In Honduras, Attempted Murder Against an Indigenous Youth is Worth 30 to 90 Days in Jail
By Gloria Jiménez and Bryan Rogers
On July 15, 2013 the life of Tomás García was brutally taken, and his 16 year old son nearly lost his own, struggling to defend their land against the powerful interests behind the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project in the northwest of Honduras, in the heart of the indigenous Lenca territory.
That tragic afternoon a Sub-officer from the Honduran army’s First Battalion of Engineers–a unit that receives U.S. government funding– opened fire on an unarmed García, a member of his community’s Indigenous Council and member of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), during a peaceful protest being organized to halt the project.
On December 10, 2015 the judges found officer Kevin Yasser Sarávia guilty of simple homicide, a crime whose punishment generally warrants between 15 and 20 years in jail. On the charge of attempted murder, however, the court ruled not-guilty, instead citing negligence, ordering the officer to serve a 30 to 90 day sentence in a military prison. The prosecution considered the rulings a partial victory given the strength of their case which included strong witness testimonies, and expert medical and scientific evidence which thoroughly discredited the defense’s sole argument of self-defense.
“It’s the clash of two sectors, one that wields unaccountable power – now more than ever- and a life of an person that represents hundreds, thousands of years of repression, that is what this ruling establishes…that is to say it’s the vindication of many violent deaths committed by those who hold power and believe they can do it with impunity.” -Víctor Fernández, prosecuting lawyer
The Agua Zarca dam project is being implemented by the private Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos Sociedad Anónima (DESA). The Chinese state-owned SINOHYDRO – the world’s largest hydropower construction firm – was contracted to build the dam but pulled out of the project in July of 2013 due to “serious interest conflicts between…DESA, and the local communities…[that was] unpredictable and uncontrollable”, according to the company. Along with 40 other hydroelectric dam concessions, the Agua Zarca project was approved through national legislation in September of 2010 despite being in direct violation of the right to free, prior and informed consent and Honduras’ constitution, specifically respecting international treaties and the rights of indigenous peoples.
The World Bank’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation and the Central American Mezzanine Infrastructure Fund decided to pull out of the project  after COPINH filed an official complaint with the Compliance Advisor/Ombudsman arguing that the concession for the dam on ancestral lands was granted illegally because of lack of consultation with impacted communities .
In April of 2013, Lenca communities in Río Blanco began blocking access to the dam site. Shortly thereafter, the First Battalion of Engineers, commanded by School of the Americas graduate, Col. Milton Amaya, moved in and have never left. Lenca peoples have been in resistance for over 500 years and the Agua Zarca dam is yet another attack on their culture and traditional ways of living. They have faced threats, intimidation, evictions, arrests and murders .
“…We have a struggle against this [hydroelectric] dam, we’re defending our natural resources and we’ve been three years in this struggle and we continue in this struggle against that company because they returned three months ago wanting to finance the dam.”
-Allan, son of Tomás García on the struggle in Río Blanco
COPINH’s leader and Goldman prize winner, Berta Cáceres, has been the target of a campaign to silence and discredit resistance to the dam. On May 24th, 2013 on their way to Río Blanco, Cáceres and fellow leader, Tomás Gomez, were stopped by the military and subsequently jailed on an illegal arms accusations . However due to a lack of evidence, the judge provisionally dismissed the charges which allowed the prosecution up to five years to submit new evidence. A few months later, Cáceres along with two other members of COPINH were accused by DESA of “coercion, usurpacion and damages”  to the tune of US$359 million dollars. Once again, due to lack of evidence, the charges were provisionally dismissed on January 4th, 2014 . In the end, the Court of First Instance in Santa Bárbara ordered a definitive dismissal of the charges.
Photo: A website called copinhhonduras.blogspot.com/ was created to slander COPINH and targeted Berta. This image was included as part of a post dated January 6, 2014, and the caption reads “Berta, the devil that came to mess up our lives in Río Blanco.”
After her visit to Honduras last month, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, voiced her concern over “the lack of resources of the institutions such as the Fiscalía de Etnias and Comisionado Nacional de Derechos Humanos; language, cultural and economic barriers; racism and discrimination toward indigenous peoples; and impunity” .
Representing both the victim’s family and the Lenca community, prosecutor Víctor Fernández gave strong statements directed at the judges during the Tomás García trial, calling on them to not see the indigenous as violent and criminals because of their poverty, their clothes, physical features and their way of life, and to punish this grave violation of human rights.
Even before the 2009 coup, privatization of the Gualcarque River had already been underway with the government’s plans to develop hydroelectric power . Given the rampant impunity in Honduras, in conjunction with the prioritization of business interests, this has paved the way for multiple forms of state repression as clearly displayed in the case of Tomás García and the struggle for the Gualcarque River. For now, the Agua Zarca project site remains heavily guarded by military and police units which could be receiving U.S. government funding and should be thoroughly vetted per the Leahy law given the grave human rights violations that have occurred there.
On January 8, 2016 the Siguatepeque Trial Court will deliver their final sentencing for the convicted sub-officer. The lawyer for Tomás’s family plans to submit an appeal on the decision regarding Allan’s case and the decision for the jail term to be served in the state penitentiary rather than the First Infantry Battalion.
Apart from Agua Zarca, Honduran state security forces have been implicated in human rights abuses in numerous other mega projects, often undertaken without the consent of the local communities. For this reason, there have been calls to end or at least halt U.S. funding to Honduran military and police. In August 2015, 21 House Democrats sent a letter to Secretary of State Kerry with demands that included “disclosing how U.S. funds are being used and “the suspension and re-evaluation of further training and support for Honduran police and military units until the Honduran government adequately addresses human rights abuses” . In theory, the Leahy law prohibits the departments of State and Defense from providing support to foreign military units that violate human rights with impunity although in practice, this is not always the case. Even in the few cases where human rights violators like Tomas Garcia’s murderer are punished, justice is elusive.
*An earlier version of this article was published erroneously connecting the 30 to 90 day sentence with the charge of simple homicide.
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