Rapalo, Edilson Duarte and Torres were found guilty of the attempted murder of Castro. The other three defendants were found not guilty of that crime. In closing arguments, several defence teams had argued that the attack on Castro amounted only to assault as his injuries were not life-threatening.

Berta Cáceres was killed two days before her 45th birthday.

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Berta Cáceres was killed two days before her 45th birthday. Photograph: Tim Russo/AP

Cáceres, the coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh) was best known for her defence of indigenous territory and natural resources, but was also a respected political analyst, women’s rights defender and anti-capitalist campaigner.

Her murder became a litmus test for a country where corruption and impunity reign – and for a justice system which has received millions of US and European dollars of international aid.

But the criminal case has been plagued by allegations of negligence, secrecy and bias.

The crime scene was contaminated before the forensic team arrived, and none of the bloody footprints left behind were identified. Two police officers have been charged with falsifying evidence in the case, which they deny. In October 2016, the original case file was stolen from a judge’s car after an apparent carjacking.

Thursday’s verdict is unlikely to satisfy Cáceres’s family, colleagues and international legal observers who have frequently decried the narrow scope and secrecy surrounding the official investigation.

In a highly contentious decision, lawyers representing the family and Castro were expelled from proceedings shortly before the trial started after calling for the judges to be recused for bias and abuse of authority.

Over the course of the five-week trial, much of the evidence presented to the three judges was documentary, and admitted without being read in court, making it difficult to evaluate the strength of the case against each defendant.

At one point, the trial was suspended for several days, but the court was reconvened a day early without informing the press, international observers, diplomatic representatives or the victims. Key phone data was presented to a virtually empty public gallery. Video transmission was banned in this case.

Canada backs profits, not human rights, in Honduras

On Friday Aug. 12, Stephen Harper became the first foreign leader to visit Honduras and meet with President Porfirio Pepe Lobo since the country was readmitted to the Organization of American States (OAS) June 1. This shouldn’t be a point of pride for Canada, however; it reflects a very dangerous and problematic feature of the Conservative government’s foreign policy in Latin America.

Honduras was kicked out of the OAS after the June 28, 2009, military coup that removed from power the democratically elected but moderately left-of-centre president, Manuel Zelaya. The coup was followed immediately by an intense campaign of repression against anti-coup activists waged by the military, police and death squads, echoing the dark days of the Central American dirty wars in the 1980s.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo after signing a bilateral free trade agreement. (Aug. 12, 2011)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper shakes hands with Honduran President Porfirio Lobo after signing a bilateral free trade agreement. (Aug. 12, 2011)  (ORLANDO SIERRA / AFP)

Harper’s visit, during which he announced the completion of the Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement, is the culmination of the Canadian government’s strenuous efforts to deepen political and economic ties with the post-coup Lobo government following its election on Nov. 28, 2009. The Harper government has been building its relationship with Lobo in spite of international criticism of the ongoing human rights abuses in the impoverished country.

Harper, former minister of state for the Americas Peter Kent and former and current Canadian ambassadors to Honduras have all sung the praises of the Lobo government. They portray it sanguinely as one of national reconciliation and a return to democratic normalcy. But this is nowhere near the truth of what is happening in Honduras. Indeed, as a leading Honduran human rights organization, the Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras (Committee of the Family Members of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras, COFADEH) has argued, the human rights situation was actually worse during the first year of the Lobo government than it was immediately following the coup during the dictatorship of Roberto Micheletti.

During Lobo’s first year in power (January 2010-January 2011) there were at least 34 targeted assassinations of activists within the Resistance Front (COFADEH also notes over 300 suspicious deaths of people associated with the resistance), 34 killings of peasant activists involved in land struggles, 10 politically motivated murders of journalists (leading Reporters Without Borders to declare Honduras to be one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists in 2010), and 31 slayings of members of the LGBT community, many of whom were associated with the resistance.

Not surprisingly, anti-coup activists scoff at the idea that the Lobo regime represents the return of democracy. They suggest instead that it represents the consolidation of the coup — with key coup actors, such as military leader Gen. Romeo Vásquez, rewarded with important economic and political positions — under the shallow veneer of democracy. There have been no charges made in any cases of political assassination.

But the veneer is good enough for the Harper government — cover for Canada’s pursuit of its political and economic interests. Despite the repression surrounding Lobo’s election, the refusal of internationally recognized electoral observers to participate in the election, and the failure of the Honduran Congress to ratify the San Jose-Tegucigalpa Accord (a condition for Canadian support for the election, the accord, backed by Canada, would have allowed for the exiled Zelaya to return to the presidency but with his powers dramatically reduced), Canada was one of the first countries to recognize the new government.

Soon after Lobo took power, Kent started lobbying for Honduras’s return to the OAS, while Canadian officials pushed for and received meetings for Canadian investors with Lobo and some of his key cabinet ministers. Behind the scenes, Canadian officials and a mining executive discussed how to promote a new foreign investor-friendly mining law.

Apart from one press release raising concerns about the killings of journalists and Harper’s very terse acknowledgement of human rights problems during his trip (in which he absolved the Lobo government of any responsibility), Canada has said and done little about targeted repression of political activists. Two days before Kent’s February 2010 visit to Honduras, for example, a union activist and resistance member, Julio Fúnez Benítez, was assassinated. Nevertheless, Kent was fulsome in his praise for Lobo, declaring that he “is beginning the process of national reconciliation.”

And toward that end, Lobo established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Unlike other such commissions, however, like that in post-apartheid South Africa or post-civil war Guatemala, Honduras’s commission took place as repression was occurring. Sensing a charade for the benefit of the international community, members of the Resistance Front refused to participate. Unfazed, Canada financed the commission and provided a member, former diplomat Michael Kergin, who happened to be employed by one of Canada’s biggest corporate law firms, Bennett Jones, which just happens to specialize in, among other things, investment law and mining. Predictably, while acknowledging a coup d’état had occurred, the commission blamed Zelaya for breaking the law by disregarding a Supreme Court ruling to cancel a straw poll referendum that asked Hondurans if they wanted to hold another referendum during the November 2009 election. The second referendum would have enabled Hondurans to decide whether or not to replace a constitution written during the days of military dictatorship. Rewriting the constitution remains a very popular idea with many Hondurans.

As intended, Canada’s engagement with post-coup Honduras is reaping benefits for Canadian investors. Lobo has been adopting an aggressive free market plan: rivers have been concessioned for dam-building projects; the state electricity and telecommunications companies will likely be put up for auction; a new mining law is coming; large tracts of Garífuna (Afro-Indigenous) land on the north coast are being illegally sold for tourist development; and the constitution has been amended to allow for the creation of corporate-run city states (the so-called model cities).

Canada is one of the largest foreign investor nations in the country, with over $600 million in investment, according to Ambassador Cameron Mackay. Canadian companies play leading roles in mining, maquilas and tourism, and are central actors in the recent announcement of plans for a tourism-focused model city, the first such city announced.

When I was in Honduras in June, I spoke with activists organizing against Canadian companies in all these industries. They spoke of being displaced from their land, environmental destruction and exploitative working conditions. Some alleged they had received death threats for their opposition to Canadian company practices. Canada, I was told, is acting like a colonial power: supporting a repressive government to facilitate the exploitation of the country’s natural resources and cheap labour. It is unlikely that Harper’s visit and the new trade agreement will change this perception.

The Harper government has already successfully consolidated its political and economic ties with Colombia — a country which annually accounts for approximately two-thirds of trade unionists assassinated worldwide and witnesses severe human rights violations in mining zones. Honduras is the latest target of an increasingly aggressive Canadian foreign policy for the Americas, guided by a very simple but frightening philosophy that places corporate profits and geostrategic interests well above human rights.

Todd Gordon teaches political science at York University and is the author of Imperialist Canada (Arbeiter Ring, 2010). He visited Honduras in June.

Environmentalists in Honduras, “neither ignorant nor anti-development”

Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, in April 2017, in Brussels, where she met with representatives dealing with business and human rights from European institutions (Commission and Council, buildings in the background), and representatives of the Belgian Foreign Ministry.

Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, the new general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH), a position held by her mother, Berta Cáceres, until she was murdered on 3 March 2016, tells Equal Times that the indigenous people of this Central American country have development proposals for foreign investment funds that are prepared to listen to them. As well as being viable, they are proposals that respect the environment and human rights.

The activist carries the struggle to defend the environment and the underprivileged in her genes (her mother was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize and her grandmother, Austra Berta Flores, was the mayor of La Esperanza, governor of Intibucá and deputy in the National Congress, to mention just two from a long line of examples). She is currently campaigning against projects backed by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), under which blatant human rights violations are being perpetrated with impunity.

Honduras is the deadliest country in the world for environmental defenders, according to a report by Global Witness. As many as 101 environmentalists were assassinated between 2010 and 2014. Many others suffered threats and intimidation, which have virtually become part of everyday life for activists.

“The climate of defencelessness affects everyone,” she insists, going on to explain how the attacks against her personally have escalated in recent times. In addition to the ongoing stigmatisation, harassment and repression, on 30 June of this year, she was the victim of an armed attack and an attempt on her life, despite the fact that observers from around the world are keeping a close eye on the situation.

Zúñiga Cáceres is keeping up the fight to ensure those who perpetrated and ordered her mother’s assassination are identified and brought to justice, in a country where impunity is the norm.

What stage has been reached in the investigation into the murder of Berta Cáceres? Do you think it could set a legal precedent for other lower profile cases in Honduras – given that your mother is an emblematic figure and the international community is following the case very closely?

That is the idea, to set a legal precedent in a country where there is no justice. The problem is that this doesn’t seem feasible in Honduras, not so far at least. You have to remember that Honduras has an impunity rate of 96 per cent, which is what makes killing people so easy.

The idea is to strengthen the legal and judicial institutions in the country, so that they become an example, but the truth is that there is no political will and when there is no political will, it’s difficult to imagine that this can be achieved. Internally, we are pressing ahead with litigation, as private parties, with the support of many people in Honduras and beyond. We know that there is a great deal of international observation… But we feel disappointed. And worried, because no sentence has been pronounced [against the eight people remanded, to date], and this could be dragged on for a year, two years… until the international pressure dies down – which is the only concern of the institutions in Honduras – and then there will be no investigation into who was behind the crime.

Following the murder of Cáceres, Leónidas Rosa Bautista, the Honduran ambassador to the OAS, announced a battery of measures to tackle the human rights abuses, such as the creation of a human rights observatory and a commission with human rights defenders to promote protection measures, etc. How do you view this response?

The mechanism to protect human rights defenders was a response to the pressure from the international community and the conditions placed on funding in areas such as a military aid, etc. But in reality, it’s just an exercise to clean up the Honduran government’s image, because nothing has actually changed since the murder. We continue to be as defenceless as ever. Moreover, in the case of the COPINH in particular, the national campaigns on the radio and TV criminalising and stigmatising us have grown fiercer, and the government of Honduras is doing absolutely nothing.

Honduras has a lot of laws, you could almost say it has more than it needs, but the problem is that they are not respected. The protection mechanism and such initiatives designed to ensure respect for the communities’ rights and to protect lives are a good thing, but the problem is that there is no trust, because information is leaked and there is corruption. People are afraid of giving their data a to mechanism when we know it could end up in the hands of the state security service, which is involved in a lot of the intelligence work and the persecution of the kind suffered by my mother.

Honduras has the world’s highest murder rate for environmental defenders, per capita, according to the Global Witness report. It is rich in the natural resources exploited in a variety of industries, but it is not the only country of Latin America, or the world, with this profile. What makes Honduras so deadly?

Honduras is a relatively small country for Latin America, with more than 30 per cent of its territory held in the form of concessions by extractive industry firms and clean and dirty energy producers of all kinds. The state exists to protect the interests of private business, the governments and public officials; not to safeguard the basic rights of indigenous communities.

What is clearly reflected in the Global Witness report is the collusion between the government, private business, the military and foreign money. Honduras is a country that depends almost entirely on outside financial support – which is also why the messages from Europe weigh so heavily on it.

Since the coup d’état in Honduras [ousting Manuel Zelaya in 2009], let’s say, we have been experiencing the same phenomenon as in other Latin American countries, only that here it has been much more fast-moving and aggressive. The mutation of states linked to organised crime and corruption facilitates the climate of impunity, under which people defending the land are killed.

We know that what is in dispute in the world today are the natural commons, because that is where the energy is going to be taken from, it’s the new business. As a result, those of us who are working to defend ancestral lands – most often indigenous peoples – are faced with a very complicated situation. At the same time as talking about defending human rights, they are promoting energy production and giving incentives to companies linked to the oligarchs in our country. The result is a huge climate of permissiveness, allowing crimes to be committed so that the extractive and energy industry companies can move in, whatever the cost.

Governments all around the world are constantly competing to attract foreign investment to their respective countries. They have to find solutions to growing populations, growing energy demands… What is the main problem you see with the type of investment currently flowing into Honduras and do you offer local alternatives, to be able to manage without it?

Of course indigenous communities in Latin America present proposals that respect life and do not rely on the deadly private business in our countries.

We would never promote private business. Our interest lies in covering our basic needs, and there are many proposals in this sense. I always remind people that my mother was murdered in the midst of an alternative energy workshop at which the Lenca community had gathered to discuss an energy model – developed by the indigenous communities themselves – that would not be linked to private business or investments with no interest in providing energy to the poor.

There is no interest in promoting small projects; it’s a lie. Honduras has a number of national hydropower plants that are operating at 20% of their capacity, and this could be increased, but they limit it, so that they can say, “we need more energy, we need more hydroelectric power plants”.

Honduras is part of a Mesoamerican electric transmission corridor, which is intended to generate energy for big industry, mining, mega-tourism projects and the energy demands of developed countries, which are the ones that need it.

We always say that there could be more North-South exchange initiatives, proposals that respect our rights, that are not underpinned by racist policies – but they continue to view us as stupid, ignorant people that they need to civilise.

There are many interesting proposals being made by indigenous populations to tackle these rights issues, the problem is that they are not allowed to flourish, there are no incentives for that kind of project. That’s not where the so-called development funds are going to be channelled.

For us, part of our work is to clarify the situation, to break with the hypocrisy of making it look like they’re trying to help the least advantaged communities, because it is simply not true. They turn people into administrators of their poverty, and that is not what we are proposing or fighting for, not the COPINH nor other organisations. Our proposal is to take control of our goods, ensuring respect for our ways of interpreting the world and our spiritual beliefs, whatever is necessary.

Do the projects funded by the CABEI respect your interests?

The Central American Bank for Economic Integration is part of the structures of the World Bank. They promote projects that move in, whatever the cost, be it violence or murder, and benefit the oligarchs.

Agua Zarca, [for example] is owned by the Atala family, the most powerful family in Central America. They lobby for the “renewable energy” producers in Honduras, part of the Honduran oligarchy that is reaping the financial benefits of all this. And they speak against organisations that defend the land, because we are affecting their economic earnings. They will not allow it. That is why they murdered Berta Cáceres, for being a hindrance. They don’t want any hindrances for private business in Honduras. They made quite strong statements against her and the COPINH.

In a blog for Equal Times, researcher Karen Hudlet recently suggested a number of measures that companies could take to ensure that they do not act as accomplices to human rights violations, such as human rights impact assessments and regard for the context/environment in which they plan to operate. How feasible do you think this is?

They are interesting ideas, the problem is that in Honduras there is no rule of law.

For us, the problem is that many of the funders are aware that these things are happening in Honduras. In the case of Agua Zarca, my mother communicated directly, on various occasions, with the funders and with the CABEI, to tell them that the project was violating rights, that they could not enter into a contract with companies. They didn’t respond. She wrote again, providing information on the corruption, the hired gunmen – Tomás García had already been murdered [in 2013]. They replied: “Who are you to represent the Lenca indigenous people? You don’t represent them. We have no reason to talk to you.”

There is a racist policy [behind it], so studies can be done, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to pull out their investment. If the investors start doing studies on the guarantees for life and basic rights, they will start to realise what the situation is, and to see that investing is not feasible.

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

Canada’s Controversial Engagement in Honduras

By: Sabrina Escalera-Flexhaug, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Photo Credit: The Dominion

Increasing Involvement

Since Hurricane Mitch struck Honduras in 1998, Canada has cast an increasingly long shadow over the small Central American country’s economy and policy; a presence that has grown stronger since Honduras’ controversial 2009 coup. The self-proclaimed peacekeepers have since built a stronghold over Honduras via investment in industries and support for the illegitimate government created in the wake of the coup. Canada’s relationship with Honduras is emblematic of its shifting position within the international community, as an imperial presence, establishing and expanding industries in the less developed country at the expense of local citizens and the environment.

Canadian economic and political ties with Honduras intensified following Hurricane Mitch. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch ravaged much of Central America and resulted in the deaths of over 11,000 people.[1] It also left Honduras with $3 billion USD in damage from the catastrophe, causing utter economic devastation in one of the poorest countries in Latin America.

Following the hurricane, Ottawa responded with a “long-term development plan,” offering the Honduran government $100 million USD over four years for reconstruction projects. Part of this proposal included the introduction of forty Canadian companies into Honduras for investment purposes, which provided them with the opportunity to claim Honduran land and mineral assets. Canadian and U.S. developers helped rewrite the Honduran General Mining Law, and created the National Association of Metal Mining of Honduras (ANAMINH) to advance their interests in the nation. Under the new law, foreign mining companies have the right to subsurface land rights and tax breaks, marking a sharp change from the mining laws of the colonial era.[2]

Not surprisingly, mining—bolstered by foreign capital—has grown to be the dominant industry in Honduras. Foreign mining companies have done well under the new laws, with the Honduran government granting approximately 30 percent of Honduran territory in mining concessions.2 These companies, now owning a substantial portion of Honduran land, have a vested interest in the country’s politics. This is particularly true for Canadian mining corporations, which dominate the Honduran mining sector. According to the president of the ANAMINH, 90 percent of foreign mining investments in Honduras are Canadian.[3]

The Coup

Canadian mining corporations have a deep-rooted interest in keeping Honduran regulatory mining laws weak. These interests were threatened, however, when left-of-center candidate Manuel Zelaya was elected in 2006. Shortly after taking office, Zelaya announced his plans to reform the mining sector by restricting foreign mining companies in Honduras, distinguishing himself as a leader of an anti-foreign mining viewpoint. In May 2009, only a month before the armed forces ousted Zelaya, the Honduran Congress drafted a new mining bill. The bill was set to increase taxes on foreign mining companies, prohibit open-pit mining, and outlaw the use of toxic substances in mining activities. The bill would have required approval from local communities before mining operations went forward. However, Zelaya was forcefully removed from power on June 28, ending all discussion of mining reform.[4]

A Pointed Silence

After the coup, nearly every country denounced the removal of the democratically elected president. However, Ottawa remained silent and the Canadian media hardly reported on the political crisis.[5] According to Professor Tyler Shipley at York University in Toronto, Canadian reporters waited over twenty-four hours to report on the issue, even as international media immediately flooded into Honduras to report on the coup. When the Organization of American States (OAS) met to discuss the issue in July of 2009, Canada stood out again for its asymmetrical relationship with Honduras. Although most countries favored the return of Zelaya and the implementation of sanctions against the coup government, Canada argued that the international community had no grounds to intervene. Peter Kent, a minister of state for the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, wanted to restore democratic order with Honduras’ interim government and strongly opposed Zelaya’s return. In contrast, the U.S. ambassador claimed that the U.S. government would most likely move to suspend economic development and military assistance to Honduras.[6] However, behind the scenes, U.S. support for the coup government was key in keeping the new regime in power. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went as far as to criticize Zelaya for wanting to return to his own country, calling it “reckless.”[7] Nevertheless, Canada declined to condemn the coup and publicly supported the status quo, while most of the international community rejected the coup government.

Illegitimate Democracy

In November 2009, the Honduran government held its scheduled elections. However, only the United States, Colombia, Costa Rica and Canada argued that the elections were fully democratic.[8] Most nations dismissed the elections as an obvious attempt to retroactively provide legitimacy to the coup government. In the eyes of many onlookers, the elections left much to be desired in terms of legitimate electoral participation.

One of the major flaws of the election was the pressure placed on the political opposition. The coup government accomplished this through mass arrests, illegal detentions, and violence. International human rights organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (at the OAS) thoroughly documented these violations.[9]

In response to this widespread repression, more than 50 candidates for public office, including one would-be presidential candidate, removed their names from the ballot in protest against the interim government. Meanwhile, the coup government compiled the names of anti-coup activists and gave them to the military, which then threatened these leaders, making it difficult for protesters to unite against the fraudulent election.[10] Due to the lack of progressive candidates and political coercion, only 35 percent of the population voted, and 70 percent of voters were from Honduras’ wealthy neighborhoods.[11] This was not an election in which the poor were invited. In short, the election that brought President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo to power was far from democratic; nevertheless, countries such as Canada and the United States endorsed it.

Lie and Reconciliation Commission

After the coup and the fraudulent election, a dispirited Honduran society scrambled to return to normalcy. One of the primary ways Canada sought to help Honduras return to business as usual under the new government was by offering to help create a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The role of this commission was to investigate events surrounding the coup.

Shortly after President Lobo created the commission, Canada supplied funding and nominated Michael Kergin to be a commission member. Kergin had been a Canadian diplomat and employee of Bennett Jones, a Canadian corporate law firm that specializes in investment law and mining.[12] In spite of Canadian support, the commission was not recognized by any social or human rights organization that had spoken out against the military coup. Furthermore, the commission failed to consult the family members of victims that were tortured, murdered, and repressed by the post-coup government. [13] Therefore, the commission claimed to validate the post coup government without consulting the necessary parties.

Readmission into the OAS

Immediately following President Lobo’s inauguration on January 27, 2010, Peter Kent announced his support of the Lobo administration’s initiative to reintegrate the country into the international community, particularly into the OAS. Kent met with OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza on February 16 of that year to push the Canadian government’s goal of reinstating Honduras into the OAS. [14] After the OAS accepted Lobo’s administration, Canada further solidified its role as the government’s protector. In 2011, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper became the first foreign leader since Lobo’s inauguration to visit Honduras and meet with the President.[15]

Industrial Abuses

Critics have long held that Canadian involvement and investment in Honduras is plagued with corruption, and that the situation has only worsened since the coup. In particular, many criticize the manufacturing sector, which is Honduras’ second largest industry, for mistreating its workers. One of the industry’s worst offenders is Gildan Active Wear Inc., a Montreal-based textile manufacturer that laid off hundreds of Canadian workers in order to facilitate its move to Honduras in 2007. Gildan Active Wear Inc. is one of three dominant, low-wage sweatshop companies operating in Honduras. The company’s stated goal for the relocation was to improve its competitiveness and efficiency.[16]However, there is a darker side to its operations in Honduras. Many women working in Canadian-owned sweatshops have reported serious injuries caused by repetitive work in the factories. These injuries include musculo-skeletal problems and injuries sustained from major accidents, and they often leave women unable to work. Still, female workers must continue to feed and clothe their families while paying costly medical bills. According to Karen Spring with Rights Action, Gildan is aware of these atrocities; it has refused to provide compensation.[17] The company has also been accused of firing workers for attempting to unionize.[18][19]

Exploitive Tourism

Similarly, many criticize Canadian investment in Honduras’ tourism industry for its impact on the local population. One of the industry’s leading promoters is Randy Jorgensen, who is also the president of the Canadian pornography chain Adults Only Video and the owner of the real estate development company Life Vision Properties, based in Trujillo, Honduras. In 2007, Jorgensen and some local intermediaries purchased property illegally in the Bay of Trujillo, resulting in the expulsion of an Afro-Indigenous community known as the Garífunas from the region. Jorgensen has also acquired Garífuna land in other Honduran towns such as Santa Fe, San Antonio, and Guadalupe. Prior to the 2009 coup, local inhabitants had lodged formal complaints about these fraudulent purchases, but government authorities failed to intervene. Jorgensen used the chaos and the political instability during the coup to acquire environmental permits to construct villas on the hillsides overlooking the Caribbean in the protected area of Capiro and Calentura National Park. In spite of these offenses, Ramon Lobo Sosa, President Lobo’s brother, strongly supported Jorgensen. In 2011, Lobo himself praised the businessman in a cabinet session. To make matters worse, Jorgensen receives financial support from the Canadian Shield Fund, which itself receives funding from controversial mining companies Barrick Gold and the Canadian Oil and Gas Company. [20] These economic earnings come at the expense of factory workers and local inhabitants. Canadian investment in Honduras operates without restraint, and the industry’s ability to manipulate the Honduran economy and its local population only increases with time.

Free Trade Agreement

Once the chaos surrounding the coup quieted down, Canada made quick use of its newfound political capital and began discussing a free trade agreement (FTA) with the Honduran government. The Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement was signed into law on November 5, 2013, along with parallel labor and environmental cooperation agreements.[21] By June 2014, the Canada-Honduras Economic Growth and Prosperity Act—designed to implement the Free Trade Agreement—received royal acceptance. [22] According to the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development, “The Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement includes provisions on market access for goods, services (including financial services), investment and government procurement. Once the agreement is fully implemented, over 98 percent of tariff lines will be duty-free.”[23]

The free trade agreement is meant to create transparency and promote a rules-based commercial and investment environment. However, the Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement is a flawed agreement, benefiting only foreign corporations and those that support them, much like other FTAs in Latin America. For example, Gildan Activewear Inc. recently closed its last North American factory in Alabama as a result of the agreement and announced that it would be investing 100 million dollars into a new sock factory in Honduras.[24]

The corporation will increase investment and hire additional workers in Honduras, despite its failures to properly provide for its current employees. The agreement will lower taxes for Canadian corporations and encourage further investment, thereby increasing their power and influence in Honduras. Canadian companies are bound to benefit from the agreement while the Honduran population continues to suffer environmental and human rights abuses.

Expansion of the Oil Industry

Canadian investment and influence has expanded since the FTA was signed, as shown by Canada’s growing interest in oil development in the country. The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has been financing technical assistance to the hydrocarbon sector in Honduras as part of a larger project managed by the Latin American Energy Organization. The Canadian International Development Agency originally approved the project to set out a five-year plan that would start by reviewing the country’s oil and gas potential. Initial tests revealed that the land with the most hydrocarbon potential was offshore, in the inland region along the Caribbean coast, and in the Moskitia, a remote region in the northeast with a large indigenous population.[25]

Some indigenous organizations have voiced their opposition to expanding oil and gas activity in Honduras. A closer examination of the history of extractive industries in the region causes the indigenous communities to suspect that these industries will only benefit transnational corporations at the expense of local communities.[26] However, Canadian corporations now hold considerable political and economic clout in Honduras and will most likely profit off of these social losses.

The New Imperialism

Canada’s increasing dominance over Honduras is indicative of its shifting imperial role in Latin America and the international arena. Over time, Canada has increased its influence through subtle diplomatic and economic manipulations in Honduras. These political maneuvers include Canada’s response to the 2009 coup, its recently enacted free trade agreement, its manufacturers’ abuses, and its dangerous policies with regard to oil. Unlike the outright militant actions pursued by other superpowers in Latin America over the past century, Canada has increased its hold on Honduras without impactful restrictions on its industries in Honduras. Thus, Canadian relations with Honduras demonstrate a new, subtle, and insidious imperialism.

Special Thanks to Professor Tyler Shipley, York University Toronto, Ontario 

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

References

[1] “Mitch: The Deadliest Atlantic Hurricane Since 1780,” National Climatic Data Center, accessed July 16, 2014, http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/oa/reports/mitch/mitch.html

[2] Ashley Holly, “Shame on Canada, Coup Supporter,” The Tyee, July 9, 2009, accessed July 16, 2014, http://thetyee.ca/Views/2009/07/09/ShameOnCanada/

[3] Todd Gordon, “Military Coups are Good for Canadian Business: The Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement,” Global Research, March 3, 2011, accessed July 16, 2014, http://www.globalresearch.ca/military-coups-are-good-for-canadian-business-the-canada-honduras-free-trade-agreement/23492

[4] Jennifer Moore, “Canada’s Subsidies to the Mining Industry Don’t Stop at Aid: Political Support Betrays Government Claims of Corporate Social Responsibility,” MiningWatch Canada, June 2012, accessed July 16, 2014, http://www.miningwatch.ca/sites/www.miningwatch.ca/files/Canada_and_Honduras_mining_law-June%202012.pdf

[5] Dawn Paley, “Canada, Honduras and the Coup d’Etat,” The Dominion, January 8, 2010, accessed July 16, 2014, http://www.dominionpaper.ca/articles/3080

[6] Ginger Thompson and Marc Lacey, “O.A.S. Votes to Suspend Honduras Over Coup,” The New York Times, July 4, 2009, accessed July 16, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/05/world/americas/05honduras.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eric-zuesse/hillary-clintons-two-fore_1_b_3714765.html

[8] “Nations Divided on Recognizing Honduran President-Elect,” CNN World, November 30, 2009, accessed July 16, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/americas/11/30/honduras.elections/index.html?iref=24hours

[9] http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/11/25/the_sham_elections_in_honduras

[10] ibid

[11] Rory Carroll, “Honduras Elects Porfirio Lobo as New President,” The Guardian, November 30, 2009, accessed July 16, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/nov/30/honduras-lobo-president

[12] Todd Gordon, “Military Coups are Good for Canadian Business: The Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement,” Global Research, March 3, 2011, accessed July 16, 2014, http://www.globalresearch.ca/military-coups-are-good-for-canadian-business-the-canada-honduras-free-trade-agreement/23492

[13] http://hondurashumanrights.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/sweatshops-mining-tourism-free-trade-negotiations-canadas-involvement-in-honduras-support-for-the-post-military-coup-regime/)

[14] .( http://www.counterpunch.org/2010/03/19/canada-s-long-embrace-of-the-honduran-dictatorship/

[15] Todd Gordon, “Canada Backs Profit, Not Human Rights, in Honduras,” The Star, August 2, 2011, accessed July 16, 2014, http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/2011/08/16/canada_backs_profits_not_human_rights_in_honduras.html

[16] “Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement Will Deepen Conflict,” The Council of Canadians, February 13, 2014, accessed July 16, 2014, http://www.canadians.org/blog/canada-honduras-free-trade-agreement-will-deepen-conflict

[17] http://hondurashumanrights.wordpress.com/2011/01/24/sweatshops-mining-tourism-free-trade-negotiations-canadas-involvement-in-honduras-support-for-the-post-military-coup-regime/)

[18] “Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement Will Deepen Conflict,” The Council of Canadians, February 13, 2014, accessed July 16, 2014, http://www.canadians.org/blog/canada-honduras-free-trade-agreement-will-deepen-conflict

[19] Adrienne Pine, “Sweatshops, Mining, Tourism & “Free” Trade Negotiations,” Quotha, January 13, 2011, accessed July 16, 2014, http://www.quotha.net/node/1468

[20] http://www.wilderutopia.com/international/earth/honduras-mega-tourism-and-garifuna-communities-collide/

[21] “Canada-Honduras Free Trade Agreement,” Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, June 26, 2014, accessed July 16, 2014, http://www.international.gc.ca/trade-agreements-accords-commerciaux/agr-acc/honduras/index.aspx?lang=eng

[22] “Canada-Honduras Economic Growth and Prosperity Act Receives Royal Assent,” Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada, June 19, 2014, accessed July 16, 2014, http://www.international.gc.ca/media/comm/news-communiques/2014/06/19a.aspx?lang=eng

[23] Ibid.

[24] http://www.globalresearch.ca/military-coups-are-good-for-canadian-business-the-canada-honduras-free-trade-agreement/23492

 

[25] Sandra Cuffe, “Canadian Aid, Honduran Oil,” Upside Down World, March 24, 2014, accessed July 16, 2014, http://upsidedownworld.org/main/news-briefs-archives-68/4759-canadian-aid-honduran-oil

[26] (http://www.breakingthesilenceblog.com/general/the-media-coop-canadian-aid-honduran-oil-ottawa-funds-set-to-encourage-oil-investment/)

Open Season in Honduras on Indigenous Women Leaders

Lesbia Yaneth Urquía Urquía – member of COPINH – murdered July 5, 2016

By Phil Little  July 7, 2016

On March 3, 2016 the world was aghast with the news of the assassination of the celebrated Berta Cáceres, co-founder of COPINH (The Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras). Berta Cáceres had received over many years numerous death threats because of her work for the rights of the indigenous Lenca people, from whom she is descended. Berta followed the example of her mother, known as MamaBerta, and a long line of militant and active Lenca women who defied patriarchal powers and colonialism to defend their families, their land and their people. Berta Cáceres was listed on an assassination list revealed to an international observer, a visiting Spanish judge, during the fraudulent election process of 2013 which established, as designed by the U.S. embassy, the National Party as the government and Juan Orlando Hernandéz, a military general trained at the infamous School of the Americas at Ft. Benning near Columbus, Georgia, as President.

The Lenca people are the largest indigenous group in Honduras, whose origins are pre-colonial. They co-existed with the Mayan and other indigenous groups. The Lenca people have maintained many of their ancestral traditions and spirituality despite the powerful forces of assimilation of church and state. In some areas the Lenca people still preserved communal lands for cultivation of their traditional crops. However the recognition of indigenous rights has been resisted by the Honduran state and the families of the oligarchy.

In June 2016 it was revealed that Berta Cáceres was number 2 on an assassination list carried by a U.S. trained murder squad known as the Inter-institutional Security Force (Fusina). One of the 5 persons arrested and jailed in Honduras for the assassination of Berta Cáceres is Major Mariano Díaz Chávez, a graduate of the U.S. trained Tesón squad, and at the time of Cáceres murder was still an active member of the military.  There is also a link to a specially trained taskforce known as the “Xatruch” which is partially funded by the more than $200 million provided by the U.S. as military aid. While the members of the assassination squad have been supposedly identified, the government blocks further investigations that would lead to the main conspirators who paid US$50,000 to kill Cáceres.

Less than two weeks later, on March 15 an associate of Berta Cáceres and an active member of COPINH was also assassinated. Nelson García, 38 years old, was returning to his home after attending the scene of a violent eviction process affecting the community of Río Chiquito, in the same mountainous region where the Honduran dictatorship has granted concessions to foreign and national investors to build dams on every river of the area. In Río Chiquito the homes of the villagers were destroyed in order to force the people off of their ancestral lands. Since 2010 more than 120 environmental investigators and defenders were assassinated in Honduras, making it the most dangerous country in the world for those who defend the land and the environment.

It is in this context that the most recent assassination occurred on July 5, 2016, just four months after the murder of Berta Cáceres which focused the international spotlight on Honduras. In the evening of July 5, 2016 Lesbia Yaneth Urquía Urquía left her home with her bicycle as she regularly did but failed to return. A search by friends and family ended near a garbage dump where the lifeless body of Yaneth was found with obvious head wounds from what police have described as a machete blow.  Yaneth Urquía was a small business owner in the small town of Macala, and was a known activist of the same peasant and indigenous group COPINH, co-founded by Berta Cáceres.

Berta Cáceres received the prestigious Goldman Award for environmental activists because of her stalwart defense of the Gualcarque River, considered by the Lenca people as a sacred waterway. A foreign consortium, involving well connected Honduran political and oligarch elites, were involved through the DESA corporation in the construction of the Agua Zarca dam, a hydro-electric project designed to support mining projects in the country. The international consortium (Dutch, German, American and even the Canadian “Blue Energy” company) employed the military unit of TIGRES, an efficient murder squad of the Honduran military, disguised as “security guards”. The municipal government which supported the Agua Zarca project is composed of members of the National Party, the ruling national government of Honduras.

Lesbia Yaneth Urquía Urquía was a woman activist in a country with an extremely high rate of femicide which was described by the W.H.O. as reaching “epidemic” proportions.  At a rate of 12 per 100,000 population the number of murders of women is among the highest in the world. It is said that “men are killed for what they are doing, but women are killed for being women”.  In Honduras impunity is the norm and 94% of homicides remain without even an investigation. In the past decade an average 440 women are killed each year; that is a woman is killed every 18 hours in Honduras. Just being a woman activist put Yaneth Urquía in danger.  The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a powerful denunciation of the State of Human Rights in Honduras with a report dated December 31, 2015 (Doc 42/15).  (The official homicide rate is said to be 79/100,000 but it is strongly suspected that the official tally low balls a much higher rate that could be closer to 112/100,000 as in 2014). The Commission Report stated:

Human rights defenders in Honduras are targets of attacks by those who have been identified as responsible for rights violations, and by sectors and groups with interests opposed to their causes. The risk of losing their lives or suffering harm to their integrity has caused a great many human rights defenders in Honduras to have precautionary measures granted by the Commission that require implementation on the part of the Honduran government. (Art.44)

 

The “precautionary measures” are important to understand. Human Rights workers, journalists, environmentalist, lawyers, and anyone in a position to question or expose government complicity or fault and who have received credible threats are identified as persons at risk. Public demonstrations of opposition to the oligarchy or the government too often result in arbitrary detentions, beatings, kidnapping, and frequently death threats. Berta Cáceres had been identified by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as a person needing these “precautionary measures” which would oblige the state to provide protection. It did not do Berta any good as it is obvious that the Honduran military were involved in her assassination and the intellectual authors of the crime reach to the highest levels of the government.

Lesbia Yaneth Urquía Urquía as well had been granted these “precautionary measures” but again it did not protect her. COPINH has denounced the murder of Yaneth Urquía as another “political femicide”. Yaneth Urquía was an active member of COPINH since the military coup of 2009 which eventually led to the dominance of the National Party and the dictatorship under Juan Orlando Hernandez.  Yaneth Urquía was active in opposition to the construction of another hydroelectric dam on the Chinacla River, which flows through traditional Lenca territory and is essential to the livelihood of peasant agrarian communities in the municipality of San José, La Paz.

This hydroelectric project on the Chinacla River known as “Aurora I” however is directly linked to the office of the President of the Republic through Gladys Aurora López who was elected as a Deputy to the National Congress in the fraudulent elections of 2013 and is the Vice-President of the National Congress. She is also President of the Central Committee of the “National Party” (CCPN). Gladys Aurora López and her husband Arnold Castro had been previously identified as having threatened community members and leaders who opposed the hydroelectric project on the Chinacla River.  The owner of the company behind the “Aurora I” hydroelectric dam is none other than Gladys Aurora López.

COPINH stated: “The death of Lesbia Yaneth is a political feminicide, and an attempt to silence the voice of those brave women who are courageously defending their rights and opposing the patriarchal, racist and capitalist system of their society”.

The assassination of Yaneth Urquía suspiciously comes in the context of what is supposed to be a period of “consultations” conducted by the government dealing with the approval of a proposed regulation of the rights of indigenous community to “Prior Consultation that is free and informed”.  This would be in accord with international standards and the rights of indigenous communities to their historical traditions and settlements. This assassination could be interpreted as a statement by the government that it does not want the consultation process to be negative to the interests of economic development, such as that of “Aurora I”.

The parallels to the assassination of Berta Cáceres are far too obvious not to consider. Many of those who have opposed the industrial developments on the rivers of the departments of Sta. Barbara and Sta. Rosa de Copan have opted to flee the area for fear of repression and harm to themselves or their families. Those who stand forward in leadership, such as Berta Cáceres, Nelson García, and Yaneth Urquía, brave the intimidations, false arrests, beatings, trumped up legal complaints, and death threats because they come from a different place where they feel connected to their indigenous ancestors and are nourished by a spirituality that connects them to the “land, the water and the corn”.  They did fear death, but more they feared betraying the “Madre Tierra” (Mother Earth) who gave them courage and life.

A killing in Honduras shows that it may be the world’s deadliest country for environmentalists

 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/03/03/prize-winning-environmentalist-berta-caceres-killed-in-honduras/
By Nick Miroff March 3

Honduran environmentalist Berta Caceres, second from right, attends a news conference with human rights activists in La Esperanza. (Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras via Agence France-Presse/Getty Images)

Prominent indigenous activist Berta Caceres was killed in rural Honduras early Thursday, marking a new low point for a country already ranked as the world’s most dangerous for environmental activism.

Caceres, a winner of the prestigious 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, was killed in her home about 1 a.m. by unknown assailants who forced their way inside, then fled, Honduran security officials said. Fellow rights activists said she was shot by two attackers.

The watchdog group Global Witness ranked Honduras, which has one of the world’s highest homicide rates, as the most deadly for environmental activism last year. Caceres had held a news conference last week to denounce the killing of four fellow activists who, like her, opposed the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project.

In awarding her the $175,000 Goldman prize — the award is given to activists from six regions — the organization cited her efforts to rally the indigenous Lenca people of Honduras and wage “a grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam.”

China’s state-owned firm Sinohydro, the world’s largest dam developer, had partnered with the Honduran company to carry out the project, but fierce protests led by Caceres blocked it.

“Let us come together and remain hopeful as we defend and care for the blood of this Earth and its spirits,” she said last year during her Goldman Prize acceptance speech. She continued her activism as an indigenous leader and was a fierce critic of the right-wing government of President Juan Orlando Hernández.

Caceres received frequent death threats and was assigned police protection, Honduran officials said. Security Minister Julian Pacheco said Caceres had recently moved to a different residence and had not notified local authorities.

A security guard assigned to her home has been taken into custody, Pacheco added, speaking at a news conference in the capital, Tegucigalpa.

Photographs in Honduran media showed Caceres’s body shrouded in plastic and loaded onto the back of a pickup truck this morning en route to a morgue.

Caceres, 45, had four children, said her nephew, Silvio Carrillo, a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. “We are devastated by the loss of our fearless Bertita,” he said in a statement on behalf of the family.

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“We ask the international community and human rights organizations around the world to put pressure on their leaders to bring about justice,” the statement said. “Her murder is an act of cowardice that will only amplify Bertita’s message to bring about change in Honduras and make this a better, more humane world.”

Carrillo, 43, said he was raised in Washington because his mother — Caceres’s sister — and his father, a lawyer, were forced to flee Honduras in the 1970s in the face of death threats.

“This kind of violence is the reason they had to leave,” Carrillo said. “Nothing’s changed.”

Plagued by drug violence, gang warfare and extreme economic inequality, Honduras is also one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists, LGBT activists and practically anyone who challenges powerful interests.

Leer en español.

GUSTAVO CASTRO was the sole witness to the murder on March 3 of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, the co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Movements of Honduras (COPINH). Castro, the director of Other Worlds, an environmental organization in Chiapas, Mexico, was also shot in the attack. After being barred from leaving Honduras, Castro was released on March 30 and has since settled in an undisclosed location. Last week he spoke by phone to The Intercept about the night of the murder and the reasons why environmental activism in Latin America is so dangerous.

Castro’s experience over the past month provides a remarkable glimpse into the Honduran justice system, which is notorious for its culture of impunity. In the months before her murder, Cáceres repeatedly said that she was being harassed by Desarrollos Energéticos, SA (DESA), the private energy company behind the Agua Zarca dam project, which she had vigorously opposed. After the murder, Cáceres’s family immediately pointed to DESA. On March 31, the Honduran public prosecutor’s office announced that it had seized weapons and documents from DESA’s office and questioned several employees.

Contacted for comment, DESA provided the following statement: “The board of directors of the company that is carrying out the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project has not given any declaration nor does it plan to do so until the authorities in charge of the investigation determine the causes and perpetrators of this regrettable incident that ended the life of the indigenous leader Berta Cáceres.”

What happened during your last hours with Berta Cáceres?

I arrived on March 1 in San Pedro Sula, and that day they put me up in another home that belongs to other COPINH members in La Esperanza. It had been years since I had seen Berta in person, although we had been in touch by email. I was there to facilitate a workshop on environmentalism. That day Berta said to me, brother, come to my house, I have internet so you can get in touch with your family. We spent a while talking, even discussing the threats that she had received in the past and in recent weeks — intimidation and threats to her safety by employees of DESA and people who seemed to be hit men contracted by DESA, the company behind the hydroelectric project called Agua Zarca.

And I said to Berta, this is a very isolated home, how is it that you live here alone? So I decided to stay the night. I started to get ready for the second day of the workshop, and she was in her room. At midnight, there was a loud bang on the door and immediately one hit man entered my room, and simultaneously another entered hers. Everything happened very quickly, within 30 seconds, in which simultaneously they assassinated her and shot me. They had clearly been following her and were expecting her to be alone, so I think it surprised them to find another person there and they didn’t know what to do, so they just shot me and ran away.

Were their faces covered?

I don’t know about the other one, but the one who shot me wasn’t masked. I wasn’t able to decipher his face well, but that’s the moment when I became the principal witness, and a protected witness.

When Berta told you that she had received threats from DESA and Agua Zarca, did she say at any point that the people threatening her were from Honduran state security forces? Or were they gang members, or just random individuals?

Human rights activists take part in a protest to claim justice after the murdered of indigenous activist leader Berta Caceres in Tegucigalpa on March 17, 2016. Caceres, a respected environmentalist who won the prestigious Goldman Prize last year for her outspoken advocacy, was murdered in her home on March 3, her family said. AFP PHOTO/Orlando SIERRA. / AFP / ORLANDO SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Human rights activists take part in a protest to claim justice after the murdered of indigenous activist leader Berta Cáceres in Tegucigalpa on March 17, 2016.

Photo: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

I don’t remember her saying anything like that. She did say they were employees, people in favor of the company. In fact when I arrived in Mexico, on March 30, the public prosecutor’s office in Honduras published a press release publicly linking the company to their line of investigation. In the press release they also announced that they had seized weapons and questioned some of the company’s people. But they didn’t want to get to this point. Before coming to that line of investigation, I got the impression they wanted to see if another line of investigation could be useful or believable for national and international public opinion, but that was impossible. Everyone in COPINH already knew the recent history, so they had no other option than to finally go after the company. I’m unaware of any advances they’ve had in this line of investigation.Over the last decade there were more than 100 murders of environmentalists in Honduras. And these conflicts are often linked to the army and the police. That’s part of the reality of Honduras. In this specific case, Berta said that the guilty party was the company. It was the company with which she had a strong and direct confrontation.

At first we were hearing that they questioned you, took you to the airport, and then suddenly told you that you couldn’t leave the country. Is this how it happened?

The whole process was confusing and handled poorly. I spent the first three or four days in constant legal procedures in La Esperanza. I could have refused several times, because one has the right to solicit a six-hour prevention order as a victim and a protected witness. Nevertheless I never used this instrument, and every time they asked me to take part in more legal procedures, I did — at any hour, in the middle of the night, whenever. So I went nearly four days without sleeping. I gave the statement for the attorney general, the statement for the public prosecutor, medical examinations, cross-examinations, photographic identification, etc.

And, yes, at first they said I could go. They always said, just one more thing, and then just one more thing, and then it finally seemed like everything was done and ready. They even prepared a helicopter for me to get back to Tegucigalpa on March 5. But because of weather conditions they weren’t able to land the helicopter, so instead they deployed a security detail to accompany me to Tegucigalpa by land. Later, the public prosecutor’s office claimed I was trying to escape, which was a huge lie.

So I arrived at the Mexican Embassy, where the ambassador and the consul bought me a plane ticket for March 6 at 6:20 a.m. But when we got to the airport, Honduran officials were waiting in hiding around the airport for me, as if this were necessary, as if this were a criminal matter and as if I weren’t a protected witness and a victim. It was so shameless. It felt like having an army at my heels. And the ambassador and the consul were with me. Suddenly eight or 10 people from the attorney general’s office and the public prosecutor’s office stood in front of the door and said that I couldn’t leave. They wouldn’t hand over any official document explaining anything. I know that this government is the result of a coup, but this game was so ridiculous that even they had to ask for apologies from the ambassador and me. What they did was totally unnecessary. And obviously they had to justify themselves before the national and international press by claiming they thought I was fleeing. Even then I could have said I was leaving. Because of a convention on penal matters between Mexico and Honduras, as a victim and a protected witness, I had the right to participate in the legal procedures from Mexico. I’m not a criminal — I’m a victim. But they forgot that.

They said, we need just one more thing. So I asked for more protection for the ride back: a bulletproof vest and more bodyguards. What they originally said they needed was more testimony, but what it ended up being was more cross-examination. At the end of the night they produced a document saying it was necessary for me to stay 30 days more. That was also illegal — the judge used arguments based on international human rights laws regarding suspects. When my lawyer argued they were violating my rights, the judge not only removed her from the case but furthermore suspended her ability to practice law for 15 days.

The government wanted me under its control. It has no laws that protect victims. Nor does it have regulations or protocols or a budget to protect human rights activists. Nor does it have regulations for protected witnesses. So they wanted me under their so-called protection where there is no law that obligates them to do anything. Which is why I stayed in the Mexican Embassy. But it was a month of horrible stress and tension, in which the government, with its complete lack of regulations or protocols, could easily accuse me of anything at any moment, show up with a judicial order, and the Mexican Embassy wouldn’t have been able to do anything. One week before I arrived in Honduras, the Judicial Commission had been dissolved, so there was no legal instrument with which I could defend myself. There was no commission before which I could denounce a judge who acted illegally, because that commission had been dissolved. So I found myself in total legal defenselessness — without a lawyer, because they suspended her. And it seemed neither international pressure nor the Mexican government could do anything. So it was a state of complete insecurity and a constant violation of my human rights.

Did they ever try to accuse you of anything officially?

There wasn’t anything explicit. There were rumors in the press that the public prosecutor’s office was trying to justify involving me in the crime in some way. But with the evidence and my declarations, it was simply impossible for them to invent such a farce. No matter how many circles they ran around the matter, they eventually had to go to DESA. They had no other option. I had the sense that they wanted to keep me there while they were trying to find something. It was a horrible uncertainty, because you have no lawyer. They have the ability to leave you totally legally defenseless.

HONDURAS - APRIL 04: A 745-foot-high dam under construction for a future power plant (Photo by David A. Harvey/National Geographic/Getty Images)

A 745-foot-high dam under construction for a future power plant in Honduras, April 4, 1983.

Photo: David A. Harvey/National Geographic/Getty Images

How do you explain the fact that opposing dams is interpreted as a threat?

This isn’t true only in Honduras — also in Guatemala, Mexico, Chile, etc. One of the reasons is that these dams mean flooding out huge swaths of jungle, forest, and indigenous and campesino lands. And this causes a strong reaction from these communities, because there are thousands and thousands of them displaced violently.

Another reason is that one of the most profitable businesses at the moment is the sale of electrical energy, especially in Latin America, because free trade agreements are opening huge investments for transnational corporations. And what does this mean? For example, free trade agreements allow major investors to put up factories, industrial parks, infrastructure, and mines, which all consume a ton of electricity and a ton of water. And bear in mind that one gold mine can use between 1 and 3 million liters of water every hour. That implies relinquishing the water that belongs to communities, their rivers, and their wells — using it to instead generate electricity for the big industrial corridors. So the sale of energy, and thus investments in energy, is one of the most profitable businesses for big capital. But that means entering into battle over territory with campesino and indigenous communities.

Additionally, with the Kyoto Protocol they’ve invented the stupid idea that dams make “clean energy.” Thus in order to gain carbon credits and reduce their greenhouse gases, wealthy countries started investing in dams. That’s why we have a world full of dam construction.

In Latin America almost every country has free trade agreements with the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and many also with Asia. This means changing your constitution, your environmental legislation that concerns water, energy and foreign investment, in order to adopt and facilitate these free trade agreements. If you don’t, companies sue. For governments, it’s easier to repress people than to pay damages and compensation to corporations. A good example is the case of the gold mine in El Salvador. El Salvador has had to pay millions to defend itself against a mining company before the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes. And we are talking about one mine. But imagine 10,000 or 15,000 — we are talking about thousands of mining concessions in the region. And to this if you add dams, and to that you add highways, ports, airports, mines, fracking, petroleum, huge shopping malls, tax-free zones, charter cities, huge elite tourist resorts — there are so many concessions.

If the human rights claims that activists make are actually upheld — contamination of water and land, violating previous and informed consent of communities — or if they kick out a company for dumping toxic waste into rivers, for murdering community members, for causing cancer around mining sites like we’ve seen in Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala — if governments have to do something about these human rights claims by kicking out the extractive industry, they’ll have to pay millions and millions of dollars that they don’t have. Each country would have to sell itself 20 times over to pay off the debt. So this is not easy to solve.

This leads to confrontation with communities. This will only deepen with things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and governments prefer to react by criminalizing citizen protest. Peaceful protest used to be a human right. Now they call it “terrorism,” “violence.” They’re criminalizing human rights.

In a recent interview, Hillary Clinton said that the coup in Honduras was legal. What do you think about this statement?

It seems to me that in the end, the government had to justify a way for another group to come to power. And Honduras’s legal antiquity allows you to make any argument you want. For example, one of the reasons they gave for overthrowing Zelaya was that he proposed to modify the constitution to allow for re-election. Which the current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, is now trying to do, to modify the constitution to allow for re-election for him next year. So that’s why I say it depends on how you want to see it. If Zelaya proposes it, it’s unconstitutional and he has to go. If the oligarchy and the global hegemony says it, it’s legal, it’s democratic.

How do you see your future? Or are you living more day by day right now?

More day by day. Many are asking me if I’m going to throw in the towel, if I’m like the boxer who can’t take any more and gives up. I say no, I’m picking that towel up. This struggle must continue. I am not alone. Across Latin America there are thousands of people who are criminalized, who are being persecuted and threatened for defending human rights, who are defending the well-being of our planet. We must realize that that no one is exempt from this criminalization. Like so many friends who have been murdered for resisting. But there are many of us, and we will carry on.

The voracious capitalism we face cannot continue as is, with its accelerated and extractionist logic that is finishing off our planet. I think our great challenge is to realize that other worlds are possible. We can build something different, something dignified and just. There is enough water for everyone. There is enough land, enough food for everyone. We cannot continue feeding this predatory system of capital accumulation in the hands of so few. That system is unsustainable. So from wherever we are — in the Americas, in Europe, in Asia — we will all be affected by this system. Sometimes it seems that the crisis doesn’t touch certain places, and sometimes we don’t make the structural link to capitalism with the crises that the U.S. and Canada and France and Spain face. But I hope that we realize this soon, because it will affect us all sooner or later. And I want to say that there is still time to do something. This is urgent.

Top photo: Activist Gustavo Castro at a news conference at the Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center in Mexico, April 4, 2016. Castro is a key witness in the March 3 fatal shooting of activist Berta Cáceres in Honduras.

A youth takes part in a protest seeking justice after the murder of indigenous activist leader Berta Cáceres in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, March 17, 2016.

Death Squads Are Back in Honduras, Activists Tell Congress

Apr. 12 2016, 7:35 a.m.

https://theintercept.com/2016/04/12/death-squads-are-back-in-honduras-honduran-activists-tell-congress/

THREE WEEKS AGO, Honduran activist Gaspar Sanchez spoke at a briefing on Capitol Hill, urging lawmakers to support an impartial investigation into the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres.

Cáceres had mobilized native communities to speak out against the Agua Zarca Dam, a hydroelectric project backed by European and Chinese corporations, before being killed by two unknown gunmen last month.

Last week, back in Honduras at a protest outside the Honduran Public Ministry in Tegulcigalpa, Sanchez unfurled a banner demanding justice for Cáceres’s murder.

When nearby soldiers saw him, they dragged him away from the crowd and brutally beat him, stopping only after the crowd of protestors came to his defense.

Sanchez is a member of the organization Cáceres founded, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). The group’s leadership believes that Sanchez’s assault was meant to send a message against speaking out internationally, and that if the crowd had not intervened, Sanchez would likely have been imprisoned.

But Honduran activists are refusing to stay silent.

Back on Capitol Hill, two days after the beating, a panel of human rights leaders hosted by Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., spoke to lawmakers about the dangers of speaking out against the U.S.-backed Honduran government.

Victor Fernandez, a prominent human rights attorney and lawyer representing the Cáceres family, insisted that her assassination was carried out by either the Honduran government or by “the paramilitary structure of companies.”

“Honduras is the victim of international theft due to its national resources,” said Fernandez, speaking through a translator. “What we have now is our natural resources — minerals, rivers, forest. Cáceres was killed because she was confronting the extractive model.”

Bertha Oliva compared the current situation to the early 1980s, when the CIA funded, armed, and trained Honduran government death squads that murdered hundreds of opposition activists.

Oliva founded the Committee for the Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH, by Spanish initials) in 1981, after government forces kidnapped her husband from their home. He was never seen again.

“When we first began in 1982, we faced death squads,” said Oliva, also speaking through a translator. “Now, it’s like going back to the past. We know there are death squads in Honduras.”

In 2009, a coup toppled Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, who had long been seen as a leftist threat to the interests of international corporations. In 2008, Zelaya blocked a series of hydroelectric dam projects, citing concerns raised by native Hondurans. Less than a year after he was deposed, the new government had already approved 40 dam contracts. When the current President Juan Orlando Hernández came to power in 2013, his slogan was “Honduras is open for business.”

The coup was accompanied by a huge rise in political violence. By 2012, state security forces had assassinated more than 300 people, and 34 members of the opposition and 13 journalists had disappeared, according to data compiled by Honduran human rights organizations. The political assassinations added to the emboldened violence from gangs and drug traffickers, making Honduras one of the most dangerous countries in the world. In 2012, Reuters reported that it had the highest murder rate of any country.

Although the murder rate has since declined, political violence in Honduras has continued. Since the end of 2012, at least 22 prominent environmental activists have been killed, according to Global Witness.

Due to the Honduran government’s abysmal human rights record, critics have called on the U.S. to stop supporting the coup regime.

Citing the flow of drugs as a rationale, the U.S. government gave at least $57 million in military aid to Honduras between 2009 and 2014, not including the tens of millions of dollars spent on U.S. military contracts in Honduras. The Pentagon has not released figures for 2015 or 2016.

The U.S. military also maintains a force of more than 600 troops in Honduras, as part of a program called “Joint Task Force Bravo.” U.S. Special Forces play a large role in training their Honduran counterparts. In February, the Wall Street Journal published a video report showing Green Berets teaching Honduran soldiers how to raid homes.

The U.S. also helps maintain at least 13 military bases in the country, three of which were built after the coup, according to David Vine, author of Base Nation.

Congress has placed restrictions on military aid to countries with poor human rights records, but the State Department rarely applies them. The “Leahy Law,” for example, requires the State Department to suspend military aid to any country that it determines “has committed a gross violation of human rights.” Congress has even singled out Honduras in State Department appropriations bills, requiring the Secretary of State to withhold aid if he finds the Honduran government did not “protect the right of political opposition parties, journalists, trade unionists, human rights defenders, and other civil society activists to operate without interference.” The State Department, however, is still sending aid.

Under the spending laws passed last year, Congress can withhold 50 percent of the military aid budgeted to go through the State Department.

Following Cáceres’s murder, 62 members of Congress also signed a letter calling on the administration to “immediately stop all assistance to Honduran security forces … given the implication of the Honduran military and police in extrajudicial killings, illegal detentions, torture, and other violations of human rights.” More than 200 activist organizations signed a similar letter, requesting Secretary of State John Kerry suspend military aid until an independent investigation into Cáceres’s murder is completed.

Panelists at the briefing last Thursday argued that the Honduran government should receive the condemnation, not the assistance, of foreign governments.

Fernandez, Cáceres’s lawyer, said, “This government produces so much corruption, it can’t just have subtle backing from world governments.”

When asked by The Intercept whether U.S. aid is contributing to human rights violations in Honduras, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner responded by condemning Cáceres’s murder. “We strongly condemn the murder of civil society activist Berta Cáceres,” Toner said, “and extend our deepest condolences to her family, friends, and the people of Honduras, who have lost a dedicated defender of the environment and of human rights.” The Pentagon declined to comment, deferring to the State Department’s response.