One year ago, Berta Cáceres was asleep in bed in La Esperanza, Honduras, when gunmen burst into the house and shot her. She died in the arms of Gustavo Castro, a Mexican environmental activist who was injured but pretended to be dead until the murderers had gone. Instead of being treated as a victim, Castro was regarded as a suspect and prevented from leaving the country. Members of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (COPINH), which Cáceres led, were also interrogated. Eventually investigators turned their attention to those who had threatened to kill her in the preceding months. Seven arrests were made, but the people who ordered the murder were left untouched. Six weeks ago, Castro filed a petition against the Honduran government for the way it treated him and for its inaction in charging those behind the crime.
There was hope that the international attention given to Cáceres’s death might lead to less violence against environmental activists, but it was short-lived: her colleague Nelson García was shot soon afterwards. In October, a COPINH demonstration demanding protection from the government was met with a tear-gas attack. Days earlier, gunmen had attempted to kill two of COPINH’s leaders. Silmer Dionisio George and José Angel Flores, community leaders in the Aguán Valley, were killed in the same month. Flores’s family produced evidence, gathered over several years, that detailed the operations of a 27-strong death squad, a previous assassination attempt in 2015, their formal complaints to the police and the arrest warrants that had been issued but never implemented. Court documents have recently been leaked showing that Cáceres might also have been killed by a death squad with military links.
In January, Global Witness reported that 123 activists had been murdered since the military coup in 2009, calling Honduras ‘the deadliest place to defend the planet’. The government reacted not with promises to do better but by attacking the report’s authors. One was threatened with arrest and, when he was interviewed on TV, pursued by members of the ruling party who said they would lynch him. He had to be rescued by a representative of the UN. Two weeks after the report was published, the indigenous Tolupán leader José de los Santos Sevilla was killed in Montaña de la Flor.
The murderers of community leaders, journalists, lawyers and LGTB activists in Honduras can act with impunity for several reasons. One is (possibly convenient) incompetence. In September, the prosecution files in the Cáceres case were stolen. Victims of any crime can be denounced for bringing it on themselves: bus owners complaining about extortion by gangs have been told it’s because they transport drugs in their vehicles. The police are claiming success in reducing the number of murders so far this year to 521 (from 552 in the same period in 2016), in a country of only eight million people: it’s easy to present political killings as nothing out of the ordinary.
The wider issue is a fight against an economic model – ‘extractivism’ – that sees the future of Honduras (and the future wealth of its elite) in the plundering and export of its natural resources. Mega-projects that produce energy, mine gold and other minerals, or convert forests to palm-oil plantations, are all being opposed by activists like Cáceres and the others who have been killed or are under threat.
The model’s chief champion is the president, Juan Orlando Hernández. He has admitted that as much as $90 million of public money was diverted into his election campaign four years ago, but he also enjoys impunity because he controls the congress, the police, the military and, against constitutional rules, the attorney general’s office and the supreme court. The constitution limits presidents to one term of office, but Hernández is ignoring it and running again this year. When the 2009 military coup led to president Manuel Zelaya being flown out of the country in his pyjamas, Hernández was the head of a key congressional committee that endorsed the army’s actions. Zelaya was only holding a referendum on constitutional reform, but the golpistas accused him of overturning the constitution to secure a second term as president. This is unlikely to happen to Hernández, who has doubled the military’s budget.