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Activists in Central America Fear for Their Lives in Wake of Assassinations

The assassination of a prominent environmental activist in Honduras presents a troubling message to movements in the region.

Hundreds of indigenous Hondurans and peasants march on August 17, 2016, in Tegucigalpa demanding justice for the murder of indigenous environmentalist Berta Cáceres.

Early in the morning of March 3, gunmen entered the house of environmental activist Berta Cáceres in La Esperanza, Honduras, and assassinated the high-profile indigenous Lenca leader. The assassination comes after an escalation of a conflict over the construction of the Agua Zarca hydro project on the sacred Gualcarque River in the community of Agua Blanca. This assassination has sent shock waves across the region and put activists in similar struggles on edge.

Cáceres had cofounded the powerful Civic Council of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) in 1993, and the group soon became involved in many of the social conflicts across Honduras. The organization had supported indigenous and campesino communities in their struggles against the dispossession of land and in their efforts to gain the legal rights to ancestral land.

The March 3 shooting has also left Gustavo Castro Soto, an anti-mining activist from Mexico, in a precarious situation. Castro Soto, who is the coordinator for Otros Mundos Chiapas and a coordinator for Mesoamerican Movement Against the Extractive Mining Model (M4), had been staying at Cáceres’ house to provide accompaniment in the hopes of deterring violence against her the night of her assassination.

He was shot two times, but survived. Cáceres died in his arms.

“This is a message to the populations that if they don’t accept the multinational companies, then their lives will be at threat.”

“The assassins who have killed Bertha [sic] and attempted [to] murder me remain unpunished as the government seeks to undermine the memory of Bertha and the honor and the magnificent struggle COPINH has done for many years in the defense of life, territories and human rights,” Castro Soto wrote in a message to friends and supporters on March 4. “The murder of Bertha could mean for many businesses and interests the opportunity to advance their territories. But the COPINH is stronger than ever and [needs] the solidarity of all people to join their struggle, with solidarity and with the memory of Bertha in our hands.”

Following the assassination, the Honduran government quickly detained Castro Soto for “questioning.” According to Castro Soto, he was initially granted permission to leave the country but was detained again at customs.

His life remains at risk.

“Hit men already know that I did not die,” Castro Soto wrote in his message. “And surely they will be willing to fulfill their task.”

On March 15, Nelson García, another leader with COPINH, was assassinated in the community of Río Chiquito in the department of Cortes, Honduras. These latest assassinations in Honduras have put the region on edge.

Cáceres and García were outspoken critics of the United States’ roll in legitimating the 2009 coup, and critical of the advancement of the extractive industries in indigenous territory. Cáceres had many supporters and friends across the border in Guatemala, which has been the site of similar conflicts. But the assassination of Cáceres has sent a chilling message to more than just the movements in Honduras, but also to other movements in defense of territory across the region.

“This is a message to the populations that if they don’t accept the multinational companies, then their lives will be at threat,” Raúl Zibechi, a Uruguayan journalist and social movement analyst, told Truthout. “But this message is not only a message for the people that resist, but including the governments that may not be complicit, in the sense that financial capital will do whatever it needs to do to do business.”

He added, “This is a situation that is very complex … and very dramatic, because those who are gaining from the projects will not leave their projects. This is because we live in a world that is dominated by financial capital — they will use whatever force is necessary.”

Activists in the region agree with Zibechi’s analysis of the critical situation in Central America.

“This is a powerful and aggressive message to all the people and communities that defend the natural resources and are under the threat of dispossession and expropriation,” Andrea Ixchíu, a young activist and human rights defender in Guatemala, told Truthout. “Berta was a woman who was a very visible person. It shows us that capital will do what it needs to do to clear the way for the ability to take resources.”

“Berta was a very strong and valiant woman,” Ixchíu told Truthout. “She was important to the movement in the defense of territory in Central America.”

Facilitating the Continued Colonization of the Region

The situation in Honduras has greatly deteriorated in the years following the coup d’état against the nation’s democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya, in June 2009. The subsequent administrations have declared Honduras “open for business,” and actively sought foreign investment in key sectors, such as energy production.

This brought companies to the region seeking to exploit its abundant natural resources. The construction of this project comes as part of the regional integration plan, as called for by Plan Mesoamerica, and strengthened through the Alliance for Prosperity.

In 2013, Cáceres’ name appeared on a leaked “kill list,” alongside the names of other activists, journalists and politicians.

The 21.3-megawatt Agua Zarca hydro project was originally proposed by the Honduran company Desarrollos Energeticos SA (DESA) in 2009, with investments coming from the Chinese energy firm Sinohydro and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration. Yet like many other conflicts across the region, the project was imposed upon the community, which was a member of COPINH, without the legally required prior consultation. The villagers of Rio Blanco successfully stopped the dam construction for over a year. Cáceres was very involved in that struggle.

In 2013, Cáceres’ name appeared on a leaked “kill list,” alongside the names of other activists, journalists and politicians.

These threats came until the day she was assassinated. According to Jesus Garza from the Honduran Coalition for People’s Action, members of the Guatemalan oligarchy had called for Cáceres to be stopped at any cost because she was standing in the way of “development.”

Three days before the murder, Aline Flores, who was until recently the chairman of the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise (COHEP), “said in a televised interview that people like Berta Cáceres and organizations like COPINH were detrimental to the country, and they had to be stopped,” Garza told Truthout. “He didn’t say that she needed to be killed, but it is understood he meant that their actions needed to be stopped at any cost.”

The Agua Zarca project is one of 40 hydro projects in indigenous territory in Honduras. These projects are also accompanied by nearly 50 mining projects. These conflicts in Honduras have been reflected in other parts of Central America, such as Guatemala where there are nearly 230 energy projects underway.

“We are seeing that we are standing in front [of] the same model of neoliberalism where the state privileges foreign investment, as well as investments by the corrupt national capital, which together impose projects on communities that they call development, but really these are models that prolong the colonization of communities,” Ixchíu told Truthout. “The use of the word of development by the colonists and capitalists is troubling. It makes us believe that the thinking and the knowledge of the ancestors and the modes of life are behind, or (antiquated). But when one follows these understandings, knowledge and modes of life, they can actually maintain a better relationship with nature and life.”

She added, “These types of agreements, such as the free trade agreements, Plan Puebla-Panama, Plan Mesoamerica, and now the Alliance for Prosperity, all come from the same perverse economic interests, … such as the World Bank, and the same persecution that comes from the United States that drives the dispossession, expropriation and the criminalization.”

This dispossession has directly impacted the indigenous communities of Mesoamerica.

The “War Against Humanity”

Violence against social movements has been the norm across the region, despite the end of wars in El Salvador and Guatemala with the signing of peace accords in the 1990s. The weight of the violence has consistently fallen on the indigenous and campesino communities that resist neoliberal reforms, trade agreements that favor transnational companies and the expansion of the accumulation of capital based on the exploitation of natural resources.

Cáceres wasn’t the first member of the movement murdered over the resistance to the construction of the Agua Zarca dam project. In 2013, fellow founder of COPINH, Tomás García, was shot and killed by a Honduran soldier during a peaceful protest outside the construction site. His son was severely injured in the shooting.

The weight of the violence has consistently fallen on the indigenous and campesino communities that resist neoliberal reforms.

“The colonial model hasn’t left; they continue to evict indigenous communities,” Ixchíu told Truthout. She added that Rigoberto Juarez, an indigenous leader who has been criminalized in his defense of the environment, “has called this the fourth invasion because sadly we can see that the colonial, the liberal thinking, the military dictators and now the transnational companies have continued to expropriate the lands of indigenous communities. This is a message to indigenous communities of how they will continue to assassinate the people, and how the racism and colonialism is involved in the imposing of these models.”

Both Zibechi and Ixchíu also draw parallels between the neocolonization of the region and what Subcomandante Marcos (today known as Galeano) of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) called the “Fourth World War,” which is “a war against humanity.”

“The assassination of Berta is a symptom of the deepening on the part of the right, of the large companies of the continent involved in the extractive model, which includes open-air mining, mega-infrastructure projects — such as the case of Honduras — and speculation of land in the urban areas,” Zibechi told Truthout. “This model is the base of the violence that led to the assassination of Berta, and the violence that millions of activists suffer in Latin America.”

This “war against humanity” has impacted the movements across the region.

In Guatemala, in April 2013, Daniel Pedro Mateo, the founder of the community radio station Snuq’ Jolom Konob, was kidnapped and found murdered 12 days later in the community of Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango. Pedro Mateo had been an outspoken critic and organizer against the construction of a series of hydroelectric projects across northern Huehuetenango in the territory of the Q’anjab’al and Chuj Mayan communities.

These tactics against environmental activists have remained the preferred strategy to silence dissent in other conflicts as well.

Also in Guatemala, on September 18, 2015, Rigoberto Lima, a rural schoolteacher that had worked tirelessly to hold a large palm company accountable for the contamination of the Pasión River in the department of Peten, was assassinated outside the Sayaxché courthouse. There has yet to be an investigation into his death.

There are hundreds of similar stories from across Central America. But this is the sad reality of the region, especially for indigenous communities, and for those, such as Cáceres, who struggle in the defense of their rights and territory.

“We live at a moment of another genocide,” Ixchíu said. “But today it is for the benefit of the state and companies. Before this was done in the name of ‘anti-communism.’ Today, they call us terrorists because we dare to protect what little we have left, the water and nature.”

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