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.