The non-governmental organisation Global Witness has just released a scathing report about the murder of environmental activists in Honduras.
The NGO names the president of Honduras’ ruling party, Gladis Aurora López, as one of several top politicians and business tycoons it alleges are implicated in a violent crackdown on citizens who defend their land against theft and destruction.
In its new report, Global Witness also criticises the United States for backing Honduran state forces, which are often behind the killing of activists.
According to Global Witness, Honduras is the deadliest country in the world to be an environmental defender. More than 120 Hondurans have been killed since 2010 for protesting against the theft or destruction of their land or rivers.
The murders include that of the internationally renowned indigenous activist Berta Cáceres Flores, who was gunned down in her home in La Esperanza in March last year.
There was international outrage over the murder of Cáceres, who was the coordinator and co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH) and was a key opponent of plans to build the Agua Zarca dam on indigenous community land in Río Blanco.
Less than two weeks after Cáceres was assassinated, another member of COPINH, Nelson García (pictured below), was shot dead by unidentified gunmen as he returned home after the Honduran security forces evicted a Lenca community from its land.
A few months later, in July 2016, the body of another COPINH activist, Lesbia Janeth Urquía, was found on a rubbish dump with machete wounds to the head.
Of the eight men who have been charged in connection with Cáceres’ murder, two have links to Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA), the company that owns the Agua Zarca dam, and four of them have ties to the Honduran army.
Global Witness says that most of the activists murdered in Honduras are from indigenous and rural communities and were protesting about mining, hydropower, and agribusiness projects.
The Agua Zarca dam construction site. Photo from COPINH.
Since a coup in Honduras in 2009, the country’s leadership has pursued an aggressive economic growth strategy that has championed the rights of industry and trampled over those of the rural poor.
Global Witness says it has uncovered new evidence that politicians and business leaders are engaging in back-door deals and bribery to impose these projects on communities, and silence opposition.
“Our investigations reveal how Honduras’ political and business elites are using corrupt and criminal means to cash in on the country’s natural wealth, and are enlisting the support of state forces to murder and terrorise the communities who dare to stand in their way,” said Global Witness’ campaign leader Billy Kyte.
“We have documented countless chilling attacks and threats, including the savage beating by soldiers of pregnant women, children held at gunpoint by police, arson attacks on villagers’ homes, and hired assassins who still wander free among their victims’ communities.”
Global Witness says the attacks against Honduran activists are perpetuated by a web of corruption and impunity, and facilitated by a lack of protection by the state, but the roots of conflict lie in “the consistent failure to consult properly with local communities about the use of their land for business ventures”.
Violence against protestors takes many forms, Global Witness says, but what unites most cases is a lack of accountability for the attackers.
“Some people are gunned down by companies’ private security or hired assassins, whilst others die when police open fire on crowds of demonstrators.
“On rare occasions the gunman is arrested, but those who order the killings are almost never punished. Impunity is the norm.”
In most cases the state turns a blind eye to murders and human rights abuses and, “in the worst cases, it actively aids and abets them”, Global Witness says.
High-level officials in the Honduran government have threatened legal action against Global Witness over the organisation’s latest report.
The NGO condemned the attempts by the Honduran authorities and industry spokespeople “to undermine and politicise our new investigation into the killings of land and environmental defenders in Honduras” and demanded that the Honduran state guarantee the security of Billy Kyte and Ben Leather, also from Global Witness, as well as that of the local human rights defenders associated with the report.
Documents leaked to Global Witness reveal that the planned Los Encinos hydropower project in the west of Honduras is controlled by Gladis Aurora López’s husband, Arnold Gustavo Castro.
Castro, Global Witness states, “aims to sell energy to the state despite the clear, and illegal, conflict of interest this poses”.
Three indigenous activists who opposed the Los Encinos project have been killed, Global Witness states. “Their bodies were found dismembered and showing signs of torture.”
One of the indigenous activists who has vocally opposed the Los Encinos project, Roberto Gomez, said of a violent police incursion against the Santa Elena community in September 2014: “We were evicted by a squadron of about 15 police, accompanied by a group of civilians.
“They destroyed our crops and burnt our food. They left us completely on the street – a community robbed of everything.”
The Global Witness report also points to Arnold Gustavo Castro’s link to the La Aurora hydroelectric dam project.
Both the Los Encinos and La Aurora dams are being built on sacred indigenous land.
Global Witness says that Castro illegally obtained the contracts for both dams when his wife was in Congress.
In a response to Global Witness, Gladis Aurora López denied ordering the September 2014 police incursion and Castro denied any responsibility for attacks against indigenous activists opposing his projects.
He rejected allegations that he left communities without water during construction of the La Aurora dam.
Both López and Castro denied any conflict of interest or illegality in the approval by Congress of contracts for the dam projects.
View from above the La Aurora dam. Photo courtesy of Giles Clarke for Global Witness.
The new Global Witness report highlights the case of the Tolupan indigenous communities in northern Honduras. For nearly a decade, Global Witness says, the Tolupan peoples have been “threatened, criminalised and killed for taking a stand against illegal logging and mining operations which have pillaged their resources without consulting communities”.
In August 2013, the new report states, gunmen opened fire on a peaceful sit-in aimed at stopping the passage of mining and logging trucks through Tolupan territory.
The indigenous leaders Armando Fúnez Medina and Ricardo Soto Fúnez were killed and another leader, María Enriqueta Matute, fled to her home, where she was tracked down and fatally shot.
Many community members went into hiding after the 2013 murders and only returned six months later once they were granted emergency protection by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).
One of those who returned was Luis de Reyes Marcía, who was then found murdered on April 5, 2015, after filing a police complaint about death threats.
A month after her husband’s killing, the house of De Reyes Marcía’s wife, Consuelo Soto. who had also been accorded IACHR emergency protection, was peppered with bullets by unknown gunmen. She is now living in hiding.
Global Witness goes on to recount the attack, in early 2014, on the indigenous Tolupan leader Santos Córdoba.
Córdoba’s house was broken into, his crops were burnt down, and his children were threatened at gunpoint by ex-army general Filánder Uclés and his bodyguards, who threatened to return the next day to destroy the house and the family’s belongings.
“Uclés, who had US military training at the notorious School of Americas, has continually threatened Tolupan community members … and is currently facing charges for these threats,” the Global Witness report states.
Arrests for Cáceres’ murder
Eight men have now been arrested in connection with the murder of Berta Cáceres. The eighth suspect – a former Honduran soldier, Henry Javier Hernández Rodríguez – was captured in Mexico in January this year.
The legal team representing Berta Cáceres’ family and COPINH said they were not notified of Rodriguez’s arrest and has reported “serious inconsistencies and weaknesses in the public prosecutor’s approach to the case”.
The other suspects arrested in the case include Sergio Ramón Rodríguez, who was an environmental engineer employed by DESA, and Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, who was the company’s former head of security, and an ex-army lieutenant and military intelligence specialist.
Suspect Edison Duarte is also a retired military officer and another of those arrested, Major Mariano Díaz, was a special forces veteran and military police trainer.
Bustillo stands accused of hiring Edison Duarte and his brother Emerson as hit men.
The COPINH leader Tomás Gómez told Global Witness that Cáceres’ was on a list being touted to hit men, and US$1,000 was on offer for her murder.
Gómez says that, in September 2016, COPINH discovered that a military spy had infiltrated the organisation and, for a year, had been passing information on their activities directly to the president’s office.
According to Global Witness, DESA’s links with the Honduran military run to the highest levels.
According to company records seen by Global Witness, DESA’s president is Roberto David Castillo Mejía, a former military intelligence official and employee of the Honduran state-owned energy company Empresa Nacional de Energía Eléctrica.
In 2009, a public auditor’s office found evidence of corrupt acts by Castillo – he was still receiving a salary from the army having left the institution and a company he owned was selling products to the military at inflated prices.
A few months before her death Cáceres told Global Witness that Castillo called to try and bribe her to stop opposing Agua Zarca.
Cáceres’ family and COPINH have appealed for an independent international investigation into her murder, led by the IACHR. They say there are serious and credible doubts about the ability of the Honduran police to investigate, as well as allegations that the government had prior knowledge of, and possible involvement in, the assassination.
Cáceres’ nephew, Silvio Carrillo, who is based in San Francisco, is calling for a “Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act” to be passed in the US Congress that would cut off all security funding for Honduras “until human rights violations by Honduran security forces cease and their perpetrators are brought to justice”.
Murders throughout Latin America
Billy Kyte says that indigenous and environmental activists are under threat throughout Latin America. According to Global Witness, two-thirds of the murders of environmentalists worldwide since 2002 occurred in that region.
The most recent murder of a high-profile environmentalist in the region was that of Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, a leader of the indigenous Tarahumara people.
Baldenegro was shot in January this year after campaigning against a powerful alliance of loggers, drug gangs, and local political leaders.
His work to protect the forests of the Sierra Madre area in northern Mexico earned him the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2005.
The president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, Susan R. Gelman, said Baldenegro was “a fearless leader and a source of inspiration to so many people fighting to protect our environment and indigenous peoples’ rights”.
Berta Cáceres won the won the Goldman Environmental Prize (South and Central America) in 2014.
Demands for action
“The murder of so many innocent activists, and the losses and intimidation of their families, friends, and colleagues is a tragedy that cannot be undone,” Global Witness said in the conclusion to its report. “But an opportunity does exist to prevent further violence.”
The NGO called on the Honduran government “to do all it can to stop the abuse of environmental and land defenders, and to enforce greater transparency and legality in the development of mining, logging, tourism, agriculture, and hydroelectric projects”.
The Honduran government must work with civil society to strengthen and implement laws that guarantee the consent of indigenous communities before projects are given the green light, Global Witness says.
President Hernández must make strong statements regarding the legitimacy and importance of land and environmental defenders and encourage his peers to do likewise, the NGO adds.
“He must strengthen the judiciary, giving it the mandate and resources necessary to prosecute both the material and the intellectual authors of threats and attacks against defenders.
“He must publicly announce his support for the defenders protection programme, guaranteeing resources and adequate staffing.”
Global Witness also urged major donors to Honduras, such as the International Finance Corporation and the Inter-American Development Bank, “to refrain from funding or supporting any projects or activities that are putting defenders at risk”.
Foreign investors and international financial institutions should stop any planned investments in the industries causing the violence, such as mining, dams, logging, and large-scale agricultural projects.
Kyte says the US continues to pump money into Honduran industry, despite concerns raised in Congress about the country’s dubious human rights record.
“The US embassy has been promoting ramped-up investment in Honduras’ extractive industries, for instance, with the US mining giant Electrum already planning a US$1 billion investment.”
As Honduras’ biggest aid donor, the US should help bring an end to the bloody crackdown on Honduras’ rural population, Kyte says.
“Instead it is bankrolling Honduran state forces, which are behind some of the worst attacks. The incoming US administration must urgently address this paradox, which is fuelling, not reducing, insecurity across the country.
“The US must implement human rights conditions on aid to Honduras, condemn the killings of defenders, and suspend investment in industries causing the violence until activists are better protected, crimes against them are prosecuted, and communities are consulted before business projects go ahead.”
According to Global Witness, 454 environmental activists were killed in Brazil between 2002 and 2016. Eighty were killed in Colombia, 57 in Peru, 45 in Mexico, and 27 in Guatemala.
The number reached 84 in the Philippines over the same period, 21 in Thailand, and 14 in Cambodia.
17-year-old Honduran activist Alan Garcia, who survived a bullet being fired into his chest. He was protesting against a hydropower dam on his community’s land when the military opened fire. His father was shot dead in the same attack.
Headline photo: funeral of Berta Cáceres
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