Human rights activists argue that Washington has blood on its hands for its complicity in abuses carried out by Honduran state forces.
One year after the assassination of Honduran Indigenous leader Berta Caceres, human rights organizations and Indigenous communities continue to demand justice in the case, while the international branch of the struggle pressures to an end of U.S. funding for police and military forces accused of human rights abuses in the Central American country.
Caceres’ family sent a letter Thursday to U.S. Representative Norma Torres to ask for her support for the Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, which was reintroduced the same day to the House of Representatives after stalling without adequate support since last year. The bill seeks the suspension of Washington’s security aid to Honduras until the country fulfills more rigorous human rights conditions — including an end to abuses by the police and military and justice in cases like Berta Caceres’ murder.
“It is increasingly clear that the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez is unwilling to act decisively to stop the killings of social activists in Honduras and to conduct honest and thorough investigations of killings and attacks,” Caceres’ family members state in the letter to Torres, urging her to “stand with” them and with Honduras. “In addition, the government has consistently failed to respect basic indigenous land rights, as it is required to do under its international treaty obligations.”
The original U.S. bill inspired by Caceres’ murder paints a grim picture of Honduras’ grave human rights situation, including the lack of justice in cases like Caceres’ murder. “Impunity remains a serious problem, with prosecution in cases of military and police officials charged with human rights violations moving too slowly or remaining inconclusive,” it states, adding that the U.S. State Department itself reported in 2015 problems of “corruption, intimidation, and institutional weakness of the justice system” in Honduras.
Caceres’ family addressed the letter to Torres to ramp up individual pressure for support of the bill. Torres, the first and only Central American in Congress and the founder of the bipartisan Central American Caucus, has faced criticism for aligning herself with the Honduran government, backing Washington’s controversial Alliance for Prosperity security aid package for Central America’s Northern Triangle and for refusing to support the Berta Caceres bill.
“We believe that your support for the Berta Caceres Human Rights Act will further strengthen your standing as an advocate for Central Americans and human rights, both in the U.S. and Honduras,” the family wrote in its letter to Torres, imploring her endorsement of the bill.
Caceres’ family also highlighted in the letter the involvement of active and former members of the military — including suspects trained at the infamous U.S. School of the Americas — in her murder, underlining the urgent need for more rigorous conditions on security aid to Honduran state forces. A former member of the military police in Honduras revealed to the Guardian that her name had been at the top of a “hit list” that a U.S.-trained unit received.
“A government that fails to protect its citizens and whose security forces are implicated in attacks and killings of activists should not be receiving security funding and training from the U.S. government,” the letter stressed, adding that Caceres’ murder is only one example among scores of assassinations, attacks and other forms of intimidation targeting activists in the country.
According to a recent report by the international rights organization Global Witness, 120 land and environmental defenders have been killed in Honduras since 2010 after an increase in state-sanctioned abuses in the wake of the 2009 U.S.-backed military coup.
Meanwhile, in Honduras, members of the organization that Caceres founded — the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras or COPINH — held a march Wednesday in the capital city Tegucigalpa demanding justice one year after her death.
They blasted Honduran authorities over the fact that, to this day, the motive for her assassination has not been identified and perpetrators in the killing not brought to justice. Demonstrators with banners shouted slogans demanding that authorities arrest the masterminds behind Caceres’ murder.
Caceres rose to international prominence for leading the Indigenous Lenca people in a struggle against a controversial hydroelectric dam project in the community of Rio Blanco that was put in motion without consent from local communities. She was also a key leader in the post-coup resistance movement that demanded a constituent assembly to rewrite the Honduran Constitution.
For her environmental and land defense work, she was awarded the prestigious 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, while at the same time suffering dozens of death threats and other forms of harassment. Berta Caceres was shot dead just before midnight March 2, 2016, when gunmen stormed her house and attacked her.
Caceres’ family claim that the Honduran company behind the hydroelectric project she fought against, Desarrollos Energeticos or DESA, and the Honduran government hired contract killers to murder her and other activists.
Her family and fellow activists insists that her legacy will continue to inspire a movement for rights and justice.
In a statement ahead of the anniversary of her murder, Caceres’ COPINH reiterated calls for justice and an end to unwanted corporate projects on Indigenous land and vowed to forge on in the struggle that Caceres championed in the name of a “just society where life is respected.”
“One year after Berta’s murder, she continues teaching us that ideas cannot be killed and the processes of the people cannot be stopped,” the organization said. “May she continue to be present and our task continue with her legacy of resistance and struggle against injustice.”
(CNN)In one of the most dangerous countries in the world, one woman paid the ultimate price for her cause.
One day before her 45th birthday on March 3, 2016, Berta Cáceres was shot dead in her home after years of threats to her life for her work as a fearless human rights activist.
The mother of four, herself a member of the indigenous Lenca group, was a hero to rural indigenous populations in Honduras, who have been under constant threat in recent years from groups wanting to build mega-projects such dams and mines and carry out logging on their land.
She was tireless in their defense.
Awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, Cáceres was regarded as one of the world’s leading grassroots environmental activists.
On the one-year anniversary of her death, we speak to her nephew and one of her close friends about her lifetime protecting human rights — and their fight for justice — in one of the world’s most corrupt nations, as ranked by Transparency International.
Strong female role model
Growing up in the 1980s, Cáceres was no stranger to the violence of Central America and civil wars in Honduras and neighboring El Salvador.
Her mother, Austra Bertha Flores López, was throughout her life a midwife, two-term mayor of their hometown of La Esperanza, a congresswoman and a governor.
She also helped many El Salvadoran refugees fleeing a bloody civil war which started in 1980.
Berta Cáceres, pictured as a toddler in Honduras. Her nephew says she learned from a young age to care about less fortunate people.
Berta Cáceres, pictured as a toddler in Honduras. Her nephew says she learned from a young age to care about less fortunate people.
“She was raised by a powerful woman,” Karen Spring tells CNN. Spring befriended Cáceres in 2009 while working as the coordinator for the Honduras Solidarity Network, a Canadian-U.S. group which supports social causes in the country.
“She (Cáceres’ mother) taught her about indigenous communities, the difficulties of indigenous women, and the racism they lived with. Berta was raised in that environment,” explains Spring.
Before this time, there was generally little tension with the Lencas because their lands had not been targeted for development projects, explains Caceres’ nephew Silvio Carrillo.
Carrillo says Cáceres’ mother (his grandmother), looked out for the underprivileged Lencas of the region, who often lacked access to education, and were subject to what he calls “pervasive racism.” This had a huge influence on Cáceres’ views.
“Every day my grandmother tended to tens of dozens of indigenous people that would come down from the mountain to get healthcare,” says Carrillo, a California-based journalist who is working to forward the investigation into his aunt’s murder.
“She helped give birth to over 5,000 children. Berta saw this every day of her life.
“Imagine what that did to her?”
Back to the beginning
To truly understand Cáceres, one must examine Honduras’ recent history, struggles and its increasingly dangerous atmosphere.
She was superwoman. In a place that doesn’t have heroes, she’s a true hero to so many.
Silvio Carrillo, nephew of Berta Caceres
In 1993, Cáceres co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) with her ex-husband Salvador Zúniga, who she met in her teens.
The organization helped fight for the Lenca people’s rights as they witnessed the destruction of their homeland and rivers.
Because of her upbringing, Cáceres had realized that despite indigenous rights being recognized by law, many indigenous groups lacked clear titles to their land and suffered land grabs by powerful business interests, said Carrillo.
This conflict over land is the main driver of violence against Honduran activists, says watchdog Global Witness.
COPINH grew to defend about 240 Lenca communities, who live in western Honduras and El Salvador, and campaigned against the privatization of their land, says Spring.
As the organization grew, so did Cáceres’ profile in Honduras.
“(Cáceres) had such an amazing political clarity and understanding of global issues,” recalls Spring.
She was invited all over the world to speak because of her ability to “connect the local to the global.”
Cáceres spoke in Europe, Asia, Latin American and at the United Nations about her work and the plight of indigenous groups everywhere.
Charisma, according to Spring, was her biggest weapon.
“She had the ability to go and talk to poor families, but could also walk into the Honduran Congress and relate to them, and talk on their level. She was a force to be reckoned with,” says Spring.
“It was really hard for any corporation to push forward any project without having to deal with her.”
“She was a threat. They (those in power) had a problem on their hands. She was clearly on the right side of the people and the law and there’s no impunity in Honduras,” he says.”There was no other way to stop her … she was an obvious problem.”
In 2009, a coup by the Honduran military removed President José Manuel Zelaya from office.
Since then Honduras has sunk to new levels of corruption and danger say both Carrillo and Spring, and reports from human rights groups support their claims.
In its 2016 annual report, Amnesty International describes “a general climate of violence that has forced thousands of Hondurans to flee the country. Women, migrants, internally displaced people, human rights defenders — especially… environmental and land activists — (are being) targeted with violence.”
It also asserts that “a weak criminal justice system (has) contributed to a climate of impunity.”
Graphic created by Sofia Ordonez
It’s in this environment that more than 120 environmental activists have been killed in Honduras since 2010, making it the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists, according to Global Witness.
The Honduras Secretary for Human Rights declined to reply to the accusations in Amnesty International’s report, when approached by CNN.
Amnesty International says Honduras has to protect human rights activists.
“Honduras has turned into a ‘no-go zone’ for anyone daring to campaign for the protection of the environment. How many more activists have to be brutally murdered before the authorities take effective action to protect them, or even be willing to talk about this crisis?” says Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.
The Honduran government has repeatedly said it works hard so those responsible for the crimes are brought to justice, and to ensure that the most vulnerable groups are not bothered or attacked.
When CNN reached out to the Honduran government it provided a press release urging the Prosecutor’s Office to continue its investigation into Cáceres’ case, and expressing their satisfaction with the course of the investigation so far.
As Honduras was spiraling into poverty, Cáceres’ fame grew — at a time when she became increasingly critical of the government in an increasingly dangerous environment.
In 2010, she began working on what was to become her best-known — and most dangerous — project.
The Agua Zarca dam was to be built on the Gualcarque River, the spiritual home of many Lenca and a vital source of water and food to the communities that live on its banks.
Over a period of five years, Cáceres was instrumental in a campaign that eventually stopped the dam from being built.
But regular threats, which began in 2013, started to grow.
“She had at least 30 threats to her life via text, voicemail or in person,” said Carrillo.
Three years later came that fateful shot in the night.
“Berta’s assassination wasn’t about one project, it was a calculated assassination of a woman that had gained so much prominence, reputation and power, not through money or academic credentials, but of her lifelong work to defend human rights in the region,” says Spring.
“After the coup, she led the social movement to stop and denounce it. Because of this, she lost her life. She was killed.”
Dangerous place to be an activist
Today, COPINH continues the fight against similar projects.
And Spring points out that when she visits the Lenca communities there is still a lot of hope and happiness.
“Berta said, ‘Well, we always have happiness to help us keep moving forward. They can’t take that away’. That became her slogan,” says Spring.
Cáceres’ nephew continues fighting to keep her case on the government’s radar, and he says that although they have made arrests linked to her death, they must do more to bring justice for her and her family.
This week, the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, said that the executive power is available to provide support to the prosecutor’s office and added that the government of Honduras will do everything they can to get justice.
To date, eight people have been detained by the authorities in connection to Cáceres’ death, including the man who managed the Agua Zarca dam project for Desarrollos Energeticos.
The authorities, however, have said they are yet to capture the “intellectual authors” of this murder. But the family says that is not enough.
“We have to denounce who designed the crime, who planned it, who paid for it, and also the people inside the company who promoted the harassment, prosecution, criminalization that lead to her being murdered,” Cáceres’ daughter, Berta Zuniga Cáceres, told CNN en Español.
The company denies involvement in the killing or any wrongdoing.
“The family has been asking for an international independent investigation to find the masterminds because there is little confidence in a place as corrupt as Honduras that they will be found and tried,” says Carillo.
In a statement to mark the anniversary of Cáceres’ killing, Susan Gelman, president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, described her death as an immeasurable loss to “grassroots activists around the world who stand at the frontlines of climate change and destructive development projects.”
She added: “We carry on with heavy hearts, filled not with sadness but with determination and what Berta called the best form of resistance: joy.”
Carrillo notes that there is a Honduran saying that Cáceres’ family and friends keep repeating: “Berta no murió, se multiplico.”
In English the meaning is just as poignant.
“Berta didn’t die, she multiplied.”
Mr. President, I want to call the Senate’s attention to the fact that it has now been one year since the assassination of Berta Caceres, a renowned indigenous Honduran environmental activist who devoted her life – and ultimately lost her life – defending the land, water, and other natural resources of the Lenca people.
After an initial attempt by the Honduran police – and even some high ranking officials – to falsely portray the murder as a crime of passion, which is a not uncommon ploy to cover up official complicity in such cases, eight men have been arrested including one active duty and two retired military officers.
Although Honduran officials have denied any government involvement in Ms. Caceres’ murder and downplayed the arrest of Major Mariano Díaz who was promptly discharged from the army, there are reasons to be skeptical.
Díaz, a decorated Special Forces veteran, was appointed chief of army intelligence in 2015, and at the time of the murder he was reportedly on track for promotion to lieutenant colonel. Another suspect, Lieutenant Douglas Giovanny Bustillo, reportedly joined the military on the same day as Díaz. They served together and apparently remained in contact after Bustillo retired in 2008.
It is particularly noteworthy and troubling that, according to press reports, both Díaz and Bustillo may have received military training from the United States.
A third suspect, Sergeant Henry Javier Hernández, was a former Special Forces sniper who had worked under the command of Díaz. He may also have worked as an informant for military intelligence after leaving the army in 2013.
According to press reports, First Sergeant Rodrigo Cruz, a former army officer who deserted after Caceres’ death and remains in hiding, said the Honduran military high command gave a hit list with the names and photographs of activists to eliminate to the commander of the Xatruch multi-agency taskforce, to which Cruz’ unit belonged, and that Caceres’ name was on the list. It sounds a lot like the death squads in El Salvador in the 1980s.
Five civilians with no known military record have also been arrested. They include Sergio Rodríguez, a manager for the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam that Berta Cáceres had long opposed.
That project is being led by Desarrollos Energéticos SA, (Desa), with international financing and the strong backing of the Honduran government. According to press reports, the company’s president, Roberto David Castillo Mejía, is a former military intelligence officer, and its secretary, Roberto Pacheco Reyes, is a former justice minister. Desa employed former Lieutenant Bustillo as head of security between 2013 and 2015.
Ms. Cáceres had reported multiple death threats linked to her campaign against the dam, including several from Desa employees. The Honduran government largely ignored her requests for protection, and Desa continues to deny any involvement in the murder.
Mr. President, it is inconceivable to anyone who knows Honduras that this outrageous crime was carried out by these individuals without orders from above. The question is whether the investigation will identify the intellectual authors, which almost never happens in Honduras. In fact, as Global Witness, the U.S. Department of State, and others have documented there have been scores of killings of environmental activists in Honduras that have never been credibly investigated and for which no one has been punished.
I have no doubt that one of the reasons this case has progressed at all is because U.S. law enforcement experts, supported by the U.S. Embassy, have assisted in the investigation, and because of the efforts of Honduran Attorney General Oscar Fernando Chincilla.
However, as I have said before, in Honduras where impunity is the norm, a case of such domestic and international importance should also be the subject of a parallel independent investigation. The obvious entities to convene such an inquiry are the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH). Yet the Honduran government continues to reject such an inquiry.
The United States and Honduras have a troubled history, yet we and the Honduran people share many interests. We want to continue to help Honduras address the deeply rooted poverty, inequality, violence and impunity that have caused so much suffering and hardship and contributed to the migration of tens of thousands of Hondurans, including children, to the United States.
But for this Senator that requires solving the Berta Caceres case and undertaking credible investigations and prosecutions of the shocking number of assassinations of other social activists, journalists, and human rights defenders in recent years. It means Honduran officials publicly affirming and defending the legitimate role of such activists, who in the past have been ignored, threatened, and treated as legitimate targets. Only then will it be clear that the Honduran government is committed to justice, and that our assistance will achieve lasting results.
The Department of State needs to thoroughly and transparently investigate whether Major Diaz and Lieutenant Bustillo were in fact trained by the United States. If so, the Congress and the Honduran people deserve to know how they were selected, what training they received, and any steps taken to improve the process of screening potential trainees and to monitor the conduct of those who have received U.S. training.
Finally, as I have said before, as long as the Agua Zarca project and others like it continue over the objections of indigenous people whose livelihoods and cultures are intrinsically linked to the rivers that are impacted, the confrontations and violence will continue. The Honduran government, like other governments in that region, needs to change its way of doing business in areas where the rights and interests of indigenous people have long been violated and ignored.
Given the shameful history of the Agua Zarca project it should be cancelled. Other hydroelectric and extractive projects in indigenous territories should be reconsidered by the Honduran government, and allowed to proceed only after a transparent process based on the free, prior, informed consent of affected communities.
Family of Berta Cáceres
XXXX Xth Ave.
March 2, 2017
3200 Inland Empire Blvd.
Ontario, CA 91764
Dear Rep. Norma Torres,
We, the family of assassinated Honduran environmental and indigenous rights leader Berta Cáceres, write to you today to appeal for your support for the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, which was introduced this week in the U.S. House of Representatives
As the first Central American to serve in Congress and as a leader of the Central American Caucus in the House of Representatives, your knowledge and leadership on issues involving Latin America is crucial. We believe that your support for the Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act will further strengthen your standing as an advocate for Central Americans and human rights, both in the U.S. and in Honduras.
The Cáceres Act calls for the suspension of “…United States security assistance with Honduras until such time as human rights violations by Honduran security forces cease and their perpetrators are brought to justice,” for wide-ranging human rights abuses, such as the murders of dozens of activists including 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize winner, Berta Cáceres.
A government that fails to protect its citizens and whose security forces are implicated in attacks and killings of activists should not be receiving security funding and training from the U.S. government.
In Berta’s case, after dozens of death threats and attempts to jail her on trumped up charges by state and non-state affiliated security forces, she was finally silenced. Three state security agents – one active and two former – are among those implicated in her killing so far. A former member of the military police, now in hiding, reported that Berta’s name was at the top of a “hit list” that his U.S.-trained unit received. The former soldier told the Guardian that he was “100% certain that Berta Cáceres was killed by the army.”
With Berta’s assassination, Honduran girls and boys lost a heroine, someone they could look up to proudly and who they wanted to emulate. The subsequent investigation into her assassination has made a mockery of proper law enforcement procedures. The incompetence ranges from a trampled crime scene to the inexplicable disappearance of one of Berta’s computers from her house, to the burglary of her case files from a magistrate’s car and the arbitrary detention and torture of the key witness to the killing.
For many Hondurans and friends of Honduras, the killing of Berta – one of the country’s most beloved and high profile activists – was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Since 2009, hundreds of social leaders have been murdered in Honduras, often with the alleged complicity of state security forces. The vast majority of these killings are never investigated, and those responsible are never brought to justice.
As the original Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act states in its findings, “Impunity remains a serious problem, with prosecution in cases of military and police officials charged with human rights violations moving too slowly or remaining inconclusive.” It adds: “[T]he Department of State in its 2015 Human Rights Report for Honduras reports “corruption, intimidation, and institutional weakness of the justice system leading to widespread impunity.”.
This is why we ask for your help in supporting the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act. It is increasingly clear that the government of Juan Orlando Hernández is unwilling to act decisively to stop the killings of social activists in Honduras and to conduct honest and thorough investigations of killings and attacks. In addition the government has consistently failed to respect basic indigenous land rights as it is required to do under its international treaty obligations.
We ask you to stand with us, with Honduras, with Berta and our family.
The Family of Berta Cáceres
March 2, 2017 Press Release
Congressman Johnson is joined by colleagues in efforts to withhold U.S. funds from Honduran police and military in the name of human rights
View in Spanish here
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Rep. Hank Johnson (GA-04), with support from 24 Democratic Members of Congress, reintroduced H.R. 1299, the “Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act.”
The bill was first introduced in the wake of the tragic killing of the Honduran environmental and indigenous rights leader Berta Cáceres on March 2, 2016. H.R. 1299 would suspend U.S. funding to the Republic of Honduras for their police and military operations, until the Honduran government begins an investigation into law enforcement violating human rights in Honduras.
“Recent reports indicate that two of the men allegedly involved in a Berta Caceras’ murder were trained in the United States – at Fort Benning in Georgia to be exact – through the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), more commonly known as the School of the Americas,” said Johnson. “This underscores the need for increased oversight of American resources and security assistance provided to Honduras and is another reason why it was important to reintroduce the Berta Caceres Human Rights Act.”
The proposed bill, which also suspends funding for equipment and training, has gained traction and support from other key members in the House.
“I am proud to support this bill that will ensure that U.S. military and police aid is dispensed only when Honduran institutions have demonstrated a firm commitment to bring perpetrators of violence to justice,” said Rep. John Conyers.
“When we send American taxpayer dollars abroad, we are sending a message about our hopes and values as a nation,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky. “A year after Berta Caceres’ death, the Honduran government continues to turn a blind eye to the perilous situation that labor, environmental and indigenous rights activists face in their country, many times at the hands of their own law enforcement officials. Until and unless the Honduran government puts an end to those practices and instead permits an impartial and thorough investigation of past abuses, it does not deserve the support of American taxpayers. I am proud to join Rep. Johnson in re-introducing this legislation. I hope that we will be able to honor Berta Caceres’ legacy by improving the state of affairs for activists in Honduras.”
Judiciary Committee Ranking Member John Conyers (MI-13), Marcy Kaptur (OH-09), José Serrano (NY-15), Jan Schakowsky(IL-09), Keith Ellison (MN-05), Barbara Lee (CA-13), Susan Davis (CA-53), Jackie Speier (CA-14), Gwen Moore (WI-04), Betty McCollum (MN-04), Daniel Lipinski (IL-03), Debbie Dingell (MI-12), Mark Pocan (WI-02), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC-01), Grace F. Napolitano (CA-32), Suzanne Bonamici (OR-01), Rosa DeLauro (CT-03), Luis V. Gutiérrez (IL-04), David Cicilline (RI-01), Chellie Pingree (ME-01), Earl Blumenauer (OR-03), Bobby L. Rush (IL-01), Paul D. Tonko (NY-20), and Raúl M. Grijalva (AZ-03) are original cosponsors of the bill.
Link to original article here.
This week, hundreds of people are gathered in the small town of La Esperanza in Honduras to remember the extraordinary life of Berta Cáceres, brutally cut short one year ago by a death squad that included U.S.-trained security agents.
During her short time on Earth, Cáceres was a powerful leader involved in many struggles. She led protests against corporate-driven regional trade agreements. She was a key figure in the broad-based movement of peaceful resistance to the 2009 military coup that deposed Honduras’s democratically elected president. Later, she was an outspoken critic of the U.S.-backed militarization of Honduras that rapidly expanded after the coup.
Internationally, Cáceres gained fame for her relentless fight against the illegal appropriation of indigenous lands by corporations seeking access to valuable natural resources with no regard for local peoples or the environment. Her tireless efforts to block the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project on Lenca indigenous land earned her the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015.
It also led to an escalation of death threats and attacks against her and her colleagues at the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).
In the middle of the night on March 2, 2016, Cáceres was gunned down at her home in La Esperanza in a commando-style operation. The assassination of the country’s most renowned activist generated shockwaves throughout Honduras and the world; countless protests and vigils were held, and a broad array of groups demanded justice, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the Vatican and dozens of U.S. members of Congress.
An appalling number of activists have been killed in Honduras in the years since the 2009 coup, and nearly all of those killings have gone unpunished. Following Cáceres’s murder, the Honduran government — which receives tens of millions of dollars of U.S. assistance every year — has been under enormous pressure to properly investigate Cáceres’s killing, to protect activists and to clean up its corrupt, crime-ridden institutions.
But one year has passed and the distressing reality is that the situation in Honduras is more alarming than ever.
In the case of Cáceres’s assassination, Honduran police spokespeople initially followed their usual playbook in dealing with an activist killing, first suggesting that Cáceres was either murdered by a former lover or by a burglar attempting to rob her home.
Then, bowing to international uproar, authorities proceeded with an investigation that, while deeply flawed, eventually led to eight suspects being arrested and charged with Cáceres’s murder. At least three of the suspects were active or former members of the Honduran military, and another was a senior manager at DESA, the company responsible for the Agua Zarca project.
Honduran authorities have denied any role in Cáceres’s killing, but court records obtained by reporter Nina Lakhani for The Guardian indicate that one of the suspects, Major Mariano Díaz, had been appointed chief of military intelligence two years ago.
Díaz, as well as another suspect in Cáceres’s killing who served in the military with him, had both received U.S. military training, according to Lakhani. She also notes that the president of DESA, Roberto David Castillo Mejía, is a former military intelligence officer.
There is strong evidence that the eight suspects were involved in a murder conspiracy bearing the characteristics of a paramilitary death squad operation. It is, however, highly doubtful that the group acted autonomously or that it included any of the intellectual authors that commissioned the murder.
It is likely that those ultimately responsible for Cáceres’s killing are safely perched at the top of Honduras’ social and political ladder, beyond the reach of the country’s weak and politically compromised judiciary.
A January 2017 report by Global Witness examined Cáceres’s assassination and other killings and attacks targeting environmental and indigenous activists and found that these ventures typically involve the country’s economic and political elites, and frequently involve state security forces, which receive U.S. support.
Threatened with the suspension or reduction of U.S. foreign assistance by congressional appropriators, the administration of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández launched a major public relations campaign following Cáceres’s murder centered on a new police reform commission.
While the commission has removed many alleged criminals from the force, none of the purged officers has had to face judicial accountability, leaving them free to continue their criminal activities elsewhere — including within the booming and murky private-security sector. Furthermore, the purge has left in place a number of senior officers publicly known to be facing criminal allegations.
More importantly, neither the police commission nor the much-touted Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH, by its Spanish initials) has had any real impact on the situation on the ground.
Activists continue to be killed with impunity, including two more members of COPINH who, like Cáceres, had been granted protective measures by the IACHR, which the Honduran state had failed to enforce.
Illegal appropriations of indigenous land are still underway, and corruption and criminality still permeate the Honduran government at the highest levels. The Honduran judiciary has failed to investigate senior officials from the ruling National Party, including President Hernández, despite reports of the diversion of public money from the country’s Institute of Social Security to the coffers of the party and the president’s campaign fund.
Yet the U.S. government continues to pour tens of millions of dollars of aid into Honduras. Much of it is in the form of security assistance, channeled through the opaque Central America Regional Security Initiative, despite evidence of links between police and military units and death squads, such as the one that killed Cáceres.
The man in charge of these security forces, retired Gen. Julian Pacheco Tinoco, was recently identified as a drug trafficker by a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration informant in the course of a trial involving the nephews of the first lady of Venezuela. But that hasn’t deterred the U.S. government, which appears to prioritize shoring up a reliable ally over protecting human lives.
Despite all the horrifying news out of Honduras, last fall the State Department went ahead and certified the Honduran government’s compliance with human rights conditions attached to U.S. aid. But, stirred in part by Cáceres’s killing, an increasing number of members of Congress are publicly opposing the U.S.’s Honduras policy.
This week, Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and other members of Congress are reintroducing the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, which calls for full suspension of security assistance to Honduras so long as minimal human rights conditions aren’t met.
Berta Cáceres may no longer be with us physically, but her indomitable spirit lives on, and her struggle continues. As thousands chant in La Esperanza and far beyond: “¡Berta Vive, la lucha sigue!”
Alexander Main is senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
LA ESPERANZA, Honduras — Precisely a year ago, I awoke to a garbled text message from my mother. She was too distraught to write clearly, but I understood her immediately, and my heart dropped. Murderers had finally gotten to my aunt Berta Cáceres, who, as a child, had been young enough to be my playmate Bertita, and later, as a woman, was courageous enough to stand up to evil in Honduras.
As we mark this sad anniversary in the town where Berta died, there is no solace for my family. Neither Honduras nor the United States seems to have learned anything from this loss.
Berta spent most of her short life defying some of Honduras’s most powerful economic and political figures, in defense of the rights of native peoples.
Her assassination prompted horrified reactions around the world, especially in communities that cared about human rights, democracy and the notion that all humans are born equal. Her final, fatal campaign was against construction of a hydroelectric dam on indigenous lands without the consent of the Lenca community she had been born into. Her efforts had earned her international acclaim, including the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015.
On March 3, 2016, intruders broke into her home in the middle of the night and shot her dead, leaving tens of thousands of activists around the world to hold vigils and rallies demanding justice for Berta.
But in Honduras, justice is elusive. In recent years, hundreds of social activists have been killed here. Very rarely are the killers caught. Corruption and criminality are widely believed to reach into the highest levels of government. Meanwhile, the United States, which maintains troops, equipment and trainers at several military sites in this tiny and poor country, has made matters only worse by shoring up the corrupt government of President Juan Orlando Hernández with hundreds of millions of dollars in assistance and overt political support.
In the year since the assassination, Honduran authorities have captured eight suspects, none of whom seems important enough to have ordered the crime. At least two were employed by the company building the dam, and at least two others had served in the Honduran military. One soldier was an instructor for Honduras’s notorious military police force. Four months after the assassination, The Guardian reported that a unit from this force had maintained a hit list with Berta’s name at the top, according to a soldier who deserted the unit and fled Honduras.
Berta knew about this list, and since 2013, she had regularly received threats. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights repeatedly told the Honduran government that Berta should be protected; these requests were ignored. Meanwhile, the government provided military and police protection for the Agua Zarca dam.
A year after the killing, the situation in Honduras has become only worse. Activists and journalists critical of the government continue to be targets of violence. The public prosecutor’s office consistently fails to conduct proper investigations into the killings of activists. Yet the office receives full-throated backing from the United States’ ambassador and its State Department.
A recent report by the human rights group Global Witness notes that the United States gives Honduras tens of millions of aid dollars “directed to the police and military, both of which are heavily implicated in violence against land and environmental activists.”
United States support dates to the 1980s, when the country was a platform for the American-backed contras fighting in neighboring Nicaragua. Military and police assistance was ramped up after a 2009 military coup against a left-leaning elected president, Manuel Zelaya. Aid was also increased after an influx of Honduran children migrating through Mexico to the United States in 2014, in theory to help stem the flow. But much of this aid has been made up of yet more security assistance, as well as economic assistance meant to attract foreign investment in Honduras — money that most often supports elite business interests to the detriment of poor communities subject to exploitation.
The Honduran government and the United States claim that the aid has helped lower the crime rate. Ambassador James Nealon made a point of saying so in a meeting I attended, alongside human rights advocates, in Honduras in December. What he was talking about were pilot projects intended to tamp down gang violence so that fewer Honduran children would be feel compelled to flee north to the United States.
The ambassador didn’t disagree that Honduran officials manipulate crime statistics and that, as a result, the United States tries to get good numbers elsewhere. But whatever the true crime rate is, each time an activist or journalist is killed or attacked, the government shrugs it off as just another example of the country’s rampant violence. Indeed, police officials tried to do that after Berta’s killing, suggesting at first that she was the victim of a botched robbery or a crime of passion. But their comments only bolstered the widespread belief that killings of activists are the work of state security agents.
Under great pressure from the Vatican, the European Parliament and other foreign entities, Honduran officials did conduct a partial investigation of Berta’s murder, but they continue to stonewall demands for an international, independent, expert inquiry. Small wonder. Dozens of policemen and soldiers tramped through the crime scene. When my family was allowed to return to the house six months later, each room had been ransacked. A laptop and a tablet are still missing, as is one of three mobile phones Berta used. None of these was on a list of belongings that officials took from the house.
In the United States, dozens of members of Congress have sponsored legislation that would cut off security aid to Honduras until “human rights violations by Honduran security forces cease and their perpetrators are brought to justice.” The supporters are led by Representatives Hank Johnson of Georgia, Keith Ellison of Minnesota, Jan Schakowsky of Illinois and other Democrats; it has been labeled the Berta Cáceres Act.
But our taxpayer dollars continue to flow to Honduras to support the government of Juan Orlando Hernández, thus enabling the climate of terror that is fed by his party’s corruption.
Today, we mourn not just the loss of Berta Cáceres. We mourn the loss of all the other Bertas in Honduras, like Tomás García, María Enfirquesta Matte, Francisco Martínez Márquez and many more. Wherever unprotected activists stand up to governments and corporations that encroach on indigenous land rights and other human rights, we must do all we can to stop our governments, corporations and lending institutions from playing the role of enabler.
Silvio Carrillo is a freelance film and news producer based in California whose work has included coverage for CNN, Al Jazeera English and The South China Morning Post.
Leaked court documents raise concerns that the murder of the Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres was an extrajudicial killing planned by military intelligence specialists linked to the country’s US–trained special forces, a Guardian investigation can reveal.
Cáceres was shot dead a year ago while supposedly under state protection after receiving death threats over her opposition to a hydroelectric dam.
‘Time was running out’: Honduran activist’s last days marked by threats
The murder of Cáceres, winner of the prestigious Goldman environmental prize in 2015, prompted international outcry and calls for the US to revoke military aid to Honduras, a key ally in its war on drugs.
Eight men have been arrested in connection with the murder, including one serving and two retired military officers.
Officials have denied state involvement in the activist’s murder, and downplayed the arrest of the serving officer Maj Mariano Díaz, who was hurriedly discharged from the army.
But the detainees’ military records and court documents seen by the Guardian reveal that:
Díaz, a decorated special forces veteran, was appointed chief of army intelligence in 2015, and at the time of the murder was on track for promotion to lieutenant colonel.
Another suspect, Lt Douglas Giovanny Bustillo joined the military on the same day as Díaz; they served together and prosecutors say they remained in contact after Bustillo retired in 2008.
Díaz and Bustillo both received military training in the US.
A third suspect, Sergeant Henry Javier Hernández, was a former special forces sniper, who had worked under the direct command of Díaz. Prosecutors believe he may also have worked as an informant for military intelligence after leaving the army in 2013.
Court documents also include the records of mobile phone messages which prosecutors believe contain coded references to the murder.
Bustillo and Hernández visited the town of La Esperanza, where Cáceres lived, several times in the weeks before her death, according to phone records and Hernández’s testimony.
A legal source close to the investigation told the Guardian: “The murder of Berta Cáceres has all the characteristics of a well-planned operation designed by military intelligence, where it is absolutely normal to contract civilians as assassins.
“It’s inconceivable that someone with her high profile, whose campaign had made her a problem for the state, could be murdered without at least implicit authorisation of military high command.”
The Honduran defence ministry ignored repeated requests from the Guardian for comment, but the head of the armed forces recently denied that military deaths squads were operating in the country.
Five civilians with no known military record have also been arrested. They include Sergio Rodríguez, a manager for the internationally funded Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam which Cáceres had opposed.
The project is being led by Desarrollos Energéticos SA, (Desa), which has extensive military and government links. The company’s president, Roberto David Castillo Mejía, is a former military intelligence officer, and its secretary, Roberto Pacheco Reyes, is a former justice minister. Desa employed former lieutenant Bustillo as head of security between 2013 and 2015.
Cáceres had reported 33 death threats linked to her campaign against the dam, including several from Desa employees. Desa denies any involvement in the murder.
Cáceres was killed at about 11.30pm on 2 March, when at least four assassins entered the gated community to which she had recently moved on the outskirts of La Esperanza.
Berta Cáceres speaks to people near the Gualcarque river in 2015 where residents were fighting a dam project.
A checkpoint at the entrance to the town – normally manned by police officers or soldiers – was left unattended on the night she was killed, witnesses have told the Guardian.
Initially, investigators suggested the murderer was a former lover or disgruntled co-worker. But amid mounting international condemnation, Díaz, Bustillo and two others were arrested in May 2016.
Hernández, who was eventually arrested in Mexico, is the only suspect to have given detailed testimony in court. He has admitted his involvement, but says he acted under duress.
All eight have been charged with murder and attempted murder. The other seven suspects have either denied involvement or not given testimony in court.
Prosecutors say that phone records submitted to court show extensive communication between the three military men, including a text message which was a coded discussion of payment for a contract killing.
American experts have been involved in the investigation from the start, according to the US embassy in Tegucigalpa.
Senator Ben Cardin, ranking member of the Senate foreign relations committee, said US support should not be unconditional: “It is essential that we not only strengthen our commitment to improving the rule of law in Honduras, but we must also demand greater accountability for human rights violations and attacks against civil society.”
Berta Cáceres’s name was on Honduran military hitlist, says former soldier
Last year, the Guardian reported that a former Honduran soldier said he had seen Cáceres’s name on a hitlist that was passed to US-trained units.
First Sergeant Rodrigo Cruz said that two elite units were given lists featuring the names and photographs of activists – and ordered to eliminate each target.
Cruz’s unit commander deserted rather than comply with the order. The rest of the unit were then sent on leave.
In a follow-up interview with the Guardian, Cruz said the hitlist was given by the Honduran military joint chiefs of staff to the commander of the Xatruch multi-agency taskforce, to which his unit belonged.
Cruz – who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym for fear of retribution – deserted after Cáceres’s murder and remains in hiding. The whereabouts of his former colleagues is unknown.
Following the Guardian’s report, James Nealon, the US ambassador to Honduras, pledged to investigate the allegations, and in an interview last week, said that no stone had been left unturned.
“I’ve spoken to everyone I can think of to speak to, as have members of my team, and no one can produce such a hitlist,” said Nealon.
But the embassy did not speak to the Xatruch commander, Nealon said. Activists, including those with information about the alleged hitlist, have told the Guardian they have not been interviewed by US or Honduran officials.
Lauren Carasik, clinical professor of law at Western New England University, said America’s unwavering support for Honduras suggests it tolerates impunity for intellectual authors of high-profile targeted killings.
“Washington cannot, in good conscience, continue to ignore mounting evidence that the Honduran military was complicit in the extrajudicial assassination of Cáceres.”
Extrajudicial killings by the security forces and widespread impunity are among the most serious human rights violations in Honduras, according to the US state department.
Nevertheless, the US is the main provider of military and police support to Honduras, and last year approved $18m of aid.
The Gualcarque river, sacred to local indigenous communities and the site of the controversial Agua Zarca dam.
The Gualcarque river, sacred to local indigenous communities and the site of the controversial Agua Zarca dam. Photograph: Giles Clarke/Global Witness
In recent years, US support has focused on Honduras’s special forces units, originally created as a counterinsurgency force during the 1980s “dirty war”.
The elite units ostensibly target terrorism, organised crime and gangs, but campaigners say the Honduran intelligence apparatus is used to target troublesome community leaders.
Violence against social activists has surged since a military backed coup d’état ousted populist president Manuel Zelaya in 2009. Since then at least 124 land and environmental campaigners have been killed.
A recent investigation by corruption watchdog Global Witness described extensive involvement of political, business and military elites in environmentally destructive mega projects which have flourished since the coup.
One of the most troubled parts of the country has been northern Bajo Aguán region, where a land conflict between palm oil companies and peasant farmers has claimed more than 130 lives over the past six years.
The Bajo Aguán is also home to the 15th battalion – one of two special forces units in the Honduran army – and the special forces training centre.
Two of the suspects, Díaz and Hernández, served in the 15th battalion together; Cruz’s elite unit was also stationed in the Bajo Aguán.
Ambassador Nealon said that there was no record of Díaz, Hernández or Bustillo attending any US training courses in Honduras.
“Our training programmes for police or for military are not designed to instruct people in how to commit human rights violations or to create an atmosphere in which they believe that they are empowered to commit human rights violations, in fact, just the opposite,” said Nealon.
Honduran military records show that Díaz attended several counterinsurgency courses at special forces bases in Tegucigalpa and in the Bajo Aguán.
He also attended cadet leadership courses at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1997, and a counter-terrorism course at the Inter American air force academy in 2005.
The court documents also reveal that at the time of his arrest, Díaz, 44, was under investigation for drug trafficking and kidnapping, while also studying for promotion.
Military records show that in 1997, Bustillo attended logistics and artillery courses at the School of the Americas, at Fort Benning, Georgia, which trained hundreds of Latin American officers who later committed human rights abuses.
An update from the family of Berta Cáceres.
As with many policies the only things that have been predictable about the new president are tweets and well, unpredictability. Our assumption is that at the very least the current policies will stay in place as apparently the U.S. ambassador in Honduras will be staying until the summer.
The election brought in new members of Congress and the loss of five co-sponsors to our bill. A new legislative year also means we will to re-introduce the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act. We will need all of your support for this. If your representative didn’t support the act last session please pressure them to support it this time. In the next update we will send out information identifying who we need to target for support and how to do it.
Two major targets are Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA). Pelosi is supportive of our efforts and is working with us to gather support. Along with the State Department, Rep. Torres has continued to support the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez although she has acknowledged there is massive corruption by the JOH government. It is unclear why she would continue to support JOH or if someone is simply giving her bad advice. It is also a bit of a surprise given that she was born in Guatemala and came to the US when she was a child because her family was under threat, seemingly from the government. So, presumably she knows a something about repression and corruption.
As head of the Central America Caucus – and now appointed to the House Foreign Affairs Committee — she has a lot of clout and thus many members simply follow her lead. We need to begin informing her constituency what policies she has been supporting on Capitol Hill as they are not in line with what we Central Americans ultimately want.
Global Witness released a damning report today that calls for the US government to stop funding and supporting the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez:
“Our investigation sheds light on the back-door deals, bribes and lawbreaking used to impose projects and silence opposition. We also scrutinise how the US is bankrolling Honduran state forces, which are behind some of the worst attacks.”
Here are their findings.
Beginning in early March we will be paying tribute to Berta in a variety of ways and we will do our very best to keep you informed on what is happening where but its best to keep tabs on social media from your local NGOs that are involved where you live. A list of a few are at the bottom of this email.
Lastly, I traveled to Honduras in December with Witness for Peace. We met many groups who have been or are being displaced for one reason or another. Along the coast of Honduras near Tela the government is looking to build resort hotels. There are projects like this all over the country – many supported by US Aid that seem on paper to be doing good, but in reality are wreaking havoc in the lives of everyday Hondurans. Those who oppose these projects are either murdered or their lives are being turned upside down.
One example – aside from the assassination of my aunt Berta Cáceres – is the displacement of a Garifuna community of Barra Vieja described in the Global Witness report. The community simply walked along the beach to the closest large town. After the resort was put in place, security personnel blocked the community from accessing the beach. This included children who walked to school. The government subsequently built a road around the resort extending their commute to an hour just to reach the town by foot. This means children are less likely to attend school and emergency services have more difficulty reaching the village.
As always, thank you for supporting Berta’s legacy and let’s get this bill passed!
List of a few groups working on Berta Cáceres assassination anniversary and The Berta Cáceres Act legislation
Witness for Peace Midwest/Accion permanente por la paz
Just Associates (JASS)
School of the Americas Watch