(Photo Caption: A protestor holds up a banner demanding justice for Berta Cáceres on the 2nd anniversary of her death. (Photo: The Guardian)
By Dan Beeton
“It’s past time to cut security aid to Honduras,” Congressman Keith Ellison, vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, and co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, tweeted on March 12, referring to a Reuters report detailing state killing of protesters in the wake of recent elections.
Reuters highlighted findings by the UN Human Rights office: Honduran security forces shot and killed at least 16 of the 23 people “known to have died during the protests” following the November 26 elections, which, it appears, were likely stolen by the incumbent president, Juan Orlando Hernández.
For human rights defenders, environmentalists, journalists, lawyers, and members of minority communities such as women, Afro-Hondurans, Indigenous, and LGBT Hondurans, these murders by the state are the latest in a long list since the 2009 military coup d’etat that ousted the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya. That coup was enabled by the Obama administration, which ultimately helped it to succeed, as Hillary Clinton admitted in her memoir, Hard Choices. This support for rupture with constitutional democracy set the stage for US assistance to the Honduran government’s repressive state apparatus since. Each of the above communities has been targeted, making Honduras the most dangerous country in the world to be an environmentalist (according to Global Witness), for example, and consistently one of the most dangerous to be a journalist.
The most prominent environmentalist, human rights defender, and feminist to be assassinated in Honduras since the coup was the Goldman Environmental Prize winner Berta Cáceres, also one of the coup’s fiercest opponents. A lifelong activist, Berta had organized in indigenous Lenca communities since the 1990s to oppose a series of development projects that would have ripped up forests and dammed rivers for corporate profit. Following years of mounting persecution, including bogus charges and threatened imprisonment, Berta was killed when gunmen burst into her home the night of March 2, 2016, and shot her in her bed.
Berta’s murder is emblematic of the impunity that characterizes post-coup Honduras. Despite enormous outrage and calls for justice, the official investigation into Berta’s murder proceeded so slowly and opaquely that Berta’s family had to hire their own attorneys and investigators to begin to uncover facts in the case. What they found, late last year, was a series of incriminating cell phone texts, emails, and other communications that pointed toward the intellectual authors of the murder. Only months after this, on the two-year anniversary of Berta’s assassination, did the authorities arrest one of these individuals, Roberto David Castillo Mejía, executive president of Desarrollos Energéticos Sociedad Anónima (DESA) ― the company seeking to build dams on the Gualcarque River, which Berta had fought for years to oppose.
“We appreciate the arrest of an alleged mastermind who was intricately involved in the planning of Berta’s assassination, but this is only one in a string of long overdue arrests, as we have stated previously,” Berta’s nephew Silvio Carrillo told CNN following news of the arrest. In a March 13 editorial, The New York Times questioned “whether the arrest represents a fundamental change in Honduras or merely the sacrifice of a scapegoat in a case that got too big.”
Honduran security forces’ impunity for murder and other crimes is a direct result of the support they have received from the Trump administration and the Obama administration before. In cases like the murder of Cáceres, the Honduran authorities know that they don’t need to do much; the money will keep flowing, regardless.
Which brings us back to the post-election protests, and repression. In the days after the election, as nearly impossible vote tabulation results were being announced by the electoral authority, and despite the numerous killings and disappearances, and despite evidence of high-level involvement in corruption ― and drug trafficking ― by members of the Hernández government, the US State Department certified that Honduras met criteria on human rights and corruption, enabling it to receive assistance. The signal was perfectly clear.
Fortunately, members of Congress, such as Keith Ellison, have stood up and demanded an end to US support for Honduras’ murderous security forces. The Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, introduced by Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), would do just that, suspending all such assistance until state impunity for human rights crimes ends and new abuses stop. The bill now has 51 cosponsors, Rep. Mike Doyle among them.
The US State Department also needs to hear from concerned people in the US that the Honduran regime should free its political prisoners, including dozens who were rounded up for protesting the flawed election and who now “face fabricated charges including accusations of terrorism, arson and criminal association,” as the School of the Americas Watch put it in a recent alert.
Consistent grassroots pressure is needed to change US policy toward Honduras and the region, and to help ensure that Berta Cáceres’ many successors live to continue their struggle for justice.
Dan Beeton is International Communications Director for the Center for Economic and Policy Research (www.cepr.net) in Washington, DC.