Leahy Statement On The Election In Honduras

Leahy Statement On The Election In Honduras

Those of us who care about Central America have watched the election for Honduras’ next president with increasing alarm.  It has been more than a week since November 26, when the people of Honduras cast their votes.  Since then, repeated delays and suspicious behavior – which suggests either incompetence or fraud – by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) that has been tallying the ballots, has incited large public demonstrations.

Late last week, the government of President Juan Orlando Hernandez suspended constitutional rights and imposed a ten-day, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.  Several protesters, including a 19-year-old girl, have reportedly been shot and killed by Honduran troops, and hundreds more have been arrested.  Salvador Nasralla, the main opposition candidate, called for a new election and reportedly urged the Honduran police and military to disobey orders of their commanders to fire on demonstrators.

Even before the Honduran people went to the polls the prospects for a free, fair and peaceful election faced many challenges.  The most obvious point of contention is that President Hernandez is seeking a second term, since until recently the Honduran Constitution had been interpreted to limit presidents to a single four-year term.

Ironically, in 2009 former President Manuel Zelaya was forced from power by a coalition of military officers, business owners, and conservative politicians including Hernandez, after Zelaya sought to extend his own rule by proposing a popular referendum on the issue of presidential re-election.

Zelaya’s ouster was initially labeled a coup by the U.S. State Department, but it was not long before the United States accepted the result and resumed sending economic and military aid to the government of President Porfirio Lobo.  During the next three years the influx of illicit drugs and the incidence of violence, including assassinations of journalists and other civil society leaders, increased dramatically, and Honduras became among the most violent countries in the world.

After Hernandez became president of the National Congress, he and his National Party replaced the Supreme Court with justices intended to support their political agenda.  And in 2013, Hernandez was declared President of Honduras after an election fraught with reports of vote buying and threats and assassinations of political opponents.

Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that he could run for a second term – paving the way for last week’s election.  Just eight years after former President Zelaya was pushed out for proposing that the Honduran people vote on the question of a second term, President Hernandez had consolidated his control by replacing the justices of the Supreme Court, appointing the TSE, maintaining a majority in the Congress, and using the State media to drown out his critics.  It was widely predicted that he would coast to victory.

But President Hernandez’ government, in addition to becoming increasingly autocratic, has been dogged by accusations of pervasive corruption.

For these reasons, and because of the opaque and bizarre conduct of the TSE during the vote tallying process, it is perhaps not surprising that the situation has deteriorated to the point of becoming a national crisis of confidence in the integrity of Honduras’ democracy.

Contrary to past practice, the TSE did not issue early results until the day after the polls closed.  At that time it announced that with 57 percent of the vote counted, Mr. Nasralla, a former TV sports journalist, was leading by 5 percentage points.  This indicated the possibility of an historic upset, and while based on past practice the final count was expected the next day, the process of tallying the votes dragged on behind closed doors with no further announcements.

While Nasralla and his supporters celebrated and the third-placed candidate, Luis Zelaya of the Liberal party, conceded, President Hernandez and his allies in the press insisted that he would come out on top once the rural votes were counted.

The TSE also said the rural vote count was delayed, and on Wednesday, after a long silence, the TSE indicated that Nasralla’s lead had started to shrink.  But the press reported that no technical reason was apparent to explain the delay as the results from all polling stations were reportedly transmitted electronically as soon as the polls closed.

As time dragged on, suspicions of fraud escalated among Nasralla’s supporters, and last Wednesday afternoon the TSE said its computer system had inexplicably ceased functioning for five hours.  Then on Wednesday night the TSE reported that President Hernandez was ahead by several thousand votes, which triggered protests by Nasralla’s supporters, some of them reportedly throwing rocks and lighting fires, who were met by troops firing tear gas and live bullets.

According to press reports, the opposition is questioning ballots from 5,300 polling places and has called for a recount of ballots from three rural departments.  But this morning, after only a partial recount, the TSE announced its final tally in favor of President Hernandez by just 1.49 percent, a gap of 52,333 votes.

The process has been so lacking in transparency, so fraught with irregularities and inexplicable delays, and coupled with reports of excessive force by the Honduran police and military against peaceful protesters, it is increasingly obvious that the TSE’s announcement only made a bad situation worse.  There is too much suspicion of fraud, and too much distrust.

On Saturday, I asked the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa three simple but important questions about the delays, the TSE’s tally of the votes, and the reports of shootings of protesters.  It is Monday night and I have yet to receive answers.  This lack of responsiveness by our government in such a time of crisis is troubling, and I hope it is not a new standard.

Earlier this evening, the OAS issued a statement that “the tight margin of the results, and the irregularities, errors and systemic problems that have surrounded this election do not allow the Mission to hold certainty about the results.”  There are also reports that increasing numbers of Honduran police officers are refusing orders to use force against the protesters.

The importance of this election, which will determine who leads Honduras for the next four years, cannot be overstated.  This is especially so because of the way it came about in the first place.  There was already resentment toward President Hernandez for the double standard of participating in the coup against Zelaya, and then orchestrating his own path to re-election.  As one Honduran was quoted saying, they “are reliving the entire crisis from the coup of 2009, and the majority of people don’t really like that because it brings back some ugly memories.”

President Hernandez and Mr. Nasralla offer significantly different approaches to tackling the country’s problems.  Given the debacle of the past week and the growing popular outcry, it is apparent that establishing the credibility of the electoral process and the integrity of Honduras’ democracy requires either recounting the contested ballots from each of the 5,300 polling places in the presence of representatives of the political parties, representatives of civil society, and international observers; or holding a new election.

In the meantime, it is the responsibility of the Honduran government – particularly the police and the military – to respect and defend the right of the Honduran people to freely and peacefully express their opinions.

Honduras faces a defining moment in its modern history.  How the government resolves this crisis will determine the path of the country for the foreseeable future.  It will also determine the extent of validity and support the next government receives from the United States, because only a credible election, accepted widely by the Honduran people as free and fair, coupled with a demonstrable commitment to transparency, to freedom of expression and association, and to the rule of law, will justify that validity and support.

Press Contact

David Carle: 202-224-3693

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HONDURAN PRESIDENT JUAN Orlando Hernández, using the specter of rampant crime and the drug trade, won extensive support from the American government to build up highly trained state security forces. Now, those same forces are repressing democracy.

The post-election situation in Honduras continues to deteriorate as Hernández, a conservative leader and stalwart U.S. ally in Central America, has disputed the result of last week’s vote while working to crack down on protests sweeping the nation.

Initial results showed Salvador Nasralla, an ex-sportscaster chosen by an alliance of left-wing political parties as their candidate, leading the vote count after the November 26 presidential election. The lead was substantial enough that a magistrate on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, or TSE, estimated victory by Nasralla, characterizing his lead as “irreversible.”

The next day the TSE announced that Hernández was closing the gap. Then it suddenly stopped publicizing the tally, alleging that its electronic system went down, prompting criticism from European Union election observers. Police and military flooded the streets in the hours of silence that followed. On Wednesday, the announcement that Hernández had overtaken Nasralla in the vote count was met with disbelief. In the words of Salvadoran journalist Carlos Dada, “There are only two possibilities: Either the TSE is of Olympic incompetence or it’s committing fraud.”

The turn of events led to chaos on the streets, and Hernández instituted a military-imposed curfew across the nation on Friday. At least one protester has been killed and scores of others have been injured and arrested in violent clashes with police.

For human rights observers, the curfew and delay of an official recount are steps to produce an inevitable Hernández victory, regardless of the vote tally.

“The delay has only served to fuel claims of mass fraud, confusion, and deep suspicion,” said Karen Spring, a human rights activist with the Honduras Solidarity Network. The demonstrators “went into the street because they know that being calm means allowing a cover-up to happen and what many call a dictator to illegally stay in power,” she added.

Several observers on the ground told The Intercept that they have seen elite military police from the TIGRES and Cobras units alongside the Honduran National Police involved in clashes with protesters in the capital, Tegucigalpa, and around the country. The three forces are increasingly coordinated as the violence soars, they say.

On the evening of Wednesday November 29, the three forces launched tear gas against an estimated 1,000 people who were gathered to wait for results outside the building where the TSE tabulated. Among the demonstrators was former Police Commissioner María Luisa Borjas, who wrote in an email statement to a group of journalists that the people gathered included many children and the elderly, along with opposition candidate Nasralla and his pregnant wife.

An American human rights observer also present said that when the coalition of police forces attacked the crowd, the gathering was peaceful. “People were singing and had a giant Honduran flag, they were running up and down the street. It was beautiful actually. People were angry — it was loud — but it was peaceful,” the observer, who asked for anonymity given the increasingly dangerous situation, told The Intercept in a phone interview.

On Friday evening, as police cleared demonstrators from the streets of the La Kennedy neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, officers adorned with visible TIGRES insignia were spotted by Spring. The TIGRES were accompanied by Cobras and Honduran National Police, or PNH, according to another human rights observer from the U.S., who also asked not to be named out of fear for her safety.

On Saturday night, Borjas received multiple emergency calls from the Cabañas neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, a city in northern Honduras. People were being forced out of their houses and into the streets when Honduran law enforcement, including the PNH, launched tear gas canisters into their homes. Police attacked because the neighbors had begun a “cacerolazo,” a common form of protest in Latin America, banging pots and pans when state repression makes anything else impossible. Upon forcing people out of their homes, the PNH arrested them, Borjas said. “This is happening as we speak,” she told The Intercept in a phone interview Saturday night, adding that the TIGRES and Cobras maintain a strong presence on the streets, especially around the building where the votes are being tallied.

Police officers in riot gear clash with supporters of Honduran presidential candidate for the Opposition Alliance against the Dictatorship coalition, Salvador Nasralla, near the Electoral Supreme Court (TSE), as the country waits for the final results of the week-end's presidential election, in Tegucigalpa, on November 30, 2017. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez edged closer Thursday to winning a tense election as rival Nasralla said he will not recognize the result, claiming fraud. In a vote count dogged by computer failures and claims by Nasralla that the president was stealing the election, Hernandez had overturned a 5.0 percent deficit by early Thursday to lead by just 1.0 percent with 90 percent of the votes counted. / AFP PHOTO / Orlando SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Police officers in riot gear clash with supporters of Honduran presidential candidate for the Opposition Alliance against the Dictatorship coalition, Salvador Nasralla, near the Electoral Supreme Court, as the country waits for the final results of the weekend’s presidential election, in Tegucigalpa, on Nov. 30, 2017.

Photo: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

THE PNH AND elite military police units are among the beneficiaries of generous security-related foreign aid earmarked for Honduras by the U.S. government. Figures compiled by the Security Assistance Monitor show that Honduras has received nearly $114 million in security support since 2009.

The PNH receives extensive training by various branches of the U.S. government. The exact substance of U.S. training for foreign security forces is notoriously difficult to ascertain, but some light has been shed by new data provided by the Departments of State, Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security at the request of Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., and shared with The Intercept by John Lindsay-Poland, a Latin America expert who participated in making the request.

In 2015, for instance, the data shows that members of the PNH received courses titled “Advanced Close Quarter Combat,” “Tactical Safety and Survival,” “Communication and Electronic Intelligence,” among others, and received donations, including Toyota trucks and computers. “Multiple Honduran Military and Law Enforcement Units” also received trainings on “Special Forces Advanced Military Operations in Urban Terrain,” “Reconnaissance and Surveillance,” and other themes. “This will support [U.S. Southern Command] Theater Engagement strategy and will improve partner national [counternarcotics] units’ abilities to conduct unilateral and combined [counternarcotics] missions,” reads the text describing the purpose and objective of those courses, as reported by the Defense Department and U.S. Southern Command.

Courses listed for the year 2016 were similar. The instructors of the courses both years included federal agencies like the DEA, FBI, and the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, along with other agencies such as the Chicago police force. The data does not include additional detail about course curriculum or identifying information of trainers or trainees.

Since the elections, the Honduran government has made no effort to conceal the role of the two elite military police units. In the run-up to the election, Secretary of Security Julián Pacheco Tinoco announced that TIGRES and Cobra forces would be among the 16,000 police officers deployed to monitor the election.

The Comando de Operaciones Especiales, or Cobras, are riot police trained by U.S. SWAT teams. The Tropa de Inteligencia de Respuesta Especial de Seguridad, or TIGRES, were formed to fight urban violence and organized crime in 2014 by Hernández as he took office promising to bring down the world’s highest peacetime murder rate.

The TIGRES are paid a higher salary than traditional Honduran police, and they have also benefited from close coordination with multiple U.S. military bases in Honduras. A video obtained by the Wall Street Journal shows Green Beret units training with the TIGRES in the mountains of Honduras.

The militarized units, known to operate at night with uniforms that disguise officers’ faces, have featured widely in Hernández’s political campaigns as the president has championed his war on crime.

But the TIGRES, Cobras, and PNH have all been denounced for human rights violations.

The TIGRES in particular are said to have been used to harass political opponents and simply rob the cartels they are designed to rein in. Shortly after the formation of the unit, TIGRES officers assigned to work with the U.S. Embassy on counternarcotics operations stole $1.3 million from cocaine traffickers targeted in a raid.

Most controversially, there have been allegations that TIGRES were involved in the harassment of Berta Cáceres, an internationally known and respected human rights and environmental activist who was assassinated last year.

Before her death, Cáceres, an outspoken critic of the Hernández administration, warned that commandos from the TIGRES had occupied her rural community, where Cáceres had led a protest movement against a planned hydroelectric dam. In a recording made just one month before her killing, she explicitly named the TIGRES, calling commandos from the force a “hostile and aggressive presence.”

There have been attempts to stem U.S. aid to Honduras since the environmentalist’s killing, either through enforcing existing statutes, such as the so-called Leahy Law, barring foreign aid to regimes with repeated human rights violations, or passing new legislation. In the House of Representatives, 68 Democrats have sponsored H.R. 1299, the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, to make Honduran foreign aid contingent on anti-corruption measures and a halt to the killing of journalists and activists in the country.

“The Honduran security forces are using our taxpayer dollars to repress peaceful demonstrations against stolen elections.”

The Republican majority in Congress has not scheduled a hearing for the bill, making its prospects unlikely. Now, Cáceres’s nephew Silvio Carrillo, who lives in the United States, tells The Intercept, “The Honduran security forces are using our taxpayer dollars to repress peaceful demonstrations against stolen elections. We are giving Juan Orlando Hernández money so he can get away with murder.”

The build-up of military police forces, ostensibly to combat the drug trade, comes as the Hernández administration faces increasing attention for its own role in drug cartels.

In March, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, the former leader of the Cachiros cartel, told a federal courtroom in New York that he had met with Hernández’s brother to steer government contracts to a company used to launder cartel money.

The revelation was made during the case of Fabio Lobo, who pleaded guilty for attempting to smuggle several tons of cocaine from Honduras to the United States. Lobo is the politically connected son of Porfirio Lobo Sosa, Hernández’s predecessor and ally in the right-wing National Party. Lobo was elected in 2009 following the coup d’etat that swept the left-wing President Manuel Zelaya out of office.

A separate and equally stunning revelation was made last year in a courtroom in South Florida, during a case involving two nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro prosecuted for drug trafficking, as researcher Jake Johnston recently reported for The Intercept.

During the trial, José Santos Peña, a Mexican drug trafficker-turned-informant, confided that he had met with Pacheco, Hernández’s chief of security and head of the TIGRES forces, to discuss plans to move cocaine from Colombia through Honduras to the United States. Santos said he was introduced to Pacheco by Fabio Lobo.

Johnston notes that despite the disclosures, “Pacheco remains a close U.S. ally, whose ties to the US military span decades.” Now, Johnston adds, “Pacheco is overseeing the same security forces that are repressing election protesters in the streets.”

Additionally, two 2017 reports, one from Global Witness and the other from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, uncovered damning evidence of systematic corruption, especially as concerns the National Party, to which Hernández belongs.

The increasing scrutiny, as well as the cascading corruption scandal involving millions of dollars stolen from the Honduran social security program in part to fund campaigns for the National Party, has prompted a bonanza of D.C. lobbying by the Honduran government.

Since 2014, Honduras has retained four lobbying firms to reach out to lawmakers, members of the Trump administration, and the American media.

Records show that one lobbyist, Gus K. West, has reached out to Florida’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Rep. Ted Deutch, among others on Capitol Hill, to tout Honduran efforts to combat crime and wrote to the New York Times on the assassination of Cáceres. Another lobbying shop on government retainer, Keybridge Communications, has boosted Hernández’s re-election effort, sending press releases to U.S. media boasting about the president’s commitment to confronting corruption and the integrity of the presidential election.

In a December 1 statement distributed by Keybridge, the government of Honduras said that it is “deeply sad that violence has erupted on the streets of Honduras and that our nation’s democratic institutions have come under attack ” — violence it goes on to blame on ousted President Mel Zelaya for “inciting” Nasralla’s supporters to engage in violence.

Hernández has also traveled to Washington to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, both of whom warmly welcomed the leader. He is also close to White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, who referred to the president this year as a “great guy” and a “good friend.”

Cultivating powerful friends in Washington has worked so far, as Hernández has weathered criticism over his handling of the Cáceres slaying, the social security scandal, and his administration’s reported ties to drug traffickers.

The crackdown by security forces only further impresses the need to reconsider their U.S. funding, experts say. “U.S.-funded police and military are engaged in violent repression of Honduran protesters, using munitions marked as made in the USA,” said Dana Frank, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“For years, members of Congress have called for an immediate suspension of police and military aid to Honduras, because of ongoing human rights abuses like this, committed with impunity,” said Frank. “Now those forces are being used to repress the basic right of the Honduran people to protest. The Honduran elections offer a chance to declare which side the U.S. is on: democratic processes and the rule of law or the ongoing dance with a dangerous dictator, further consolidating his power.”


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THE HONDURAN MINISTER of security, who was intimately involved in solidifying the 2009 coup, is tied up in drug trafficking, according to testimony from a Mexican drug-trafficker-turned-DEA-informant in U.S. court.

In November 2016, as the world’s attention was fixated on the surprise election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, two nephews of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro were found guilty on drug trafficking charges. The conviction was another feather in the cap of U.S. prosecutors who have been targeting the Venezuelan government with corruption and drug trafficking investigations.

But in the South Florida courtroom, the testimony of José Santos Peña also implicated Julián Pacheco Tinoco, a former Honduran military official with long ties to the U.S. security apparatus.

A U.S. prosecutor asked the informant about a meeting in Honduras he had participated in a few years earlier. The purpose of the meeting with Honduras’s current security minister and then-head of military intelligence Pacheco Tinoco was “so that he could give me help to receive shipments from Colombia to Honduras,” the informant told the court.

“What type of shipments?” the prosecutor asked.

“Cocaine,” the informant clarified.

According to the prosecution, one of the defendants in the case had deleted from his Samsung phone chat records and contact information bearing Pacheco’s name. But the allegation that the top security official of one of the United States’s closest regional allies was involved in drug trafficking was treated as a non-event in Washington; not a single major media story mentioned the Drug Enforcement Agency informant’s testimony.

In March 2017, this time in a New York courtroom, Pacheco’s name would once again come up. More details of his and other Honduran government officials’ alleged involvement in drug trafficking were revealed.

Today, Pacheco remains the minister of security, in charge of the entire Honduran national police force. With hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance pouring into Honduras’s security forces, Pacheco is one of the most important players in the country’s security and counternarcotics cooperation with the United States.

In an emailed statement, Tim Rieser, foreign policy aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said the senator is concerned with the allegations but that more facts are needed. Leahy “believes the State Department should be looking at this carefully because the Security Minister needs to be someone of unimpeachable integrity,” Rieser wrote.

With future funding for Honduras threatened by some members of Congress — including Leahy — Pacheco was in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. It wasn’t the first time he had made a trip to protect the U.S.-Honduran relationship.

Authorities incinerate a load of cocaine seized to two Colombian nationals navigating along the Caribbean, in Tegucigalpa, on July 11, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / ORLANDO SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Authorities incinerate a load of cocaine seized to two Colombian nationals navigating along the Caribbean, in Tegucigalpa, on July 11, 2017.

Photo: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

PACHECO’S CONNECTION WITH the United States dates back decades. As a 21-year-old cadet, Pacheco traveled to the U.S. military’s School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia. In September 1979, he graduated from a course on counterinsurgency tactics.

With the election of Ronald Reagan the following year, Honduras took on new prominence as a U.S. ally and a staging ground for covert American support for the contra right-wing insurgency in Nicaragua. U.S. security aid to the country skyrocketed, as did allegations that the Honduran military was involved in drug trafficking and dozens of activist disappearances. U.S. diplomats largely looked the other way.

In the spring of 1986, at the height of U.S. Cold War efforts in Central America, Pacheco was once again at the School of the Americas. This time, having been promoted to lieutenant, Pacheco graduated from a course in psychological operations.

After the Berlin Wall fell, the Pentagon changed tack in Central America and began focusing more on the war on drugs.

In April 1988, the most notorious Honduran trafficker at the time, Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros, was arrested and sent to the United States. As a key interlocutor between the Medellín Cartel in Colombia and Mexican traffickers, Ballesteros had compromised the highest levels of the Honduran military and government. He had also been a U.S. ally and owned a CIA-linked airline that had funneled weapons to the Nicaraguan contras – while sending drugs north.

Honduras’s constitution barred extradition, but working with rogue elements in the Honduran military, U.S. Marshal agents facilitated the capture of Matta Ballesteros. He was brought to the Dominican Republic, where he was officially turned over to U.S. authorities. The Honduran military officers who participated in the rendition were eventually criminally charged in their home country.

The following year, the United States invaded Panama, turning on another erstwhile ally involved in drug trafficking, Gen. Manuel Noriega. Noriega himself was head of military intelligence before becoming president and had been “our man in Panama,” receiving regular CIA payments for decades. Anyone – no matter their criminal record – could be a U.S. ally. That is, until they weren’t.

In Honduras, shifting U.S. priorities, a decrease in funding, and the arrest of Matta Ballesteros pushed the military into the background — at least for a little while. In June 2009, a military coup d’état ousted left-leaning elected president, Manuel Zelaya, who was dropped off in Costa Rica in his pajamas.

With relations tested, and the U.S. having temporarily suspending security assistance, then-Col. Pacheco Tinoco was sent to Washington, D.C. by the head of the Honduran armed forces. His mission was to convince the United States that the military acted properly, that there was no coup.

He met with senior State Department officials at the Old Ebbitt Grill near the White House and with congressional offices on Capitol Hill. He also met with a retired U.S. general who headed the Pentagon’s Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies and allegedly helped facilitate meetings for Pacheco.

A continued relationship was a geostrategic interest of both militaries.

Later that summer, when Zelaya snuck back into Honduras and took refuge at the Brazilian embassy, U.S. diplomats intervened to ensure it was Pacheco who acted as “the key point of contact.”

Zelaya was not restored to office. In November of that year, the U.S. ended up backing controversial elections that were boycotted by opposition groups and considered illegitimate by most of the region’s governments. With the election, the coup was consolidated, as was the Honduran military’s return to political prominence. The declared winner of the election was Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo of the National Party, which had strong, historic ties to the nation’s military. Pacheco was named director of military intelligence.

The most prominent coup leaders from within the military were removed, and “in general,” wrote the U.S. ambassador, “respected officers have been promoted to positions of importance.” The shakeup would allow “the U.S. to begin to initiate a careful process of reengagement with the Honduran military,” the ambassador wrote to a host of intelligence agencies and other government agencies in Washington.

Honduran Security Minister Julian Pacheco prepares to deliver a press conference in Tegucigalpa, on March 7, 2017. Pacheco denied on Tuesday the accusations made by a former Honduran drug lord currently being held in the United States, of collaborating with drug trafficking. / AFP PHOTO / ORLANDO SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Honduran Security Minister Julian Pacheco prepares to deliver a press conference in Tegucigalpa, on March 7, 2017. Pacheco denied on Tuesday the accusations made by a former Honduran drug lord currently being held in the United States, of collaborating with drug trafficking.

Photo: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

SINCE THEN, MORE and more evidence has emerged linking senior Honduran officials to drug trafficking. In 2015, Pepe Lobo’s son, Fabio, was arrested in Haiti and quickly sent to the United States. To take down Fabio, U.S. prosecutors again relied on the work of Santos Peña, the Mexican DEA informant. More importantly, in late 2013 Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, the infamous leader of Honduran criminal organization Cachiros, quietly reached out to the DEA and began cooperating.

In early March 2017, Maradiaga took the stand during Fabio’s ongoing trial. He told the court that he had given bribes to Pepe Lobo during his 2009 presidential campaign. He also described a meeting with Pepe, Fabio, and others at the president’s residence.

“[Pepe Lobo] said not to worry,” Maradiaga testified, “that if anything were to happen that we should talk to Juan Gómez, that Juan Gómez in turn would talk to [Fabio Lobo], and then [Fabio Lobo] would get in touch with General Pacheco Tinoco.”

Before his assassination in 2015, Gómez was governor of Colón, a rural Honduran department at the heart of the Cachiros’s drug trafficking enterprise. During the mid-2000s, when the enterprise began to boom, Pacheco led a military battalion stationed there. He and Gómez met nearly every week. The day of one of their meetings, Fabio called Pacheco from his father’s house and told him he would come by later that day, according to Maradiaga.

Maradiaga and Fabio became close. Maradiaga told prosecutors that he considered Fabio a member of the Cachiros. In the fall of 2013, just before beginning his cooperation with the DEA, Maradiaga told Fabio of an incoming shipment of more than 1,000 kilograms of cocaine. “I knew that having him with me, everything would go well and I felt better supported if I was with the president’s son,” he testified. With his security detail of military police officers, Fabio drove to Tocoa, in Colón, to meet the shipment.

Maradiaga claims to have paid Fabio $50,000. “He asked me whether I could pay him a little bit more because he needed to give him — give more money to the boss, and I knew who that was,” Maradiaga testified. The boss was “General Pacheco,” he said.

In June 2014, Fabio and Maradiaga met at a body shop in San Pedro Sula, Honduras’s second city. A white Hummer was in the shop, and Maradiaga suggested that this would be a perfect gift for one of their friends in the police. Fabio allegedly called Pacheco and sent him a photo of the car.

It was just weeks later when Fabio and the Mexican DEA informant visited Pacheco.The meeting was recorded. “We wanted to come here with something illegal. You know?” the informant began, after exchanging pleasantries, “Of course, we just want your, your authorization and consent.”

“What type of work?” Pacheco asked.

“Um, we want to come here with merchandise, with drugs.”

The minister of security, a licensed attorney, did not fall for the absurdly obvious ruse. “No, it’s not much,” Fabio tried to reassure him. Pacheco excused himself and exited the room.

Less than six months later, the recently elected Juan Orlando Hernández, also of the National Party, named Pacheco as security minister. He was the first active-duty military officer to be named to the post. At the request of the U.S. Embassy, and following a strong outcry by human rights groups, Pacheco retired from the military.

Pacheco categorically rejected the “ill-intentioned” and “unfounded” allegations when Maradiaga’s testimony went public. The drug trafficker was attempting to secure favorable treatment from the United States and undermine the Honduran government’s efforts to crack down on criminal activity, Pacheco said.

In September, Fabio Lobo was sentenced to 24 years in prison. “I want to apologize to the government of the United States,” he said, “and especially to my father, who has nothing to do with this.” Now, it may be the current Honduran president, controversially standing for re-election on November 26, whose family is in legal trouble.

Maradiaga has turned over to the DEA a recorded conversation he had with Honduran lawmaker Tony Hernández, the brother of President Juan Orlando Hernández. According to Maradiaga’s testimony, the two discussed funneling government monies to a Cachiro-controlled front company in return for bribes.

Last month, the allegations reached the president himself. The New York Times reported that Maradiaga had given U.S. authorities another recording from 2013 in which a drug trafficker said he “made a $250,000 payment intended for Juan Orlando Hernández.” A Hernández representative denied the charges to the Times, and in what was either an incredibly honest or naive response to a local paper, the president’s chief of staff said:

If we’re going to look at how organized crime has permeated society in general and funneled money, placed deputies, placed judges, various offices, within the attorney general’s office and everywhere, hold on to your seats, because we’re talking about all colors here.

The takeover of the Honduran government hasn’t stopped the United States from continuing its support for Honduras. Earlier this year, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly referred to Hernández as a “great guy” and a “good friend.” Kelly was the head of the Pentagon’s Latin American subsidiary U.S. Southern Command under the Obama administration. Hernández told the press that relations were now “probably better than ever.”

Eager to try to improve its international image, the Honduran government has initiated a police reform process with financial support from the United States and other international donors. At least 14 drug trafficking suspects have recently been extradited to the United States.

But the Honduran government appears to be selective regarding which individuals involved in drug trafficking should be handed to U.S. authorities. Last month, it was reported that Ramón Matta Waldurraga had turned himself over to the DEA in August. He is the son of Ballesteros, the Honduran trafficker rendered to the U.S. in 1988.

Pacheco told the press that the government had no arrest warrant or extradition request for Matta Waldurraga, though the U.S. later unsealed a 2014 indictment on money laundering and drug trafficking charges. Like his father before him, Waldurraga’s testimony threatens to implicate military and political actors across Honduras.

And so the Honduran government remains on the defensive.

TOPSHOT - A man rides a bike past graffiti of Honduran indigenous environmentalist Berta Caceres a year after her murder, in La Esperanza, 180 km west of Tegucigalpa, on March 2, 2017. Caceres, an organizer of the Lenca people, the largest native group in Honduras, was murdered on March 3, 2016 in this city. / AFP PHOTO / ORLANDO SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)

A man rides a bike past graffiti of Honduran indigenous environmentalist Berta Cáceres a year after her murder, in La Esperanza, west of Tegucigalpa, on March 2, 2017.

Photo: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

ON MARCH 3, 2016, world-renowned environmental activist Berta Cáceres was assassinated. A number of suspects have been arrested, including at least one U.S.-trained member of the Honduran military. But more than a year later, those who laid the groundwork remain free.

Cáceres was general coordinator of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH. With Cáceres at its head, COPINH had led the struggle against a large hydroelectric project in rural Honduras. The company, COPINH has argued, failed to consult with the local population as required by Honduran law.

The concession for the dam was awarded under the post-coup government in 2010. The company building the dam, DESA, counts some of Honduras’s richest and most powerful as investors.

Blocked from accessing the vast majority of the criminal file, and in the absence of an independent investigation, relatives of Cáceres arranged for a group of international human rights lawyers to conduct their own. The report from the International Advisory Group of Experts was released on October 31 in Tegucigalpa.

The team analyzed many gigabytes of data drawn from cellphones and computers of some of those involved, though it was still just a small portion of the full case file. Still, the report found WhatsApp messages suggesting a well-orchestrated conspiracy to assassinate Cáceres that had lasted many months. The Honduran government had been sitting on the evidence for more than a year.

The authors of the report presented their findings to members of Congress in Washington, D.C., in early November.

“There is now little doubt about the identities of at least some of the intellectual authors who conceived of and paid for the assassination of Berta Cáceres,” Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, noted in a statement submitted to the congressional record. Yet, he added, “the Public Ministry has failed to act on this evidence, perhaps because it implicates DESA executives with ties to officials in the Honduran Government.”

The lack of accountability and unwillingness of the Honduran government to properly investigate the crime has put continued U.S. assistance “in jeopardy,” he said.

At the time of the assassination, Pacheco was security minister. Two weeks after the report was released, more recent WhatsApp messages were leaked. They are allegedly from Pacheco. (Pacheco didn’t respond to a request for comment from The Intercept.)

In the leaked messages, Pacheco complained about protective measures that have been decreed for members of COPINH and the cost to the government, though the vast majority have yet to be implemented. Pacheco referred to those whose lives have been threatened as a “mountain of moochers that take shelter behind the human rights banner.”

“This undermines peace and tranquility,” he continued, “this undermines national and international investment.”

In the coming weeks, the State Department is expected to let congressional appropriators know whether it considers that Honduras has complied with certain anticorruption and drug trafficking obligations attached to the majority of U.S. assistance to the country.

But back in early November, before the WhatsApp messages — and at the same time as Cáceres’s family was presenting its findings — Pacheco was also in Washington.

Police officers from the anti-drug squad in Tegucigalpa on October 7, 2010 look after a load of 500 kilos of cocaine seized from traffickers during a joint operation by the Honduran Police, the Army and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), in Brus Laguna, Mosquitia, Honduras. AFP PHOTO/Orlando SIERRA (Photo credit should read ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP/Getty Images)

Police officers from the anti-drug squad in Tegucigalpa on Oct. 7, 2010 look after a load of 500 kilograms of cocaine seized from traffickers during a joint operation by the Honduran police, the Army, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, in Brus Laguna, Mosquitia, Honduras.

Photo: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

Together with members of the police reform commission, Pacheco held high-level meetings with State Department staff and key congressional offices. On November 2, the delegation participated in a public event at the partially congressionally funded Woodrow Wilson Center, housed in the Ronald Reagan Building in downtown Washington.

At the very end of the two-hour event, an attendee, Christiam Sánchez, confronted Pacheco over his alleged role in drug trafficking. Pacheco “should be presenting his resignation and making himself available to authorities that are part of the investigation,” Sánchez said to the packed room. “How can you continue to be a part of the police reform process?” he asked Pacheco.

“I was serving the son of the ex-president,” Pacheco said about meeting with the now-jailed Fabio and the Mexican DEA informant, “and if I had to, I would do that again.”

“If I were a ‘narco’ like Christiam is saying,” he told the crowd, “I would not be seated here.”

Top photo: Members of the Honduran Directorate for the Fight against Drug Trafficking and the Military Police take part in an operation to seize 32 real estate, 15 vehicles, and nine commercial companies of six Honduran police officers charged in absentia in New York late last month, in Tegucigalpa on July 14, 2016. The police officers were indicted in a cocaine smuggling and weapons conspiracy linked to a son of the troubled country’s former president. The six defendants were charged a month after Fabio Lobo, son of former Honduran president Porfirio Lobo, pled guilty to conspiring to import cocaine into the United States. U.S. prosecutors say the officers agreed to give cocaine safe passage through Honduras in exchange for nearly $1 million in bribes from purported Mexican drug smugglers, who were in fact undercover U.S. agents.

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El homicidio de Berta Cáceres sugiere una trama de complicidad con el gobierno hondureño

CIUDAD DE MÉXICO – Era casi la medianoche cuando dos hombres patearon la puerta de entrada a la casa de Berta Cáceres en La Esperanza, su pequeño pueblo en Honduras. Pasaron por la cocina; uno de ellos abrió la puerta de la habitación y disparó seis veces. Cáceres murió poco más tarde.

En un país donde la lucha por proteger el derecho a la tierra provoca venganzas violentas, el asesinato en marzo de 2016 de la defensora del medioambiente podría haberse simplemente perdido entre el oscuro conteo de víctimas lamentables.

Sin embargo, Cáceres, de 44 años, era reconocida a nivel internacional por liderar a su comunidad indígena lenca en contra de una presa que una empresa planeaba construir en sus tierras. Su fama transformó su asesinato en un crimen emblemático y convirtió a la investigación que le siguió en un desafío a la arraigada impunidad de los poderosos en Honduras.

A veinte meses de su asesinato, un equipo internacional de cinco abogados ha advertido que la gente que ordenó el asesinato podría no enfrentar nunca a la justicia.

La evidencia, según los abogados, apunta a una conspiración en contra de Cáceres que llevó meses de planeación y provino de los altos ejecutivos de Desarrollos Energéticos, conocida como Desa, la empresa hondureña con la concesión para la presa.

“La prueba existente es concluyente respecto de la participación de numerosos agentes estatales, altos directivos y empleados de Desa en la planeación, ejecución y encubrimiento del asesinato”, dicen los abogados en un informe. “Sin embargo, el ministerio público no ha realizado imputaciones respecto de estas personas”.

Desa ha negado en repetidas ocasiones cualquier participación en la muerte de Cáceres o algún nexo con “cualquier acto de violencia o intimidación en contra de cualquier persona”.

Hay ocho sospechosos detenidos, incluyendo a Sergio Rodríguez Orellana, el gerente de asuntos comunitarios y medioambientales de Desa, y Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, un teniente retirado del ejército hondureño que fue el director de seguridad de Desa hasta mediados de 2015.

“Lo que falta es procesar a las personas que contrataron a Bustillo para planificar la operación”, dijo Miguel Ángel Urbina Martínez, uno de los abogados que revisa el caso a petición de la familia de Cáceres. El informe de los expertos fue publicado el 31 de octubre (The New York Times obtuvo una copia previa).

La investigación del gobierno, realizada por una unidad de élite de la Procuraduría General de la República de Honduras, todavía está abierta, aunque el grupo de abogados dice que no hay señales de que haya progresado más allá de los sospechosos actuales.

Entre los integrantes del equipo de investigación hondureño están dos asesores estadounidenses (un detective de homicidios retirado y un antiguo fiscal federal) que han estado trabajando con las autoridades desde los primeros días de las pesquisas, como parte de un esfuerzo de la Embajada de Estados Unidos por presionar al gobierno del presidente Juan Orlando Hernández para que se resuelvan casos criminales de alto perfil.

Muchos de estos involucran la participación de grupos poderosos que, según críticos, operan fuera de la ley.

“El gran desafío de Honduras es desmontar las fuerzas paralelas a las instituciones del Estado”, dijo Urbina, un experto en justicia criminal guatemalteco y asesor de la reforma judicial.

Austra Berta Flores, madre de Berta Cáceres, en su casa en La Esperanza, departamento de Intibucá, en marzo de 2017 CreditOswaldo Rivas para The New York Times

Para elaborar el informe, el grupo de Urbina analizó aproximadamente 40.000 páginas con mensajes de texto transcritos, que los investigadores del gobierno hondureño recuperaron a partir de tres teléfonos celulares, uno requisado en las oficinas de Desa y dos usados por Rodríguez y Bustillo.

De acuerdo con el informe, los mensajes muestran que los dos hombres estuvieron en contacto frecuente con tres altos ejecutivos en Desa mientras monitoreaban los movimientos de Cáceres y otros miembros de su organización, el Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras, o Copinh.

Los abogados dicen que las conversaciones revelan que las órdenes de amenazar al Copinh y sabotear sus protestas provenían de ejecutivos de Desa que estaban en control de las fuerzas de seguridad en el área; daban instrucciones y pagaban la comida, el alojamiento y el equipo de radio de las unidades policiacas.

“Había una estructura criminal formada por ejecutivos y empleados de la compañía, agentes del Estado y pandillas criminales que recurrían a la violencia, las amenazas y la intimidación”, dijo Roxanna Altholz, directora asociada de la Clínica de Leyes de Derechos Humanos de la Universidad de California en Berkeley y una de las integrantes del grupo de abogados.

Los otros miembros del equipo legal son un exfiscal de crímenes de guerra, Dan Saxon, y dos fiscales colombianos que han lidiado con casos de derechos humanos, Jorge E. Molano Rodríguez y Liliana María Uribe Tirado. Han estado trabajando en el caso durante un año y han realizado varios viajes a Honduras para hacer entrevistas y revisar material del caso.

Bertha Zúñiga, hija de Cáceres, escogió a los abogados a partir de recomendaciones del Centro por la Justicia y el Derecho Internacional, una organización latinoamericana de defensa de los derechos humanos.

Los mensajes de texto fueron entregados a la familia de Cáceres en mayo pasado por órdenes de un juez después de que los fiscales hondureños cancelaron cuatro citas para compartir sus hallazgos.

Altholz dijo que una de las preguntas que han surgido de su investigación es por qué la procuraduría, que requisó los teléfonos en abril y mayo de 2016, no actuó a partir de “la calidad y la cantidad de información” que “había tenido en su posesión durante el último año y medio”.

Un vocero de la procuraduría dijo que no podía hacer comentarios inmediatos.

Para la hija de Cáceres, el contenido de los mensajes demuestra que los ejecutivos de Desa se sentían intocables. “Estaban tan confiados de su impunidad que hablaban abiertamente”, dijo Zúñiga.

Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, hija de la activista Berta Cáceres, en una entrevista con The New York Times en Español en La Esperanza, departamento de Intibucá, en marzo de 2017 CreditOswaldo Rivas para The New York Times

La empresa ha salido en defensa de su empleado, Rodríguez, el gerente de asuntos ambientales. Es “un hombre de familia, honesto y trabajador, quien en este momento está injustamente privado de su libertad”, señaló la división de presas de Desa, Hidroeléctrica Agua Zarca, en un correo electrónico que no fue firmado por alguien en particular. La empresa “confía plenamente también en la inocencia del Sr. Rodríguez”.

Desa obtuvo la concesión para construir una presa en el río Gualcarque, al oeste de Honduras, en 2009. Por ley, la empresa debía consultar con la comunidad lenca, pero el Copinh se opuso al proyecto desde el principio con el argumento de que la presa pondría en peligro los recursos acuíferos y la forma de vida de la comunidad.

La empresa incluso fue establecida de manera extraña, señaló Juan Jiménez Mayor, jefe de MACCIH, una comisión para combatir la corrupción en Honduras respaldada por la Organización de Estados Americanos: Desa contaba con un capital de solo 1200 dólares cuando obtuvo la concesión de la presa, junto con los permisos de operación, los derechos al agua y un contrato para vender electricidad a la paraestatal de energía eléctrica.

En 2011, miembros de la familia Atala Zablah, una de las más influyentes en Honduras, inyectaron millones de dólares a la empresa y se unieron a la junta directiva. La comisión de Jiménez ha empezado a investigar los contratos de Desa, una acción que ha generado enojo entre grupos empresariales hondureños.

Copinh luchó en contra de la presa por distintos frentes. Presentó litigios, realizó reuniones comunitarias y sometió el caso ante la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, que ordenó al gobierno hondureño tomar medidas para proteger a Cáceres. Ella había recibido amenazas de muerte y sabía que eran serias: cuatro miembros del Copinh fueron asesinados en 2013 y 2014.

En 2015, Cáceres ganó el Premio Medioambiental Goldman, que se otorga a líderes ambientalistas comunitarios, pero eso no fue suficiente para protegerla.

En noviembre de 2015, de acuerdo con el informe de los abogados, el exdirector de seguridad Bustillo se reunió con un alto ejecutivo de Desa. En enero, visitó La Esperanza y luego obtuvo una pistola mediante Mariano Díaz Chávez, un antiguo oficial de las fuerzas especiales hondureñas a quien se acusa de organizar el grupo de choque que asesinó a Cáceres.

De acuerdo con los abogados, se había planeado un intento de asesinato contra Cáceres para principios de febrero, pero se canceló.

“Misión abortada hoy”, le escribió Bustillo a un ejecutivo de Desa. “Ayer no se pudo”.

El informe no nombra a los ejecutivos de Desa, porque las autoridades hondureñas no han presentado cargos en su contra.

Bustillo regresó a La Esperanza durante varios días a finales de febrero y arregló una reunión con el mismo empresario para el 2 de marzo.

Después del asesinato, Rodríguez, el gerente de medioambiente detenido, reenvió detalles del informe de la escena del crimen que la policía había proporcionado a uno de los ejecutivos de la empresa.

“Sergio, relájate”, le respondió a Rodríguez otro ejecutivo por medio de WhatsApp unos días después. “Todo va a salir bien, ya vas a ver. No caigas en pánico, que lo vas a trasladar a otra gente​”.

Una versión anterior de este artículo se refería de manera incorrecta a los inversores en el proyecto de represa. Se trata de miembros de la familia Atala Zablah, y no “la familia Atala”, como estaba consignado (ningún miembro de la familia Atala Faraj ha sido inversionista en Desa o el proyecto Agua Zarca).

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Reacción del senador Patrick Leahy al informe del equipo independiente de expertos que investiga el asesinato de Berta Cáceres en Honduras

“Este informe condenatorio corrobora lo que muchos sospecharon: que la investigación del asesinato de Berta Cáceres ha estado plagada de incompetencia, intentos de bloquear y desviar la atención para proteger a quienes concibieron y pagaron por esta conspiración, y una flagrante falta de voluntad política . El Ministerio Público debe dar acceso completamente, sin más demora, todos los testimonios, pruebas electrónicas y balísticas a los representantes legales de la familia Cáceres, y a los abogados de los acusados tal como lo exige la ley. El Ministerio también debe proteger toda la prueba y seguir la evidencia sea donde sea que esta conduzca hasta arrestar a los responsables.

“Es vergonzoso que a pesar de la intensa presión nacional e internacional, este caso horrible ha languidecido, mientras que los responsables han tratado de desviarlo. Por otra parte, hay cientos de activistas sociales y periodistas hondureños que han sido amenazados y asesinados de manera similar, cuyos casos no han sido investigados.”

“Cualquier esperanza que el gobierno hondureño pueda tener de continuar la asistencia de los Estados Unidos bajo el Plan de la Alianza para la Prosperidad (Alliance for Prosperity Plan) dependerá, en parte, del resultado de la investigación del caso de Cáceres, así como de la aceptación del papel legítimo que juega la sociedad civil, y la prensa independiente, y de la reforma desde arriba hacia abajo del sistema judicial”.

# # # # #

[El senador Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Vicepresidente del Comité de Asignaciones y miembro de rango del Subcomité del Departamento de Estado y Operaciones Exteriores, ha pedido reiteradamente justicia en el caso de la activista ambiental indígena hondureña Berta Cáceres, quien fue asesinada en marzo de 2016.]

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Honduras, the Deadliest Country in the World for Environmental Defenders, Is About to Get Deadlier

Activists in Honduras could soon face up to 20 years in prison for simply marching in the streets after Congress passed an article of the new Criminal Code last week that opposition lawmakers claim criminalizes social protest as a form of “terrorism.”

Opposition lawmaker Rasel Tomé of the left-wing Libre party told AFP that the move marked an assault on civic and political freedoms. “A mobilization for the defense of Indigenous people, labor, political and environmental rights cannot be characterized as crimes of terrorism,” he argued. “That’s why we voted against (the article).”

Human rights defenders have raised alarm over the proposed reform, arguing that the sweeping definition of “terrorism” in the bill leaves activists and social leaders vulnerable to harsh criminalization and violence at the hands of military and police forces.

“This project seeks to anticipate – to suffocate at times and above all anticipate – possible popular overflows.”

Article 590 of the new Criminal Code defines “terrorist associations” as groups with the aim of “gravely subverting the constitutional order or provoking a state of terror in the population or part of it.” Critics were particularly concerned by the section of the article that states that a group can be considered terrorist association “even if its established purpose is a lawful one” and the fact that judges will have discretion to determine what fits the definition of terrorism.

The article, passed with 42 votes in favor, 33 against, and one abstention, goes on to establish “prison sentences of 15 to 20 years” and a fine as punishment for the “managers, promoters or financiers” of such “terrorist” organizations.

Social movements suffer brutal legacy of U.S.-backed coup

Eugenio Sosa, sociologist and professor at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, characterized Article 590 as a continuation of a trajectory beginning with the 2009 U.S.-backed coup that has escalated toward more violent means of clamping down on civil society.

“After the experience of the (post-coup) resistance movement, citizens of different sectors in Honduras have been permanently mobilized for multiple issues linked to human rights, natural resources, land, (and) university students’ rights,” Sosa, author of the book “Dinámica de la protesta social en Honduras,” told Upside Down World in a phone interview. “This project seeks to anticipate – to suffocate at times and above all anticipate – possible popular overflows … in the face of a general public that is very jaded by impunity, corruption, and very severe social inequality.”

Amid the immediate shock and confusion of the June 28, 2009, ouster of former Liberal Party President Manuel Zelaya, social movements consolidated a broad-based resistance movement in the streets to in an attempt to rollback the coup and halt the grave human rights abuses accompanying the military takeover. The unprecedented National Front of Popular Resistance also demanded deeper transformation of the country’s young and fragile democracy through a National Constituent Assembly to rewrite the 1982 Constitution.

But the crackdown on the popular uprising was bloody, and according to a December 2009 report from the Inter-American Commission for Human rights, included deaths, declaring martial law, criminalizing dissent, arbitrary detention, militarization, and a host of other grave violations of human and political rights.

The human rights situation continued to deteriorate after the coup with targeted assassinations, forced disappearances, and torture as state terror rained down on human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, LGBTI activists, Indigenous and campesino leaders, and others. According to Global Witness, Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders, with more than 120 killed since 2010, while the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights documented murders of 28 journalists between 2010 and 2015.

And this was all before protesters could be legally classified as terrorists.

Institutionalizing criminalization of dissent

Leader of the grassroots movement Ofraneh, representing the country’s Afro-Indigenous Garifuna communities, Miriam Miranda – who has suffered threats, attacks, violent arbitrary detention, and other harassment as a result of her outspoken criticism of neoliberal privatization and land grabbing in Honduras – told Upside Down World that Article 590 is the latest in a series of “legislative blows” to freedom of expression and the right to protest that have reached new heights this year with the Criminal Code reforms.

“The current government administration has done everything possible to restrict dissent as part of the re-election strategy laid out by the Juan Orlando Hernández regime,” she said, referring the president’s bid for a second term in office, a move that many have condemned as unconstitutional. She also noted that mainstream media has played a role in downplaying the extent of public outcry and protest in the country.

Miranda added that the “recomposition of political forces” since 2009 has paved the way for the “approval of countless neoliberal and undemocratic laws,” while systematic disappearance and assassinations of government detractors has been largely overshadowed by high levels of everyday violence, fueled by the generalized lawlessness brought on by the coup.

The murder of iconic resistance leader and Indigenous environmental activist Berta Cáceres in March 2016 – after she had suffered numerous assassination attempts, harassment, and threats of physical and sexual violence as a top target on a military hit list – is one emblematic case in an unchecked human rights and impunity crisis.

Many fear the assault on dissident voices in the deadliest country in the world for environmental defenders and one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists will only get worse with Article 590.

An earlier version of Article 590 targeted social protest as terrorism even more explicitly, including in the definition of terrorist associations those that “seriously alter the public peace.” After facing widespread opposition, the controversial clause was scrapped in the final version of Article 590 that was just approved, but critics are highly concerned that the inclusion of groups with both legal and illegal aims in the definition of terrorism leaves the potential for interpretation dangerously broad.

The article, together with the other reforms in the new Criminal Code, are expected to take effect next year. But not without a fight.

Libre’s Tomé told Upside Down World he has put forward a motion to reconsider the article, calling for removal of the clause that drags organizations with established “lawful” purposes into the definition of terrorist groups. He said he hopes Liberal lawmakers will back the effort, but claimed that the party’s position on the issue has been “volatile.”

Tomé and his colleagues already successfully removed from the new Criminal Code a controversial reform that had been approved earlier this year. Article 335-B, also referred to as the “Gag Law,” targeted journalists with four to eight years in jail for the crime of “apology, exaltation or justification” of terrorism. The reform drew criticism from the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and United Nations human rights office, which argued that the ambiguity of the article threatened to restrict freedom of expression, while Honduras’ public prosecutor’s office symbolically declared the reform unconstitutional.

Congress voted earlier this month to repeal Article 335-B, though it will remain in force until the new Criminal Code takes effect. But whether Libre will be successful in winning an overhaul of Article 590 will depend on its ability to organize a unified opposition within Congress.

Tenuous opposition fumbles in Congress

An article in Honduran media outlet El Pulso the day after the vote on Article 590 argued that despite being critical of the move to criminalize social protest and blaming lawmakers of President Juan Orlando Hernández’s National Party for pushing through the reform, members of the opposition in Congress enabled it to go through by showing up to allow Congress to reach quorum without staying to vote against the controversial reform.

El Pulso’s Oscar Estrada noted that the session began with 107 of 129 members of Congress present, but many Libre and Liberal Party members later abandoned the room, “leaving the National Party to approve the polemical article by a simple majority.”

“Honduras faces a dispute between neoliberal and authoritarian projects and the search for more popular projects from the citizens, social movements, and some opposition politicians.”

The votes in favor overwhelmingly came from President Juan Orlando Hernández’ ranks, with just two Liberal Party lawmakers siding with 40 National Party lawmakers to approve the article. On the opposing side, 11 Libre lawmakers were joined by 16 Liberal Party members and six other lawmakers in rejecting the measure. Libre’s 28 seats together with the Liberal Party’s 31 seats outnumber the National Party’s 52 members of Congress.

“If the opposition lawmakers had stayed in the session to which they gave quorum, the article wouldn’t have passed,” wrote Estrada.

But Sosa argued that the framing in recent years of the Liberal Party, historically part of the country’s ruling elite, as an opposition force in the post-coup era is uncomfortable at best, and could create unrealistic expectations for how lawmakers may vote in Congress.

“I don’t know what to expect from a more than 100-year-old ruling party in Honduras, responsible for everything that is happening, above all the coup,” he said, arguing that even though the numbers add up for Libre and the Liberal Party to join forces as an opposition bloc, it is largely “self-damaging to see the opposition in this way” since the Liberal Party is “part of the same oligarchic group” as the National Party.

Factions of the Liberal Party – together with the Supreme Court, Congress, and the military – conspired to carry out the coup against Zelaya, a wealthy rancher, after he made modest progressive reforms during his term in office, most controversially calling for a non-binding poll on whether to hold a referendum in the 2009 election on convening a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the Constitution.

When asked by Upside Down World about the opposition’s attendance at the session, Libre’s Tomé did not clarify why so many members of Congress were not present for the vote. “Each lawmaker answers for his or her actions,” he said. “I cannot assume the reasons of other members of Congress (for not being present), it is their responsibility to explain their reasons.”

Election looms

With Libre positioning itself as the legitimate opposition force in Congress by leading the effort to block repressive reforms to the Criminal Code, the upcoming Nov. 26 elections are a key opportunity. Gaining political power could mean preventing a further rollback of rights and finally fighting for the deeper political transformation that was at stake when elites and the military, backed by the U.S. State Department, executed the 2009 coup.

As Sosa put it, “Honduras faces a dispute between neoliberal and authoritarian projects and the search for more popular projects from the citizens, social movements, and some opposition politicians.”

Activists hold a vigil in memory of slain Honduran Indigenous leader Berta Cáceres at the doors of the Organization of American States. Source: Creative Commons / Flickr–CIDH Daniel Cima

But eight years after constitutional crisis, the road to rebuilding the country’s fragile democracy is still fraught with challenges.

President Juan Orlando Hernández, who beat Libre’s candidate Xiomara Castro in the 2013 election amid widespread cries of electoral fraud, is running for a second term – a move that critics have slammed as unconstitutional and that has become the hallmark of right-wing hypocrisy and political amnesia in the country less than a decade after coup-perpetrators justified Zelaya’s ouster by falsely claiming he was attempting to seek re-election.

And two months ahead of the election, an opposition coalition between Libre, the Anti-Corruption Party, and the Innovation Party and United Social Democracy alliance (PINU-SD) – united under the banner “Opposition alliance against the dictatorship” and represented by candidate Salvador Nasralla – has warned of a concerted government fraud plot to rig the election and promise a more thoroughly-planned and technologically-supported repeat of the contested 2013 race. Criminalizing protesters as terrorists in the new Criminal Code could help shield Hernández from a popular uprising in case of fraud.

But the land activists, human rights defenders, environmental warriors, and other dissident voices putting their bodies on the line to defend their rights and resources have already lost too many to the struggle since the last election. Social movements are increasingly in the crosshairs, and they can’t afford another opposition loss.

Source: UpsideDownWorld.org


NY Times: Los herederos de Berta Cáceres

En vez de instalar el temor, el asesinato de la líder ambientalista fortaleció su legado: las comunidades lencas en Honduras se siguen organizando para luchar por sus territorios y su segunda hija, Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, se ha convertido en una de las dirigentes de este movimiento.

RÍO BLANCO, Honduras — Bertha Zúñiga supo desde niña que defender un río o un pedazo de tierra podía ser una ocupación mortal. Lo supo a través de su madre, que marcó los recuerdos de su infancia: mamá en televisión denunciando la corrupción del gobierno durante una protesta; mamá llegando de noche con el brazo morado por el garrotazo de un policía; mamá vigilada por un extraño en un coche sin matrícula.

“Ser hija de Berta Cáceres a veces era muy agobiante. Era tan frecuente el peligro, que se volvió normal vivir así”, dice ahora Zúñiga, junto a un altar de flores rojas. “En un momento pensé: ‘Ojalá mamá se dedicara a otra cosa’. Luego comprendí que el mundo necesita gente como ella”.

Es una mañana calurosa de sábado, 4 de marzo de 2017, día en que Berta Cáceres, la activista más reconocida de Honduras, hubiera cumplido 46 años. En la comunidad de Río Blanco, a tres horas en auto desde La Esperanza, el pueblo donde Cáceres nació, decenas de comuneros, activistas extranjeros y periodistas se han reunido a la sombra de un roble de casi cien años: aquí es donde Cáceres reunía a los indígenas lencas para organizar la resistencia contra el proyecto de una represa que iba a secar el Gualcarque, un río sagrado para ellos.

Ahora, bajo el mismo roble, la única de sus hijas que heredó su nombre la recuerda.

Zúñiga tiene 26 años, pero si le viera caminar por la calle, alguien podría confundirla con una adolescente muy seria que aún no termina la secundaria. Su apariencia frágil engaña: a su edad es licenciada en Educación graduada en Cuba y, a fines de mayo de este año, fue elegida como coordinadora general del Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (Copinh), la organización que su madre fundó y lideró hasta el 2 de marzo de 2016: el día en que dos intrusos armados entraron a su casa cerca de la medianoche y la mataron a balazos.

“Mi madre no murió, sino que fue puesta en esta tierra como una semilla”, dice Zúñiga frente a una muchedumbre que celebra su metáfora. Una anciana quema copal y murmura un rezo mientras el humo se expande entre las banderolas del Copinh y la gente que lleva camisetas con el rostro de la activista. Los niños dejan velas encendidas junto al altar que tiene un cuadro con su retrato más famoso: el que los medios del mundo difundieron en 2015 cuando Berta Cáceres recibió el premio Goldman, considerado el nobel ambiental, por su lucha en defensa del territorio lenca, la etnia más numerosa de las ocho que habitan Honduras.

“No solo querían matarla, querían descabezar la organización, desaparecerla”, dice Zúñiga. “Pero se equivocaron”.

Hay quienes la llaman “la heredera”, pero a ella no le gusta el título. “No me siento ‘la heredera’ de mi madre, porque las luchas son colectivas”, dice Zúñiga.

Para Berta Cáceres, algunas luchas y sus diferentes enemigos —la explotación de la naturaleza, el racismo, la discriminación sexual, la opresión de las mujeres— eran una sola. Cáceres se preocupó de organizar talleres para que los lencas conocieran sus derechos. Les daba información de cómo las represas habían afectado a otros pueblos en el mundo, como en Guatemala y Brasil. Creó un albergue para mujeres que eran maltratadas por sus maridos y un área dentro del Copinh para proteger los derechos de la comunidad LGBT, algo inusual en las organizaciones indígenas de América Latina.

“Gracias a Berta pude identificarme públicamente como gay, a sentirme bien conmigo mismo”, dice José Gaspar Sánchez, de 24 años, coordinador de Diversidad Sexual y uno de los líderes principales del Copinh. “Berta también sufrió violencia machista en su hogar. Por eso luchó para sacar esa mentalidad de las comunidades”, dice Lilian López, de 42 años, discípula de Cáceres y hoy coordinadora de las Mujeres en la organización. “La compa se llenaba de ira al ver que los autoridades, los empresarios, hasta algunos familiares insinuaban que ser indígena es ser ignorante”, dice Tomás García, dirigente lenca que asumió el cargo de Cáceres inmediatamente después de su muerte. “Con ella iniciamos un ‘proceso emancipatorio’ y no vamos a parar”.

A un año del homicidio de Cáceres, los dirigentes del Copinh y las casi 200 comunidades que agrupa en varios distritos y provincias, continúan en ese trabajo. Y ahora Bertha Zúñiga, su hija, ha decidido abrazar ese legado.

Desde que su madre murió, Zúñiga decidió dejar por un tiempo la maestría en Estudios Latinoamericanos que cursaba en Ciudad de México para trabajar a tiempo completo en el Copinh y seguir de cerca las investigaciones del homicidio de su madre. Un crimen que, según Zúñiga, solo muestra señales de continuar impune.

Hasta junio de 2017, ocho hombres han sido acusados de su asesinato: algunos están vinculados con el ejército hondureño y dos de ellos tienen relación con la compañía Desarrollos Energéticos S. A. (DESA), dueña de la represa. La empresa ha negado “cualquier vinculación con hechos de violencia o intimidación en contra de cualquier persona” en relación con este caso.

El proceso judicial, sin embargo, tiene un velo de sospecha: el expediente fue robado dos veces y la fiscalía lanzó acusaciones sobre luchas de poder internas en el Copinh, deslizando la posibilidad de que el autor del crimen fuera alguno de sus miembros.

Zúñiga dice que no le sorprende: hay periodistas y troles de internet que cuelgan videos difamando al Copinh y a ella, diciendo que se aprovecha del nombre de su madre, que ella y sus hermanos se pasean por el mundo desprestigiando a Honduras, que se aprovecha de la pobreza del pueblo lenca para enriquecerse.

“Mi madre nos advirtió de todo lo que se venía”, dice Zúñiga. “Ella decidió asumir el costo más alto. Ahora estamos preparados para asumir el nuestro”.

‘Quieren llenarnos de terror’

La figura de un padre o una madre que han dado su vida por una causa siempre marca a sus descendientes: hay quienes huyen de ese legado y quienes sienten la necesidad de asumir esas luchas.

La brasileña Elenira Mendes, hija del ambientalista Chico Mendes, creó un instituto para continuar con la lucha de su padre luego de su asesinato. El peruano Víctor Pío, hijo de un respetado jefe asháninka, vive amenazado por asumir el liderazgo de su comunidad luego de que traficantes de madera acribillaran a su padre, quien llevaba veinte años pidiendo la titulación de sus tierras. El mexicano Isidro Baldenegro, hijo de un líder tarahumara, tomó el puesto de su padre cuando unos sicarios lo mataron por defender los bosques de su etnia. En enero de 2017, Baldenegro —quien recibió el Premio Goldman al igual que Cáceres— fue asesinado igual que su padre.

Los cuatro hijos de Cáceres no tomaron la bandera de su madre por un arrebato de heroísmo: aprendieron a querer y respetar las luchas sociales desde niños.

En las fotos familiares, una Berta Cáceres veinteañera aparece cargando en hombros a alguna de sus hijas durante las marchas. Su hijo menor, Salvador —22 años, estudiante de Medicina en Argentina—, casi nace dentro de un taxi cuando ella se dirigía a una protesta. Cuando eran niños Cáceres solía leerles cuentos sobre el racismo, la guerra y el cuidado de la naturaleza. Aprendían juntos las canciones de Silvio Rodríguez, Mercedes Sosa y cantos indígenas. En las asambleas del Copinh tomaban fotos, ayudaban en la cocina, organizaban la radio comunitaria.

Bertha Zúñiga cuenta que solían pasar semanas enteras en las comunidades lencas. Para Cáceres era crucial que ellos conocieran cómo vivían los chicos indígenas. Que supieran por qué ellos no iban a la escuela, por qué sus padres tenían que partirse la espalda en los campos por menos de 2,50 dólares al día; por qué Honduras tiene los niveles más altos de desigualdad de América Latina: cerca de seis de cada diez hogares de las zonas rurales viven en pobreza extrema.

“A veces no quería enterarme de todo eso, pero ella nunca dejó que viviéramos indiferentes a esa realidad”, dice Laura Zúñiga, de 24 años, estudiante de Obstetricia en Buenos Aires.

Ella, al igual que sus hermanos, participó de movimientos estudiantiles y marchó junto a su madre para defender los derechos de las comunidades lencas. Durante las protestas, Cáceres les enseñaba también cuándo agacharse para no respirar el gas lacrimógeno que arrojaban los policías, qué distancia mantener de ellos para que no los arrestaran, cuándo correr y protegerse de las balas.

“Pero luego nos comenzamos a meter demasiado, al punto de no querer ir a estudiar, y Berta no nos soportaba dentro”, recuerda Olivia Zúñiga, de 27 años, abogada y candidata a diputada al Congreso Nacional de Honduras por el Partido Libre. La hija mayor de la activista cuenta que, durante el golpe de Estado a Manuel Zelaya en 2009, ella salía a escondidas a alguna toma de universidad o a marchas donde era seguro que ocurrieran enfrentamientos con policías y militares. Debido al peligro, Cáceres recibió apoyo de organizaciones internacionales para que tres de sus hijos estudiaran fuera de Honduras.

“Queríamos ser como ella”, dice Olivia Zúñiga. “Y mi madre entendía, pero no quería exponernos. De algún modo éramos su punto débil”.

Berta Cáceres sabía que, al menos en su país, las luchas sociales nunca fueron un asunto de sosegados idealistas.

Honduras es considerado el lugar más peligroso en el mundo para los activistas ambientales. Este país, donde ocho de cada diez homicidios quedan impunes, tiene la mayor cifra per cápita de asesinatos de activistas. Según Global Witness, 123 activistas hondureños han sido asesinados en los últimos siete años. Y esa cifra solo registra los casos conocidos.

De todas esas muertes, la de Cáceres fue la más sonada, la que ocupó titulares internacionales. Su asesinato, sin embargo, era solo un eslabón en una cadena de crímenes que venía de años atrás en el país. Las víctimas eran indígenas lencas, miembros del Copinh que también se oponían a la construcción de la represa en Río Blanco.

En 2013 un soldado mató a balazos al dirigente Tomás García durante una marcha contra la empresa DESA. En 2014 mataron a William Jacobo Rodríguez y, meses después, a su hermano de 15 años. El mismo año, el activista Juan Francisco Martínez fue asesinado y arrojado al río. En 2016, días después del asesinato de Cáceres, mataron de un disparo en el rostro a Nelson García cuando volvía a casa tras el desalojo de una comunidad por parte del ejército. Meses más tarde, Lesbia Janeth Urquía, otra activista del Copinh, fue encontrada muerta en una escombrera.

“No tenemos a dónde acudir, no tenemos ninguna confianza en el sistema de justicia”, dijo Berta Cáceres en 2013, ante Amnistía Internacional. “En Honduras defender los derechos humanos es un crimen, quieren llenarnos de terror”.

Antes de ser asesinada, Cáceres denunció 33 amenazas de muerte ante el Ministerio Público. Eran llamadas anónimas, correos electrónicos, mensajes de texto o amenazas directas de agentes de seguridad. Sus familiares cuentan que la activista tuvo la opción de refugiarse un tiempo en Estados Unidos donde reside una de sus hermanas, pero la rechazó. Comenzó a preocuparse en serio cuando las amenazas fueron más allá de ella y de su organización, y alcanzaron a su madre, a sus hijos y a su nieto de seis años.

‘No soy criada de nadie’

Tres semanas antes de que le dispararan, Berta Cáceres decidió dejar la casa de su madre en el barrio El Calvario y mudarse a una casa de una planta en El Líbano, un barrio rodeado de lomas verdes, a las afueras del pueblo. Sus amigos le decían que era peligroso mudarse a un lugar tan apartado. Cáceres insistía que allí estaría más tranquila. Quería proteger a su familia.

(La casa donde fue asesinada Berta Cáceres en La Esperanza, en el departamento de IntibucáCreditOswaldo Rivas para The New York Times)

“Había una carga terrible sobre ella”, recuerda Austra Bertha Flores y cuenta que su hija visitaba a un médico para que la ayudara a sobrellevar la presión. “Ante los demás no lo demostraba, pero yo la sentía con mucho temor. Decía: ‘Cualquier ratito me van a doblar estos hijos de puta’”.

La madre de Berta Cáceres tiene 84 años, una trenza larga y plateada hasta la cintura y el semblante de una abuela paciente. Enfermera de oficio, ha asistido más de cinco mil partos a lo largo de su vida. El pueblo admiraba tanto su labor que la eligió alcaldesa de La Esperanza en tres ocasiones. También fue gobernadora de Intibucá y diputada del Congreso Nacional en tiempos en que las mujeres en Centroamérica difícilmente tenían acceso a la vida política.

Sentada en la sala de su casa, hoy vigilada por unos policías armados con rifles, doña Austra Bertha recuerda los días en que su hija se encerraba en la oficina de muebles viejos que llamaba “la ratonera”, estudiando documentos y bebiendo café tostado con pimienta, como se acostumbra en la Honduras rural. O llegando de noche con una mochila con su laptop y papeles del Copinh, quejándose de un dolor punzante en la espalda. Eran hernias que, por falta de tiempo y dinero, no podía tratar.

(Austra Berta Flores, madre de Berta Cáceres, en su casa en La Esperanza, departamento de Intibucá, en marzo de 2017 CreditOswaldo Rivas para The New York Times)

La activista más reconocida de Honduras solía decir que no solo había heredado el nombre de su madre, sino también su vocación social. Berta Cáceres era una niña cuando recorrían juntas las comunidades lencas para atender a las parturientas. Ella calentaba agua en una olla, le alcanzaba a su madre las jeringas y las pinzas, alumbraba la cabaña con una vela. También llevaba medicinas y alimentos hasta los campos de refugiados salvadoreños que su madre apoyaba. Uno de sus hermanos mayores había sido guerrillero en Nicaragua y había vivido en la Unión Soviética. Berta admiraba a ese hermano. Quería ser como él.

En casa a nadie le sorprendía que cada año la eligieran dirigente estudiantil. Cáceres procuraba destacar en lo que hiciera: desde participar en debates políticos hasta en certámenes de belleza del pueblo, como la Feria de la Papa y Señorita Municipalidad. La activista que vestía camisas sueltas y jeans gastados, en las fotos de su adolescencia aparece sonriente con elegantes vestidos satinados, capas rojas y tocados de plumas multicolores. Nunca ganó la corona; solo el segundo lugar: el de princesa. “Pero era una princesa bien peleona”, cuenta su madre: “Le daba patadas a sus hermanos”. Ellos se enojaban cuando Berta se negaba a servirles la comida. Esperaban eso de ella por ser mujer. “No joda”, les contestaba, “no soy criada de nadie”.

“Lo que más me atrajo de ella fue su carácter y su valor, era una mujer sumamente irreverente, aunque podía ser bastante autoritaria”, recuerda Salvador Zúñiga, su exesposo y padre de sus hijos. Berta Cáceres tenía 17 años cuando se casaron y tuvieron a Olivia. Cáceres se había graduado del instituto como maestra de primaria, pero no buscaba el cambio social en un salón de clase.

Cuando Olivia cumplió un año, Cáceres y Zúñiga, jóvenes de izquierda, fueron llamados a unirse a las filas de la Resistencia Nacional en El Salvador. Salvador cuenta que le pidió a Berta que se quedara en el pueblo a cuidar a la bebé mientras él iba solo al frente. Ella se rehusó. “¿Por qué no te quedás cuidando a la niña vos y yo me voy?”, recuerda que le dijo. Fue inútil que él insistiera: dejaron a la niña con una tía y viajaron juntos para unirse a la guerrilla.

Tras la firma de los Acuerdos de Paz en El Salvador, la pareja regresó a Honduras. Con esa experiencia revolucionaria ayudaron a organizar las comunidades, a plantear una estrategia en tiempos de paz. En 1993, mientras criaban a tres niñas, fundaron el Copinh bajo la bandera de una nueva lucha: defender el medioambiente y reivindicar la identidad indígena.

(Una mujer lenca junto a su hijo durante el aniversario del asesinato de Berta Cáceres en la comunidad Río Blanco, en marzo de 2017 CreditOswaldo Rivas para The New York Times)

Cáceres solía decir que su bisabuela era lenca. En una de las paredes de “la ratonera” todavía puede verse colgado el viejo retrato que la activista conservaba de ella. “Nuestra familia se mezcló”, dirá doña Austra Bertha, “pero ella abrazó esa identidad”.

“Yo soy lenca, soy indígena”, solía decir en público. Y para Cáceres no había declaración política más poderosa que esa.

‘Mi vida la tengo dispuesta’

Por mucho tiempo los lencas parecían una etnia destinada a desaparecer. Durante cinco siglos las élites del poder en Honduras —los colonos españoles, los hacendados criollos, los dueños de corporaciones— arrebataron las tierras más fértiles de los valles, arrinconando a los lencas hacia las laderas de las montañas. Familias enteras abandonaron sus aldeas y migraron a otros pueblos y ciudades en busca de un mejor futuro. Olvidaron su lengua y dejaron sus costumbres para que no los discriminaran.

“Antes no teníamos rituales ni quemábamos copal ni hacíamos altares, ¿sabe?”, dice Rosalina Domínguez, 46 años, discípula de Cáceres y una de las principales líderes de la comunidad Río Blanco. “Éramos lencas, pero la cultura la habíamos perdido”.

Domínguez recuerda que al inicio del conflicto con DESA y su proyecto de represa había comuneros que negaban ser lencas ante el alcalde por temor a que no los escucharan. En momentos así, dice, ella sentía un fastidio que parecía llevar dentro desde hacía mucho.

Tal vez por eso, cuando Berta Cáceres llegó a la comunidad de Río Blanco en 2009, algunos pobladores dudaron al verla: les parecía raro que una mestiza de piel más clara que la de ellos, que hablaba un castellano fluido, dijera ser indígena con orgullo.

“Para Berta ser indígena no era cuestión de sangre”, dice Bertha Zúñiga, a la sombra del viejo roble. “Ser lenca es hacer tuya la lucha ancestral de las comunidades, es asumir un modo de ver y estar en el mundo”.

De ahí que no bastara con preparar políticamente a la comunidad de Río Blanco. A través del Copinh llevó a unos ancianos mayas de Guatemala a Honduras para que les enseñaran sobre los espíritus del río, a utilizar las hierbas medicinales, a entender el significado de quemar copal —que se usa, entre otras cosas, para la purificación espiritual— y derramar en la tierra la sangre de un ave mezclada con chicha de maíz, como una forma de agradecimiento.

Desde esos días, al iniciar cada asamblea o evento, Cáceres pedía a una de las ancianas lencas quemar incienso como una forma de protección. A todo eso ella le llamaba “la cosmovisión lenca”. Y era vital, decía, no solo para unir al pueblo en un sentido cultural y espiritual: también para defenderse ante la ley y el poder de las empresas.

(Pascualita Vásquez, una indígena lenca, durante la vigilia por el primer aniversario del asesinato de Berta Cáceres en La Esperanza, en marzo de 2017 CreditOswaldo Rivas para The New York Times)

El Convenio 169 de la OIT, firmado por Honduras, establece que los pueblos indígenas tienen derecho a decidir sobre cualquier asunto que afecte su cultura, sus costumbres, sus creencias, su bienestar espiritual o sus tierras. Uno de los requisitos más importantes, sin embargo, es que los indígenas se asuman como indígenas.

“Es, sobre todo, una estrategia política”, dice Tomás García, dirigente del Copinh que hoy continúa ese trabajo junto a sus compañeros. Allí está Lilian López, capacitando a mujeres lencas en talleres de liderazgo y trabajando para mejorar el albergue que Cáceres creó para ellas. Allí está Rosalina Domínguez, organizando a su comunidad para futuras movilizaciones y resistir a la represa. Allí está José Gaspar Sánchez, trabajando con Bertha Zúñiga en las radios comunitarias para llegar a los jóvenes de las aldeas. “Los asesinos pensaron que matando a Berta la lucha iba a ceder”, dice Sánchez. “En todo el país van a surgir muchas Bertas. Van a ver”.

El sol arde sobre el valle de Río Blanco. Las aguas del Gualcarque, donde la activista solía bañarse al terminar cada asamblea, ahora está llena de gente. Rosalina Domínguez, lideresa de la comunidad, dice que Cáceres ha ocupado un lugar en este río, junto a los ancestros: “Ahora es la abuela mayor, la que coordina el mundo espiritual”.

(Un niño lenca descansa sobre una roca en el río Gualcarque durante el acto por el aniversario de la muerte de Berta Cáceres en la comunidad Río Blanco, en Intibucá, en marzo de 2017.CreditOswaldo Rivas para The New York Times)

En una de las orillas, donde los niños de Domínguez chapotean entre enormes rocas pulidas, se ven señales de los trabajos que los tractores de la empresa DESA iban a realizar para construir la represa, y que los lencas de Río Blanco impidieron hasta ahora.

Desde el asesinato de Cáceres las entidades financieras internacionales suspendieron temporalmente sus inversiones. El proyecto Agua Zarca está paralizado. Pero en la práctica nada ha cambiado: los asesinos siguen sin condena y el gobierno de Honduras no ha anulado la concesión a DESA. Ahora la empresa se ha trasladado a otro sector del río, junto a la comunidad de San Francisco de Ojuera. Allí hay familias que han aceptado la construcción de la represa.

“Nos siguen amenazando porque no hemos dejado la lucha”, dice Rosalina Domínguez. Recostada a la sombra de un árbol junto al río, la discípula de Cáceres deja ver su panza de cinco meses de embarazo: será su hijo número once. “Ahora hay extraños que me andan buscando por mi nombre. Pero mi vida la tengo dispuesta. Berta estaba lista para lo que tocara. Yo también”.

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Sierra Club Magazine-Under the Gun: An Investigation Into the Murder of Berta Cáceres

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

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

Berta Caceres Zuniga (daughter of Berta Caceres) stands next to the Gualcarque River, which her mother died protecting. BERTA CÁCERES ZÚÑIGA (DAUGHTER OF BERTA CÁCERES) STANDS NEXT TO THE GUALCARQUE RIVER, WHICH HER MOTHER DIED PROTECTING. 

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

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

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

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

Berta Caceres's sister and motherBERTA CÁCERES’S SISTER AND MOTHER 

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

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

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

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

Contact your members of Congress and urge them to support the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act.

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

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

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

Indigenous environmentalist Berta Caceres's house, outside La Esperanza, HondurasBERTA CÁCERES’S HOME, OUTSIDE LA ESPERANZA, HONDURAS 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That was our Bertita.”

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Honduras: Justicia en la cuerda floja

A más de un año del asesinato de Berta Cáceres, la justicia se desdibuja como una esperanza vana frente al crimen que marcó un antes y un después para quienes defienden los derechos humanos en Honduras.

Por: Ariadna Tovar

25 May 2017

En Honduras, la justicia pasa de parecer lejana a volverse completamente inasible.

El 23 de mayo, por tercera vez consecutiva, el Juzgado de Letras de la ciudad de Tegucigalpa aplazó la audiencia preliminar en el caso del asesinato de la defensora de derechos humanos y líder lenca, Berta Cáceres.

El Juzgado aceptó la petición de los abogados de la familia y del defensor Gustavo Castro, único sobreviviente del ataque en el que Berta Cáceres fue asesinada el 2 de marzo de 2016, de aplazar la audiencia preliminar de cuatro de lasocho personas acusadas de haber participado en el crimen para el 7 de Junio.

¿La razón? El Ministerio Público entregó la información probatoria que desde hace meses habían solicitado tanto los abogados de la familia y del defensor mexicano, como la defensa de los acusados, apenas el viernes 19 de mayo. Dicho tiempo es a todas luces insuficiente para revisar la información y para permitir que los abogados pudieran prepararse adecuadamente para la diligencia que iba a ser realizada el 24 de mayo.

Ya el 19 de abril, la audiencia había sido suspendida apetición de los abogados de los acusados y de la representación legal de la familia de Berta, debido a que el Ministerio Público hondureño no había entregado la información probatoria completa en la que basa su acusación. El 28 de Abril fue suspendida otra vez porque la información todavía no se hallaba disponible.

Los aplazamientos reiterados de esta audiencia con la que se dará inicio formal al proceso, derivados de la omisión reiterada del Ministerio Público de entregar las pruebas, primero, y hacerlo a tiempo, después, generan muchos interrogantes sobre la auténtica voluntad de las autoridades hondureñas de investigar cabalmente y de manera independiente el crimen de Berta Cáceres.

Honduras y Guatemala: Ataques en aumento en los países más mortíferos del mundo para los activistas ambientales

Foto: Cuartoscuro

A más de un año del asesinato, la justicia se desdibuja como una esperanza vana frente al crimen que marcó un antes y un después para quienes defienden los derechos humanos en Honduras.

Pero nada de esto es una novedad.

Honduras es uno de los países donde la impunidad es la norma en casos de ataques contra personas que defienden los derechos humanos.Esta impunidad alienta que sigan muriendo más personas que son vistas como blanco legítimo de ataques porque cuando atreven a defender el medio ambiente son clasificadas como una “enemigas del progreso”.

En una muestra más de que el Ministerio Público no se preocupa por rendir cuentas en su lucha contra la impunidad, no se presentó a participar en una reunión con la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos para revisar el cumplimiento de las medidas cautelares otorgadas a la familia de Berta Cáceres y al COPINH. No sobra señalar que Berta Cáceres fue asesinada a pesar de que ella misma había sido cobijada por medidas de este tipo y de que las autoridades hondureñas tenían el deber de protegerla.

Lee también: El único testigo del asesinato de Berta Cáceres rompe el silencio: “Era claro que la iban a matar” 

Así, el riesgo es que nunca se haga justicia y que el nombre de Berta Cáceres engrose la larga lista de personas que fueron asesinadas por el solo hecho de proteger los recursos naturales de los que todos dependemos para sobrevivir.

Desde hace años, las autoridades Hondureñas hacen oídos sordos a las innumerables voces que en cada rincón del planeta cuestionan la realidad que viven quienes allí dedican su vida a la defensa de los derechos humanos.

Liliana María Uribe Tirado, miembro delGrupo Asesor Internacional de Personas Expertas (GAIPE), quienes están realizando una investigación independiente sobre el asesinato de Berta, es una de esas voces.

“Nos preocupa mucho la naturaleza secreta del proceso y la falta de atención a las varias posibles líneas de investigación. Las autoridades deberían prestar atención a la sistematicidad de las agresiones contra el COPINH. El crimen contra Berta se tiene que explicar en ese contexto. Hay más de 12 personas asesinadas del COPINH entonces el nivel de agresión contra la organización es muy fuerte. Todo eso debería ser parte de la investigación,” dijo.

A más de 13 meses del asesinato de Berta Cáceres, las preguntas se acumulan y las respuestas se evaporan.

Una sola cosa es clara: la justicia está en la cuerda floja y las y los hondureños son y seguirán siendo la principal víctima.

Ariadna Tovar es investigadora sobre defensores de derechos humanos en las Américas para Amnistía Internacional.


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