Another Indigenous Environmental Activist Assassinated in Honduras
February 20, 2017 teleSUR English & Nina Lakhani / The Guardian
Indigenous environmental leader and teacher, Jose de Los Santos Sevilla, was attacked and killed in his home early Friday morning by five heavily armed men according to Honduran media. According to an ex-soldier who now fears for his life, it was a unit trained by US Special Forces that was ordered to kill environmental activist and Goldman Environmental Prizewinner Berta Caceras who was slain in March 2016. Honduran soldier claims US Special Ops have circulated a hit-list targeting local activists.
Another Indigenous Leader Assassinated in Honduras Jose de Los Santos Sevilla was a leader of the Tolupan Indigenous community and a teacher teleSURtv
LA CEIBA, Honduras (February 19, 2017) -- On Friday the mayor of the Honduran coastal town of La Ceiba, Alexander Rodríguez, announced the assassination of the Tolupan Indigenous leader, Jose de Los Santos Sevilla.
Sevilla, who was also a teacher, was attacked and in his home early Friday morning by five heavily armed men, according to local media.
Mayor Rodriguez said that while no motive or suspects have yet been identified, police have launched a full investigation.
The Tolupan are one of the nine major Indigenous groups in Honduras, making up almost 10 percent of the Central American country's population.
In response to the assassination, the National Commission on Human Rights in Honduras, CONADEH, issued a call for "immediate precautionary" measures for Indigenous leaders in the area.
"We have opened an official investigation and have already spoken with people liked to [Sevilla] and are in contact with the Indigenous community," said the Commissioner of CONADEH, Roberto Herrera Caceres in a statement.
He also called on authorities investigate the recent rise in violence and threats in the nearby community of Yerba Buena, which has led to "forcible displacement" of families and many students unable to attend school.
The assassination of Sevilla in La Ceiba comes two weeks after police in that coastal city arrested a suspect in the murder of Lencan Indigenous leader and environmentalist Berta Caceres, who was killed in March of 2016 after years of threats over her successful campaign to stop a hydroelectric project on her traditional territory.
Just last year a report found that Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights and environmental activists, with targeted violence on the rise after a 2009 coup which led to the militarization of the Honduran state, and an increased dependence on foreign resource extraction corporations. Another Indigenous Activist Killed in Honduras teleSUR English
(July 10, 2016) -- Another indigenous activist, Yaneth Urquia, a co-worker of slain Honduran activist Berta Caceres, has been killed in Honduras. US Supported Honduran Death Squads Targeting Environmentalists The Majority Report with Sam Seder
(July 7, 2016) -- Michael Brooks discusses the revelation that Berta Caceras, a Honduran environmental activist who was killed in her home in March, have been targeted by a US-supported military squad sent to murder activists for the rights of indigenous peoples. Honduras Human Rights Activists Face a Violent Crisis: Report teleSURtv
(December 1, 2016) -- Honduras has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders.
A new report by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders says human rights defenders in Honduras face killings, constant threats, and criminalization, making the Central American country one of the most dangerous in the world for human rights activists.
The report highlights that structural factors, such as the militarization of the state, the lack of an independent judiciary, systematic stigmatization of defenders, and government institutional failures around civil rights, show a lack of any real willingness to protect those who speak out and defend human rights.
The situation for human rights defenders in Honduras received a great deal of international attention in 2016, after the murder of Berta Caceres, a Lenca Indigenous leader and land defender. According to the report Caceres murder is part of a disturbing pattern. Since 2001, 17 activists have been killed, an average of one per year. Since May 2015, the Observatory has reported 16 killings of human rights defenders. Attacks against defenders tend to go unpunished, largely due to inefficiencies in the administration of justice.
According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, IACHR, since 2010 there have been 3,064 cases in Honduras where human rights defenders have been criminalized as a means of intimidation.
The report concludes that Honduras needs a clear and explicitly protective national framework that fully recognizes the human rights of the rural population, Indigenous people and the LGBTI community. This would improve the working environment of activists, especially in situations of conflict over natural resources such as Berta Caceres' attempts to stop a dam, which threatens her Lenca community.
Caceres' case has come to epitomize the grave human rights situation in Honduras and the systemic impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of political violence.
Caceres was shot dead in her home after leading a years-long movement against unwanted corporate projects on Indigenous land in western Honduras. A prominent resistance leader in the fight against neoliberalism at the national level, Caceres had faced dozens of death threats leading up to her assassination and was reportedly at the top of a US-backed military squad hitlist. Berta Caceres's Name Was on
Honduran Military Hitlist, Says Former Soldier Nina Lakhani / The Guardian
MEXICO CITY (August 28, 2016) -- Berta Caceres, the murdered environmental campaigner, appeared on a hitlist distributed to US-trained special forces units of the Honduran military months before her death, a former soldier has claimed.
Lists featuring the names and photographs of dozens of social and environmental activists were given to two elite units, with orders to eliminate each target, according to First Sergeant Rodrigo Cruz, 20.
Cruz's unit commander, a 24-year-old lieutenant, deserted rather than comply with the order. Cruz -- who asked to be identified by a pseudonym for fear of reprisal -- followed suit, and fled to a neighbouring country. Several other members of the unit have disappeared and are feared dead.
"If I went home, they'd kill me. Ten of my former colleagues are missing. I'm 100% certain that Berta Caceres was killed by the army," Cruz told the Guardian.
Caceres, an indigenous Lenca leader who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 for a campaign against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, was shot dead in her home in March. Before her murder, she had reported 33 death threats linked to the campaign and had warned international human rights delegates that her name was on a hitlist.
According to Cruz, Caceres's name appeared on a list given to a military police unit in the Inter-institutional Security Force (Fusina), which last summer received training from 300 US marines and FBI agents.
Five men have been arrested for her murder, including Maj Mariano Díaz Chavez, an active-duty major in the Honduran army. Díaz had previously participated in joint US-Honduran military operations in Iraq, and is reported by local media to be a graduate of the elite Teson special operations course which is partly taught by US special forces. Diaz was a military police instructor when arrested, but has since been given a dishonourable discharge.
Annie Bird, director of the group Rights and Ecology which documents human rights abuses in Honduras, said: "Cruz's testimony suggests death squads are targeting political opposition, but the justice system is so broken, and directly controlled by figures implicated in corruption, that there is no one [in Honduras] who can credibly investigate."
The Guardian interviewed Cruz several times by telephone and video call, and spoke with several people -- academics, community leaders and activists -- who have interviewed Cruz and confirmed his identity and military background.
Cruz enlisted in the army in December 2014, and after three months of basic training, was transferred to the 7th Battalion of the military police, which was created in 2013 to replace a civilian police force mired in allegations of corruption and abuse.
He completed two gruelling specialist training camps, including the Teson course, where he received instruction from foreign military advisers including Americans, Colombians and instructors who spoke a foreign language which Cruz could not identify. Last year, the Teson course became the subject of intense controversy when footage emerged showing a trainee being forced to eat the head of a dog.
During his training, Cruz was hospitalized twice with dehydration, but he completed the course and in October last year, Cruz and 15 other men from his battalion were picked to serve in the Xatruch taskforce -- one of two multi-agency forces in Honduras deployed on specialist counter-narcotics and anti-gang operations.
The Xatruch force covers the Caribbean coast, which has become an important way station for drug cartels smuggling cocaine from South America to the US. The second taskforce, Fusina, operates nationwide.
In mid-December, Cruz's commander gathered his subordinates after a Tuesday evening football match and showed them several sheets of paper with names, photographs, addresses and phone numbers of each target. One list was assigned to their unit; the second to a similar unit in Fusina.
"The lieutenant said he wasn't willing to go through with the order as the targets were decent people, fighting for their communities. He said the order came from the joint chiefs of staff [and] he was under pressure from the Xatruch commander to comply," Cruz said.
A few days later, the lieutenant left the base and has not been seen since.
It was not the first time Cruz had seen the lists. A few weeks earlier in Punta Piedra, a town on the Caribbean coast, similar sheets of paper had fallen out of his commander's vest in the jeep which Cruz drove. "I only had them in my hand for 20 or 30 seconds but I recognised some faces as leaders from the Bajo Aguan [region]. I didn't say anything," Cruz said.
The Bajo Aguan region -- where the Xatruch taskforce is based -- has been the setting for a string of violent land disputes between powerful palm oil magnates and local farmers. More than 100 people, mainly peasant activists, have been killed, many at the hands of state or private security forces.
Among the names on the hitlist seen by Cruz was that of Juan Galindo, an activist who had fled the region after receiving threats, but was murdered in November 2014 after returning home from exile to visit his sick mother.
Cruz also recognised Johnny Rivas and Vitalino Alvarez, high-profile members of the United Peasant Movement (Muca). Both men were among 123 activists in the Bajo Aguan named by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2014 as requiring urgent protective measures.
Alvarez, 52, who has survived four assassination attempts since 2010, said: "There's been a systematic strategy to eliminate the most belligerent social leaders. Since they killed Berta, the rumours are I'm now top of that list."
Human rights groups have condemned US support for Honduran security forces amid mounting evidence implicating police and military in systematic abuses. In April, activists warned Congress that death squads were targeting opposition activists, much like they did during the "dirty war" in the 1980s.
The US has given Honduras an estimated $200m in police and military aid since 2010 as part of its efforts to stem organised crime and undocumented migration, according to defence and state department figures. In addition, Honduras shares the $750m Alliance for Prosperity fund approved by Congress last year for Central America's violent Northern Triangle.
Both aid packages include human rights conditions, but neither has been restricted, even though the state department's most recent human rights report says that "unlawful and arbitrary killings and other criminal activities by members of the security forces" remain one of the country's most serious problems.
Neither the Honduran defence ministry nor the US state department responded to repeated requests for comment by the Guardian.
After Cruz's lieutenant deserted in mid-December, the other members of his unit were redeployed separately. Cruz worked for about 10 days with the commander of the Xatruch taskforce.
During this brief deployment, Cruz said he was woken up in the middle of the night to transport black plastic bags to the River Tocoa, in Bajo Aguan, where colleagues emptied out human remains over the bridge.
He also described seeing a "torture room" near a military installation in the town of Bonito Oriental. "I didn't see anyone but there was fresh blood, a hammer, nails, a chain and pliers in the room."
Shortly afterwards, Cruz and his colleagues were all sent on extended leave. Now increasingly anxious for his own safety, Cruz fled, crossing the border illegally as his identification documents were still with the army. He is now in hiding and his family have reported that military policemen have questioned their neighbours over his whereabouts.
Lauren Carasik, director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Western New England University, said the US must stop turning a blind eye to the lawlessness.
"This is disturbing smoking-gun evidence which reinforces calls that the US must withdraw military aid from Honduras where there's been a bloodbath since the 2009 coup."
Violence in Honduras increased dramatically after a military-backed coup in July 2009 forced President Manuel Zelaya from power. Environmental campaigners bore the brunt of the repression after the new rightwing government licensed hundreds of mega-projects, including mines and hydroelectric dams in environmentally sensitive areas. At least 109 activists were murdered between 2010 and 2015, making Honduras one of the world's most dangerous countries for environmental defenders.
A growing number of US politicians have expressed concern over the situation.
In August 2015, 21 members of Congress wrote to the secretary of state, John Kerry, raising specific concerns about US support for Fusina, which has repeatedly been accused of human rights violations.
Last week, the Berta Caceres Human Rights Act in Honduras -- which would suspend US security assistance until human rights violations by security forces cease -- was introduced to Congress by Representative Hank Johnson.
"We provide millions of dollars in security assistance to Honduras but these same forces have been found to attack and kill environmental, labour and human rights activists like Caceres without any effective response from the authorities," said Johnson.
Caceres's daughter, Bertita Zuniga, said Cruz's testimony strengthened the family's calls for an independent international investigation to find the intellectual authors.
"This shows us that death squads are operating in the armed forces, which are being used to get rid of people opposing government plans. It shows us that human rights violations are state policy in Honduras." Honduras and the Dirty War Fuelled by
The West's Drive for Clean Energy
The palm oil magnates are growing ever more trees for use in biofuels and carbon trading. But what happens to the subsistence farmers who live on the lucrative land? Nina Lakhani / The Guardian
TOCOA (January 7, 2014) -- The west's drive to reduce its carbon footprint cheaply is fuelling a dirty war in Honduras, where US-backed security forces are implicated in the murder, disappearance and intimidation of peasant farmers involved in land disputes with local palm oil magnates.
More than 100 people have been killed in the past four years, many assassinated by death squads operating with near impunity in the heavily militarised Bajo Aguan region, where 8,000 Honduran troops are deployed, according to activists.
Farmers' leader Antonio Martínez, 28, is the latest victim of this conflict. His corpse was discovered, strangled, in November.
Peasant farmers say they are the victims of a campaign of terror by the police, army and private security guards working for palm oil companies since a coup in June 2009 ended land negotiations instigated by the deposed president, Manuel Zelaya.
Witnesses have implicated Honduran special forces and the 15th Battalion, which receives training and material support from the US, in dozens of human rights violations around the plantations of Bajo Aguan.
They say private security guards regularly patrol and train with the soldiers, and have even been given military uniforms and weapons for some operations.
The military denies the allegations, blaming the United Peasant Movement (Muca) for escalating violence in the region. Repeated requests for comment from the US embassy in Honduras failed to elicit a response.
The Bajo Aguan dispute dates back almost 20 years, to a World Bank-funded land modernisation programme. The farmers say thousands of hectares of land used for subsistence farming were fraudulently and coercively transferred to agribusinesses that grow African palms, which are lucratively exported to the west for biofuel, and are traded in the carbon credit market.
Since then, they have tried to reclaim the land using the courts, as well as roadblocks and illegal land occupations.
Zelaya launched an investigation to resolve the conflicts, but this came to an abrupt halt when he was toppled in a coup in 2009 that was backed by the business, political, military and church elites.
In December 2009, groups of subsistence farmers started large-scale illegal occupations on disputed land also claimed by the country's biggest palm oil producer, the Dinant Corporation, which is owned by Miguel Facussé, one of Honduras's most powerful men.
Dinant says 17 of its security guards were killed and 30 injured in clashes with farmers.
The region was heavily militarised in early 2010, and the farmers who were occupying the land were forcibly removed by soldiers enforcing contentious court orders. Accusations of human rights violations have escalated ever since.
In one incident, in 2012, Neptaly Esquivel, 32, a father of five, was permanently disabled by a bullet to the hip fired at close range by a soldier, whose face was hidden by a balaclava, during a peaceful protest against education reform. His case is with the inter-American court of human rights.
In another incident, Matías Vallé, 51, a founder member of Muca, was shot dead by two masked men on a motorcycle as he waited for a bus. Witnesses said a car full of private security guards was parked a few metres away.
His wife, Dominga Ramos, said he had rejected money from Dinant employees to stop the farmers' movement, after which he was told there was a price on his head.
Ramos said: "I witnessed one police officer trying to hide a bullet shell in the ground with his foot. We buried him in a secret place so they couldn't remove his head. I am tired and scared. My two sons left because of threats. We just want to work our land in peace."
Dinant strongly denies any direct or indirect involvement in death squads or human rights violations. It denies collusion between its security guards and government security forces to target peasant groups, and says it is committed to corporate social responsibility. The company says government security forces have been deployed against trespassers, who Dinant says are guilty of murder and other crimes.
A spokesman said Dinant was "not familiar" with the cases of Martínez, Esquivel or Vallé, and it had never been investigated for any suspected involvement. The company said it remained committed to "a quick and peaceful resolution to the Aguan conflict".
Another recent case is the disappearance of Josbin Santamaría Caballero, who was allegedly shot and taken away in an army helicopter on 30 October 2013 as his wife and two young daughters cowered in their kitchen of their home. The Dinant spokesman said the company was ignorant of his case, too.
Caballero, 25, son of a prominent peasant activist, had been publicly denounced as a violent criminal by Colonel German Alfaro, commander of the joint police-military Xatruch operation in the region.
Alfaro, trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas) in Fort Benning, Georgia, denied any military involvement and said Muca, the most organised peasant group in the region, was responsible for the current violence.
Alfaro said: "Muca and other groups encourage farmers to confront agro-industrialists, maintain constant tension and insecurity, and commit crimes to destabilise the area with armed groups."
The Aguan conflict mirrors a wider struggle over land and natural resources across Honduras that for decades has pitted the poor majority against the country's 10 oligarch families. Honduras became the world's most violent country outside a war zone in 2011, and it is one of the poorest and most unequal in the Americas.
Activists say the use of state security forces to suppress protests against landgrabs, dams, mining and oil concessions has intensified since the 2009 coup. Over the same period the US has built up its military presence, with several bases in the country, which has become a major transit point for the international drugs trade. Between 140 and 300 tonnes of cocaine are believed to pass through Honduras every year en route from South America to the US and beyond.
Elections late last year boosted the status quo when the rightwing National party returned to power on a pro-business, pro-security manifesto amid allegations of electoral fraud and voter intimidation.
Bertha Oliva, director of the Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared, said: "The police and military are using the cover of the US-led war on drugs in Honduras to eliminate many people, maybe including me: I am on the death list again."
An investigation published in February by the Canadian group Rights Action (pdf) detailed 34 acts of violence and other crimes directly implicating the 15th Battalion. It said these typically occurred "in co-ordination with private security forces of palm oil corporations, Honduran national police agents and other military units . . . in what can only be characterised as death-squad activity."
Karen Spring, from Rights Action, said: "The role of the military in terrorising and criminalising communities in the Bajo Aguan shows the complicity of the Honduran state and US government in supporting big business regardless of the killings."
The use of private security has increased exponentially across Honduras, which now has five private security guards to every police officer.
The UN working group on mercenaries described consistent reports of guards using illegal weapons to carry out with impunity human rights violations including killings, disappearances, forced evictions and sexual violence.
Patricia Arias, who led the UN group, told the Guardian: "The most worrying information is about private security guards acting together with the police and army, for example the Xatruch operations in Bajo Aguan."
Héctor Castro, vice-president of the Federation of Palm Growers, said both sides had committed abuses and broken the law. He added: "We don't have a government or authorities which look for conciliation or apply the law equally."
Vitalino Alvarez, a Muca leader who survived an assassination attempt in November 2012, said: "Each threat, disappearance and murder is part of the campaign of terror against us. We are blamed for killing each other and publicly called assassins, drug traffickers and drunks. We live, work and negotiate with guns pointed to our heads."
From Bananas to Biofuels
Honduras was the original, archetypal banana republic: a small, poor, fertile country controlled by a small group of wealthy families with ties to transnational business interests such as Chiquita, formerly the United Fruit Company.
Bajo Aguan, with its lush terrain, sunny climate and myriad rivers, was once dominated by banana trees. In this landscape, poor campesinos barely scraped a living from back-breaking work.
Banana companies withdrew from the region in the 1930s, and its population declined. But by the 1980s the Aguan was one of the most diverse crop regions in Honduras, producing coconuts, pineapples, grapefruits and almost half of all the country's bananas.
But African palm plantations have increased by almost 50% in the past three years, and now dominate the Bajo Aguan landscape, having replaced bananas and other edible crops. African palms, the saturated oil of which is a staple ingredient in processed foods and biodiesel, are now the most profitable crop in Honduras.
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