Archive for the ‘Honduran military death squads’ Category

The Flame of Opposition in Honduras

As Honduras deals with the fallout of political scandals surrounding President Juan Orlando Hernández, ousted former president Manuel Zelaya and his LIBRE party mount their opposition.

September 5, 2019

Military police at a student protest in June (Photo by Seth Berry)

Military police at a student protest in June (Photo by Seth Berry)


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Manuel Zelaya, Honduras’s ousted ex-President, eased into the couch in the headquarters for his LIBRE party and laid out the opposition’s mounting insurrection.

This summer marked 10 years since Zelaya was overthrown in a U.S.-backed military coup. The decade since has transformed Honduras, exacerbating the Central American nation’s preexisting social problems by turning it into one of the poorest, most violent places in the hemisphere. Since the coup, a junta of right-wing, billionaire drug traffickers has slipped into political power—including President Juan Orlando Hernández, who U.S. prosecutors recently accused of complicity in a drug money scheme to illegally fund his 2013 presidential campaign.

“Ever since 2009, when they got rid of me,” Zelaya said, “an authoritarian military regime was installed that centralized power, sacked the [government’s] institutions and indebted the country to remain in power. The regime only represents the interests of transnational corporations. And as long as [Hernández] serves them, the United States is going to continue supporting him, regardless of the accusations.”

On August 9, Zelaya and his left-opposition LIBRE party organized a demonstration in Tegucigalpa’s Parque Central to demand the immediate resignation of Juan Orlando Hernández (or “JOH,” as he’s commonly known).  But the battle LIBRE waged this summer wasn’t only in the streets. It’s also in the National Congress, through a proposed “electoral reform” designed to fix a democracy many believe has been corrupted beyond repair.

“The electoral reform is an instrument for elections,” Zelaya said. “And because the [current] regime refuses to do it, we’re going on in an insurrection, which is a peaceful but active protest, in the streets and the Congress.”

The electoral reform consists of the creation of two main bodies, the Tribunal Electoral Justice and the National Electoral Council. Carrying 44 representatives from each main party, they would oversee the next election cycle. This could potentially augur radical change in the electoral processes in Honduras, as the two proposed bodies would entirely replace the TSE (Tribunal Suprema Electoral, or Supreme Electoral Tribunal), the judicial body which became notorious for legitimizing the fraudulent elections in 2013 and 2017.

For many members of the opposition, the hope for a democratic defeat of JOH is juxtaposed with the cynicism the last 10 years have corrupted Honduran democracy beyond the point of repair.

“The truth is that no state institution is functioning as it should—none. Not even the Congress in which we work. Because it’s corrupted, because narcotraffickers have penetrated the majority of state institutions,” said Lenín Laínez, a congressman for LIBRE. “The legislative insurrection that we’re waging in the national congress is precisely for that.”

Zelaya and LIBRE compose only one part of a wide-ranging, fractured opposition movement though. That opposition remains divided over their post-JOH vision for the country. Opposition leaders like Zelaya have also faced criticisms for being mere manipulators of electoral politics rather than consistent fighters for social justice. Even so, one thing unites the opposition: The country can no longer wait for the 2020 election to get rid of the president.

Ousted president Manuel Zelaya (Photo by Seth Berry)

Ousted president Manuel Zelaya (Photo by Seth Berry)

The Battle Against Privatization

For many Hondurans, the boiling point after ten years of “narco-dictatorship” came with Hernández’s latest proposal for privatizations.

In late April, Hernández announced a sweeping plan to privatize Honduras’s public health and education systems, while the government simultaneously agreed to a $311 million loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Rage accumulated over years of frustration with Hernández’s governance transformed the anger over privatization plans into an all-out demand for the president’s resignation. Health workers took to the streets alongside teachers to protest the proposal, where they were joined by a broad range of students and environmental, LGBTQ+, and Indigenous rights activists. The protests came just years after a $300 million corruption scandal in the dilapidated public health system took thousands to the streets for weeks in 2015 to demand JOH’s resignation. The president admitted millions in embezzled funds benefited his 2013 electoral campaign. Teachers, meanwhile, have long been on the front lines of post-coup resistance, holding the line against creeping privatization.

“This attempt to privatize health and education was received with enormous resistance,” said José Carlos Cárdona, a leader of the human rights group Jóvenes Contra el Fraude and a history professor at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH).

Cárdona believes that the attempted privatizations came after years of deliberately underfunding hospitals and schools in order to sell the idea that they’d function better if only they were turned into profit machines.

“But the people don’t believe that,” he said. “So all of the doctors declared themselves to be in rebellion against the government.”

Protests soon turned ugly. Night after night, massive crowds of protesters burned tires throughout Tegucigalpa, shouting Fuera JOH! (Get out JOH), and drawing the ire of security forces, who responded by raining down barrages of teargas on them—or occasionally, live bullets. On June 21, President Hernández dispatched the military throughout the country to crack down on protests.  On June 24, the military invaded the UNAH and opened fire on students, injuring eight.

“It was a day you couldn’t forget,” said Dorian Alvarez, a sociology student and activist at the UNAH. “The entire university was protesting, basically. There were several confrontations between the police and students in which the police broke inside. And once they got in, they started shooting the students.”

“I was leaving class when they started shooting at us,” said Wendy García, another student activist at UNAH. “There were completely innocent people who had nothing to do with what was going on outside.”

For poor students such as García, the privatizations would all but preclude them from being able to study. “To be able to study is extremely costly,” she said. “I’m one of the few people from my village who was able to go to the university, but none of us would be able to come if the public university were privatized.”

“Our role now,” said Alvarez, “is to protect the university from the claw of the neoliberal system trying to eat it up.”

Student protests in the name of defending public education against creeping fees and undemocratic university decision-making processes have been bubbling at UNAH for years.

The violent crackdowns on protest weren’t limited to Tegucigalpa. Anabell Melgar, a student activist and member of Frente Nacional de Juventudes en Resistencia (National Front of Youth in Resistance), had been approaching a protest on the afternoon of June 12 in La Esperanza, Intibucá, the mountainous western city where Berta Cáceres, the world-renowned environmentalist, was assassinated. Sensing that teargas would soon be fired at at the protest ahead of her, Melgar stayed back—only to be captured and beaten by four police officers.

“One took me by the hair,” she said. “Another, my arms. Another came with a club, and beat me in the legs. Another had a teargas canister. He set it off, and put it against my face. He burned me; burned my face.”

Student protests in August (Photo by Seth Berry)

Student protests in August (Photo by Seth Berry)

When she was finally able to escape after a senior officer forced the other four to let her go, Melgar got away and hid in a nearby house, where she watched as several hidden patrols of police ambushed a crowd of students as they fled from the initial demonstration, opening fire on them.

“They were able to escape and run,” she said. “But the five patrols caught them afterwards. Not just with teargas. They shot at them with live ammunition.”

Violent crackdowns have become characteristic of the JOH regime. At least 33 were killed by security forces in protests in the weeks of violence following the December 2017 electoral fraud. And many worry as protesters have faced increasingly bloody crackdowns with the creation of special military police units, such as the notorious Policía Militar del Órden Público (Military Police for Public Order, PMOP) in 2013, which was accused of killing protesters in 2017 and 2018. The creation of such special forces—including the U.S.-trained, SWAT-style TIGRES in 2013—exacerbates the human rights situation in a country where the military has patrolled the streets for years and has been accused of death squad activity against anti-government protestors.

“Military policemen are ex-members of the national army. The government created a special course to be able to call them military ‘police,’ and then dispatch them to maintain ‘public order,’” said Mario Argeñal, a leader in COPEMH, Honduras’ largest union, as well as LIBRE. He has been involved in anti-government protests in the 10 years since the coup. “It’s a disguise. It’s the military in the streets. It’s a highly militarized society.”

The Electoral Reform

Honduran democracy, some would say, is already doomed to failure.

But recognizing that doesn’t prevent people like Lenín Laínez, a 24-year-old representative for the LIBRE party, from believing that the best—and the only—way to fight the regime is by working through the corrupted system itself.

Laínez is one of LIBRE’s two diputados for the Intibucá department—the other is Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, daughter of the murdered environmentalist. He is also the youngest member of Honduras’s National Congress, and speaks glowingly of the electoral reform. He holds faith that the peaceful route of elections and electoral reform can oust JOH. But that faith seems overwhelmed by bitterness over the depth of government corruption. It’s the reason, he says, so many have taken to the streets in often, volcanic displays of anger.

Protests in June (Photo by Seth Berry)

Protests in June (Photo by Seth Berry)

The latest blow came in November and December 2017, when JOH’S conservative Partido Nacionál (National Party) was widely suspected of stealing an election they’d already lost.

For people like Laínez, JOH’s fraudulent 2017 reelection stung particularly deep, not only because a democratic opening was lost, but because it was the latest in a succession of similarly corrupted elections. The opposition alleges JOH already stole the 2013 election from inaugural LIBRE candidate Xiomara Castro, wife of Manuel Zelaya. Salvador Nasrallah, the 2017 candidate for the opposition coalition between LIBRE and other smaller forces, also ran against in 2013 and alleged at the time JOH’s win was illegitimate.

“To participate in an electoral system without transparency is to certify the dictatorship,” said Argeñal of the need for electoral reform.

But he has his doubts about such reform efforts in the first place: He believes that as long as they work within the existing system, they’re still assenting to a regime that has rigged the democracy to its own advantage. For Argeñal, those doubts don’t come from nowhere. Criminal groups with suspected ties to the JOH administration assassinated his brother in 2013 after the electoral fraud took place.

LIBRE has been advocating electoral reform since before the 2017 vote, and European Union election observers have also stressed the need for reforms.

Laínez explained the proposal one evening in Santa Ana, Lainez’s rural home village in the state of Intibucá, watching the moon rise over the nearby mountains of El Salvador. The post-coup regime’s neglect of rural areas is palpable in Santa Ana. Its people are so impoverished that nearly half have left to the U.S. Potholes scar the road so deeply they’re nearly impassable. Now, Salvadoran gangmembers from MS-13—who began crossing the border in 2016 to escape their own government—have occupied several empty houses, killing three villagers in 2018, according to Laínez.

The place is haunted by a revolutionary past: only 10 yards from El Salvador, older residents remember when Salvadoran guerrillas used to pass through the village in the 1980s, ingratiating a mythology of armed struggle into the community. Yet despite revolutionary violence’s perverse allure as a tool for social change, Laínez adamantly rejects the notion of repeating that past.

“Any form of struggle, for us, is good as long as it doesn’t entail violence,” he said. “Any form of struggle. But principally, our objective is to take power through the path of peaceful elections.”

Even so, he’s well aware of the potentially bloody price they’ll have to pay should they fail in that endeavor.

“We’re conscious that if there aren’t electoral reforms, that if the electoral system isn’t cleaned up,” he said, “the next elections will come, and there will be a crisis even uglier than the one we had in 2017. More deaths. More repression.”

On the Verge of Collapse

If fixing Honduran democracy through electoral reform seemed useful after this summer’s protests, it became imperative—or, depending on who you ask, even more futile—after a damning report was released on August 3.

That day, a 44-page document from a U.S. district court seemed to confirm what Hondurans had known intuitively for years: Juan Orlando Hernández had colluded with cartels to illegally secure the 2013 presidential election. No longer could the graffiti scrawled throughout countless Tegucigalpa slums—Fuera, Narco-dictador! (Get out, Narco-dictator!)—be written off as mere hyperbole.

The summer’s second major wave of protests overtook the streets following the revelations, demanding once more that the president resign. And on August 15, 124 out of the 128 seats in the National Congress voted for the “Special Law for the Selection and Appointment of Electoral Authorities and Attributions,” which would stipulate the election of 44 representatives from each party to monitor election processes in 2020. The first major step towards completing a substantial electoral reform, after eight months of deliberations, was completed.

As of August 30, no further progress had yet been made.

“It’s divided between different sectors,” Zelaya said of the opposition to Hernández. “[But] we’re all united in that we want the regime to leave. We want the regime out. We’re telling the regime to get out. Fuera JOH. We’re all united in that 100 percent.”

Student protests (Photo by Héctor Edú)

Student protests (Photo by Héctor Edú)

“We can’t call it a dictatorship per se,” said a UNAH student, who asked to remain anonymous for safety reasons, of JOH’s legacy. “But we can call it an authoritarian government…You can see how this is all boiling to a tipping point—how Juan Orlando created a military police; how he’s giving unprecedented power to the military.”

After a few days, the flurry of international press coverage the revelations died off. Media analyst John McEvoy wrote how, because their government is a client regime carrying out neoliberal policies favorable to U.S. companies, Honduran victims are seen as “unworthy victims” in the eyes of mainstream media, as compared to victims of regimes that don’t heel to U.S. interests, such as those in Venezuela. Press coverage was capped with an article in Foreign Policy, which proclaimed that even JOH’s unlikely ouster or extradition wouldn’t change the entrenched problems exacerbated by the violent, post-coup decade. The headline was as straightforward as it was bleak: “Hondurans have little cause for hope.”

Soon after the revelations, with media attention drifting elsewhere, protests against JOH fizzled out with no changes in government; the country had returned to business as usual. Nancy Pelosi visited Honduras on an August 10 state visit, making statements about governance whose perfunctory mildness—“You cannot have security unless you end corruption,” she said—wildly understated the enormity of the accusations against Hernández. Hernández himself visited the Organization of American States in Washington D.C., where he discussed “good practices and technical support in the fight against illegal drug trafficking.”

For Zelaya, any chance of ousting Hernández depends on the fractured opposition’s ability to develop organizational skills greater than those of Hernández’s ruling National Party. “The political future for Honduras depends on the majority of its people’s capacity for political organization,” he said. “The elites are well-organized. The corruption is well-organized. The narcotraffickers are well-organized.”

But Hondurans are well aware of the implications of failing to oust Hernández. Human rights leader Jose Carlos Cárdona believes that, should nothing change, Honduras is on the precipice of a catastrophe unlike any the country has yet experienced.

“You don’t know how these assholes screwed everything,” he said, only a few yards from where the military police opened fire on students at the UNAH. “The level of extreme poverty in Honduras is at four million people…the country is on the verge of collapse. We’re going to collapse at any time. We just need a little flame. And then everything goes to hell.”


Jared Olson is a Pulitzer Center grantee, writer and freelance journalist whose work focuses on the struggle for justice in Central America. He is currently a senior at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida, studying international relations and journalism. He can be reached at Jolson455@flagler.edu or at jaredolson.org.

Hondurans Are Still Fighting the US-Supported Dictatorship

Ten years after the coup, they have become the largest single Central American nationality in the refugee caravans fleeing north.

By James North

JULY 1, 2019

 

Honduras: Exercising the right to protest has a high cost for those who dare take to the streets

The government of President Juan Orlando Hernández has adopted a policy of repression against those who protest in the streets to demand his resignation and accountability for the actions of authorities. The use of military forces to control demonstrations across the country has had a deeply concerning toll on human rights, said Amnesty International upon presenting the findings of a field investigation.

“President Juan Orlando Hernández’s (JOH) message is very clear: shouting ‘JOH out’ and demanding change can be very costly. At least six people have died in the context of protests and dozens have been injured, many of them by firearms fired by security forces since the beginning of this wave of demonstrations,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International.

In a desperate attempt to silence the voices demanding his resignation, President Hernández has used the armed forces to control the protests. According to information gathered by Amnesty International, during this period the security forces have indiscriminately used less-than-lethal weapons, such as tear gas or rubber bullets, causing injury to dozens of people. In total, six people have been killed in this context since April, four of them by firearms at the hands of the security forces.

The repressive policies of the Hernandez government in response to protests have previously been condemned. On 13 June 2018, Amnesty International published the report Protest Prohibited: Use of Force and Arbitrary Detentions to Suppress Dissident in Honduras, which documents how the authorities not only used excessive force to repress peaceful protesters immediately after the controversial elections of 26 November 2017, but also arbitrarily detained and held protesters in deplorable conditions for months, denying them their right to due process and an adequate defence.

Since then, the wave of anti-government demonstrations has been a constant in the country. According to the non-governmental organization Committee for Free Expression (C-Libre), from 4 March to 25 June this year, there were at least 346 protests across the country. The current generalized discontent of the population was provoked by the approval, on 25 April, of laws that transformed the national health education systems, which in the opinion of teachers’ leaders and the Medical College of Honduras, will lead to the privatization of these sectors and the massive dismissal of employees. Although these laws were repealed, protesters have continued to demand the president’s resignation.

President Juan Orlando Hernández’s (JOH) message is very clear: shouting ‘JOH out’ and demanding change can be very costly. At least six people have died in the context of protests and dozens have been injured, many of them by firearms fired by security forces since the beginning of this wave of demonstration
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

Amnesty International’s Americas crisis team conducted a rapid response mission during the first week of July, following the upsurge in violence during demonstrations of the last few weeks, which left a toll of six people dead and almost 80 injured. The organization documented a total of eight cases, two of which involved people killed by the army and military police, and six that involved people who were injured, four of them by firearms. In addition, the organization analyzed more than 60 pieces of audio-visual and photographic material to identify the weapons and ammunition used, among other things.

DEATHS DUE TO THE USE OF LETHAL FORCE

On 20 June, Eblin Noel Corea Maradiaga, a 17-year-old student, was killed by the army in the town of Yarumela, La Paz, where hours before a road blockade had taken place as a form of protest, before finally giving way. Despite this, an army convoy arrived moments later, fired on civilians and chased several people, including Eblin and his father. Although they were unarmed and attempting to take refuge in an alley, witnesses report that an army officer took position, aimed and shot the teenager, who fell into his father’s arms after being hit in the chest.

In another case, on 19 June, Erik Peralta was trying to cross an avenue blocked by a protest in Tegucigalpa’s Pedregal neighbourood, after returning from work, when soldiers arrived and, without a word, began to shoot. According to the forensic report, a bullet pierced his chest and killed him almost immediately. Erik was 37 years old and had four children.

INJURIES FROM USE OF LETHAL AND LESS-THAN-LETHAL FORCE

Another case that Amnesty International documented of the excessive use of force was the incursion into the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) on 24 June, when Military Police officers entered the compound and shot at dozens of people demonstrating in the entrance. In a press release, the government said this was justified by the need to rescue an officer who was abducted by students, as well as by the use of Molotov cocktails and other devices launched against security forces, and the need to “repel the attack”.

While Amnesty International was able to document the use of stones and, in some cases, handmade mortars by demonstrators, the organization believes that the use of lethal force was excessive and unnecessary. The fact that some groups or individuals use violence in a demonstration does not make the whole protest violent per se.

That said, the organization could find no evidence of the alleged abduction of the military official, and the university rector himself confirmed to Amnesty International that no evidence of this had been presented, nor that there had been any negotiation process prior to the use of force. Likewise, the authorities violated the principle of exceptionality of lethal force, which can only be used in cases of imminent risk against the lives of agents or third parties.

As a result, at least five people were shot, including a 25-year-old student, whose identity has been omitted for security reasons, who was shot in the arm, and Elder Nahúm Peralta, another 21-year-old student, who was hit by a bullet impact that entered and exited his right buttock. In an interview with Amnesty International, Elder said that while running to protect himself, he was struck by a bullet and fell to the ground. He was helped by university security personnel and students, who took him to the Hospital Escuela, where he received medical attention.

On 30 May, a young teacher participating in local protests was shot by National Police officers after they fired into the crowd. The shot to his back caused the loss of a kidney and damaged his large intestine, transverse colon and lung.

Violent police repression also affected people who were not participating in the protests. In Tegucigalpa, National Police officers assaulted two members of a family who had reprimanded them for throwing tear gas near their home. Feeling suffocated, the family left their home to demand an end to the use of tear gas and were beaten with clubs, punches and kicks. As a result, one of them required immediate medical attention, included stitching of head wounds.

IMPUNITY 

Impunity, which has been continuously denounced in the country in recent years, remains endemic in Honduras with regard to human rights violations, and this encourages further violations.

“The Honduran justice system has demonstrated once again that human rights violations in the context of protests continue without proper investigation, nor are people suspected of criminal responsibility brought to justice. The facts of these last few weeks demonstrate how impunity is a constant that fuels the repetition of serious human rights violations,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

In two of the eight cases that Amnesty International documented, families did not file a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office for fear of reprisals. In the remaining six cases, although they filed complaints, they did not trust in the impartiality or efficiency of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and in at least three cases they claimed that the steps necessary to ensure a thorough investigation had not been taken in time.

The president must urgently demonstrate that he is willing to use all the means at his disposal to stop lethal repression, otherwise there will be compelling reasons to consider his responsibility for each of the deaths and attacks against people exercising their legitimate right to protest
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

For example, Eblin Noel Corea Maradiaga’s family did not allow the autopsy to be performed for fear that the authorities would “misplace” the bullet that was lodged in his body. Considering it to be a key piece of evidence for the solving of the crime, they requested an exhumation with the cooperation of trusted forensic personnel provided by the family. However, the Public Prosecutor’s Office denied their participation and they are still waiting for this to happen. Such was the family’s distrust of the authorities that they installed a light bulb to be able to watch over his body 24 hours a day, for fear that someone might tamper with the corpse and steal the bullet.

In another incident, on 29 April, a public official, dressed in civilian clothes and operating in conjunction with the national police, fired on a person whose identity has been omitted for security reasons. Despite it being clear from testimonies and images of the event that the official was carrying a semi-automatic weapon consistent with the caliber of bullet that the victim has lodged in their chest, no one has been prosecuted so far. Although a complaint was filed immediately after the incident, as well as requests made to the prosecutor’s office soliciting information on the proceedings, the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), the organization that accompanies victims, has not received a response.

In this context, Amnesty International considers it essential to advance the investigations and guarantee the correct processing of all available evidence for the proper identification of possible perpetrators and their subsequent prosecution.

Amnesty International also met with government officials to discuss the current context of the crisis and the evidence gathered by the organization that exposes serious human rights violations. The officials stated that they have adhered to the law and that if there were cases to the contrary, this would be due to individual actions by inexperienced personnel, not a policy of repression. In addition, they justified military deployment for security purposes in accordance with the Constitution. The authorities pledged to provide Amnesty International with information regarding the investigation into the attack on the UNAH.

Meetings were also held with national human rights organizations, which expressed concern about the state’s repressive strategy aimed at silencing critical voices demanding structural changes in public policies. The organization reiterates its condemnation of the stigmatization, harassment and aggression against human rights defenders and calls for their protection.

Amnesty International has already publicly condemned the National Security Council’s decision of 20 June 2019 to deploy the armed forces, police and intelligence agents in response to protests, as this could lead to an increase in the excessive use of force against demonstrators. The organization reiterates that the state must guarantee an orderly withdrawal of the armed forces from public security tasks and implement a process of strengthening the capacities of the National Police.

“The president must urgently demonstrate that he is willing to use all the means at his disposal to stop lethal repression, otherwise there will be compelling reasons to consider his responsibility for each of the deaths and attacks against people exercising their legitimate right to protest,” concluded Erika Guevara-Rosas.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Duncan Tucker: duncan.tucker@amnesty.org

 

Why People Flee Honduras

Immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border are hoping to leave behind a home devastated by poverty, gangs and crime, and widespread violence against women.

06/07/2019

Honduras

Nichole Sobecki/VII

Hundreds and sometimes thousands at a time, Honduran migrants have joined caravans of Central Americans making their way north through Mexico to seek refuge in the United States. They arrive at the southern border only to face stricter asylum rules from an administration increasingly hostile to their entry. There are a number of reasons people may choose to flee their country, and when they do, it’s not an easy endeavor. Yet, they keep coming because of what they’re hoping to leave behind.

Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Two-thirds of its roughly 9 million people live in poverty, according to the World Bank, and in rural areas, 1 in 5 lives in extreme poverty. With a growing population, combined with high underemployment and limited job opportunities because of a largely agricultural economy, many Hondurans seek opportunity elsewhere. And many who stay are dependent on remittances.

Women sit outside their home on the hills overlooking the city of Tegucigalpa.

Women sit outside their home on the hills overlooking the city of Tegucigalpa. | Nichole Sobecki/VII

A family looks out from their home in the impoverished neighborhood of San Pedro Sula.

A family looks out from their home in the impoverished neighborhood of San Pedro Sula. | Nichole Sobecki/VII

Honduras is one of the deadliest countries in the world and has one of the highest impunity rates. According to an analysis by InSight Crime, gang membership and activity have been on the rise in the past two decades, and the associated violence has hit the country’s urban areas the hardest. Extortion by gangs has forced many to flee in search of more security. Moreover, the Honduran police are both understaffed—in the northern district of San Pedro Sula, home to nearly 230,000 people and where well-known gangs like Barrio 18 and MS-13 operate, just 50 police officers watch over its 189 neighborhoods—and plagued by corruption and abuse.

Gang grafitti and policing in Honduras.

Top, the tag for MS-13 is sprayed across a wall in La Rivera Hernandez, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in San Pedro Sula. Bottom, police officers frisk civilians and check their ID cards on a criminal database outside a pool bar, while others search the facility, in another neighborhood in San Pedro Sula. | Nichole Sobecki/VII

Violence—particularly domestic and sexual violence—in Honduras has taken or forever changed many women’s and girls lives. Gender-based violence is the second-leading cause of death for women of reproductive age. And in a country where emergency contraception and abortion are banned, even for rape victims, survivors of sexual violence have few options if they become pregnant. They can seek to terminate the pregnancy and risk prison time, or they can go through with it and face one of the highest maternal mortality rates in Latin America. As Jill Filipovic reports for Politico Magazine, for Honduran women, economic instability and physical insecurity are intertwined, and both are exacerbated by long-standing patriarchal social norms in the country.

Various women who have been affected by gender-based or sexual violence in Honduras.

Top, Debora Castillo, 17, outside her home in Corazol. Debora lost two children during childbirth. Honduras has an infant mortality rate over three times that of the U.S. Bottom left, Heydi Garcia Giron, 34, with her children, Daniel and Andrea, in their home in Tegucigalpa. Bottom right, Ricsy (a pseudonym), 19, outside her home in Choloma. Heydi and Ricsy are the victims of domestic and sexual violence, respectively. | Nichole Sobecki/VII

The cemetery in Corazol.

The cemetery in Corazol, Honduras. | Nichole Sobecki/VII

Buses ferry workers to and from their jobs at a clothing factory in Choloma, Honduras, one of the most dangerous cities for women in the world.

Buses ferry workers to and from their jobs at a clothing factory in Choloma, one of the most dangerous cities for women in the world. | Nichole Sobecki/VII

Almost 1,000 people gathered at the bus terminal in San Pedro Sula, after news of a new migrant caravan spread in April, one of several from Central America since late last year. The migrants travel the over 3,000-mile distance to the U.S. border in large groups for safety to avoid being robbed, kidnapped or killed by gangs on the way.

Members of a migrant caravan in San Pedro Sula.

A woman and her child rest on the floor with other participants in a migrant caravan leaving Honduras. | Nichole Sobecki/VII

Central American migrants—mostly from Honduras—descend from a truck at a temporary shelter in Irapuato, Mexico, on Nov. 11, 2018. Some caravans fleeing violence are now stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Central American migrants—mostly from Honduras—descend from a truck at a temporary shelter in Irapuato, Mexico, on Nov. 11, 2018. Some caravans fleeing violence are now stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Alfredo Estrella—AFP/Getty Images
By Amelia Frank-Vitale

November 23, 2018

At the end of October, I sat with my friend Graciela, counting up all the murders we’d heard about over the last week in her sector of Choloma, a city in Honduras. We thought it was about seven. It turns out, between us, we’d heard of at least 10.

Murders. In one sector. In one week. Four young men, three young women, one bus driver, one older man who worked for the municipality, and one “colgado”—a body hung up as a warning.

This was at the same time the Central American caravan was making headlines in the international press, when people started speculating that mysterious political forces were behind this mass exodus of people from Honduras.

As Graciela—whose own brother was murdered a little over a year ago—and I went back and forth, I thought, This, this is why people leave. And this is what people outside of Honduras seem to not fully understand.

Months earlier, 9-year-old Andres told me about the first time he saw someone killed in front of his eyes, and the second time, and the third time. He talked about the murders he’d seen in a halting way, wishing he could unsee the things he’d witnessed. I told him I’ve actually never seen anyone be killed. His eyes widened, incredulous. That seemed impossible to him: someone my age, a grown adult, never having seen these things. He dreamed about going to the U.S., a place he imagined he might be able to live without seeing any more murders.

I have been living in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second-largest city and economic center, since September of 2017. I came to Honduras to research migration and life after deportation for my doctoral degree; I chose San Pedro Sula because it had become famous for being one of the most violent cities in the world, making migration and deportation questions of life and death. While Honduras has made significant strides in reducing its murder rate (from a high of 86.5 per 100,000 people in 2011 to 43.6 in 2017), it is still devastatingly high.

But what I’ve learned is that life here is so much harder than murder statistics could reveal.

One day, around noon, I showed up at Bayron’s house in Villanueva to collect a camera I’d lent him as part of a photography workshop I was running. His mother told me he was still sleeping, and I gently made a joke about him sleeping so late. No no, she told me, he was in line all night long last night. For school.

I didn’t understand at first. She explained that in order for Bayron to register for high school, he had to get in line the night before. Like devoted fans waiting for the box office to open, Bayron and his friends slept in that line, determined to get a spot in the public school this year. If he got there too late to get a spot, he would just have to wait until next year. This is how the public school system works across Honduras.

Bayron’s been deported once already; he left in search of better opportunities, safety, and stability. Back in Honduras, he’d rather be in school but the options before him are few if he cannot get a spot. Like so many, the next best choice might be migrating again.

Darwin, in the Rivera Hernandez sector of the city, also worries about what his son will do next year when it’s time to start high school. Here, the issue i­sn’t whether or not he would get a spot. Darwin’s neighborhood is controlled by one gang; the public high school is in a rival gang’s territory. His son would literally risk his life by going to school. Darwin has thought about sending him to private school, but he sometimes cannot find work for months and his wife, who is in her 40s, can’t get hired anywhere because of her age. They just shook their heads, tears welling up in their eyes, when I asked them what they would do.

Darwin looked up and told me, “Here, it’s a crime to be poor. The police treat us like criminals.” Darwin is careful to never leave home with more than 100 lempiras in his pocket—roughly $5—because he worries constantly that if the police find him with more money on him, they’ll arrest him for extortion. Many of his neighbors are in the “pozo,” Honduras’s maximum security prisons, awaiting trial for the crime of extortion. The apparent proof? Each was found with 300 lempiras on them.

People live on edge in Honduras, never sure when a stray bullet might hit them, whether they will be able to feed their families tomorrow, or if they will end up in jail without having done anything wrong. When word spreads that a caravan is forming, it doesn’t take much for people to join. No one needs to convince them, pay them, or promise them anything.

Even now, as Mexico has met the caravans with repression, protests, and deportation; Honduras has shut down at least one of its border crossings; and Donald Trump has sent troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, people in Honduras talk every day about forming new caravans, ready to walk thousands of miles for a chance, not even for a better life, but just at having a life at all.

Amelia Frank-Vitale is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Michigan. After working in Mexico from 2010 to 2015, where she focused on the multiple kinds of violence that Central Americans face while in transit, she now works in Honduras, studying how deportees reconfigure their lives and reimagine their futures after being sent back to some of the world’s most violent neighborhoods.

Honduran Jesuit, delegation plead for end to U.S. military aid

Honduran Jesuit, delegation plead for end to U.S. military aid

Honduran Jesuit Father Ismael Moreno Coto, better known as “Padre Melo,” is seen near the U.S. Capitol in Washington May 17. (Credit: Rhina Guidos/CNS.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A group of Hondurans led by a Jesuit priest pleaded with U.S. lawmakers May 17 to stop military aid to the Central American nation and to allow the country’s citizens living under a particular immigration status in the U.S. to remain here until conditions improve in their native country.

“We need you to support them so that they continue living in the United States because their return to our country is dangerous,” said Jesuit Father Ismael Moreno, who traveled with a group of five Hondurans to 10 cities in the United States.

They spoke to groups and organizations hoping to garner support for some 57,000 Hondurans benefiting from the Temporary Protection Status program, which the Trump administration said would end in 2020, but also for a bill named after one of Moreno’s friends, a human rights activist killed in 2016 in Honduras.

Just outside the U.S. Capitol, Georgia Congressman Henry “Hank” Johnson joined Moreno, popularly known as Father Melo, to speak about the Berta Caceres Act, which would cut U.S. military aid to the present government of Honduras led by President Juan Orlando Hernandez.

Estimates put U.S. aid to Honduras targeted for “security” at between $18 million to $22 million in 2015. Many of those gathered have for years questioned whether the U.S. should be giving money to Hernandez and his administration.

Though the constitution in Honduras limited its president to serve a one-time, six-year term, Hernandez sought and snatched a second term late last year and began that second term under a cloud of illegitimacy and calls for his resignation that have never stopped. His critics, who include Moreno, have been threatened, jailed or attacked. Hondurans who oppose Hernandez say U.S. taxpayers are paying for their oppression.

Johnson, a Democrat, said he introduced his bill, named after a slain human rights leader, to stand united with “our brothers and sisters in Honduras who are being oppressed.”

“Their human rights are being denied and trampled upon by a corrupt government that is sponsored by our own government,” he said.

Human rights “don’t mean a thing to this current government in Honduras,” Johnson said. The bill has about 70 co-sponsors and “we will one day get it passed,” he said.

U.S. policies in Honduras, the congressman said, are driving people to migrate north, where Americans are saying they are part of the country’s problems, “but we should stop and think a little more deeply about what we’re doing and what is happening south of our borders as we’re making it untenable for people to continue to live (in Honduras).”

When people are oppressed, they move away from home, Johnson said.

“If we change our policies, we will create a safer and more peaceful environment, but it can’t be for the select few, it has to be for all of us,” he said.

Jose Artiga, executive director of the SHARE Foundation, said the delegation also was calling for an investigation into the killing and imprisonment of those who protested the November 2017 election that kept Hernandez in power.

“We are asking for the freedom of those political prisoners,” he said.

Neery Carillo, the sister of Caceres, the woman after whom the the bill is named, also was present to talk about her sister, her work and legacy.

“My family and I continue living with a heavy heart after three years, two months and 15 days” since she was killed, she said. “My youngest sister, Bertita, was brutally assassinated.”

Caceres, who spoke in favor of the environment, human rights and the rights of the indigenous, was shot dead in her home in March 2016. She had been protesting the building of a dam near an indigenous community. In March, the executive of a hydroelectric company was arrested for playing a part in planning her killing.

Her sister said Caceres’ death can help bring about the quest for justice she so desired but she also blamed the U.S. government for getting in the way of that by “actively ignoring the (Honduran) government’s extensive corruption.”

“Berta’s death cannot be in vain,” Carillo said. “It’s not all about Bertita. It’s about Hondurans, all Central Americans.”

The U.S. must do better to help Central Americans, she said, and they would stop fleeing their countries if it weren’t for the violence and corruption the U.S. government helped to create.

Moreno called for the U.S. to stop supporting “an illegal and illegitimate” president, and help instead to restore democracy.

“We have faith in the struggle of this moment. We have faith in the struggle of the future, and we have faith in the future of an authentic brotherhood between the people of Honduras and the United States,” he said. “Let us support one another, let’s build a bridge now, not build a wall, but a bridge toward justice and peace between Honduras and the United States.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We lost a great leader’: Berta Cáceres still inspires as murder case takes fresh twist

As friends and followers of the late Honduran activist continue her battle for indigenous land rights, their cause has been boosted by a damning legal report

Berta Cáceres is remembered at a ceremony in Rio Blanco, the area she fought to protect from a mining development before she was murdered
Berta Cáceres is remembered at a ceremony in Rio Blanco, the area she fought to protect from a mining development before she was murdered. Photograph: Mel Mencos/Nobel Women Initiative

María Santos Domínguez heard about the death of her good friend Berta Cáceres on the radio. She had just given birth to her youngest daughter, so she wasn’t with Cáceres the week she was murdered.

“It was a double blow because we were very close, we worked together in the communities,” said Santos Domínguez, a coordinator for the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (Copinh), the organisation Cáceres co-founded 24 years ago to stop the state selling off the country’s ancestral lands to multinational companies.

“It was a personal blow, and we knew we had lost a great leader – a leader who had been recognised internationally.”

Cáceres, who won the Goldman environmental prize for her work with Copinh, was gunned down in her home in the early hours of 3 March 2016. She had led the protest against the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam in Río Blanco, western Honduras. Gustavo Castro Soto, a Mexican environmental activist, was injured in the attack.

Eight men have been charged with the murder of Cáceres, who was under state protection at the time after receiving numerous death threats. Two of the accused worked at the company leading the construction of the dam, Desarrollos Energéticos SA.

Cáceres’ family and supporters have always suspected the involvement of state officials in her killing. Last year, a Guardian investigation revealed the existence of leaked court documents linking the planning of the murder to military intelligence specialists connected with the country’s US–trained special forces.

Armed guards patrol land in Honduras
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The former security head of Desarrollos Energéticos SA is one of seven people arrested for the killing of Berta Cáceres. Photograph: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

Earlier this month, a report published by an expert group of lawyers concluded that senior managers in the company allegedly had a hand in her murder. The company has always denied any involvement. In response to the report, it said the company had never been involved in any violence and that information in the report had been taken out of context and “does not reflect reality”. The report was intended to create problems in the run up to the country’s elections later this month, it added.

An independent group set up to investigate corruption in Honduras under the auspices of the Organisation of American States is scrutinising allegations of corruption in the award of contracts for the dam project.

Since Cáceres’ death, Domínguez, 43, has joined other members of the Lenca indigenous community for regular meetings among the oak trees of the lush, mountainous region of Río Blanco. Together, they say prayers and light candles in memory of their lost friend. It is also where they gather to find strength for the twin challenge of fighting the dam project and striving to ensure Cáceres’ killers are brought to justice.

While years of protests have brought construction to a halt, and resulted in funders discontinuing their support, the licence for the dam on the sacred Gualcarque river has not been withdrawn. The warehouses that stand empty along the road offer an ominous reminder that the project remains alive.

Santos Domínguez helped set up a road blockade when trucks were first spotted trundling along the narrow, winding lanes of Río Blanco towards the planned site for the dam on 1 April 2013. The community has said it was not consulted – a legal requirement – before the company was granted the licence.

“We saw the machinery coming in the distance. We’d said we didn’t allow it to come in the community, but they wanted to build a dam so didn’t listen,” she said. “I was not afraid, I was angry. I thought, ‘This is my land and my home.’”

The Gualcarque river, downstream from the Agua Zarca dam
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Gualcarque river, downstream from Agua Zarca dam. Photograph: Giles Clarke/Getty Images

But Santos Domínguez paid a high price for her actions. In the violence that followed when the police arrived to break up the protest, her brother was killed. She lost a finger and sustained cuts to her head from a machete. Her husband lost an eye. She is now wanted by the police and had to flee her home for a time for fear of being arrested – or made to disappear. She says harassment has got worse since Cáceres was murdered. She has had to keep her children off school after they had rocks thrown at them – by people “who know I was in Copinh” – while walking to class.

Rosalina Domínguez Madrid, who is in charge of Copinh’s finances, has also experienced harassment since Cáceres’ death. “People have been asking for me by name. Unknown people, but we are assuming it’s people paid by the company,” she said.

“There have been a lot of threats, and the life of one of my sons has been threatened. [It] must be people coming for me, to do the same thing to me as they did to Berta. When I go somewhere I don’t tell people where I’m going. I travel underground. I don’t really feel safe.”

Domínguez Madrid said that Cáceres’ death threw the international spotlight on the battle for land rights in Honduras – the deadliest place to be an environmental activist, according to the organisation Global Witness. More than 120 activists have been murdered for trying to protect the land or environment since the country’s 2009 coup. Copinh member Tomás García was murdered just months before Cáceres, and most attacks have gone unpunished.

Days after her death, Berta Cáceres was honoured at a religious ceremony on the Gualcarque river
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Days after her death, Berta Cáceres was honoured at a ceremony on the Gualcarque river. Photograph: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

Over the past eight years, the government has received a flurry of licence applications for hydroelectric, mining and agribusinesses projects. At the same time, there has been a crackdown on human rights.

Many more activists say they have been threatened with violence, or have faced intimidation and even sexual assault by police, members of the military or those paid to keep activists out of the way. Women, who have been at the centre of the protests in Río Blanco, face the added threats of abuse from their own families and communities, as machismo culture often relegates women to the sole role of homemaker.

Last month two Nobel peace laureates – Tawakkol Karman and Shirin Ebadi – visited Río Blanco to offer their support to the community and add their voices to the calls for justice for Cáceres.

Beside an altar of flowers and photos of Cáceres, Karman, who won the Nobel prize in 2011 for her peace-building work in Yemen, told the crowd of women, men and children of all ages: “We are here to support all those who are struggling to defend human rights … Berta was a victim of those who didn’t respect those rights. We want to see justice brought to all those responsible for her murder. Those criminals must face the justice system and they should be in jail.”

Ebadi added: “My message to the world from here is they have murdered an activist who struggled to protect the environment, and there has not been justice in her case.”

Santos Domínguez knows that peace for the Lenca in Río Blanco will not come until those who authorised Cáceres’ murder are behind bars and the land rights for her people are recognised.

“Because we are poor they think we don’t know anything … But they are wrong because we are organised and we can protect ourselves from them,” she said.

“They murdered Berta and they thought that, with her dead, we would not continue – but we showed them we can.”

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

 By Jessica FarberResearch Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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

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

A Contradictory Approach

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

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

Berta Cáceres: A Symbol of Impunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Towards a “More Safe” Honduras

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

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

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

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

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

Public Pressure Mounts in the United States

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

By Jessica FarberResearch Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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

Featured Photo: Crowd. Taken from Flickr.

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

[ii] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xiv] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

[xxvii] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

[xxxii] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xli] Ibid.

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

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

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

by James Phillips

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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