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The Berta Cáceres Case in Context: The Campaign Against Human Rights Defenders in Honduras

The assassination of Berta Cáceres has, for good reason, become an emblematic case in the conversation around human rights abuses in Honduras, and the horrifying brutality faced there by indigenous communities, human rights activists, environmentalists, journalists, and many other targeted groups.

In part because of her international renown as a Goldman Prize-winner, and in part because of the sheer force of her presence in the movement in Honduras, Berta’s assassination has rightly been held at the forefront of international understanding of the situation here.

In Honduras, we hear over and over again from partners that if her assassins were unswayed by her high profile and the presumably unwanted attention her murder would bring, that it shows in the starkest possible terms the lengths they’re willing to go. If Berta wasn’t safe, nobody is.

As emblematic and critical as her case is, Witness for Peace’s calls for justice, like those of our partners in Honduras, have never been limited to a narrow definition of justice that only includes punishing those immediately responsible for her murder. Justice for Berta means a great many things.

Among them is the full investigation and punishment of the intellectual authors of her murder, rather than only the lowest-level operatives. It also means the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the Agua Zarca dam she was killed for opposing as well as the dozens of other mega-projects throughout Honduras that are imposed on indigenous and non-indigenous communities without consent. It means reparations for communities already affected by these projects, and it means structural reforms to guarantee that these types of crimes do not occur again.

Critically, Berta Cáceres herself would’ve been the first to point out that her case was in no way unique, but rather part of a widespread and systematic attack on human rights in Honduras. One of the great strengths of the The Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act is that it recognizes this: it identifies a number of cases that need to be addressed for US security aid to resume.

In the past, the Witness for Peace Honduras International Team has been critical of weakly written human rights conditionality in the laws that define aid for Honduras. The State Department’s certification, last September, that the Honduran Government was taking “effective steps” to address human rights concerns in the country even though more than a dozen activists and journalists had been murdered in the months preceding certification certainly proves the point.

The Berta Cáceres Act has stricter, more clearly defined metrics for conditioning security aid, which we consider a politically crucial and morally necessary approach to US aid to Honduras. We applaud Rep. Johnson and the other co-signers of the bill for taking this tough stance on a variety of important issues, including the removal of the military from policing and guarantees of investigation and prosecution of security forces found to have committed human rights abuses.

In this article, we will focus on the specific cases outlined in Section 4 (1) of the Act:

The provisions of this Act shall terminate on the date on which the Secretary of State determines and certifies to the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate that the Government of Honduras has—

(1) pursued all legal avenues to bring to trial and obtain a verdict of those who ordered and carried out—

(A) the March 2, 2016, murder of Berta Cáceres;

(B) the killings of over 100 small-farmer activists in the Aguán Valley;

(C) the December 27, 2015, killings of Joel Palacios Lino and Elvis Armando García; and

(D) the May 3, 2016, armed attack on Félix Molina;

The Sierra Club recently published an outstanding overview of the investigation into Berta’s murder, and there’s no need for us to repeat their work. So here we will focus on the other three cases outlined in the Berta Caceres Act, in the hopes that it will bring our supporters a more thorough understanding of the situation here, and the urgent need for support of this bill.

The killings of over 100 small-farmer activists in the Aguán Valley

The Aguán Valley in Northeastern Honduras has been, in recent years, to borrow a term from Annie Bird, a laboratory for the themes that echo throughout Honduras: land takeovers and forced displacement by capitalist megaprojects bringing false promises of “development,” local resistance to those projects, and the brutalities of repression, violence, and militarization imposed on those communities by US-backed Honduran security forces.

Nearly every grave human rights problem facing Honduran people in general is present in force in the Aguán, from the presence of international narco-traffickers and organized crime, to the construction of massive, ecologically and socially destructive palm oil plantations, to the use of a perverse combination of private and state security forces to impose inhuman conditions on local communities, to the targeted assassinations of community leaders who stand in resistance to their enforced displacement.

Between January of 2010 and September of 2013, more than one hundred campesinos were murdered in the Aguán. According to the International Criminal Court, using information compiled by the tireless research of Bird and others, at least 78 of those murders were targeted killings of people involved in occupations to recover their stolen land.

The dirty war in the Aguán continues unabated – in October of last year, José Ángel Flores and Silmer Dionicio George, two members of the Unified Campesino Movement (MUCA, for its initials in Spanish), were gunned down leaving an organizational meeting in Tocoa. (Another way in which the Aguán serves as a microcosm for the rest of Honduras is that both of them were supposedly protected under the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights-mandated protection mechanism.)

The dirty war in the Aguán dates back to a World Bank-funded “land modernization” project that operated from 1988-1993. According to Annie Bird, in her essential report Human Rights Violations Attributed to Military Forces in the Bajo Aguán Valley in Honduras: “The vast majority of agrarian conflicts in the Aguan began with a series of land sales that occurred after the land reform laws were modified.

Testimonies indicate that large landholders, particularly Honduran businessman Miguel Facussé, accumulated land through coercive and fraudulent land purchases.” Local communities formed organizations that resisted these illegal land takeovers through a variety of means, including legal challenges and occupation of the stolen territories.

In the ensuing decades, clashes between local communities whose subsistence farming was being utterly destroyed by these reforms, and Facussé and his Dinant Corporation, continued to escalate. In 2009, then-president Manuel Zelaya had begun an investigation to try and resolve the conflict, but progress “came to an abrupt halt” with the coup that ousted him that year. Since the coup, the militarization of the region and the systematic campaign of targeted assassinations has gotten substantially worse – the ICC’s investigation, for example, only covered the period of 2010-2013.

As the Bird Report demonstrates, both the Honduran and US Governments have consistently understated the extent of the human rights abuses in the Aguán, while also framing the targeted assassinations as having occurred during armed skirmishes, a claim that Bird conclusively debunks.

After her report was published, Annie Bird was subject to threats and smear campaigns from the Honduran military. More recently, an aggressive smear campaign against Witness for Peace partner Bertha Oliva of the Committee of the Families of the Disappeared and Honduras Solidarity Network’s Karen Spring targeted their work documenting human rights violations in the Aguán.

In 2014, after the Bird Report and the ICC Investigation had already documented the incredible string of grave human rights violations in the Aguán, the World Bank approved a $30 million loan to the Dinant Corporation, which has been directly implicated in those violations, so it could expand its palm oil holdings in the region.

The World Bank’s own ombudsman publicly criticized that deal, but the International Finance Corporation, the arm of the World Bank responsible for the loan, trotted out the tired nonsense that they were only going to improve Dinant’s human rights record by engaging with them. As Bird told Karen Spring in an interview published last year:

I’m not even sure what to call what the IFC is doing in the Aguan – I wouldn’t necessarily call it an investigation…So for example, trying to work with Dinant to make their security forces being more respectful of human rights but what we are actually seeing is, that, that has pushed repression into two directions: one is downsizing the role of private security and promoting more presence of the military which is just as bad or worse, and also more paramilitary activity which is also worse because that has less direct impact on the company. So that is just one example…Most of what I’ve been doing is monitoring what the Bank has been doing, and most of what we have seen has been negative.

In March of 2017, more than a dozen residents of the Aguán filed a lawsuit against the IFC in a US court for its role in funding Dinant. The lawsuit further enumerates the widespread and systematic abuses of human rights carried out in the Aguán.

To this point, the perpetrators of the land theft, targeted killings, intimidation, and violence in the Aguán, both members of the Honduran military and other security forces and privately contracted Dinant security, have acted with near impunity. Bringing these perpetrators to justice – as in the case of Berta Cáceres, including but not limited to criminal prosecutions of both low-level operators and the intellectual authors – is of paramount importance.

Just as the World Bank is being rightly condemned for its support of Dinant, so too should the United States Government be held accountable for its role in supporting the Honduran security forces implicated in these widespread, systematic, and grave human rights abuses. As much as anything, the situation in the Aguán demonstrates the need for the Berta Cáceres Act.

The December 27, 2015, killings of Joel Palacios Lino and Elvis Armando García

Joel Palacios Lino and Elvis Armando García were killed by the Honduran Navy in December of 2015 in the Garífuna town of Iriona, on Honduras’s north coast. Palacios, 24, and García, 19, were among a group of Iriona residents, including families, who were travelling in three cars along the banks of Iriona in the early morning of December 27.

One of the cars had become stuck in the sand, and several of the passengers were trying to pull it out, when the group was intercepted by the Honduran Navy. According to a press release issued the following day by Witness for Peace partners OFRANEH (The Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras), the approximately 20 military personnel who descended on the group, without any words of warning, fired several rounds at them, killing Palacios instantly. García died of his wounds the next day at a hospital in La Ceiba.

In the months leading up to the murders of the two Garífuna youth, the community of Iriona had been protesting the increased militarization of the region, and reports that Garífuna had been detained and tortured by Honduran security forces were rampant.

For its part, the Honduran Secretary of Defense accused Palacios and García, as well as the rest of the groups of youths and families travelling between communities that morning, of having been involved in “illicit activities,” a euphemism employed to accuse them of being narcotraffickers.

As OFRANEH’s press release points out,

“the corridor on the North Coast of Honduras has been controlled for decades by individuals associated with narcotrafficking, who have enjoyed unrestricted support from military and civil authorities…since the 2009 coup, the arrival of light aircraft and speedboats [affiliated with narcotrafficking] has intensified without the presence of security forces at any point, demonstrating the pathetic contrivance between the ‘authorities’ and organized crime.”

There is a demonstrated pattern of the Honduran Government, very often with US support, using the specter of narcotrafficking and the War on Drugs as a catch-all excuse for its human rights violations. This manifested, among many other times, in the above-mentioned smear campaign against Bertha Oliva and Karen Spring, in the military police raid of Cafe Paradiso in December of 2016, and of course tragically in the case of the murders of Joel Palacios and Elvis García.

There is more than a hint of cynicism about it, given that a) high level Honduran officials up to and including the President’s brother are accused of being involved with narco interests and b) the major principle of US policy in Honduras is counter-narco operations. (More than 90% of the cocaine that passes from South America to the United States passes through Honduras, either by sea, air, or land.) What better way to assure US support of security forces that are murdering Garífuna civilians than to assert that you were actually killing narcos?

As OFRANEH points out in their press release, the north coast of Honduras is overrun with narco interests. The area’s remoteness, lack of institutionality, and location along the drug trafficking route, make it an ideal spot for clandestine airstrips, drops, storage, and grow operations. Honduran security forces have been at best ineffectual and at worst complicit in these operations, and it is the height of audacity for the Honduran Government to assert counter-narco aims (and the height of credulity for the US Government to buy them) as a “justification” for gross human rights violations targeted at Garífuna communities.

OFRANEH’s press release, as well as the coverage done by WfP partners at Pasos de Animal Grande, draws the clearest possible parallel between US policy and the killings of Palacios and García (as well, it must be mentioned, of the constant intimidation and violence perpetrated against Garífuna and Moskitia communities) by drawing attention to the 2012 Ahuas Massacre.

A recent report from the Inspectors General of the DEA and State Department have confirmed what eyewitness testimony and NGO documentation had already proven, which is that DEA agents led a counter-narco operation in 2012 that resulted in the brutal murder of four innocent passengers in a water taxi, including two pregnant women.

The murders of Palacios and García, and the horrifying massacre of civilians in Ahuas, serve as stark and tragic reminders of the failures of the militarized War on Drugs. The United States, along with its Honduran “partners”, have justified all manner of grave human rights violations in the name of stopping the flow of drugs without making so much as a dent in narcotrafficking itself.

This is the principle reason the US Embassy gives for its continued support of Honduran military and security forces. For various reasons, it is nonsense on its face. The inclusion of the Palacios and García murders in the Berta Cáceres Act, then, serves an incredibly important dual purpose. Of course, for their families and their communities, they deserve justice on its merit.

The military operatives responsible for their cold-blooded killings cannot be allowed to continue with impunity, on its merit. But a thorough investigation into their murders should also help put the lie to the War on Drugs justification for militarization and human rights abuses.

Combined with the US Government’s admission, through the OIG reports, of its responsibility for the Ahuas Massacre, a genuine investigation into the 2015 murders of Joel Palacios and Elvis García could help move one of Witness for Peace’s most important objectives, which is the demilitarization of the War on Drugs. Tying US security aid to the resolution of the case and the punishment of its perpetrators, then, is critical.

The May 3, 2016, armed attack on Félix Molina

Félix Antonio Molina is a journalist whose work documenting the resistance to the 2009 coup, particularly through his radio program Resistencia, which was broadcast by Radio Globo and WfP partners Radio Progreso, gained him international acclaim, including the 2012 Chavkin Award. Along with that acclaim came an increase in threats against him that culminated in two separate armed attacks against him on May 3, 2016.

Just two months after the assassination of Berta Cáceres, Molina was on his way to his radio station in Tegucigalpa when he was accosted by a man and woman who made efforts to steal his phone, and pointed a gun at his face. He escaped that attack only to be pursued again that evening by a group of assailants including the man from the earlier attempt. Once again, they demanded his phone, and this time he was shot four times in the legs.

After Berta Cáceres’s assassination, Molina did tireless work on her murder, including obtaining and publishing a list of the principal investors in the Agua Zarca dam. The morning of his attacks, he had once again published that list to social media, along with other pieces outlining the corruption and ties between DESA, the company building the dam, and the Honduran government.

While the first armed robbery attempt against Molina that afternoon could’ve been passed off as run-of-the-mill big city street crime – a position Molina himself took immediately after – it strains credibility to believe the second attempt, by the same person, could have been a simple robbery. The day after the attack, Molina said as much. Clearly the concerted effort to steal a phone from a journalist working in opposition to the post-coup government carries a great deal more weight than attempt to steal a phone from someone else.

After Berta Cáceres’s investigation, when it was discovered that several of her phones and laptops were missing from the crime scene, the implication that the investigators were mining her contacts and information was clear. Given the proximity to her assassination and the work Molina had done on DESA, the implication of his stolen phone is just as obvious.

As in the other cases outlined here, Molina’s assailants and the intellectual authors of the crime have been able to carry on with impunity. Though he survived the attack, the clear implication that he was targeted because of his work as a journalist tragically underlines the very real threats faced by the free press in Honduras.

Journalists who cover corruption, narco-trafficking, or are otherwise critical of the government are murdered with alarming frequency. They are routinely harassed, threatened, illegally detained, and subject to judicial repression under the guise of slander and libel cases. Recent proposals to reform the penal code would muzzle free speech under cover of anti-terrorism laws. Witness for Peace recently accompanied the legal process of Dunia Montoya, a journalist who suffered severe injuries at the hands of the US-backed police simply for covering protests near El Progreso. Her story is, sadly, increasingly typical for journalists in Honduras.

Outside the courthouse in El Progreso a few months ago, we interviewed Dina Meza, an internationally recognized champion of freedom of expression in Honduras who has herself received a number of death threats. When we asked her about the US role in the repression of journalists, she told us this:

[T]he military presence the United States has in our country, and the interventions that it’s done throughout our history…has a huge impact because, on one hand [the U.S.] is saying there should be a free press but on the other, they’re financing the police and military forces that are repressing expression in Honduran society. This includes the right to free expression and information that journalists and other social communicators are entitled to...If they don’t investigate those who issue threats, or those who are killing journalists, the situation around impunity is absolutely going to continue. And so that money that the US – which is a very small portion out of everything they’re doing in this country, not to mention a very tiny return that we’re getting – that money isn’t doing anything but promoting impunity in Honduras.

The link between the all-out attack on freedom of expression, sometimes manifested literally as in the attempt on Félix Molina, and US support for Honduran security forces is plain to see. The inclusion of Molina’s case in the Berta Cáceres Act shows that its authors recognize this.

What Justice Means

We urge our supporters to join us in supporting the Berta Cáceres Act. Justice for Berta means justice for the Aguán, it means justice for Joel and Elvis, it means justice for Félix, and it means the end to support for corrupt, human rights-abusing Honduran military and security forces. One of the ties that binds these cases is the role of US funding that, in spite of the State Department’s claims, “isn’t doing anything but promoting impunity in Honduras.” Please act NOW – tell your representative to co-sponsor the Berta Cáceres Act. Justice depends on it.


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