Posts Tagged ‘repression in Honduras’

https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/dec/25/16-stories-of-jesus-in-honduras

From a political prisoner to a garbage picker, and a bereaved mother to an activist, photographer Sean Hawkey reveals the poverty and violence rife in Honduras through the stories of men and women named Jesús

Main image: Yolanda Jesús Lozano, who works on the municipal dump in Rio Abajo, Tegucigalpa

The disappeared

Manuel de Jesús Bautista Salvador, 22, was arrested by military police (PMOP) in Naco, Cortés, in the north-west of Honduras, for breaking a curfew during the 2017 protests against the re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernández.

The government responded to the opposition demonstrations with military force and a 10-day curfew. By the curfew’s end, Honduras’ National Human Rights Commission said 14 civilians had died in protests since the election, and 1,675 people had been arrested.

A poster asking for news of Manuel de Jesús Bautista Salvador who has been missing since December 2017

On 3 December at 7.30pm, Manuel de Jesús Bautista Salvador was detained, along with a friend. They were beaten, pepper-sprayed and taken away with two others who were already in the police patrol vehicle. At a checkpoint, Bautista Salvador jumped from the vehicle and the other detainees heard shots.

The other men were released the following day but nothing has since been heard of Bautista Salvador. Despite petitions by the Honduran Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared, he is still “disappeared”, and there has been no investigation into his whereabouts.

The political prisoner

Jesús García of Carrizal, a Catholic lay preacher

Jesús García of Santa Elena, La Paz, spent 17 months imprisoned because of his activities as a Catholic lay preacher.

“When my father was assassinated my mother looked at how she’d been left with no help. She got sick and just died. One of my brothers was disabled. He also died of pneumonia. The rest of us survived somehow. I was orphaned quite young, so I couldn’t study. We all had to work to survive.

“I was a political prisoner because I was a lay preacher. I coordinated 180 other preachers in Santa Elena and Yarula and Nahuaterique. Our priests asked us to speak the truth, and that’s what we did.

“They came at two in the morning to take me. There were a lot of soldiers. They smashed up everything in the house.

“At first no one knew where they’d taken us. We were disappeared. At that time lots of people disappeared for ever, or maybe they’d find your body in a ditch. It was dangerous. A lot of people died like that. Our families were asking the army to give us back, at least to hand over the dead bodies.

“Central America has a lot of martyrs.”

The bereaved mother

Bereaved mother. Jesús Lorenzo Martínez, Ojo de Agua, La Paz.

“I don’t know how old I am,” says Jesús Lorenzo Martínez of Ojo de Agua, La Paz. “I’m on my own. Bringing my children up on my own is a struggle, a battle. I had six children but two are dead. Two boys died. They weren’t for me, they were for God. One went when he was a month old.

“The other went when he was one year and four months. Sometimes I grieve. I conform, it’s God’s will. But I am afraid when one gets ill. I can’t get ill or no one will look after them. One of the girls is working in San Miguel [El Salvador]. May God bless her and look after her and protect her.

“My kids are like me, they are as big as me now, and they will have to struggle like I’ve struggled. Sometimes I sleep with a flower, and I feel like the boys are with me and I feel strong.”

The indigenous leader

Indigenous leader Jesús Pérez, Corralito, Copán

“I live here in Los Altos de Corralito, where I was born, high up in the mountains,” says Jesús Pérez. “I plant corn and beans, and sometimes I earn some money working as a labourer.

“I have six living daughters, and two living sons. Our community has a history of struggle for land and for recognition of our indigenous identity, and my family has paid dearly for it. Blood has been spilt for our rights.

“The Maya Chortí communities were marginalised by the big landowners, but thank God, now we have official recognition as an indigenous people, and we have a little bit of land. We’ve been here for thousands of years, but we only got recognition in the last 20.

“My nephew was Cándido Amador. He was two days older than me. He gave his life for our cause. They assassinated him. He had long hair, he dressed in indigenous clothes, and had very indigenous features.

“…They thought that Candido was the leader and that’s why they assassinated him. He was beaten, he was cut with a machete on his hands, his neck, his head, and he was shot three times in the chest. And they scalped him. It was the night of 11 April 1997. He lived in my house, so they came here to get me to identify the body. He had been thrown on the side of the road.

“One of my own sons is buried next to him. He had a fall while he was working in the town, and died of the internal injuries later. We put flowers on both the graves at the same time.”

The dying man

Fausto de Jesús Vásquez, Los Patios, La Paz

Fausto de Jesús Vásquez, of Los Patios, La Paz, met his wife in the fields.

“She would bring the food to us when we worked, I saw her, and I fell in love with her. We had two children.

“I was born in Nahuaterique which was in El Salvador – now it is in Honduras. We have double nationality.”

(Nahuaterique was part of an international border dispute between El Salvador and Honduras that was resolved by the International Court at the Hague in 1992, when it passed to Honduran administration.)

“I’m dying. I am surrounded by my family. My children live nearby. Here nature is abundant, it’s good for maize and beans, coffee, yuca. I worked with vegetables too – tomatoes, cucumbers, to sell.

“We saw a bit of everything in that time, in the war. We lost everything – the house, all our things. But they are material things, you can get all that again. Life is what you can’t get back if you lose it.

“We rebuilt everything after the war.”

Jesús died peacefully at home earlier this year.

The hungry child

Jesús Ángel Vásquez, from San Marcos de Sierra, Intibucá

Jesús Ángel Vásquez lives in San Marcos de Sierra, Intibucá. “I am in fifth grade. I live with my mum and dad. I have three brothers. I’m the oldest one.

“I get up at two o’clock in the morning. I go to wash. My mum does good tortillas. My favourite food is rice. Sometimes we don’t have much food. I’m hungry.”

The land rights activist

Activist Jesús Salazar, in Suyapa, Pespire

Jesús Salazar, Suyapa, Pespire is the coordinator of an organisation for the defence of human rights.

“[We defend] our shared resources, the water and woods here. We began organising to defend ourselves four years ago.

“We need to defend the water. It’s scarce here in the south, and it’s our life. We depend on it to live.

“In 2003 we began to hear these promises, that the road was going to be improved and the church would be built, if we let the mining company in. The municipal authorities, our representatives in the National Congress, they all supported it. They promoted it.

“But, that’s not development for us. That’s the sale of our territory to transnational companies. It’s against our will and against our interests. They can always find an ally in the communities – people who will help them. They give them some money and brainwash them, but these people bring long-term difficulties for our communities, which will affect our children and grandchildren. It will poison them and rob them of water. We need to be very clear about this – they are bringing death.

“They came here with an environmental licence … But because we were already organised, there was a defence. We have 19 groups organised in the villages around here, and we have lawyers. We won’t let them in.

“They’ve tried. There have been confrontations and injuries. Twice those rats have come here with their machines. They even came at Christmas because they thought it’d be easier.

“They came one evening when we were planting corn. There weren’t many men here. Everyone was in the fields planting. Women with babies stood in front of the excavators to stop them coming in. Then, with mobile phones, we mobilised more than 300 people to come quickly with machetes and sticks, and we stood in front of the machines and we all raised our machetes in the air. The men they sent were thugs, but they left.”

The midwife

María de Jesús Pérez Vásquez

María de Jesús Pérez Vásquez, from Las Flores, Lempira, is 92.

“I had three of my own children – two boys and a girl. I spend most of my time in the house nowadays, with my daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

“There’s no one else my age around here. The secret to a long life is to rest enough but not too much, eat as little as a child eats and work hard. I still like to make tortillas, though my fingers are getting stiff now.

“My parents didn’t have money to send me to school, but I learned a few things. I worked as a midwife for 60 years. I delivered a lot of babies, attended a lot of women in birth. Everyone here knows me. Women still bring me little gifts to say thank you. When I walk down the road, most of the people I meet – I saw them arrive in this world. I was the first person to hold them.

“My husband was a drunk. He died of a hangover in a field 12 years after we got married. I brought up the children on my own.”

The seed saver

Indigenous corn saved by Jesús Martínez

Jesús Martínez, from Santa Elena, La Paz, says he doesn’t remember how old he is.

“[But] I remember the war. We heard it all happening – the bombs and machine guns, but they never arrived here. Thank God.”

Jesús’ son, who is also a Jesús – Jesús Martínez Vásquez – shows us some multi-coloured corn they are saving for seed, open-pollinated, indigenous varieties.

Jesús Martínez, from Santa Elena, La Paz

“These are seeds that are passed down from generation to generation. Farmers have done this for thousands of years. We save the seeds from the best heads of corn, then we plant them again, when the moon is right, and we’ll get a good harvest of strong corn like the harvest before, as long as it rains.

“We grow black corn, yellow and white, and mixed. We know that the seeds from here like our mountain soil. Corn has grown here in these mountains for hundreds of years. The first problem with the commercial corn seed is that you have to buy them. Well, we don’t have the money. It is very productive, but only the first year, then the second year it’s weaker. It’s so weak it’s not worth saving the seed for the second year.

“If you want to keep on getting the big hybrid yield, then you need to buy more seed the next year, and the fertiliser and the insecticide. And if you don’t keep your indigenous seeds, then you just have to buy the hybrid seed. So, the best thing is to grow at least some indigenous corn, and keep the seed, or you end up dependent on the seed companies and giving your money to them. Anyway, this is what we use for the tortillas. We eat these with beans, an egg, avocado. We grow two types of beans here, a tiny one and chinapopo. That’s a tasty bean.”

The survivor of domestic violence

María de Jesús Gabarette, from Tierra Colorada, Lempira

María de Jesús Gabarette is from Tierra Colorada, Lempira.

“My husband died. He hanged himself, here in the house, with a rope. When he used to get drunk I’d be afraid. He’d be really drunk sometimes and he’d shout at me, telling me off for going to church. Sometimes I’d just leave the house and sleep somewhere else, or I’d sleep with a knife under my pillow. Everyone used to tell me to leave him. Since he’s died, it’s helped me going to the church. My children helped me build this little adobe house.

“He’s been dead seven years now. Lots of women get killed by drunk and violent husbands. I’m afraid my kids will waste their lives drinking.

“I make a living by going to Lepaera to buy vegetables and chickens, and I bring them back here to sell. And I’m training to be a midwife.”

The rubbish picker

Yolanda Jesús Lozano, municipal dump, Rio Abajo, Tegucigalpa

Yolanda Jesús Lozano works on the municipal dump in Rio Abajo, Tegucigalpa.

“I’m a single mother bringing up my three children. I do it with the money I make here on the dump – mainly with tins and sometimes bottles, and other things if there are a lot. I can earn 80 lempiras [£2.60] a day. It’s dangerous here as they dump waste from the hospital. You can get a used syringe in your foot.

“Two weeks ago they found a head here, half eaten by the vultures. They say they found the body over in Comayagüela.”

The tenant farmer

Jesús Alberto Ramírez, in Sinaí Chimichal, Copán

Jesús Alberto Ramírez, lives in Sinaí Chimichal, Copán.

“Sinai is a holy place. It’s where Moses got the 10 commandments. Chimichal is a tree that grows here. That’s why we called this place Sinaí Chimichal. We’ve been here since 1991.

“We organised ourselves because we’d been enslaved by the landowner. We weren’t allowed to plant food to eat, or to put up a fence around our huts, or to wash clothes in the stream. They just made us work for whatever they wanted to pay us, and they’d treat us very badly.

“Organising ourselves was hard on everyone. My brother, Nicolás Ramírez, was shot in the belly and killed. The rest of us were captured, tied up with rope and taken to prison. After 20 days or so I was let out, but I was captured and sent to prison again. Our friend Rufino was also shot and captured and sent to prison without medical treatment.

“Negotiations took place, and eventually we were given about 30 acres to plant food and build huts. And here we are.

“We’ve suffered a lot of poverty here. Most of the families here have lost a child. But since we’ve been able to plant food it’s a lot better and not so many children have died.”

The carpenter

Jesús Alberto Mayorga Lemus, of Copán Ruinas

Jesús Alberto Mayorga Lemus, from Copán Ruinas, says his parents couldn’t afford to send him to school.

“So I decided to learn a trade to earn some money. I learned carpentry and I went to work. I was 13. I didn’t get paid for three years. My shoes were broken and I had patches in my trousers. It was hard. When I was visiting my girlfriend I had to hide the holes in my shoes by putting my foot up behind me.

“I’ve suffered, but you learn from suffering and you can use it to become better – a better son, a better brother, a better friend, a better husband. Without God, we aren’t anything.

“I fell in love and got married when I was 16 and a half. We had four children.”

The farmer

Jesús García Hernández, of Langue, Valle

Jesús García Hernández, is from Los Horcones, Valle.

“The drought has been going on for 10 years. It’s due to climate change. Winters were good before. But now we’ve had years without water. We’ve got dry streams, rivers and wells. We lose our seeds and fertilisers; we even lose our hope sometimes.

“There are families here who haven’t had a harvest for 10 years. We’ve all just lost another harvest. We prepared the soil, put in the seeds and fertilisers and, when the first bit of rain came, the plants began growing. Then the rain stopped. Then the rain came again but it was too late. After 10 years of drought the people here have used up their reserves and there’s desperation.

“We’ve had to deepen the wells, but they still dry up. The water is going down.

“A lot of people have left. Some go to work in other places as labourers or security guards or cleaners. And some risk the journey to the States. What else is there to do?”

The LGBT activist

Emanuel de Jesús Barrientos, of Comayagüela

Emanuel de Jesús Barrientos lives in Comayagüela.

“I knew I was gay when I was six years old. I’m 33 now, the age of Christ.

“In Honduras many gay men suffer discrimination. They are attacked, even killed. It’s dangerous to come out of the closet as it puts everything in danger – your family, your social relationships, your work, your security, even your life. We live in an aggressive environment of violent heterosexual machismo.

“I work promoting LGBT rights and I study at the university too. In our offices we are obliged to have a security system with cameras and rolls of razorwire as we’ve had threats.

“We have a proposal for a law for gender identity and equality. Through this law we would have a legal basis to prohibit all sorts of discrimination for sexual orientation, race, ability, age and gender identity.

“There are gender equality laws in other countries but, of course, with this government there’s not much chance of seeing it passed in Honduras. A lot of people are opposed to the movement for equality. They think the only thing we want is equal marriage and the right to adopt.

“Two years ago I tried dressing as a woman for the first time. I feel it allows me to express a feminine side of my character that I can’t while I’m dressed as a man. I don’t walk down the street like it, but I do it for LGBT events, like a show. It’s a bit of fun.”

The migrant

Jesús Hernández, on the migrant caravan

Jesús Hernández has joined the migrant caravan, pictured here on the road to Oaxaca out of Arriaga, Chiapas: he is wearing the NY baseball cap.

“I’m from Tela and I work as a mechanic, welder, carpenter, builder. I’m heading to the States to look for work. All my family are there. I’m travelling with the caravan because it’s safer than going alone. The journey is dangerous. And, there’s no money to pay a coyote [people trafficker].”

As the image above was taken, federal riot police blocked the road for a few hours. But shortly after dawn, Jesús and thousands of others headed north, continuing on their walk to the US border.

tinuing on their walk to the US border.

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.

I was an American missionary in Honduras. I witnessed firsthand the violence they endure.


In this Nov. 2, 2018 photo, 3-year-old Brithani Lizeth Cardona Orellana, bottom right center, stands with her 5-year-old sister Janeisy Nicolle and brother 9-year-old brother Kenner Alberto, flanked by their aunt and uncle at their home in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

There is an armed security guard at every Dunkin’ Donuts in Honduras. When you enter a pharmacy, the guard with a shotgun slung across his chest will considerately hold your pistol while you wait for your prescription to be filled. On holidays, there are no official fireworks, only a handful of illegal firecrackers and gunshots exploding in the night air. On Christmas Eve, New Year’s, Independence Day, in every barrio across the country, shots echo in the dark like a posse galloping out of town in an old Western.

Five years ago, I left the States to volunteer alongside other Americans and Nicaraguans at a children’s home on the northern coast of Honduras that served orphans and kids who could no longer live with their families due to extreme poverty, abuse or both. We learned firsthand that paradise and hell are next-door neighbors, and you can hear the gunshots at night from both places.

I first had a gun pointed at me while waiting for a cab before dawn in the wealthiest neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, the industrial center of the country and, at the time, the “murder capital” of the world. The security guard saw me standing outside the seminary where I had spent the night as a guest. He climbed down from his turret on the street corner and approached me with a machete in one hand and a raised revolver in the other.

“What are you doing here?” He squinted at me, blinking back sleep.

“I’m just waiting for a taxi. I’m headed to the airport,” I said.

“Then why would you be waiting here on the street?” he asked. “Nothing good happens here this time of night.” Surrounding us were houses that were mansions even by U.S. standards. I wanted to go back inside the seminary, but the 15-foot-high gate had slid closed behind me, and I could not open it again without waking up all the priests, nuns and seminarians inside.

“I can go wait on another block,” I offered. “My cab is just five minutes away.”

“No!” he responded firmly. “You wait right there. Don’t move. Just wait.”

When my taxi finally did arrive, he holstered his gun and offered an apology, but I did not stick around long enough to acknowledge it.

•••

Before I moved to Honduras, I visited the country. For a week, I helped lead a group of high school students from all of the Catholic schools in the Diocese of Dallas who wanted to offer some manual labor and supplies to our “sister diocese.” In the shadow of a massive green mountain, we worked to rebuild and paint a crowded school where Luis, our local guide, and his wife were teachers. Luis was the closest thing the small village had to a mayor. He ran the school, helped settle disputes, led the community Bible study and Sunday service, and as one of the only residents with a car, also provided ambulance service.

One morning he greeted us with bags under his bloodshot eyes. He had taken a neighbor who had stomach pains to the hospital in the middle of the night—more than an hour’s drive each way, around to the other side of the mountain. He returned in time for breakfast and prayers and to greet us in the morning at the school.

Luis and his wife stood out as towering examples of what was possible even amid extreme poverty. With determination and a good heart, one could be a pillar of the community—a community worth staying for. I once asked Luis if many of the young men in his village would eventually leave for the United States. “All of them,” he told me. There was no shame in his voice; it was simply a fact. When I asked if he had ever thought of making the journey, he shook his head. He had a wife and young son, a good job, a community where he was making a difference; he could not imagine leaving.

Years later, when I moved to a town just on the other side of that mountain, I jumped on the bus to visit Luis and his family. He was thrilled to see me again but cautioned me not to take the bus next time. “It was not safe” is all he would say.

During my two years in Honduras, I learned to love those kids at our children’s home like they were my own. Our goal was to prepare them for healthy and productive lives in Honduras, despite the brutal and heartbreaking childhood they had suffered. If we could only offer them enough love and stability and peace in the midst of the tempest around them and behind them in their past, they might have a fighting chance, we believed.

Yet violence does not issue warnings, and it will not take into consideration sincerely held beliefs. I had just returned from teaching my English class for the day when I learned that one of our volunteers and our executive director, who was visiting from the States, had been attacked on the beach next to our property. Maybe 200 yards from the house, our sanctuary, they had been held with machetes to their necks, and the volunteer, one of my best friends, was raped. “We know where you are from,” their attackers had said when they let them go. “Tell anyone and we come back and kill you and all the children.”

After going to the hospital and giving her testimony to the police, my beloved friend spent the night surrounded by the rest of us on the floor, several of us with machetes by our sides and all of us unable to sleep. In the morning, she was evacuated out of the country, and the rest of us were offered the option by our board of directors to leave as well. Suddenly the cursed choice to flee this country that so many of our Honduran neighbors had been forced to make became my own. The men responsible had still not been caught, and our already limited community of volunteers was quickly dwindling as many admitted they no longer felt safe enough to continue working. The next day the rest of us left as well.

•••

A few years later I reached out to Luis via WhatsApp. It turned out he and his family had snuck away from their small town in the middle of the night. A local gang had demanded he pay for “protection,” and when Luis refused, they threatened to kill him and his family. They fled to a larger city, but he and his wife were unable to find any work as teachers and were still fearful the gang would eventually find them. He asked if I could help him claim asylum in the United States.

I got in touch with a few immigration lawyers, who told me Luis would have to make it to the Mexico-U.S. border and apply for asylum there. But even if he got that far, I had to tell Luis, it was very unlikely his family would be granted asylum. Luis was heartbroken. He needed to protect his family, he said, and the best way he could do that was to leave and provide some kind of living for them. Maybe you and I could get married, if only on paper, he offered sincerely. He was right that such a union was now legal here in the United States, I explained, but I could not just marry him to get him citizenship. Despite the absurdity of the suggestion, I struggled to type out my response, knowing my decision was a matter of life and death.

I still receive messages from Luis every few weeks begging me for help, though to be honest, I no longer have the courage to open them. Constant reminders that I am helpless simply became too much. I know ignoring him is wrong. I know it is my privilege to be able to log off of the violence of Honduras and pretend I do not live in the country that created Luis’s desperation, which is also the country that could help to fix it.

For all I know, Luis may be part of the infamous caravan, waiting on the other side of the southern border to claim asylum. It is the type of thing a real friend should know. It is important to know who these people are and that what they are doing is legal. There is no way for them to claim asylum from within their country of origin. Implying that those who peacefully present themselves at ports of entry have broken any American laws is simply not truthful.

When I first met Luis, I assumed that in Honduras it was possible to get an education, work and become financially stable enough that you would never need to leave. But the image in my head of the “virtuous Honduran” proved an illusion when even Luis was forced to flee from the unyielding violence and poverty of Central America. If we want to end the cycle of families fleeing in the night for our border, it is necessary to learn why their nights became so terrifying to begin with.

The weapons that plague their streets came from us. The corruption that infests their governments is a direct result of the coups and instability our country has consistently directed or condoned for over a century. Before Banana Republic was a chic clothing store, it was a dismissive term for a country made entirely dependent on a more powerful economy outside its borders. It was merely an updated version of colonialism, and the original victim was Honduras.

Poverty and violence, the causes of these caravans, are diseases we infected these countries with. Getting mad at the migrants is like the conquistadors and white frontiersmen wondering why the Native Americans they found were always getting so sick.

Those of us who live north of the Mexican border have to learn just how intertwined our lands are and why our neighbors to the south still hear gunshots at night. I have fled from one side to the other myself and watched in vain as those I care about try to follow. But being born in paradise is no reason to condemn those still stuck in hell.

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

November 23, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2018/03/20/activists-go-underground-un-reports-excessive-force-honduras
Aquilina Guerra is released on Feb. 26 after she was charged, fraudulently say supporters, with “storing weapons of war.” Photo by Louis Bockner.

In the months since the widely criticized elections in November, threats and harassment against social and political activists have ramped up in Honduras, according to the U.N. High Commission on Human Rights.

The report, “Human Rights Violations in the Context of the 2017 Honduran Elections,” published on March 12, outlines how the parameters of the state of emergency ordered by President Juan Orlando Hernández in the days following the elections were too broad and imprecise, “leading to massive and indiscriminate arrests, resulting in limiting the right to peaceful assembly and association.”

The report documents cases of extrajudicial murders committed by police, illegal house raids and threats and harassment against journalists and social and political activists since the end of November 2017 within “the context of a political, economic and social crisis inherited since the 2009 military coup.”

The U.N. report confirms what social movement organizers and civil society groups on the ground have been saying for weeks. On Feb. 26, the Center for Justice and International Law and the Coalition Against Impunity in Honduras, made up of 58 civil society organizations, denounced the Hernández government at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights Public in Bogota. They cited widespread “repression and militarization exercised against the Honduran population during the past months.”

In addition, the organizations charged that “the government has implemented other practices to identify and sanction opposition, resulting in house raids, improper searches and the improper use of criminal law to criminalize social protest.” They offered evidence of acts of repression at close to 200 peaceful protests and over 1,200 instances of illegal detention, torture, extrajudicial murder, internally displaced people, threats and intimidations.

The U.N. report documents cases of extrajudicial murders committed by police, illegal house raids and threats and harassment against journalists and social and political activists.

The north coast of Honduras is rich in natural resources sought by powerful mining and other development interests, resisted by local people. A series of violent attacks like those outlined in the U.N. report and at the I.A.C.H.R. have targeted community members who have been organizing to defend their rivers and mountains.

According to the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (M.A.D.J.), on Jan. 22, in the days leading up to the inauguration of President Hernández, Ramón Fiallos was targeted and shot by police at a protest in Arizona, Atlantida.

Six hours later, following another protest nearby, Geovany Diaz, a 35-year-old father of five and member of M.A.D.J. was executed by Honduran police who shot him 40 times after dragging him outside of his home at 4 a.m., according to family members who spoke to America on Jan. 26.

“It’s logical to see that the reason for these murders is their struggle,” said a source from the Jesuit Reflection, Research and Communications Team, who has been closely following the cases. Mr. Fiallos was a well-known community leader who was working to protect the Jilamito River from a proposed hydroelectric project. In Pajuiles, where Mr. Diaz lived, the community has spent a year protesting proposed mining and hydroelectric projects.

Luis Garcia, a longtime friend who had worked for years with Mr. Fiallos, saw the violence happen. “Luis knew he could be next,” said Osman Orellana, a community health promoter at the Claret BioHealth Centre in Arizona. “He was in the last roadblock when they murdered Ramón.”

In the weeks after the killing of his friend, Mr. Garcia felt the pressure mount as community leaders across the country were targeted and arbitrarily detained. “He told us that in the last two weeks an unknown car had been circling his house,” said Mr. Orellana. “Different organizations and the parish told him it would be best to leave the country.”

In the past, Mr. Garcia had received death threats for his activism, and he ignored the advice to leave. This time he did not. He left Honduras on Feb. 21—the next day, the national police raided his home.

“The police arrived at my parent’s house at 5:30 a.m. with a search warrant in my father’s name,” said Luis Garcia Jr., in an interview with America on Feb. 25. “But he’s outside of the country because of the same persecution. My mom didn’t leave because we didn’t think she would have anything to worry about.”

In the past, Mr. Garcia had received death threats for his activism, and he ignored the advice to leave. This time he did not.

After they raided the house without finding the elder Garcia, the police took his wife, Aquilina Guerra, into custody in nearby Tela. “They told her that she wasn’t being detained. They were bringing her in for something they had found outside her house,” said her son. “And then they took out the bag.”

Ms. Guerra is a 57-year-old housewife and a former catechist and cook for the Our Lady of Pilar parish in Arizona. She spends most of her days caring for her grandkids and making food for her family. Inside the bag that the police produced, which Ms. Guerra claims to have never seen before, were small cans of gunpowder, a container of gas and some empty soda bottles.

Arriving in Tela, the police alleged that Ms. Guerra was making Molotov cocktails; she was charged with storing weapons of war. The police took her picture in front of the weapons and then distributed it through social media, a common tactic to shame and discredit citizens and one that can have deadly outcomes.

“Luis Garcia is considered a leader of the social movement, and the investigation was directed at him,” said Carlos Reyes Torres, a lawyer who works with the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice. “Not finding him, they took whomever they could find.”

Mr. Reyes Torres spoke outside the courthouse in Tela on Feb. 26, during Ms. Guerra’s preliminary hearing. “The fact that the public prosecutor is charging her with storing weapons of war shows that state institutions consider us to be at war.”

The day before Ms. Guerra’s preliminary hearing on Feb. 26, parishioners at Our Lady of Pilar Church called out for the local communities to peacefully walk the streets of Tela to demand justice for her and the others whose acts of resistance have been criminalized since November. Outside the jail where she was being held, they celebrated Mass for the more than 200 people who came to show their support.

“The church is called to be prophetic,” said the Rev. Victor Camara, who heads up the social ministry of the Diocese of La Ceiba, during the Mass. “Those who believe are called to denounce injustice, and we are here from the church to show the church will not be silenced. Although some remain silent, we will not. We are conscious. We are in solidarity with Aquilina, her family and the hundreds of brothers and sisters that are being criminalized and who have suffered the murder of loved ones…. May God hear the cries of the Honduran people who have suffered so much.”

The following day, over 100 people gathered outside the courthouse singing, praying and denouncing Ms. Guerra’s arrest. After eight hours of hearings and deliberations, the judge presiding over the case ruled that there was not sufficient evidence to continue the case against Ms. Guerra.

“It makes you want to cry—to see justice being served,” said the Rev. Javier Hernandez, the parish priest at Our Lady of the Pillar Church. “I think the public pressure from those here has strength. Prayers, the Eucharist that we shared yesterday, people asking God for justice. God is listening, listens to his people clamoring for justice for those who have been criminalized.”

“I feel very happy seeing my community here, how I love them and how they love me,” said Ms. Guerra outside the courthouse following her release. “I feel so happy to feel free. I never could have imagined this experience, but God has always been with me. It’s been painful to see my people suffer. This is a political persecution simply for supporting the movement. My husband and I have supported poor, humble people. I never expected this. But thanks to God, I’m free and I’m going home.”

On March 11, the M.A.D.J. charged that military personnel were roaming through the community of Florida, Atlantida, searching for Waldina Santos, a key organizer to mining resistance in the area. Ms. Santos was at both the march and Mass to support Ms. Guerra and helped organize the busloads of people who came to stand outside the courthouse to show their support.

Although many remain detained in Honduras, and others like Ms. Santos are living in fear for what could be next for her and her family, the small victory in Ms. Guerra’s case offers hope to many who feel helpless given the current political situation. “May this not only be for Aquilina but for so many who have been criminalized and who are being persecuted and unjustly jailed,” said Father Hernandez. “May this be a new beginning for peace in Honduras.”

Jackie McVicar

Jackie McVicar has accompanied human rights social movements and land protectors in Central America for more than 10 years.

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.

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.

Kaptur statement on threats to human rights defenders in Honduras

TOLEDO — Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (OH-9) issued the following statement of concern related to the escalation of risk for human rights defenders in Honduras.

“I join the United Nations Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights and my colleagues in Congress in registering grave concern regarding the violent escalation of intimidating threats toward rights defenders in Honduras. Jesuit priest Ismael Moreno, Padre Melo,  the entire team of Radio Progreso and ERIC-SJ, the family of slain environmentalist Berta Caceres, and Berta Oliva, director of  the Committee of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras are all under threat.

“Statements made by public authorities in Honduras discrediting the work of human rights defenders and journalists put them at risk of physical harm and undermine freedom of speech. These precious advocates for liberty deserve the support and protection of the international community.

“Prior to her brutal murder in 2016, indigenous rights defender, Bertha Cáceres was targeted extensively by similar threats and intimidation. The alarming increase in threats to defenders of human rights in recent weeks underscores our responsibility to support the Bertha Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, to speak out on behalf of those at risk, and to insist that the government of Honduras respect, affirm, and protect the full exercise of the rights of all its people.”

Kaptur is a lead sponsor of the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act (HR 1299), which would suspend U.S. funding to the Republic of Honduras for their police and military operations, including funds for equipment and training, until the Honduran government investigates credible reports indicating the police and military are violating citizens’ human rights, prohibit international loans providing for security assistance – from being dispersed unless Honduras makes serious inroads to addressing blatant human rights violations by police and military forces.

 

Meet Miriam Miranda, Honduras

https://nobelwomensinitiative.org/meet-miriam-miranda-honduras/

Photo via Upside Down World
Photo via Upside Down World

“We live almost on the sea, right on the beach. It’s a blessing but recently it’s also become a curse, because of course all those with power want to have a place on the beach. The displacement of communities and the loss of cultures that come with the development of tourism is growing… but the Garífuna women, many of them elders, have incredible strength. They participate in meetings, in actions, tearing down walls that are built on the beach. They’re sustaining the Garífuna youth so that they know who they are, without shame.”

Miriam has dedicated her life to defending the cultural and land rights of the Garífuna people in Honduras. Miriam’s brave, unwavering leadership is currently guiding the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH).

Miriam was born in Santa Fe, Colon, a small Garífuna village located near Trujillo on the north coast of Honduras. Like many other Garífuna in Honduras, Miriam and her family eventually had to leave their village in order to find work and educational opportunities. As a young adult, Miriam moved to the capital city Tegucigalpa to study at the public university.

Still a student, Miriam immersed herself in social movements that worked closely with women living in poor neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa. Miriam traveled to these neighbourhoods to listen to the women’s stories and speak to them about their rights. In these conversations, Miriam’s lifework as a feminist took root.

Miriam’s pride as a Garífuna woman lies at the heart of her activism. After years of working alongside mestizo, or mixed indigenous women, Miriam decided to shift her focus to promote the rights of her own people—the Garífuna.

The Garífuna people are descendants of West Africans who escaped the slave trade and found refuge on the island of San Vincente, an island in the Caribbean, in the early 1600’s—where  they intermarried with Carib, Indian and Indigenous peoples. Following expulsion from San Vincente in 1797, the Garífuna people arrived on the coast of Honduras. Approximately 100,000 Garífuna now live in Honduras, but there are also community strongholds on the coasts of Belize, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Garífuna culture is intrinsically linked to the land and access to the sea.

Land reforms in Honduras have disregarded cultural land titles, and have made it easy for foreign tourism and real estate investors to displace Garifuna communities to build hotels and retirement communities. Illegal drug cartels also steal Garífuna land for their operations. The Honduran government has failed to protect Garífuna land titles against foreign interests and, in many cases, has been directly involved in their displacement.

Under Miriam’s leadership, OFRANEH and the Garífuna people have organized to defend their land and their culture. They currently have two cases against the state of Honduras pending at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). Most recently, the Garífuna succeeded in bringing Canadian investor Randy Jorgensen to trial in Trujillo, Honduras for his mega-tourism project illegally built on Garífuna land.

Miriam’s activism has come at a cost. She faces incredible risk for the work she is doing and has been threatened many times and kidnapped. Miriam and her colleagues are regularly arbitrarily detained and portrayed as criminals in the media. In the face of these threats, Miriam is not backing down from her struggle to ensure the Garífuna people’s land and culture is protected.