Posts Tagged ‘COPINH’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bertha Caceres

Berta Cáceres (center) was assassinated in 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

A memorial for Berta Caceres

At a memorial for Berta Caceres.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Berta Cáceres: seven men convicted of murdering Honduran environmentalist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do the projects funded by the CABEI respect your interests?

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

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

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

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

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

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

European investors drop support of controversial Honduran dam

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes to editors:

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

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

Contact information:

 

Simon Hernandez-Arthur 

simon.hernandezarthur@oxfam.org

+1 585 503 4568

@SimonHernandez

Under the Gun: An Investigation Into the Murder of Berta Cáceres

Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world to be an environmental activist

Photos by Mónica González Islas

  • A march in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, on the anniversary of Berta Cáceres’s assassination.

     

GUSTAVO CASTRO WAS IN BED, working on his laptop, when he heard a loud noise. It sounded like someone was breaking open the locked kitchen door. From the bedroom across the hall, his friend Berta Cáceres screamed, “Who’s out there?” Before Castro had time to react, a man kicked down his bedroom door and pointed a gun at his face. It was 11:40 P.M. on March 2, 2016.

Castro, a Mexican activist who had spent his life involved in a range of social justice campaigns, was in La Esperanza, Honduras, to coordinate a three-day workshop on creating local alternatives to capitalism. Cáceres—one of the most revered environmental, indigenous, and women’s rights leaders in Honduras—had invited Castro to conduct the workshop for members of her organization, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, known by its Spanish acronym, COPINH. When he accepted the invitation to travel to Honduras, Castro knew that it could be dangerous, though he had no idea exactly how grave it would turn out to be.

Berta Caceres Zuniga (daughter of Berta Caceres) stands next to the Gualcarque River, which her mother died protecting. Berta Cáceres Zúñiga (daughter of Berta Cáceres) stands next to the Gualcarque River, which her mother died protecting. 

In recent years, Honduras had become a global leader on lists having to do with violence: the highest number of homicides per capita, the world’s second-most-murderous city (San Pedro Sula), and the most dangerous place on the planet to be an environmental advocate. As the most prominent spokesperson for a fierce indigenous campaign to stop the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River, Cáceres was no stranger to threats. The struggle over the proposed Agua Zarca dam had become a major political controversy. On one side were the indigenous Lenca people of COPINH, who had staged road blockades, sabotaged construction equipment, and appealed to international lenders to halt financing for the project. On the other were some of Honduras’s wealthiest families, many of them with close ties to the military. Cáceres’s leadership against the dam had earned her much attention, both positive and negative. In 2015, she received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize—and leading up to it, she also had received beatings from security forces and some 30 death threats, and spent a night in jail on fabricated charges.

Castro and Cáceres had been friends for more than 15 years and had collaborated on opposing the Free Trade Area of the Americas, open-pit mining, water privatization, and militarization. Castro’s workshop in La Esperanza was focused on developing strategies for moving beyond protest-centered social movements, and Cáceres had been energized by the sessions. That day she left repeated WhatsApp messages for her daughter, Berta Cáceres Zúñiga, who had just left Honduras to resume her graduate studies in Mexico. “She was really happy,” Cáceres Zúñiga said.

After the first day’s workshop, Cáceres had invited Castro to spend the night at her home so that he could have a quiet place to work. They arrived sometime around 10:30 P.M. after driving a mile and a half down a lonely dirt road from the center of La Esperanza. Castro remembers commenting on how isolated the property was. “How is it that you live here alone?” he asked Cáceres as they pulled up to the house.

The old friends spent some time talking on the front porch, and then each went to their own room. It was nearing midnight when the gunmen forced their way into the house and he heard Cáceres’s screams. “That’s when I realized we were dead,” Castro said.

Berta Caceres's sister and motherBerta Cáceres’s sister and mother 

In the instant before a shot was fired at him, Castro looked past the gun barrel and into the gunman’s eyes. “When I saw in his eyes the decision to kill me, I instinctively moved my hand and head,” Castro told me, showing me the scar on the back of his hand and lifting up his hair to reveal where a bullet had removed the top of his ear. “The killer experienced an optical illusion that he had shot me in the head. Because in the instant that he fired, I was still. But a millionth of a second before, I moved my hand and head. If I had moved a millionth of a second later, we wouldn’t be sitting here.”

Castro threw himself to the ground and lay still, pretending he was dead. He was bleeding from his ear, which was covered by his thick, curly hair. The gunman turned and walked out of the house.

“A few seconds later,” Castro said, “Berta screamed, ‘Gustavo! Gustavo!’ And I went to her room to help her. But it wasn’t more than a minute before Berta died. I said goodbye to her, grabbed the phone, and went back to my room to start calling people so that someone could come and rescue me. It didn’t take more than 30 seconds, a minute, from the time the killers entered to when they left. Everything happened so quickly. They were there to kill her. It was a well-planned assassination. The only thing they hadn’t anticipated is that I would be there.”

It was two days before Cáceres’s birthday. She would have turned 45.

 

IN 2010, THE RESIDENTS OF RÍO BLANCO, a Lenca community on the banks of the Gualcarque River, noticed workers with heavy machinery. They were “making roads where they had no business making roads,” said Rosalina Domínguez, a community leader there. The Lenca wasted no time in making their opposition known. “We confiscated one of their tractors,” Domínguez recalled. “We didn’t let them get much work done.”

A few months later, a group of men arrived in Río Blanco to show promotional videos for the hydroelectric dam they wanted to build, and to tell the community about the studies they had already done on the proposed project. People were unimpressed by the gesture. “Who gave you permission to conduct those studies?” they asked. An engineer said that the dam would provide the community with jobs, schools, and scholarships for their children. “We told him that it sounded like a bunch of promises that they would never follow through on,” Domínguez said. “So the community told him that we wouldn’t accept the project and that if someday they decided to try and build it anyway, the community would stand up and fight.”

In 2012, the company behind the proposed Agua Zarca dam, Desarrollos Energéticos (or DESA), sought to buy the land along the riverbanks. According to Dominguez, out of some 800 community members, only seven wanted to sell. A year later, the company moved ahead with construction anyway. In March 2013, a number of indigenous farmers walked out to their corn and bean fields to find they were no longer there. “We decided to fight when we saw how they destroyed the cultivated fields without so much as talking to the owners,” Domínguez said. “They plowed straight through the ears of corn and the beanstalks. That is when we blocked the road.”

Indigenous environmentalist Berta Caceres's house, outside La Esperanza, HondurasBerta Cáceres’s home, outside La Esperanza, Honduras 

Two days after the Lenca community set up its road blockade, Berta Cáceres arrived. Domínguez and Cáceres had met in 2009, when Cáceres went to Río Blanco to give a talk about the international laws protecting indigenous communities’ rights and to make a case for the importance of protecting the river. When Cáceres returned in April 2013 at the start of the road blockade, “she joined the struggle unequivocally,” Domínguez said. “She stayed with us day and night.”

United in its determination to halt the dam, the community of Río Blanco possessed a clear moral and legal stature: International law states that indigenous communities must give prior consent for projects like Agua Zarca, consent that the dam builders had not received. Cáceres brought to the conflict a strategic savvy honed during 20 years of social-change organizing. Her life to that point had prepared her for this very struggle.

Berta Flores Cáceres was born in La Esperanza in 1971 to a politically active family. Her mother, Austra Bertha Flores López, worked for decades as a midwife, assisting thousands of natural births in the Honduran countryside. She was also—while working full-time and raising 12 children, of whom Berta was the youngest—three times the mayor of La Esperanza, once the governor of the department of Intibucá, and later a member of Honduras’s congress.

Berta took to politics early. At age 12, she ran for student council and began participating in street demonstrations. During political meetings at the family home, she met Salvador Zúñiga  the man with whom she would eventually have four children and share more than 20 years of grassroots struggle. When she was 17, the couple had their first child, a daughter, shortly before crossing the border into El Salvador to join the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrilla army during that country’s brutal civil war. Her mother speaks of this with pride: “She went to fight, rifle in hand.”

After the war ended, in 1992, Zúñiga and Cáceres returned to Honduras, had their second daughter, Berta, and made a pact to never go to war again. “We understood that war was repugnant,” Zúñiga said. “It was the worst thing that could happen to people.” They committed themselves to “active nonviolence” and together founded COPINH.

In the subsequent years, Cáceres, Zúñiga, and COPINH would lead major indigenous marches to Tegucigalpa, the capital, and establish two autonomous indigenous municipalities—the first in Honduran history. Using grassroots organizing and lawsuits, they were able to halt the voracious logging in Intibuca. They also founded a women’s health center and five indigenous radio stations and established a social-movement training and retreat center on 10 acres of land in La Esperanza. “The whole world admired her,” her mother said. “She traveled abroad to help, to give trainings, to give talks, and to carry the message of what was happening here. She had this immense ability to defeat, a little bit, the huge power of the businesses and the big landowners that were her enemy.”

When Cáceres arrived in Río Blanco in the spring of 2013 to help stop the proposed Agua Zarca dam, she brought with her not only the skills of a seasoned organizer but also a national profile that was essential to elevating the struggle. As the blockade continued, DESA engineers and security personnel repeatedly threatened Río Blanco community members, though Cáceres soon became the focal point for threats and intimidation. DESA charged that the Lenca people—though they were living in their communities and farming their ancestral lands—were trespassing. On several occasions, the police dismantled the COPINH roadblocks, and each time the community put the blockade back in place. In mid-May, the Honduran government deployed the military. Soldiers from the Battalion of Engineers established a base camp inside DESA’s facilities.

The close cooperation between the dam builders and the military was part of a larger relationship. DESA’s executives and board of directors come from the Honduran military and banking elite. DESA’s secretary, Roberto Pacheco Reyes, is a former justice minister. The company president, Roberto David Castillo Mejia, is a former military intelligence officer accused of corruption by the Honduran government’s public auditor’s office. The vice president, Jacobo Nicolas Atala Zablah, is a bank owner and a member of one of Honduras’s wealthiest families.

Within days of the soldiers’ appearance at the site, someone planted a handgun in Cáceres’s car. She had already been searched at several police checkpoints when a subsequent military search suddenly revealed a firearm in her vehicle. Cáceres was arrested and taken to jail. She was able to post bail, and the gun charges were dropped, but then DESA filed a lawsuit against her for illegally occupying company land, and the Honduran federal prosecutors added sedition charges for good measure. Fearful of being arrested again, Cáceres went underground as her attorney fought the charges.

Under the Gun: An Investigation into the Murder of Berta Cáceres

“Everything against Berta shows that there is a connection between the military and the company,” said Brigitte Gynther, who has been working in Honduras with the School of the Americas Watch since 2012. “It was the military that had Berta arrested. The collusion between the military and DESA has been a constant since the beginning.”

Then the standoff turned deadly. On July 15, 2013, COPINH staged a peaceful protest at the dam company’s office. The demonstration had barely started when soldiers opened fire on the COPINH activists at close range, killing community leader Tomas Garcia and wounding his 17-year-old son, Alan.

The military’s attack on unarmed protesters marked a turning point. In August 2013, the giant Chinese dam-construction company Sinohydro pulled out of the project, citing the ongoing community resistance. The International Finance Corporation, a private-sector arm of the World Bank that had been considering investing in the dam, announced that it would not support the project. With funding in jeopardy, work on the dam limped along.

In the spring of 2015, Cáceres traveled to the United States to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize for her leadership in the dam struggle. Sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize of the environmental movement, the award recognizes individuals who take great personal risks to protect the environment. In that sense, Cáceres was an ideal recipient. Since the dam conflict had begun, she had received many death threats. At one point, another activist had shown her a military hit list with her name at the top. (The Guardian later published an interview with a former Honduran special forces soldier who confirmed the existence of the hit list.)

Many of Cáceres’s friends and colleagues hoped the Goldman Prize would help protect her. “They gave her the Goldman, and I went with her [to the ceremony],” said Melissa Cardoza, a feminist organizer and writer who was a close friend of Cáceres’s. “And I thought, OK, she’s in the clear. This is going to back her up. Because for a long time she told me, ‘They are going to kill me because they won’t be able to put up with our winning this struggle.'”

 

GUSTAVO CASTRO WAS STILL bleeding from his wound when the cellphone of his dead friend rang. It was Karen Spring, a Canadian activist with the Honduras Solidarity Network. Spring was lying in bed around 1 A.M. on March 3, 2016, when she received a voicemail from a friend who said that Cáceres had been murdered and a Mexican activist was stuck in her house, wounded. When Spring called Cáceres’s number, Castro answered. “I asked him how badly he was injured,” Spring remembered. “He said that he was bleeding from the ear, that there was a lot of blood, but that he was OK.” Castro was terrified that the killers would return and was desperate to get out of the house. He asked Spring if he should call the police, and Spring said she would first try to get COPINH members to rescue him. “You can’t call the police,” Spring told me. “It’s like calling the mafia to the crime scene.”

From the beginning of the investigation, the police tried to blame the murder on someone from COPINH. They repeatedly interrogated Tomás Gómez Membreño, a veteran COPINH member who was among the first to arrive at the murder scene and help Castro. For two days, they detained Cáceres’s onetime boyfriend Aureliano Molina, even though he had not been in La Esperanza on the night of the murder. As detectives interrogated Gustavo Castro to draw a portrait of the man who had shot him, they ignored Castro’s descriptions and kept trying to draw a portrait of Molina. “I realized this days later,” Castro said, “when I saw his picture in the newspapers and I said to myself, ‘That’s the man they were trying to draw.'”

The police initially attempted to involve Castro in the murder. They kept him for days without medical attention, interrogating him at the crime scene over and over. After they told him that he was free to return to Mexico, he was nearly arrested at the airport. Fortunately for him, the Mexican ambassador was accompanying him, and she literally wrapped her arms around Castro and declared, “Consular protection,” allowing him to leave the airport, though not the country. After yet more interrogation, Castro was finally able to return to Mexico and reunite with his family almost a month later.

Two months after Cáceres’s murder, amid massive national and international outcry, Honduran officials began to make arrests. Analyzing phone records, prosecutors sketched an alleged web of complicity involving eight people: an active military officer, Major Mariano Díaz; two DESA employees, an Agua Zarca manager named Sergio Ramón Rodríguez and Douglas Geovanni Bustillo, an ex-military man who was DESA’s chief of security between 2013 and 2015; two former soldiers, Edilson Atilio Duarte Meza and Henry Javier Hernández Rodríguez; and three civilians with no known connections to DESA or the army, Emerson Eusebio Duarte Meza (Edilson’s brother), Óscar Aroldo Torres Velásquez, and Elvin Heriberto Rápalo Orellana. (According to the Guardian, both Díaz and Geovanni Bustillo received military training in the United States.) Honduran officials charged all eight with murder and attempted murder; all but one of the suspects have denied any involvement with the murder.

The arrests immediately cast a shadow on the Agua Zarca dam. Even after Cáceres’s murder, DESA had kept working on the dam. When federal police arrested two DESA employees in connection with the murder, the company halted work. The project remains suspended today. (DESA did not respond to interview requests via email and phone. In statements to the press, the company has repeatedly denied any connection to Cáceres’s murder.)

The Cáceres family and members of COPINH pointed out that investigators had failed to apprehend, or investigate, any possible high-level intellectual authors of the murder. “The public prosecutor accused her of being an instigator and of stealing from a company [DESA]. And now that same institution and the same individuals are the ones investigating her murder,” said Victor Fernández, COPINH’s attorney. “According to the prosecutor’s hypothesis, they have arrested the material authors and the intermediaries. But not the main perpetrators.”

COPINH and the Cáceres family also complained that the investigation had been compromised by political espionage that appears to have accompanied the police inquiry. The entire case file, for example, was supposedly stolen from the trunk of a judge’s car. Cáceres’s house was sealed and guarded by police and soldiers for five months after the murder, as the federal prosecutor’s office conducted its investigation. But when federal officials finally allowed Cáceres’s family back into the property, they realized the house had been broken into while under federal control. Police seals on the home and on Cáceres’s possessions inside were broken, and her two computers, three cellphones, and numerous external hard drives and flash drives were missing. “They stole all the information about COPINH that was in the house,” Cáceres Zúñiga said, referring to government officials.

The Cáceres family’s suspicions about the official investigation are inseparable from the broader atmosphere of distrust that has gripped Honduras since the country’s president, Manuel Zelaya, was overthrown in a 2009 military coup. Zelaya had raised the national minimum wage, proposed turning the massive U.S. military base in Honduras into a national airport, and made promises to indigenous and farmer organizations that he would grant their land claims. Such a program ran counter to the interests of Honduras’s entrenched elite, which deposed him in the middle of the night and put him on a plane in his pajamas. “The right wing didn’t just carry out a coup d’etat; they safeguarded their economic project,” Fernández said. “That is, they used the coup to produce a series of legislative reforms and institutional restructuring that gave them control over key areas and the whole process of remilitarizing the country.”

Soon after the coup, in 2010, a single act of congress granted 41 concessions for hydroelectric dams on rivers across the country. In April of that year, the Honduran government held an international investment convention called “Honduras Is Open for Business.” The country’s mining regulations were relaxed, and a moratorium on new mines was repealed. According to human rights groups, illegal logging increased in the wake of the coup. At the same time, threats against, and murders of, activists began to climb.

“Everything that is happening now stems from the coup,” Cáceres Zúñiga said. “It was the opening of everything that Honduras is going through now. All the violence, corruption, territorial invasions—that is the coup.”

Cáceres was a national leader of the resistance movement against the coup. She took to the streets and to the airwaves. She traveled to El Salvador to participate in a protest outside the building where the Organization of American States was meeting to discuss whether to allow Honduras back into the organization. By the time she took the helm of the struggle against the Agua Zarca dam, the coup government had identified her as an adversary. It was in this context that she became the target of a vicious smear campaign apparently orchestrated by DESA and Honduran officials. “There was this constant defamation campaign, especially for her as a woman. She was painted as this vicious, horrible person,” said Gynther, of the School of the Americas Watch.

Of the eight people currently under arrest and awaiting trial, only one, Hernández Rodríguez, has given detailed testimony that is admissible in court. Hernández Rodríguez was arrested in January 2017 while working at a barbershop in Reynosa, Mexico, and extradited to Honduras. He had been a Honduran special forces sniper with the rank of sergeant stationed in the Lower Aguán Valley and had served directly under Major Díaz. After he left the military, he went to work as a private security supervisor for a palm oil corporation, Dinant, also in the Lower Aguán (see “No One Investigates Anything Here”).

I was able to gain access to an audio recording of Hernández Rodríguez’s testimony. His description of the mechanics of the murder coincides with the physical evidence in Cáceres’s house and with Castro’s eyewitness testimony. While Hernández Rodríguez says that he cooperated with the assassination only under duress and that he didn’t carry a gun the night of the murder, his confession offers some new details. According to Hernández Rodríguez, the murder was planned well in advance: He and Geovanni Bustillo visited La Esperanza in late January and early February. Hernández Rodríguez admits to experience in this kind of political violence: Police have cellphone recordings of him bragging about committing a previous murder and discussing with Díaz what appear to be the logistics for the assassination of Cáceres. And he confirms, using their nicknames, the identities of the men who entered Cáceres’s house and shot Berta and Gustavo: Rápalo Orellana and Torres Velásquez.

Yet all of the physical evidence and testimony still do not answer the question of who, exactly, ordered the assassination. When asked this question by investigators, Hernández Rodriguez responded, “They only said that it was a job that had begun and that it had to be finished. That’s all they said.”

The long-running campaign against Cáceres—plus the alleged involvement of active and former military officers and DESA employees in the coordination and carrying out of the murder—has fueled suspicions that her murder was ordered by people highly placed in the Honduran government, military, and economic elite. (Honduran officials have denied any state connection to the murder.) But, according to COPINH members and Cáceres’s family, police have not sought to establish who was behind the assassination.

The question facing Honduran social movements and the Honduran government is, Will those responsible get away with murder?

 

A YEAR AFTER HER ASSASSINATION, I went to Cáceres’s home with her daughter. The small green house is surrounded by empty fields and a few other new houses and has beautiful views of the nearby mountains. Cáceres had only recently finished making payments on the home, with funds from the Goldman Prize, when she was killed. At the spot where her mother died, Cáceres Zúñiga maintains a thick circle of cypress and guava leaves from her grandmother’s backyard, arranged around a candle on the floor.

As Cáceres Zúñiga walked me through the property, explaining her understanding of what happened the night of the murder, she expressed frustration at how her mother has been remembered since the assassination. Too often, she scoffed, Berta Cáceres is reduced to being just an “environmentalist” or “Goldman Prize winner,” when in fact she was much more than that. I heard similar complaints from everyone who knew and loved Cáceres.

“It really hurts me when they only call her an environmentalist,” Miriam Miranda told me. “Berta was a feminist, indigenous woman of struggle who definitely fought for natural resources, but she was profoundly feminist.” Miranda is the leader of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, and over the course of 25 years of shared struggle, she and Cáceres developed a deep friendship. She has survived beatings and assassination attempts and, since Cáceres’s murder, has become probably the highest-profile social-movement leader in Honduras. “They ripped out a part of my life,” Miranda said. “[Berta] was always there with me in the hardest moments of my life.”

During the demonstrations and vigils marking the first anniversary of her murder, I heard the following chant over and over: “Berta did not die. She became millions!” In the wake of political murder, one task of survivors is to refuse the logic of killing: the fear, hopelessness, and paralysis. To honor the fallen and what they offered, one must not only continue the struggle but fight harder and become one of the millions in whom those like Cáceres live on.

“Her life’s work was insurrection,” said Melissa Cardoza, the feminist organizer and writer. “One day I was with her when she was being arrested. The police were taking down her information, and I was with her. And the cop asked her, ‘What is your profession?’ And she said, ‘I’m a professional agitator.’ The cop said, ‘I can’t put that down.’ And she asked why not? ‘Because it doesn’t exist,’ the cop said. And so she turns to me and says, ‘You tell them. I’m a professional agitator.’ And so I told the cop, ‘Well, it’s true. That’s what she does.’

“That was our Bertita.”

This article appeared in the July/August 2017 edition with the headline “Under the Gun.”

Blood in Honduras, Silence in the United States


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eat, Pray, Starve: What Tim Kaine Didn’t Learn During His Time in Honduras

The vice-presidential nominee supports policies that hurt the country that was the “turning point” in his life.

https://www.thenation.com/article/eat-pray-starve-what-tim-kaine-didnt-learn-during-his-time-in-honduras/

 

Early in Hillary Clinton’s primary contest against Bernie Sanders, Berta Cáceres, an indigenous environmental leader in Honduras, was murdered by a coup regime that Clinton, as Secretary of State, helped consolidate in power. Apart for one quick statement denying any wrongdoing—“simply nonsense,” a spokesman said of the charges that Clinton was in anyway responsible for Cáceres’s killing—the Clinton campaign largely ignored the issue. As far as I know, the only journalist who asked Clinton directly about Honduras was Juan González, during Clinton’s interview with the editorial board of the New York Daily News. Clinton provided a wordy and vague answer. She admitted that the situation was bad, that activists were being slaughtered, but insisted that at the time she “managed a very difficult situation, without bloodshed, without a civil war, that led to a new election. And I think that was better for the Honduran people.” For the most part, criticism of Clinton on Honduras largely stayed on the margins of the primary process, even as the killing in Honduras continued and evidenced mounted that Washington was once again was funding old-school death squads (see the invaluable investigation by Annie Bird).

Now, having beat back that part of the Democratic rank-and-file that cares about dead feminist activists in small third-world countries, the Clinton campaign has gone full Sun Tzi, turning its Honduran weak point into a strength, or, à la Karl Rove, its vulnerability into a virtue.

In picking Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate, the campaign has front-and-centered Honduras—not as a victim of Clinton’s realpolitik neoliberalism but as a sacred space of healing poverty.

Kaine, a Catholic, spent nine months in Honduras, from 1980 to 1981, in the Jesuit mission in El Progreso, very close to the company towns and plantations of the storied multinational banana company, United Fruit.

The sojourn, Kaine says, changed his life. Honduras “was really the turning point in my life. I was at Harvard Law School and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. And I took a year off and worked with Jesuit missionaries in Honduras,” Kaine told CNN’s Candy Crowley. “Every day I think of the lessons I learned from my friends there,” Kaine said elsewhere. The experience, he says, set him on his life’s journey to fight for social justice. Honduras “made him who he is,” said Kaine’s mother, Kathleen.

As soon as Clinton announced her pick, the liberal press converged, following the Clinton campaign’s talking points that spun Kaine as a progressive. “A Pope Francis Catholic.” Fine. To be expected. But that Honduras—Honduras!—is being highlighted as the beginning of Kaine’s conversion narrative truly is audacious.

James "Guadalupe" Carney sj

James “Guadalupe” Carney sj

Kaine, then twenty-two years old, showed up in Honduras during an especially consequential moment. The country in 1980 was quickly turning into the crossroads of Cold War. A year earlier, next door, Nicaragua’s Sandinistas had won their revolution. Father James Carney, a Chicago-born Jesuit priest who was executed in Honduras in 1983, recalled the moment in the Spanish-version of his memoir (published in English as To Be a Revolutionary): “If Nicaragua won, El Salvador could win, and then Guatemala, and then Honduras could win.” Carney said that in early 1980, El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, himself soon to executed, had declared that all conditions had been met for Christians to join the revolution:  Life had become intolerable; All non-violent avenues of reform had been tried and failed; And, considering the misery in which most people lived, it would have been impossible for the revolution to produce injustices worse than those that already existed. “The popular war for liberation in Central America was one single war,” Carney wrote.

At the same time, CIA operatives quietly began to move into the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa’s discreet Hotel Alameda, and began setting up the paramilitary network that would execute the Contra War against Nicaragua, a war that would claim 50,000 lives and lay the Sandinista Revolution to waste. CIA agents also began to work closely with Honduras’s security forces, which began their campaign of political disappearances in late 1979. On January 31, 1980, Guatemalan security forces firebombed the Spanish embassy, killing dozens of peasant protestors, including Rigoberta Menchú’s father, an atrocity that inaugurated a three year genocidal campaign that would claim hundreds of thousands of Mayan lives. In March 1980, Monsignor Romero was murdered. Ronald Reagan took

John Negroponte USA regime destabilizer and advisor to death squads

John Negroponte
USA regime destabilizer and advisor to death squads

office in January 1981, and appointed John Negroponte ambassador to Honduras. Negroponte, who later in his diplomatic career would move on to larger operations in Iraq, helped cover up the activities of Battalion 316, a death squad that disappeared scores of Hondurans. On May 14, 1980, Salvador’s National Guard, along with a paramilitary unit, slaughtered at least 300 people trying to flee into Honduras across the Sumpul River. On December 11, 1981, the US trained Atlacatl Battalion massacred upward of 900 people in the remote Salvador village of El Mozote. Throughout the region, including in Honduras, “multinational ‘hunter-killer’ squads on the Condor model” began claiming victims. Thousands of refugees, from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, poured into Honduras.

It was into this whirlwind that young Tim Kaine flung himself on his voyage of self-discovery.

The Jesuit order was on the frontlines of Central America’s political upheaval. By no means were most Jesuits leftwing, but many, perhaps the majority, were at least broadly committed to what was called the “social gospel.” Some, like Father Carney in Honduras and Fernando Hoyos in Guatemala, committed themselves to the revolution and gave their lives. Others were more intellectual, deciding to master worldly knowledge, obtaining advanced degrees in political science, economics, sociology,

The Jesuits were dragged out in the yard in front of their campus home and were shot in the head, on November 16, 1989.

The Jesuits were dragged out in the yard in front of their campus home and were shot in the head, on November 16, 1989.

history, psychology, and anthropology, and then use that knowledge to work for social justice. The most well-known among this group were the six Jesuits who would be executed in San Salvador in 1989 by the Atlacatl Battalion (the same U.S. trained battalion that committed the El Mozote massacre).

By the time Kaine arrived in Honduras, the Jesuit mission in El Progreso was focusing its work on labor issues and the welfare of plantations laborers and their families.  Jeff Boyer, an anthropologist who did fieldwork in rural Honduras around the time Kaine was in El Progreso, tells me that the Jesuits “consistently endeavored to be thorn in the side” of the company, they had “no qualms going after United Fruit.” Boyer recalls a split among Honduras’s “North Coast Jesuits,” caused by, on the one hand, the rise of leftwing Liberation Theology and, on the other, the 1979 investiture of Pope John Paul II, a theological conservative who actively worked to weaken Liberation Theology in Latin America. According to Boyer, the U.S. Jesuits in Honduras tended to be more conservative, while younger Latin American and European Jesuits “consistently held democratic socialist positions.” (The one exception to this was Father Carney.)

In interviews, Kaine says his mentor in El Progreso was Father Jarrell “Patricio” Wade—known as Padre Patricio—a Jesuit who spent nearly his whole life ministering in Honduras and who passed away there in 2014 at the age of 81. By all accounts, Wade was a decent, caring, and well-liked cleric—a “bear of a man,” remembers Boyer—but his ethics were more pastoral than political. Father Carney says that Wade blamed his political work with peasants for provoking the growing repression against priests.  A “traditional Jesuit,” remembers Boyer, unable to see the need for structural change.

Jesuits con Tim Kaine

Tim Kaine met with Jesuits during Holy Week 2016 in El Progreso

Kaine was in Honduras for nine months (though two-year commitments for US volunteers were the standard for Jesuits). Mary Jo McConahay, a journalist with longtime experience in Central America, told me that it is “notable that Kaine’s work is being described as ‘missionary,’ as if fishing for converts, when it was anything but.” According to his own account, he provided politically neutral technical training, helping with a program that taught carpentry and welding. Yet, as Boyer tells me, “if Tim Kaine was working as a Jesuit volunteer in 1980, he could not have avoided become immersed in these socio-religious, political currents and cross-currents.  He would have been exposed to both conservative and generally more left and activist work of his hosts and mentors.”

Kaine, in other words, had found himself in the cauldron of the Cold War. “It was hot,” Boyer remembers of the Jesuit debates over what the proper course of action should be.

None of this, however, comes across in anything Kaine says about his time in Honduras. Kaine didn’t run for public office until the 1990s, so there is no public record of what his opinion was of the Contra War, or the Guatemalan genocide, or the 1989 murder of the Jesuits in El Salvador, or what his Honduran mentors thought of Pope John Paul II’s efforts to neutralize Liberation Theology. Rather, Kaine, who has been talking about his time in Honduras at least since the early 2000s, when he was mayor of Richmond, uses his nine-month stay as a kind of platitudinous catch-all, to prove he is a true Christian to Virginia conservatives, to court the Latino vote, and, now, to convince rank-and-file Democrats he’s a progressive.

Recently, in a C-SPAN interview, Kaine was asked what he learned about “America” during his time in genocidal, insurgent, impoverished, revolutionary, counter-revolutionary, priest- and peasant-killing Central America in 1980-1981. “Happiness is not that correlated with wealth,” he said; and, since Honduras was a “dictatorship.… It really taught me about things that we take for granted here…having a government that is the rule of the law.”

That dictatorship was created and maintained by the US, a fact lost in Kaine’s uplift. Here’s a report from NACLA from 1981: “Honduras almost outdoes the stereotype of a banana republic. The vast plantations run by United Fruit (now United Brands) envelop the countryside, while Honduras is second only to Haiti in per capita poverty. It has seen 150 governments in 160 years, and spent the last 18 under military rule.” It should be noted that that 18-year dictatorship was installed by the JFK administration, in a coup, one of many in Latin America brokered by Washington following the Cuban Revolution. In 1980, exactly the moment Kaine landed in El Progreso, Honduras “was the second largest recipient of U.S. economic assistance to Latin America, despite a sparse population of three million. It has received $3.5 million in military aid since April 1980, with $10.7 million projected for fiscal 1982.” Happiness indeed is not that correlated with wealth—or at least the wealth that comes in the form of military aid from Washington.

One story that Kaine likes to tell—and he’s been telling it for a decade now, through his runs for Virginia governor and senator, and may again this Wednesday in his acceptance speech—is how he once tried to refuse a gift of food from a family with four, malnourished children. Padre Patricio accepted the food, and when Kaine asked how the Jesuit could take food from the needy, Patricio told him: “Tim, you really have to be humble to accept a gift with food from a family that poor.” Kaine say he has “not forgotten the lesson.”

All this Christian charity would be fine, had Kaine, during his time in public office, especially as Senator, taken political action to help make food less expensive in Honduras. But he supports NAFTA and the Central American Free Trade Agreement, CAFTA. Though he wasn’t in the Senate yet to vote on those treaties, he says anyone opposed to free trade exhibits a “loser’s mentality.” So while Kaine is decent on immigration, and has signed on a letter to Secretary of State, John Kerry, asking for an investigation into Berta Cáceres’s death, he has consistently supported economic and security policies that drive immigration and contribute to the kind of repression that killed Cáceres.

CAFTA has been an unmitigated disaster for the peasants Tim Kaine thinks about every day. It has flooded local markets with cheap, agro-industry produced corn and other products, leading to a collapse in the price of locally grown food stuff but a rise in the cost of food in general. Malnutrition increased under CAFTA, and, during some acute periods, so did starvation. The trade treaty makes it difficult, if not impossible, for local governments to impose regulations on certain industries, like mining. A recent report issued by Congress’ Progressive Caucus concluded that “free trade agreements, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) have led to the displacement of workers and subsequent migration from these countries.”

In Honduras, extreme poverty has increased since CAFTA has gone into effect, as has political repression, especially following the 2009 coup. Kaine, as far as I can tell, has said nothing about that coup (his beloved Jesuits condemned it in no uncertain terms). Watching Kaine talk about Honduras, he does seem troubled by the country’s poverty and political repression. But like most neoliberal politicians, he disassociates in his political rhetoric the trade and security policies he votes for from the catastrophic consequences of those policies. As I wrote elsewhere about Clinton’s Latin American policies, “there’s no violence caused by over-militarization that more militarization can’t solve. There’s no poverty caused by ‘free trade’ that more ‘free trade’ can’t solve.”

Kaine helps the Clinton campaign transform Honduras from a real place, engaged in political struggle, into an imaginary kingdom of banality. The sharp political and economic analysis of someone like Berta Cáceres, who before her death named Hillary Clinton and US policy as responsible for Honduras’s terror regime, is converted into the virtues of anonymous poor people offering up their ever-more costly (thanks to CAFTA) food as a life lesson in humility.  It’s a neoliberal Eat, Pray, Love.  Or, better, Eat, Pray, Starve.