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