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Honduras: New attacks against human rights defenders

Thursday, April 21, 2016 – 12:36

Members of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) and other national and international organizations were attacked by unidentified armed people in the context of an international meeting celebrating the life of murdered human rights defender and leader of COPINH, Berta Cáceres.

On 15 April, a group of around 30 people, armed with machetes and stones, verbally and physically attacked members of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras, COPINH), as well as members of other international and Honduran NGOs. The members of COPINH and other organizations were gathered for the international meeting “Berta Cáceres Vive” celebrating the defender’s life. At least eight of the meeting’s participants were injured in the attack.

The armed people attacked COPINH members and other meeting participants while they were returning to Tegucigalpa from the Gualcarque River in Intibucá and Santa Bárbara provinces, where a ceremony for Berta Cáceres took place. A witness told Amnesty International that police officers present did not take any action to prevent the attack or to stop it. The police officers finally escorted COPINH members out of the area after international participants convinced them to react. For years, Berta Cáceres and COPINH have vocally campaigned against the construction of the Agua Zarca dam in the Gualcarque River.

This attack is the latest in a series of incidents since Berta Cáceres’ murder targeting her relatives and other members of COPINH. Amnesty International believes that these incidents amount to a campaign of harassment that is endangering COPINH’s members and Berta Cáceres’ relatives’ safety.

 

Please press the authorities

  • to take all appropriate measures to guarantee the safety of COPINH members and Berta Cáceres’ relatives in accordance with their wishes in order to fulfil their obligation to protect them as set by the precautionary measures granted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights;
  • to publicly recognize the legitimate and rightful work done by COPINH and all Human Rights Defenders in the country and to take other effective measures to stop their criminalization.

 

Send your messages to

 

Juan Orlando Hernández
Presidente de la República
Casa Presidencial
Bulevar Juan Pablo II
Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Email:             info@presidencia.gob.hn
Twitter:          @JuanOrlando
Salutation:     Dear President / Estimado Señor Presidente

 

Minister of Interior and Justice:
Héctor Leonel Ayala Alvarenga
Ministro del Interior y de Justicia
Edificio de la Hacienda (Principal)
Res. La Hacienda, Calle La Estancia
Bloque A-Lote 8 Edificio Z y M.
Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Email:             karlacueva144@gmail.com
Twitter:          @SDHJGDHN
Salutation:     Dear Minister/ Estimado Señor Ministro

 

Please send a copy to

 

Her Excellency Sofía Lastenia Cerrato Rodríguez
Ambassador for Honduras
151 Slater Street, Suite 805
Ottawa, Ontario K1P 5H3
Fax:                 (613) 232-0193
E-mail:           ambassador@embassyhonduras.hn
OR  correo@embassyhonduras.ca

 

COPINH
Email:             copinh@copinh.org  

 

Additional information

Members of COPINH and Berta Cáceres’ relatives have been targeted with harassment and attacks since Berta, leader and co-founder of COPINH, was shot dead on 3 March in her home in the town of La Esperanza, in the province of Intibucá, west Honduras.

The Attorney General’s Office called eight of the nine COPINH coordinators to testify about Berta Cáceres’ killing numerous times, in interrogations lasting for 12 or more hours. The authorities detained Aureliano Molina, one of the organization’s leaders, and released him 48 hours later without charges. On 8 March in San Francisco de Lempira, southwest Honduras, four armed men in plain clothes driving two vehicles without plates parked by a community radio station’s premises and took pictures of the people getting in and out. One of the armed men threatened a radio worker at gun point, then grabbed his phone and deleted the pictures he took to record the incident. The same week, community members saw other men driving cars without plates surrounding Aureliano Molina’s house and trying unsuccessfully to break into his home. On 11 March in La Esperanza, midwest Honduras, COPINH members reported seeing unidentified men monitoring the organization’s Casa de Sanación y Justicia (a shelter for women) and the Utopia Centre (a community centre). A car stood in front of the entrance of Utopia Centre late at night for several minutes. On 11 March, police officers took pictures of participants in a public demonstration demanding justice for Berta Cáceres in several cities of Honduras. An armed man in plain clothes followed one of Berta Cáceres’ daughters in a mall in Tegucigalpa, the capital, during the same week. 

COPINH has been fighting for over 20 years for Lenca Indigenous peoples’ rights. COPINH members have been campaigning for their right to free, prior and informed consent in relation to a proposal for a hydroelectric plant that might force them out of their ancestral lands since 2011. Its members continue to be targeted with threats and harassment in connection with their work.

Despite having been the subject of threats and harassment for years in connection to her human right’s work—for which she was granted precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—the investigation into Berta Cáceres’ death so far has appeared to minimize any link between the crime and her work as a Human Rights Defender.

Information made public by local law enforcement officers initially suggested the murder was the result of a robbery or a “crime of passion.” At the beginning of the investigation officials only called on members of COPINH to give testimony and the Mexican activist Gustavo Castro, who witnessed and was a victim of the crime; Honduran authorities temporarily barred him from leaving the country despite fears for his safety. On 31 March, the Attorney General’s Office informed they inspected Energetic Development (Desarrollos Energéticos S.A., DESA)’s offices, the company that is developing the Agua Zarca Project, and received testimony by its employees. 

On 7 March the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a new precautionary measure of protection in favour of all COPINH members and Berta Cáceres’ family on the grounds of the risks posed by their work defending human rights, environment and natural resources and their increased vulnerability situation after Berta Cáceres’ killing.

Why is Honduras the world’s deadliest country for environmentalists?

The environment is the new battleground for human rights, and activists are getting caught in the crossfire – particularly in Honduras, where two were killed last month

Thursday 7 April 2016 14.12 BST Last modified on Tuesday 12 April 2016Since her mother’s murder a month ago, Bertha Isabel Zuniga Cáceres has scarcely had time to grieve. The 25-year-old student is adamant that her mother, Berta Cáceres Flores, will not become just one more Honduran environmental activist whose work was cut short by their assassination.

“Development in Honduras cannot continue happen at the expense of indigenous peoples and human rights,” says Zuñiga Cáceres, who met today with members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and Honduran officials in Washington DC to call for an independent investigation into her mother’s killing. She also requested greater protection for her family and members of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, the human rights group her mother co-founded.

A growing chorus of voices, from civil society groups to members of the US Congress, have reiterated the need for reform in Honduras in the month since Cáceres was shot dead by assassins in her home. Cáceres, founder of the nonprofit watchdog group National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh), died less than a week after opposing a major new hydroelectric project. Her death was followed two weeks later by that of her colleague Nelson García. While a suspect has been identified in García’s death, local activists are accusing the government of a cover-up.

A well known leader from the Lenca indigenous community, Cáceres received international recognition – and threats – for her efforts to halt the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the sacred Gualcarque River. Last year, she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work to uphold indigenous rights.

A deadly place for environmentalists

Honduras now has the highest murder rate for environmental activists in the world, and conflict over land rights is the primary driver. Rampant inequality, a weak judicial system, cozy relationships between political and business elites and near total impunity for crimes against human rights defenders have contributed to 101 murders of environmental activists between 2010 and 2014, according to the British NGO Global Witness.

It’s an upward trend: there were three times as many killings in 2012 as a decade earlier, and 2015 is likely to be the deadliest year on record for environmental defenders in Honduras, according to Billy Kyte, author of a 2015 report by Global Witness spotlighting the dangers faced by activists.

“The environment is the new battleground for human rights, and disputes over land form the backdrop to almost all the killings,” says Kyte.

The Global North’s “rapacious demand” for natural resources is fueling conflict on indigenous lands throughout the developing world, says Kyte. But in Honduras, corruption, organized crime, political instability and increasingly militarized policing have created a particularly acute crisis.

Since the 2009 coup that ousted democratically-elected president Manuel Zelaya, the right wing Honduran government has aggressively promoted investment and development in mining, agri-business and large scale energy infrastructure projects. It has privatized land and water resources and removed barriers to large scale development projects, often at the expense of indigenous and Afro-descendant communities and small scale campesino farmers.

In large part to meet the mining industry’s enormous demand for energy, the government has granted dozens of hydroelectric dam concessions. Global Witness found that the developers often disregard the land rights of indigenous communities, which become targets of threats and violence. Powerful drug trafficking gangs are also known to use mining and agri-business projects for money laundering.

Honduras is a signatory to the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, which requires the free, prior consultation and consent of indigenous communities for projects that impact their traditional territories. But the country has a poor track record when it comes to upholding those rights, according to George Redman, Honduras country director for Oxfam.

It’s not uncommon, says Redman, for communities to first learn about a concession when the company shows up on their land to break ground. In recent years, the Honduran government has fast-tracked approvals for large projects, overlooking legal violations of indigenous rights.

That’s just what happened to the indigenous Lenca community of Río Blanco a decade ago when developers arrived unannounced one day to break ground on a massive dam project called Agua Zarca, a joint venture between the internationally-financed Honduran company Desarrollos Energeticos SA and China’s state-owned Sinohydro.

The Agua Zarca project had been approved despite the fact that it violated international treaties on the rights of indigenous peoples. Fearing for their sacred river, their land rights and their safety, Río Blanco appealed to Cáceres for help, who was subsequently recognized for her work to fight the project.

Agua Zarca has become emblematic of the Honduran government’s failure to address corruption, law enforcement abuses and land grabs.

“You have on the one hand poor indigenous communities up against some of the richest and most powerful people in the country who are also enjoying a degree of protection from Honduran security forces,” says Redman. “So it’s a very, very uneven playing field.”

Companies have been known to forge signatures on consent documents and engage private security contractors and government security forces to subdue protesters. Hours from the nearest cities and often lacking telephones and electricity, indigenous communities are often powerless to fight back.

Recent investigations have estimated that the vast majority of attacks and killings of human rights defenders in Honduras go unsolved.

“People involved in this kind of protection work, they always say, ‘We feel so vulnerable, at any minute we could just be murdered because of this culture of impunity,’” says Redman. “And the powers behind these kinds of investments are so strong”.

A call for reform

Since the killing of Berta Cáceres and Nelson García, international pressure has increased for the Honduran government to take stronger, more decisive action to strengthen protections for activists and uphold indigenous rights.

The very fact that someone of Berta Cáceres’s stature was killed indicates the grave risk faced by other Honduran activists who don’t have that recognition, says Adriana Beltrán, senior associate for citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America, a DC-based human rights advocacy organization.

“To have someone like Berta and Nelson García assassinated shows the fragility in Honduras,” says Beltrán. “It’s a test not only of capacity but the will of the Honduran government and authorities to investigate these types of attacks and killings against environmental and other human rights defenders.”

Speaking on the floor of the US Senate last month, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt) called on the Honduran government to cancel the Agua Zarca concession. He criticized the administration of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández for failing to deliver on a promise made to defend human rights while lobbying last year for a significant share of the $750m in US aid allocated for regional security.

Two weeks after the Cáceres assassination, 62 members of Congress sent a letter to US secretary of state John Kerry and secretary of the treasury Jacob Lew urging them to press the Honduran government to grant an independent international investigation into her death, fund a system of protection for activists and permanently stop the Agua Zarca project.

The letter also urged a review of US security assistance, including aid allocated for training of Honduran security forces. It furthermore called for a review of US-backed loans for Honduran development projects from institutions like the World Bank, InterAmerican Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

On 25 March, 11 US senators led by Senator Ben Cardin sent a letter to Kerry reiterating support for the participation of the IACHR in the investigation of Cáceres’ death. The letter requested that USAid funding be provided to support a program, approved by the Honduran Congress last year, to protect human rights defenders, trade unionists and journalists.

A long road ahead

The family of Cáceres says the response from the US State Department in particular has so far been insufficient to call Honduras to account for the entrenched corruption.

“We’re trying to get people to understand that these are oligarchs who put their friends in strategic places to control the message,” says Silvio Carrillo, a nephew of Berta Cáceres, who traveled to Washington this week.

“We want [the US State Department] to say that they are not confident in the Honduran government – they have no track record and it’s clear that they are not going to produce the proper investigation,” he says.

There’s also a need for companies doing business in Honduras to show greater responsibility for community rights, says Marcia Aguiluz, program director for Central America and Mexico at the Center for Justice and International Law, which accompanied the Cáceres family before the IACHR this week.

“It’s not enough to find out who killed Berta,” says Aguiluz. “I would say it’s important for the international community to understand the conflicts going on in Honduras.”

Following García’s murder on 16 March, the Dutch development bank FMP, which had provided financing for Agua Zarca, announced an immediate suspension of all operations in Honduras. The company said it would send a delegation to communities affected by the project and promised a thorough investigation of all its projects in Honduras. A second major investor, Finnfund, quickly followed suit.

“There is still a [corporate] culture of ‘why do we have to take into account the rights or concern of poor rural communities?’” says Redman. “There’s a discourse that says: this is good for the development of the company, so if you have to stop on a few toes, that’s too bad.”

The Lethal Arms of the Drug War in Honduras

On December 28, 2015 in the early morning, the Honduran Navy shot and killed two Afro-Indigenous Garifuna men, Jostin Lino Palacios, age 24 and Elvis Garcia, age 19 in Barra de Iriona in the department of Colon, on the northeast coast of Honduras.

Immediately, the Honduran Armed Forces issued a communiqué stating, “During an anti-drug operation, the occupants of the two cars began firing against the naval patrol which as a result left one civilian dead and one wounded. It happens repeatedly since special operations began, that they fire on Navy patrols upon being discovered moving drugs.” Later they said the victims were caught in a crossfire between the Navy and narco-traffickers.

Still later they had to eat their words. A survivor of the attack, Jefferson Martinez, father of one of the dead said, ““We were heading toward the community of Limon, carrying ice and other products to sell when we got to Iriona and got stuck in a sandbar. We called some compañeros to help get us out. Two cars arrived and they pulled us out when we were attacked.” Arnulfo Mejia, ex-Mayor of Iriona who was driving one of the three cars stuck on the beach said, “The agents came out of a pasture. There were approximately 20. It was a miracle that we’re alive. There were women and children in the cars.”[i]

The incident was followed immediately by a wave of protests by residents in Iriona including the burning of a military vehicle. Then on January 5, the Honduran government filed charges against seven soldiers from the Naval Base in Puerto Castillo, on Trujillo Bay. Then it granted them bail.[ii]

The public outcry over the killings is no doubt why the soldiers were charged, but where are the charges against officers? No doubt there is great skepticism that anyone will be convicted. The Garifuna organization, OFRANEH, commented, “The criminalization of the Garifuna people by government officials and the military is no more than a smoke screen to hide the alliance of mayors, judges and narcos.”

In January, 2016 a delegation from Kansas City’s Cross Border Network and the San Francisco Bay Area’s Task Force on the Americas, both members of the Honduras Solidarity Network, visited northern Honduras to investigate land grabs by the hotel and palm oil industries and the impact of our 40 year-long drug war on the people. We were in Trujillo and decided to go talk to the Honduran Navy at the Puerto Castillo base, a base frequented by U.S. military personnel. We were welcomed in by Captains Ernesto Avila and Juan Antonio de Jesus.

They told us their principle responsibility is to patrol the coast for drug smugglers from close to the Nicaragua border to Trujillo Bay. They patrol marine, land and air looking for planes flying in from Colombia and traffickers moving cargo to boats for transportation to the US. Ten months out of the year ten American Marines are there to train Hondurans in tactical operations, physical training, and weapons. Special U.S. Navy units also come there as do 20-30 trainers from Colombia. At the time of our visit, the U.S. had three helicopters at the base.

We asked Capt. de Jesus if he thought they were making progress in the drug war. He said, “In the last two years, drug traffic has been reduced a lot . . . We are making progress in our space, but now they’re going other ways.” He said drug traffic had moved to the Pacific coast, or they go directly to the U.S.[iii]

As for the two men killed in Iriona, De Jesus readily admitted that it was his men who did it and added only that they were investigating. What happened “is no good for anybody. Sometimes there can be a mistake.”

Some context on the U.S. drug war

The presence of U.S. training teams and proliferation of at least eight[iv] American bases in Honduras under cover of the drug war has been little noticed at home, but it is the latest phase in a history which began over a century ago with gunboat diplomacy and Honduras as the banana republic. At least since 1954 Honduras has served as the fulcrum of U.S. power in Central America and the Caribbean. Our government has leveraged regime changes, engaged in counterinsurgency and low intensity warfare, and narcotics interdiction. In a 2015 article, Fred Alvarado writes,

“Strategically well-located at the center of Latin America and the Caribbean, Honduras has become an important American military platform, operating as a center for advanced tactical training and joint military operations under the Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM). From the Honduran coast, foreign military forces are able to control the Caribbean and carry out regional monitoring along maritime borders of Colombia, Mexico, Grand Cayman, Nicaragua, Cuba, Belize, Guatemala and Jamaica.” [v]

In the 1980s, the U.S. staged the Contra War in Nicaragua from Honduras and trained and armed the Honduran military for domestic terrorism. The U.S. financed this illegal war by shipping cocaine in league with Honduran military officers.[vi] Since 9/11, as part of the global war on terror, the U.S. has been remilitarizing Mexico and Central America, citing narcotics trafficking as a threat to the security of American citizens. Like Plan Colombia and Mexico’s Merida Initiative, the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI – 2008) has poured in millions of dollars to militarize control of narcotics trafficking while criminalizing campesinos and anyone who dissents.[vii]

The latest plan, in response to the surge of refugees from Central America’s Northern Triangle, is more of the same. It’s called the Biden Plan, a $750 million component of the new Alliance for Prosperity, partnering with the Inter-American Development Bank, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. It’s modeled on Plan Colombia. The Biden Plan’s first proposal is security.[viii] An analysis of its budget reveals a doubling of money for International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement. $349 million is going to CARSI.[ix] The rest calls for fighting government, police and military corruption and economic development. The former will necessitate government cooperation – a tall order for Honduras whose police and military routinely violate human rights, and whose government is corrupt and rife with cronyism – and the latter is based on the same neoliberal model that is wiping out worker protections and privatizing vast stretches of the land and economy, and natural resources.

The Ahuas Massacre

 

Our skepticism about a conviction in the Iriona murders was fueled by our experience on a delegation in May, 2012 when several of us went to the remote village of Ahuas in the Mosquitia to investigate the killing of four indigenous Miskito people and wounding of four others at the hands of Honduran police and a U.S. FAST team[x] under command of the DEA’s Honduras chief, James Kenney. Those killed were all traveling in a pipante, a passenger boat headed for Ahuas. They included two pregnant women, a 14 year-old boy and the boat’s 21 year-old co-pilot. None were drug traffickers. The killers were aboard four helicopters owned by the U.S. State Department. After shooting at the boat, the helicopters landed and held the wounded and family members at gun point for hours while they collected cocaine aboard a different boat. The helicopters then flew away, leaving dead and wounded in the water. To date, the U.S. government has failed to complete its investigation or admit its mistake, and the survivors and families of the dead have received neither justice nor compensation.

Our delegation went to the island of Roatán to meet with families of the Ahuas victims. There we met Sabina Lucas, mother of Wilmer Lucas who was fourteen at the time and was shot, Brenly and Yani Trapp, whose mother Candelaria Trapp Nelson was killed, and, Edmor Anthony Brooks Wood whose brother Hasked Brooks Wood was killed.

We met at our hotel, an enchanting beach resort, but the stories we heard were dismaying. Sabina, came to Roatan from Ahuas to work at age 14 after her father died. Life has been a real struggle. She’s a single mom. Her son Wilmer was going to Ahuas with Hasked, his best friend, and Hasked’s mother Clara to visit his grandmother. Wilmer was shot in the right hand, fracturing several bones. She said, “The hospitals were terrible. They wouldn’t operate on Wilmer until a specialist arrived. We had to wait 32 days.” Sabina had to leave her job in a shrimp factory to care for him. Today, after a second surgery, paid for by a US religious group, and two years of physical therapy, his arm still has limited movement. He can move his fingers but his hand is weak and the muscles are atrophied. She thinks he needs more physical therapy, but there’s no money for doctors. Wilmer is still suffering trauma from the attack. Sabina said Wilmer is changed since the incident. “He angers easily. Two weeks ago he witnessed an accident in the street. He got so upset he almost fainted, his heart beat so rapidly.” She added, “We want justice, but there’s no money for lawyers.”

Edmore Anthony Brooks Wood is 29. He said he was representing his mother, Clara who was in the boat that night with her son Hasked. “It’s difficult to talk about my brother, Hasked. It makes me very sad. My mother goes to the cemetery every day and cries. She is not the same as before.” He said the authorities dug up Hasked’s grave to test the bullets. They couldn’t identify them as having come from the Honduran police guns.

A man came to find Clara and said the gringos wanted her. They took her to Tegucigalpa and gave her a lie detector test. He was an American. She thinks he was a handler for the DEA. Clara said killing Hasked wasn’t enough. They also had to pressure her to lie (meaning say that someone on the pipante was a narco trafficker). She was harassed with calls. She changed her number. She was followed.

Edmore said, “The politicians are running the drugs. We want justice. It would help my mother.”

Candalaria’s son Brenly Trapp is 24. Yani, is 23, the oldest daughter. After their mother was killed at Ahuas, all six brothers and sisters had to come to Roatán because there’s more work there. Candalaria was a single mother. She and Brenly supported all the kids. Brenly said, “What hurts me most is that my mom had worked very hard to keep the kids in school.” Brenly didn’t graduate, and all the kids had to drop out. “I am the only worker. Yani takes care of the kids.” “The work here is only temporary; sometimes one month, sometimes 15 days, or just a week.”

The Trapps have received no compensation, not even scholarships so they could go back to school. We asked, “What do you want?” He said, “We want support for our people. We want something that stops this. The US government has the power to stop this; to stop our government.”

Brenly and Yani took us to their room in a row of rooms housing several families. It was in a swamp, and water was running across their doorstep. It was so crowded, dark, and fetid, that we could hardly stand to be there.

Yet despite efforts by Senator Patrick Leahy, the investigation has stalled because the DEA refused to turn over evidence to Department of Justice investigators.[xi] So after nearly four years there’s no accountability for the killings and maiming at Ahuas, and more and more victims of our war on drugs pile up. Our organizations will work to help all the Ahuas survivors and families stay united and strong until they get justice.

Vallecito: The Power of Solidarity

On the last day of our tour we went to Vallecito. Here the insanity of the drug war meets the firm resistance of the organized Garifuna. They are reclaiming Vallecito to keep narcotraffickers, palm oil barons, and others interested in resource exploitation from encroaching on their land. It’s a place with a vision for the future of the Garifuna people where they can pass on their amazing culture and language to their children, with space for communities dislocated by the rising sea. We met a traditional healer, Selvyn Lopez, who was boiling herbal medicine in a giant pot. We visited a huge building they’d constructed, destined to become a school to teach agriculture and the Garifuna language and culture. We saw people happy, hard at work, and full of plans. They were about to celebrate their New Year the next day and plan on a big conference of up to a thousand this summer.

In Vallecito we met Miriam Miranda, the General Coordinator of OFRANEH. She gave us a tour to see a landing strip where narcotraffickers landed planes coming from Colombia. The Garifuna hold title to a vast tract of land at Vallecito. They discovered that it was being used as a transit point for drugs and was heavily guarded. They were barred from entering. So in 2011 they began to reclaim their property. In January 2014 they got the government to dynamite the airstrip, blasting six craters that would prevent planes from landing, but they did nothing to prevent , the narcotraffickers from coming back. In July, before Garifuna moved in, they saw local campesinos cutting pine trees to fill in the craters. In Vallecito the narcotraffickers control the local authorities, the police and military, and the campesinos. Miriam describes what happened next:

“We came back the next morning and a crater was totally filled with pine trees but no dirt yet and another was half filled. Around 7:30 we walked back to where our car was, and a car with tinted windows approached. Several armed men sicarios – with bulletproof vests got out. They had nothing covering their faces. We realized they planned to kill us. The chief ordered everyone to gather together. They wanted all our cell phones, but someone was able to make a call. Within minutes the authorities began to get calls and emails demanding our release. There was lots of international pressure, and they released us about 9:30 am. It was very hard. We’re so isolated here and we’re surrounded by Miguel Facusse’s African palm plantations[xii]. This is a zone of resistance against African palm. . . This area is important for the government, especially for a Model City and for the extension of African palm into this area. Also, they suspect that there’s oil here. Studies have been done. . When you live in a narco state, it’s dangerous. If you don’t abide by what they want, you put yourself at risk . . . That’s why international solidarity is very important for us, and every time groups visit and learn about our struggle there are more voices to counter the government’s statements that everything is OK.”

What we saw in Honduras, despite the fear, were people protesting, fighting back and struggling for justice. We also saw the ugly international face of our endless War on Drugs. The U.S. plays whack-amole pushing narcotics trafficking from country-to-country and innocent people die. While there’s plenty of evidence of this war’s failure, it continues because it keeps feeding the interests and profits of politicians, the prison industry and the military-industrial complex. The war on Hondurans is mostly invisible to Americans. We only see the blowback in the thousands of desperate women and children washed up on our borders. So we send more military trainers, more guns and ammo, more helicopters. And, of course, it’s a sham, a cover for maintaining a corrupt government and the U.S. strategic grip on Central America.

Yet, we were inspired by the resistance and hunger for justice that we saw. We will tell their stories, but we know that it’s going to take all of us: Hondurans and Americans to end the drug war.

This essay was originally published by Americas’ Program.

Judy Ancel is a member of the Cross Border Network, Kansas City info@crossbordernetwork.org

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.