Gang culture in El Salvador
By Martin Mowforth
In April this year (2019), it was reported in El Salvador that municipal employees who provide local services such as rubbish collection in the town of Apopa had stopped work because of threats from local gang members.
The threats began with two gang members who threatened the fee collectors from the almost 2,500 market stall holders, from which the municipality gains between $1,200 and $1,500 each week. Threats were later extended to burial services at the local cemetery where work also stopped meaning that three families had to bury their relatives in other municipalities. Also affected were rubbish collection services and one crucial bus service.
Local mayor, Santiago Zelaya, organised a group of volunteers to collect the rubbish with accompaniment by the National Civil Police. Initially only three police patrols were granted and other services could not be guaranteed by police protection. Mayor Zelaya said, “In view of this situation with reduced municipal ability, we request that the security forces support the progress and development that the municipality has made.”
It is believed that the gangs became short of money following the holiday period (December – February) and that the threats stemmed from their need to raise funds. Four gangs operate in Apopa (only 20 km from the capital San Salvador) where schoolchildren and students, as well as businesses, have to be extremely wary as they travel to and from their studies on account of the danger of approaches by gang members.
The Barrio 18 gang is thought to be responsible for the threats. The gang had an agreement with the previous mayor who is now languishing in jail along with several gang members.
Between the 1st January this year and the 25th February, fifteen assassinations were committed in Apopa, the same number as were committed during the whole of 2018.
On 30th January this year I participated in a visit to the Comunidad Romero, close to the town of Apopa. The visit was organised by the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS, Centre for Exchange and Solidarity), and our group discussed the problems of living there with a group of impressive young people who spend much of their time trying to avoid being approached and hassled by gang members. There is little work available and so young people who do not make the grade in school generally hang around on the streets where they are highly vulnerable to approaches by gang members.
The main street in Distrito Italia where the community is located, is run by the Barrio 18 gang on one side and by the Mara Salvatrucha on the other. Young people on their way to school or to get the bus to go into Apopa or San Salvador are particularly vulnerable to these approaches, and so many of the young people from Comunidad Romero have to go the long way round to avoid such contact.
Given the lack of employment opportunities and the lack of alternative forms of development, it is unsurprising that so many young adults join the migrant caravans in search of a future.
- La Prensa Gráfica, 14 April 2019, ‘Amenaza de pandilla en Apopa limita servicios municipales’ / ‘Gang threats in Apopa restrict municipal services’.
- Daniel Torres (El Salvador Day), 14 April 2019, ‘Pandilleros no permiten que se recoja basura en Apopa’ / ‘Gang members stop waste collection in Apopa’.
- Personal notes by Martin Mowforth from visit to Comunidad Romero, 30 January 2019.
The Guatemalan Human Rights Commission (GHRC) was founded in 1982 at the height of the 36 year long Guatemalan war. The Commission documents and monitors human rights violations and attempts to defend those whose human rights are under threat. It also carries out advocacy work on behalf of rights defenders and lobbies for policy change both in Guatemala and the USA. To find out more about the work of the GHRC, go to: http://www.ghrc-usa.org/
The GHRC report is entered into the TVOD website in Chapter 9 under the sub-heading of ‘Emergency in Guatemala’. This sub-heading refers to the emergency experienced in Guatemala during 2009 when work on the writing of ‘The Violence of Development’ book began. The fact that this present GHRC report was produced in 2018/2019 exposes the fact that Guatemala is in a constant state of emergency and the Guatemalan oligarchy and elite – in the words of the report – “remain strong and poised to keep power at any cost.”
GHRC 2018 Emergency Delegation
Delegation Observes Violent Targeting of Land Rights Defenders
From July 12-16, 2018, the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC/USA) coordinated an emergency delegation to Guatemala after the international community was alerted to intensified violence and a series of murders targeted at human rights activists and Indigenous land defenders. The delegation, made up of human rights and justice advocates from the USA, Canada and Guatemala, travelled to the eastern and north-eastern departments of Jalapa, Chiquimula and Alta Verapaz, as well as Guatemala City. The group met with organised communities, national organisations, researchers, state institutions and political prisoners, many at risk for defending human rights, their territory, land and water. This report summarizes the first-hand accounts of serious human rights violations reported to the group during the delegation. Some key observations the group documented:
● The string of assassinations that inspired the delegation were not isolated incidents but are part of an ongoing trend of systemic violence and targeted attacks against defenders and territorial leaders.
● The delegation repeatedly heard about the lack of access to justice for crimes committed against Indigenous community members, while at the same time how local prosecutors and judges move swiftly to protect local, national and international economic interests.
● The actors behind the dispossession and pillage of Indigenous territories, which led to genocide for economic gain, remain strong and poised to keep power at any cost. Since the delegation ended, the targeted violence that Indigenous campesinos, or farmers, and land defenders face has only intensified. Despite the violent land evictions and murder noted here and well documented by Guatemalan and international human rights organisations, there have been no arrests for the crimes outlined in this report. In fact, campesino organisations we visited during the delegation continue to be attacked, their members killed while more defenders have been criminalized.
In January 2019, President Morales tried to unilaterally and illegally cancel the mandate of the UN-mandated International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), in an effort to attack the rule of law and democratic institutionality. That same month, Transparency International released a report showing that the Guatemalan government was perceived to be one of the most corrupt countries in the Americas. On January 30, Human Rights Ombudsman Jordan Rodas noted in his 2018 report to Congress that “with more corruption, there are fewer human rights.” Impunity coupled with corruption have left grassroots Indigenous organisations, communities and families without justice.
Our delegation heard how agribusiness and mining companies are responsible for the dispossession of water, forests and lands of Indigenous communities. Not only are these activities resulting in less land for subsistence farming and food crops, contributing to increased malnutrition and poverty, they are major contributors to exacerbating the climate crisis. Throughout the delegation, we heard that for many Guatemalans, especially young adults and youth with few opportunities and no access to basic rights like health care, education and food, migration to the USA is their only option. Based on the delegation’s observations, we urge the US government to:
● Take measures to support the Constitutional Court and the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office.
● Openly show its support for CICIG and its legal right to continue its works until its mandate ends in September 2019.
● Support efforts of the Public Prosecutor’s Office to investigate, prosecute and sanction those responsible for the murders of land defenders.
● Urge the Attorney General to end the malicious prosecution of land defenders, which has led to an alarming number of political prisoners in Guatemala in recent years.
A report by teleSur on 10 May 2019 gives details of the 2019 homicide rate in Honduras. Extracts from the teleSur report are given below.
“We cannot place a policeman or military member on every bus.”
The number of violent deaths in Honduras has gone up in April and May, sometimes by a rate as high as 98 percent over figures from 2018.
According to a report by the General Directorate of Forensic Medicine and the National Observatory of Violence of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (OV-UNAH), between Jan. 1 and May 8 of 2019, 1,258 people were murdered – a rate of 10 per day. While the overall number for the year is lower than the 1,340 registered homicides that took place during the same time last, the number of deaths in April and May of 2019 have increased significantly.
April 2019 saw 78 more violent deaths over last April and in the first 8 days of May there were 113 violent deaths, 38 more than those that occurred in the same period of the previous year.
Wednesday (8th) was an especially violent day with 25 murders taking place all over the country according to a report by Criterio. The deaths were registered in cities such as La Ceiba, Choluteca, Danlí, Lepaterique, Teupasenti, El Paraíso, San Pedro Sula and Santa Cruz de Yojoa.
Just the day before on Tuesday at the Central American Security Conference 2019 run by the United States Southern Command, and including Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico as observers, the head of the Armed Forces of Honduras René Orlando Fonseca had said that Honduras “lives in a climate of peace and security” and that “violence is sporadic.”
This year, 274 homicides were reported in January, 258 violent deaths in February, and in March there were 251 homicides, figures below those registered in 2018 during the same period.
Those three encouraging months of reduced homicides in the country were overshadowed, however, by the high incidence of deaths in April and the start of May.
Spokesman for the Secretariat of Security Jair Meza, a high ranking police official, attributed the increase in violent deaths to “gangs and gangs linking up to acquire territories for the sale of drugs in different neighbourhoods.” Meza argued that another factor causing the high incidence of homicides is extortion, mainly in the transportation sector.
According to Sepol (the Police Statistical System), last Wednesday the driver of a local bus was executed on the Boulevard del Norte, apparently because of extortion.
“We cannot place a policeman or military member on every bus,” says Meza.
By Martin Mowforth
Key words: Honduras; foreign troops; Southcom; migration prevention; counter-terrorism; Olivia Zúñiga Cáceres; civil unrest.
1,000 Israeli troops to Honduras
In May this year a multilateral treaty between Honduras, Israel and the United States saw the deployment of 1,000 Israeli soldiers to Honduras to train the Armed Forces of Honduras and the National Police. The treaty was forged between Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during the inauguration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
The main mission of the troops is to train for border protection to prevent migrants fleeing Honduras to the USA, but they will also offer training in the fight against drug trafficking, investigation and counter-terrorism. (It may be a forlorn hope that they will unearth and expose the terrorism practised by the US forces in Honduras against so many Latin American nations.) The 1,000 troops will be stationed with the Joint Task Force of the US at the Soto Cano air base in Palmerola, the largest US military base in Latin America.
The presence of Israeli soldiers is part of a bilateral cooperation agreed between the two countries and signed before Honduras transferred its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Another agreement between the two countries (signed in 2016 and for a period of ten years) commits Honduras to purchasing a million dollars’ worth of arms and military equipment and the repowering of ships and planes.
Olivia Zúñiga Cáceres, a deputy from the Partido Libertad y Refundación (Liberty and Refoundation Party), explained that the 2009 post-coup government “began to make military agreements where the Honduran army would receive more training, and it is all paid for with the taxes of the Honduran people, so that all of the general budget that was destined for health, education and public services is reduced.”
Zúñiga Cáceres (who also happens to be one of the daughters of the assassinated leader of COPINH, Berta Cáceres) went on to describe the Israeli armed forces as: “specialists in genocide, specialists in torture, which they do against the Palestinian people.”
300 US troops to Honduras
Another Southern Command (Southcom) brigade of US Navy and Marine soldiers arrived in Honduras at the beginning of June to “improve disaster response and other crisis situations”.
As Popular Resistance.org writes, “Southcom has been a controversial actor in Latin American politics for many years since its founding as a force to defend US interests at the Panama Canal. The commander of Southcom, US Admiral Craig Faller, has intimated that the force could be re-oriented for intervention in Venezuela …”
It is interesting to note that this new deployment of forces coincides with widespread civil unrest in Honduras. The protests of health and education workers have grown into broader demonstrations against government corruption and neoliberal economic development policies such as privatisation and deregulation. It also coincides with US efforts to persuade northern triangle countries’ governments (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) to prevent the waves of migrants that have chosen over the last nine months to leave the failed state that is Honduras.
- Telesur, 6 May 2019, ‘1,000 Israeli Soldiers To Arrive in Honduras to Train Troops, Police on Border Protection’
- Popular Resistance.org, 22 May 2019, ‘”This Is A War Against The Honduran People”’
- Criterio, 3 June 2019, ‘Masiva protesta de médicos y docentes pese a división orquestada por el gobierno’
- Rights Action, 3 June 2019, ‘Honduran Presidents linked to drug-trafficking & money laundering since US & Canadian-backed coup ousted Honduras’ last democratic government’
- Public Sector Finance, 7 June 2019, ‘Protests in Honduras continue over public sector reforms’
- Telesurenglish.net, 8 June 2019, ‘300 US Southcom Troops Arrive in Honduras to Teach ‘Humanitarian Assistance’’
- School of The Americas watch (SOAW), 12 June 2019, SOAW News
June 7, 2019
We are grateful to Rights Action for reproducing in June 2019 an analysis made by Insight Crime in April 2019. Details of Rights Action and Insight Crime are given at the end of this article.
Key words: organised crime; drug trafficking; President Jimmy Morales; International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG); illicit campaign finance; corruption.
US Drug Probe Lands Guatemala President in Hot Water
by Parker Asmann, April 25, 2019
Controversy is swirling in Guatemala after evidence emerged showing that President Jimmy Morales used a helicopter owned by a presidential candidate recently arrested in the United States on drug charges — a case that has turned up the heat significantly on the Central American nation’s head of state.
President Morales, who will be replaced after elections this year, reportedly used a helicopter owned by candidate Mario Amilcar Estrada Orellana for official business in January 2018 and possibly on at least one other occasion, Prensa Libre reported. Morales claimed in an April 23 press release that the helicopter was contracted by his government with a company called Maya World Tours, which brokers helicopter flights.
However, a legal representative for Maya World Tours said that the company never provided the use of Estrada’s helicopter to Morales, and that the president used the aircraft through some other arrangement, according to Prensa Libre.
Just last week, US authorities arrested Estrada, a former presidential candidate with the centre-right National Change Union (Unión del Cambio Nacionalista — UCN) political party, on drug and firearms charges. Estrada allegedly sought millions in campaign funds from Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel in exchange for facilitating the group’s drug trafficking activities.
Despite his arrest, Morales stated that neither he nor his country’s intelligence officials had any idea that Estrada was engaged in drug trafficking. A 2011 US embassy cable, later released by WikiLeaks, dubbed Estrada’s UCN a ‘narco party’. Estrada and his party were also investigated in 2015 for alleged illicit campaign financing and links to drug trafficking.
Morales confirmed that he met with Estrada April 2 of this year at a finca owned by the candidate in southeast Jalapa department, Soy 502 reported. The announcement came after another presidential candidate, Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza — UNE) party, raised questions about the encounter in an April 22 tweet.
After “insistent” requests from Estrada, according to Morales, the two talked about the transition process if Estrada were to win the upcoming June election — and nothing else. “I have no problem in saying it, because I have done it in a transparent way,” Morales said.
Other associates of Morales and his National Convergence Front (Frente de Convergencia Nacional — FCN-Nación) political party are also alleged to have links to Estrada and the UCN.
Ernesto José Degenhart Asturias, the brother of Guatemala Interior Minister Enrique Antonio Degenhart Asturias, is running for congress on the UCN ticket. Degenhart has been at the heart of Morales’s battle to weaken the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), which is investigating Morales for alleged illicit campaign financing during his 2015 presidential run.
A number of other shadowy officials with links to the Morales administration are also connected to the UCN or running for various government positions on behalf of the political party this election season.
InSight Crime Analysis
The United States government has played a bizarre role in backing President Morales’ efforts to undermine investigations carried out by the CICIG and Attorney General’s Office into the alleged criminal conduct of Morales and his political party. However, the Estrada investigation by US authorities has returned attention to Morales — even as he continues his attacks on the CICIG.
US Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is the key supporter of Morales’ drive to quash Guatemala’s anti-graft unit. He has halted US funds for the CICIG — which accounts for just under half of the commission’s budget — due to its alleged role in helping prosecute a Russian family in relation to a scheme to fabricate identification documents. Those allegations, however, were shown to be unfounded and lacking any evidence. Yet Rubio alleged that the CICIG was manipulated or possibly even working with the Russian government in prosecuting the family.
While Rubio and other powerbrokers have hobbled the CICIG from abroad, Morales has waged a war against its prosecutors at home. Morales ousted CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez from the country and later ordered the expulsion of the rest of the commission’s agents. In January 2019, he terminated the agreement that founded the CICIG altogether, putting the country on the brink of a constitutional crisis.
Whether Morales’ links to Estrada will force the US government to reconsider its relationship with Guatemala and its embattled president is impossible to infer, according to Mike Allison, a Central America expert and the head of the political science department at the University of Scranton. “It’s tough to predict when the US government will work with people ‘known’ to be corrupt and when it won’t,” Allison said.
Indeed, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised Morales and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández for their cooperation on security last year. At the same time, some of Hernández’s family members are alleged to be “large-scale drug traffickers.” Previous US administrations also worked with the likes of disgraced former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina until he was arrested along with his former vice president, Roxana Baldetti, on corruption charges.
However, support for Morales may be waning in some US government circles. Kimberly Breier, the United States’ Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, is reportedly not going to meet with President Morales and Foreign Affairs Minister Sandra Jovel during her upcoming tour through the Northern Triangle region.
“Without increased pressure from the United States and the international community, I don’t see Guatemalan authorities moving against Morales,” Allison said. However, “it’s somewhat more likely that if there is evidence behind the allegations against Morales, those charges could be pursued in US courts.”
Rights Action is a non-profit organisation incorporated in the U.S. and Canada. Founded in the U.S. in 1995, Rights Action grew out of Guatemala Partners that, itself, was created from the merger of PEACE for Guatemala and Guatemala Health Rights Support Project, both founded in 1983. https://rightsaction.org/
InSight Crime is a foundation dedicated to the study of the principal threat to national and citizen security in Latin America and the Caribbean: Organized Crime. www.insightcrime.org/
In December 2018, Honduran human rights worker Dina Meza visited London. Because of the danger of her work in Honduras, she is accompanied there by Peace Brigades International (PBI). Both Dina and PBI feature several times in ‘The Violence of Development’ website, for which she was interviewed in 2017 – see https://theviolenceofdevelopment.com/dina-meza/
The following report by PBI explains her presence in London.
In December 2018 Dina Meza, a celebrated Honduran independent journalist, was invited to the UK to speak at the FCO’s Human Rights Day event. During her time in London Dina Meza met with the Minister for Human Rights; Lord Ahmad, All Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights, as well as representatives of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to discuss the human rights situation in Honduras as well as restrictions on freedom of expression and attacks against journalists in the country. She also met with NGOs and donors.
“We are joined by Dina Meza. She is a journalist in Honduras who is working to defend freedom of expression and information. And in case Dina, and after meeting her this morning, I would add this, a modest lady, and if she fails to tell you this herself is that she was named by Fortune magazine as one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders of 2018. Why? Because of her work in this sphere. Thank you Dina for being here.” – Lord Ahmad
Committed to defending freedom of expression and information, Dina has spent years investigating and reporting on human rights violations across the country. She is currently the Director of ASOPODEHU and the President of PEN Honduras, an organisation that supports journalists at risk. She is also the founder and editor of the online newspaper ‘Pasos de Animal Grande’, which provides information and legal support to at-risk professionals, students and journalists.
In April 2018 Fortune magazine selected her as one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders of 2018, highlighting her key role in bringing international attention to the assassination of activist Berta Cáceres, as well as the state violence surrounding Honduras’ volatile 2017 elections.
Dina works at incredible personal risk and has previously had to flee Honduras for her own safety. Due to the threats she faces she receives protective accompaniment from Peace Brigades International.
1b Waterlow Road
London, N19 5NJ
Tel/Fax: +44 (0)20 7281 5370
UK Charity Number: 1101016
Amongst the seven Central American countries, Costa Rica has an international reputation for social progress, environmental harmony and sustainability that outstrips the other six countries. In fact Costa Rica has been named by the Happy Planet Index report as the most sustainably happy country in the world.[i] In our experience, Costa Rica deserves many plaudits and is full of really interesting examples of harmony and sustainability; but it is not without its problems and conflicts. We have included here a short opinion piece written in the Costa Rican weekly newspaper Semanario Universidad to illustrate that not all Ticos share this happy perspective.
By Luis Morice (UCR) Sep 20, 2016
Reproduced by kind permission of Luis Morice
From Semanario Universidad, Costa Rica, 21 September 2016
In our country there is no army but there is a machinery of repression that operates in defence of the interests of the major capitalists, in defence of monopolies and of the transnational corporations. They repress people who they say they are defending and they follow the orders of the supposedly ‘progressive’ PAC [Citizen Action Party] government, aiming to intimidate and silence all types of protest and movements of popular discontent. The vilification of social protest becomes ever more frequent through the intensification of the current government’s repressive policies as a bewildering continuation of previous administrations, as well as through various ‘communication’ media which focus and intensify their campaign against it, seeking to demonise mass actions such as the protests and strikes of diverse social movements.
What they are unable to stop by any existing political means, they seek to prevent by means of violence against the people in the street, intimidating the movement of masses of people, intent on delivering the authoritarian message that sees the right to protest as a ‘sin’. This strikes fear into the masses and the working people and instils in them a deep and fierce hatred against this right, undermining the unity of social forces and silencing their denunciations, the discontent, the protest against the rotten and the degenerate. These anti-popular measures and reactions seek to impose a ‘progressive’ government of ‘change’ in holy alliance with global financial entities and with them the national bourgeoisie.
It is shameful to consider as a great example of ‘heroism’ and as a great achievement of the repressive apparatus of the government blue shirts, the ‘re-establishment of order’, or, in other words, the disintegration through violence of whatever struggle the social movement is undertaking. Examples include what happened to the taxi drivers in their struggle against Uber; what happened at the beginning of the year with the displaced families from Finca Chánguena who were protesting against their removal but were brutally repressed by the police force; the same that happened recently with the animalist demonstrators who were protesting for the closure of the Simón Bolívar prison (the zoo for those who consider it as such); or as happened years ago on 8th November when demonstrators from diverse political and social movements took action in defence of the CCSS [Social Security Office] and who were later beaten by police agents. By violence and by nothing more than violence, they stripped them of and fenced them off from their legitimate right to express by means of mass action their rejection and discontent against unjust situations. Faced with this ‘progressive’ government’s repression and with the PAC’s filibustering, [we need] unity and a permanent struggle of the workers.
[i] The Happy Planet Index report, published by the New Economics Foundation, seeks to move away from purely economic measures of happiness and instead ranks countries by how much happiness they get from the amount of environmental resources used. Happiness is calculated by measuring a country’s happiness in relation to the wellbeing, life expectancy and social inequality and then dividing it by its ecological footprint.
This table also appears, slightly amended, in the book as Box 9.4 (page 184).
24 October 2009 – Victor Galvez shot 32 times as he left his office in Malacatan, San Marcos.
13 January 2010 – Evelinda Ramírez shot and killed in the municipality of Ocos – see Chapter 4.
29 January 2010 – FNL member Pedro Garcia shot and killed while driving home.
17 February 2010 – FNL leader in San Marcos Octavio Roberlo shot 16 times from a passing car while closing his store in the bus terminal.
21 March 2010 – Three community leaders who had denounced Unión Fenosa, Carlos Noel Maldonado Barrios, Leandro Maldonado and Ana María Lorenzo Escobar, killed by gunshots and machete wounds in the municipality of Ocos.
22 March 2011 – Head of the local committee for the nationalisation of energy, Santiago Gamboa, shot and killed by Guatemalan soldiers during protests in the town of Las Brisas.
I am grateful to Sandra Cuffe for permission to reproduce the following article. Sandra is a freelance journalist based in Central America, where she covers environmental, indigenous, and human rights issues.
By Sandra Cuffe | February 1, 2017
Global Witness, a London-based NGO, published a report yesterday examining the involvement of government officials and foreign aid in violent conflicts over mining, hydroelectric, tourism, and palm oil projects in Honduras. The result of a two-year investigation, the report includes several case studies and a series of recommendations for the Honduran and U.S. governments.
“We do an annual report to document the situation globally, and Honduras per capita has come out on top for the last few years. More than 120 land and environmental defenders have been killed in Honduras since 2010, so we wanted to investigate the reasons behind that,” Global Witness campaigner Ben Leather told Mongabay.
The issue was thrust into the global spotlight in March 2016, when Berta Cáceres, a well-known Honduran indigenous rights activist and Goldman environmental prize winner, was gunned down in her home. She had been receiving threats related to her work with communities opposing the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam in western Honduras, and suspects arrested in connection with her killing include individuals with ties to the Honduran military and to DESA, the company behind the dam project.
The new Global Witness report, ‘Honduras: The deadliest place to defend the planet’, examines the Agua Zarca case and other hydroelectric dam projects in western Honduras, a hotel and golf tourism complex in indigenous Garifuna territory along the northern coast, and mining and logging activities. Regardless of where in the small Central American country of eight million the projects are located, similar patterns of indigenous and human rights violations emerge.
Allegations of corruption
“What we’ve uncovered is that there’s an awful lot of corruption around these mega-projects, these big investment projects, whether that’s mining, whether that’s hydroelectric, whether it’s logging, or whether it’s luxury hotel projects,” Leather said. “These projects are being imposed on communities, which is why they need to mobilize in the first place. And then that same corruption means activists can then be killed with impunity,” he said.
In some cases, allegations of corruption go to the highest echelons of the Honduran government. Global Witness highlights the case of Gladis Aurora López, president of the ruling National Party and vice president of Congress. Her husband, Arnold Castro, is the director of a company behind two contested hydroelectric dam projects in the La Paz department of Honduras that were granted licenses while López was a member of Congress.
Local community activists also implicate López in manipulations of a consultation process concerning the Los Encinos dam, and allege she ordered a violent police intervention in a community resisting the dam, according to Global Witness. Several Indigenous Lenca Movement of La Paz (MILPAH) members actively opposing the dam have been attacked and killed.
Global Witness is calling on the Honduran government to investigate and prosecute López. “We think that the prosecution of some of the higher level people linked to these abuses would send a strong signal that the Honduran government won’t tolerate corruption and won’t tolerate this violence against defenders,” said Leather.
Mongabay was unable to reach López before press time. However, in a letter to Global Witness, she denied any link to attacks against leaders and communities opposing hydroelectric dam projects. According to Global Witness, López’ husband also denied any illegal activity by his company and any ties to attacks.
In the case of the Los Encinos dam, the problem began shortly after the Honduran Congress granted its license, according to MILPAH president Felipe Benítez. The mayor of the municipality of Santa Elena, also affiliated with the ruling National Party, began offering all kinds of little projects and aid to local party members, creating divisions and turning them against community leaders and activists opposing dams, he said.
“Since then, there has been a serious problem of persecution, threats, harassment, and defamation, and also the problem of criminalization,” Benítez told Mongabay. Dozens of indigenous community council leaders and MILPAH members face criminal charges related to conflicts over lands and natural resource projects, he said.
Global Witness references reports of the killings of three local activists opposing the Los Encinos dam; two of their bodies were mutilated. Benítez’ own nephew was found murdered in December 2015.
Two months earlier, in October 2015, outspoken dam opponent and MILPAH leader Ana Miriam Romero allege she and her sister-in-law were beaten by a group of police, soldiers and civilians in Romero’s home while guns were drawn on her children. Both women were pregnant at the time and Romero’s sister-in-law miscarried following the beating, according to reports referenced by Global Witness. In January 2016, Romero’s home was allegedly the target of an arson attack and she lost most of her belongings.
“We’ve been persecuted and criminalized, and the situation here is terrible,” Benítez said. “A serious danger we face as defenders is that human rights aren’t respected. For example, we have 14 members of MILPAH with precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, but not long ago the police shot Victor Vásquez.”
A member of MILPAH and the president of one of the local indigenous councils, Vásquez was shot in the leg by police on January 13, 2017 during the eviction of a community in another municipality in the La Paz department, according to Benítez and human rights group reports. On paper, Vásquez is one of the beneficiaries of an IACHR request to Honduras for precautionary measures. Benítez says he now faces three months of rest and recovery due to the police gunshot.
Hydroelectric dam project backers appear to go beyond local companies and Honduran government officials. Global Witness points to international finance institutions such as the Central American Bank of Economic Integration, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the World Bank Group’s private sector arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), as all having played a role in the hydro sector in Honduras. Multilateral institutions have also supported other controversial projects linked to attacks and killings.
In 2009, the IFC invested 30 million dollars in Corporación Dinant, a large Honduran palm oil and food company controlled by powerful landowner and business magnate Miguel Facussé until his death in 2015. Palm oil plantations tied to Dinant and other landowners in the Lower Aguan region of the Colón department have been the subject of years of land conflicts, with Global Witness confirming at least 82 activists fighting for land rights in the area were killed between 2010 and 2013.
Killings have continued in the ensuing years. When Global Witness interviewed the head of a special task force (unnamed in the report) that is investigating killings in the region, he revealed that many more people have been killed than were previously documented.
“His team is investigating 173 murder cases between 2010 and 2013, of which 18 or 19 are of private security guards and six are not land-related. The rest – at least 148 deaths – are believed to be of [farmers] killed in the struggle to defend their land,” the report’s authors wrote.
Local farmworkers’ and land rights groups accuse Dinant, other landowners, and Honduran security forces of involvement in death squads and paramilitary groups operating in the region and perpetrating many of the killings. Dinant and the Honduran military refute these claims.
Given the involvement of the IFC, local organizations took their concerns to the World Bank Group’s Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO), which determined in December 2013 that the IFC had violated its own environmental and social guidelines when it made the decision to finance Dinant. In response, the IFC and Dinant developed an ongoing action plan to address the CAO report’s findings.
“IFC continues to work closely with Dinant and its external experts to support measures that reduce tensions in the communities in which the company operates and work towards peaceful co-existence,” an IFC spokesperson told Mongabay via email. Dinant has adopted new policies and procedures related to security management, human rights, and community engagement, according to the IFC spokesperson.
Despite the new policies, alarming human rights violations continue in the Aguan region, according to Honduran human rights organizations monitoring the situation in the region. On June 19, 2016, young farmers Allan Martínez and Manuel Milla were murdered in front of dozens of people on the soccer field in the community of Panama. And on October 18, 2016, Aguan United Farmers’ Movement (MUCA) president José Ángel Flores and MUCA member Silmer George were shot and killed. The Agrarian Platform, an umbrella group of local farmers’ and land rights organizations, alleged paramilitary groups operating in the region were responsible for the June and October killings.
Three months after Flores and George were killed, the situation remains the same, according to the Agrarian Platform.
“Arrests have not been made of the material authors despite the existence of arrest warrants, according to a report by the Lower Aguan Violent Death Unit, and so the paramilitary group continues to operate in the La Confianza settlement, sowing terror and fear among the population,” the Agrarian Platform wrote in a January 19, 2017 statement.
The U.S. is the largest single IFC shareholder and is an influential shareholder in the Inter-American Development Bank, Global Witness points out in its new report.
“We think that these international finance institutions, as well as the principal shareholders in them like the US, have a vital role to play in safeguarding that their money is not investing in projects that ultimately end up with activists being silenced,” said Global Witness campaigner Ben Leather. He added that they must first ensure meaningful consultation and consent from affected communities, and also to freeze funding if activists are threatened.
The U.S. government’s Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) has also invested 22.5 million dollars in the FICOHSA Bank, which has backed Dinant and other controversial enterprises, Global Witness notes in its report. The report also highlights the support of the U.S. Embassy in Honduras for U.S. investors in conflict-ridden sectors such as the mining industry, and the tens of millions in U.S. aid for Honduran military and police forces, which have been implicated in numerous human rights violations in the country.
One of the report’s recommendations to the U.S. government, however, to “increase funds dedicated to the protection of human rights defenders and civil society space in Honduras,” was fulfilled even before the report was made public. Just days before the report’s release, U.S. Ambassador to Honduras James Nealon announced that the U.S. is contributing 2.9 million dollars to the Honduran protection mechanism for human rights defenders and journalists.
According to a U.S. State Department spokesperson, the United States consistently raises human rights concerns with the Honduran government and works with it to address them. Impunity and corruption pose significant challenges to the country’s institutions, but the Honduran government has demonstrated the political will necessary to tackle security and development challenges, the spokesperson told Mongabay.
Capacity for change, but lack of political will
The Honduran government’s political will is a key point of contention. In September 2016, the U.S. State Department certified that the Honduran government complied with human rights conditions placed on aid to Honduras in the Appropriations Act for the 2016 fiscal year. The move was met with criticism from NGOs and U.S. members of Congress, given the ongoing killings and impunity. More than 40 members of Congress have co-sponsored the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act (HR 5474), a proposed bill to suspend all aid to Honduran police and military forces until five clearly defined criteria concerning human rights and justice have been met.
In the high-profile case of the March 2016 murder of Cáceres, seven suspects, including members of the Honduran armed forces and a hydroelectric dam company staff, have now been arrested. The developments shine some light on the question of the Honduran government’s capacity and will to effectively address human rights violations, according to Leather.
“I think on the one hand it shows that the Honduran government has some capacity to deal with this, which means that it’s more a question of political will,” he said.
“Beyond the Berta Cáceres case, there are several examples of where the authorities have made arrests, either for attacks against defenders or because of abuses of laws around consultation of communities, for example. So they do have some capacity, but they haven’t shown the political will yet to use that capacity across the board, and above all, to arrest the intellectual authors of these crimes as well,” Leather said. “And we’re convinced in the case of Berta Cáceres that the intellectual authors – those who ordered the attack – haven’t been arrested, even though we of course celebrate the fact that some of the trigger men have.”
The Global Witness report published yesterday focuses on Honduras, but similar forces are at play throughout Latin America. Already this year, indigenous and community activists opposing hydroelectric dams, mining, and logging reportedly have been killed in Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico.
Like Berta Cáceres, Isidro Baldenegro was a past recipient of the prestigious Goldman environmental prize. An indigenous Tarahumara community leader and farmer, he was awarded the honor for his work organizing to protect Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains from illegal logging. After years of threats, he was shot and killed earlier this month.
“He was threatened by people associated with the loggers, who were logging in his community. He was threatened by organized crime. But he was also imprisoned by the Mexican state as well, on charges that ultimately turned out to be false,” Leather said.
“I think it shows the same collusion between the state, business, and criminal elements to silence those who are demanding their rights,” he said. “I would say that is the case across the Americas, albeit in Honduras it’s at the worst levels of violence.”
Mongabay is an environmental science and conservation news and information site. Mongabay seeks to raise interest in and appreciation of nature and wildlife, while examining the impact of emerging trends in climate, technology, economics, and finance on conservation and development.
This is a shortened version of an article entitled ‘All is not well in Paradise’ which appeared in ENCA Newsletter 34 (August 2003).
By Annette Zacharias and Dieter Dubbert*
Bismuna is an indigenous Miskito village on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua with a population of about 1,500 people. … The village is on the shore of a lagoon which opens to the sea. In this sea float many kilos of cocaine, packets of 60, 80, 90 kilos of pure cocaine. Why did they come floating our way? Off the Atlantic coast is a group of islands known as the Miskito Cays, hundreds of islands of mangroves which form the ideal hiding place for drugs in transit from Colombia. They are also a good location to re-fuel; but the traffickers have to get rid of their cargo the moment they see a patrol boat.
We have scenes that you would normally associate only with low-grade B-movies: people with dark glasses, bracelets and Rolex watches sitting in boats with two 150 horsepower outboard motors, silent and waiting for their contact with a Kalashnikov by their side. …
In 1993 the first packets were found. Nobody knew anything of drugs, their effects, their potential harm, nor of their value. But almost immediately people heard of astronomical values for them and began to look for more. … we found it difficult to explain how dangerous drugs were. How could they have experience of drug addiction if they’d never suffered it before? And fast money talked more powerfully.
In 1994 we wrote to the governor of our department, Stedman Fagoth, and asked him to address this problem. We suggested that all the cocaine found by the people should be bought officially by the state at market prices and channelled into the pharmaceutical industry. The reply from the governor was … silence. Worse than that, Dieter received a death threat (from an unknown origin). Later we realised that the governor had indeed concerned himself in the business. …
One consequence of the fast money was that people stopped working on their fincas. Nobody wanted to sweat by sowing rice, yucca or plantains. And who’s going to criticise them for preferring to buy everything rather than sweat on their fincas? … Whole families, including even grandmas, lived on the beach looking for the ‘blessing’ of a packet. They sold the drugs, and today there is a well-established system of trafficking. But the worst problem for the community is that many people have taken to using the drugs. We could say that the generation of youths aged 14 – 23 are lost in the drug. But also adult males with their family responsibilities have fallen into addiction.
There is open trafficking, almost risk-free, that transfers many kilos beyond the community and brings back a derivative of cocaine known as ‘crack’ – or ‘stone’ as it is commonly called – a mix of cocaine with ash and soda. According to those already addicted, you only need one stone to become addicted. As a consequence, robberies and violence have arrived in the community. Women fear for their safety. Properties are no longer secure. At night we listen to the rantings of drunks who have left their women. Many people, mainly women, arrive at our house asking for money to buy food or medicines for their children. These children grow up with disastrous, drug-addicted role models, their fathers, brothers, cousins.
Throughout the whole Atlantic coast there isn’t one rehabilitation centre, and the word ‘therapy’ is unknown. The police struggle against the tide with ridiculous budgets incapable of meeting their needs. It’s a public secret that many of the police are involved in this lucrative business, and so its control never progresses. Above all, there is no political interest in protecting the coast and its population.
This situation is dramatic and desperate. But there are a few individuals who are fighting against this appalling form of development.
* Annette Zacharias and Dieter Dubbert lived in Bismuna from 1990 to 2003. They founded a NGO called ‘From Coast to Coast – Solidarity with the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua’ with bases in Kiel, Germany, and Bismuna, Nicaragua. Using donations from Germany, Italy and Nicaragua, it aimed to support the indigenous community through a range of social projects including the construction of a clinic, a sewing workshop, a cultural centre, a baseball stadium and houses for those in need. They also established a rehabilitation centre for youths with drug and/or family abandonment problems. In 2003 they changed location to Waspam in order to increase their work with street children.