Two high-profile murders of activists in Honduras — including a recipient of the world's leading environmental prize — have prompted calls for the US government to halt aid to the country and for the US Department of State to more aggressively push for an investigation.
Berta Cáceres, co-founder of COPINH, which has long-championed indigenous rights and grassroots battles against mining and logging, was shot dead in her sleep on March 3, less than a year after receiving the Goldman Environmental Prize.
And on Tuesday another COPINH member, Nelson García, was shot and killed. García had met with families from the indigenous Lenca community after Honduran police and military forces, carrying out eviction orders, destroyed their homes and crops.
Both activists were frequent and fierce critics of corruption within the Honduran government and big industry's displacement of indigenous communities.
Katherine Pfaff, a State Department spokeswoman, said the agency "strongly" condemned the murder of Cáceres and called upon the Honduran government, in public and private communications, to conduct a "prompt, thorough, and transparent investigation and to ensure those responsible are brought to justice."
"We welcome support mechanisms that ensure those responsible are brought to justice, including UNOHCHR's technical support. We note the Honduran government announced March 11 that it petitioned the United Nations' Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) for assistance related to this matter, and that the Commissioner has agreed to provide technical support to the Honduran process," she said. "We are not aware of any international organization that has the legal authority and technical capacity to conduct an independent homicide investigation in Honduras."
But her nephew, Silvio Carillo, an activist and a journalist, remains concerned.
After his aunt's murder, Carillo met with State Department officials, and with members of Congress, urging them not to leave the investigation in the hands of a Honduran government that he called "nothing more than a criminal syndicate."
"We don't want to give them the opportunity to legitimize the criminality they've conducted. We don't have the confidence that the State Department does that they'll come to a conclusion in a way that is respected, that is just, and that is correct," Carillo said. "There should be no doubt as to what my family wants: an independent international investigation. There is no ambiguity about that."
'We believe it's an avalanche that's been set up to try to get rid of us to make sure that we, as Lenca people, lose our lands within Honduran territory
Carillo has strong reason to doubt the case will proceed smoothly. Over the past decade, according to the London-based NGO Global Witness, activists killings around the world have tripled, and 99 percent of the time — in 908 cases they were able to document — no one was convicted for the murders.
For five years running, Honduras has been the world's most deadly place, per capita, to be an environmentalist. Over 100 activists have been killed in the country since the 2009 military coup that ousted democratically elected Manuel Zelaya.
After the coup, Honduras opened for business. The right-wing government of President Juan Orlando Hernandez has strongly favored big business and has made investments – many of them from large, international companies – in mining, forestry, agribusiness and hydroelectric dams a top priority.
Nearly 30 percent of the country's land has been earmarked for mining concessions, hundreds of dams have been approved, and the county has among the world's highest rates of deforestation. As more Honduran natural resources are exploited, conflicts with indigenous communities like the Lenca have intensified.
After Garcia's murder, COPINH coordinator Tomás Gómez said there was a targeted campaign against the organization.
"We believe it's an avalanche that's been set up to try to get rid of us to make sure that we, as Lenca people, lose our lands within Honduran territory," he said. "The state is primarily interested in taking away all the land from us that has minerals, water, oxygen, or natural resources so that it can sell off concessions."
The group was particularly active against four of the approved projects, collectively known as the Agua Zatca Dam, which threatened to cut off food and medicine to nearby Lenca communities. Indigenous leaders were against the plan from the start; when a formal vote against the project did nothing, they protested and blocked roadways. They were met with arrests.
"It's very important to understand the difference between the worldview of the indigenous communities and the extractivist model, which really means dispossession and the pillage of the natural goods of nature," Bertha Zúniga Cáceres told Democracy Now. "That is why my mother so fervently and so firmly opposed these projects: because they don't bring about the supposed development they talk about. They really represent death for the communities."
On Wednesday, Dutch development bank FMO suspended all activities in Honduras, including payments to the controversial Agua Zarca project. And last week two activists scaled an art installation outside one of the agency's Washington, DC offices, unfurling banners that read "USAID stop funding murder in Honduras" and "Berta Cáceres, Presente!"
USAID said it does not fund the company and has not taken a position on the dam project.
After the twin murders, momentum for outside involvement in the prosecutions is picking up steam. On Wednesday, in a letter addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, more than 60 members of Congress called for an independent investigation into Cáceres murder, and to halt support for a group "so widely documented to be corrupt and dangerous."
"It's time to suspend assistance to the Honduran security forces until such time that we know that they are not penetrated by illegal actors," Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN) said Wednesday on the House Floor. "Until such time that we can assure that when they say they are going to protect somebody those people are protected, and that we can know and have confidence that American taxpayer dollars are not being used to assassinate leaders who are doing nothing more than trying to improve the environment and increase the rights of indigenous people."
More than 730 experts on Latin America signed a letter last week calling Cáceres's "loss to the Indigenous movement in Honduras ... akin to the loss of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Civil Rights movement in the United States."
They asked Kerry to immediately suspend money to the Honduran government and to institute sanctions until an independent investigation into the murder is allowed.
"By all accounts, the 2009 coup collapsed the judicial system and the rule of law. The country has one of the highest rates of homicides, feminicides, and LGBTI murders in the world," they wrote. "In spite of this egregious situation, the US government continues to fund a government that has unapologetically disregarded the right to life of its citizens."
And on Thursday, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., President of Waterkeeper Alliance, joined the chorus, calling for "immediate and tangible actions" from the State Department to discourage further attacks on environmentalists.
"They both fought against the most perverse threats to their environment in a country rife with socioeconomic inequality and human rights violations," Kennedy said. "Brutal aggressions against environmental advocates as they take a stand for their communities' given rights are an attack on fundamental freedom."
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Editor's note: This article was amended after publication in order to include an on-the-record comment from the State Department and a statement from USAID denying it funds the company building the dam or has taken a position on the project.