Criminalization of COPINH and Misdirection Plague Investigation into Lenca Leader’s Assassination
Family members of Berta Cáceres, General Coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), and the leadership of the organization, accompanied by national and international human rights defenders, held a press conference last Wednesday morning in Tegucigalpa expressing their growing concerns over the Honduran government-led investigation of Cáceres’ assassination.
Internationally recognized Honduran human rights leader Cáceres was assassinated on March 3, 2016 in her home in La Esperanza. Since last Thursday, Cáceres’ family members and COPINH have denounced the government’s failure to guarantee an international and independent investigation into her assassination. COPINH has demanded that the Honduran government sign an agreement with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for an independent and impartial investigation led by an international team of experts. “The same government that criminalized Berta Cáceres, […] the same government that persecuted her, threatened her, and is responsible for her murder cannot possibly investigate itself,” the organization stated.
“[Honduran authorities] are losing precious hours and days in this investigation,” exclaimed Marcia Aguiluz, representative of the Justice Center, referring to the investigation’s failure to look into the root causes of Cáceres’ assassination: primarily, the criminalization of her political work in defense of human rights. The Honduran human rights network of lawyers, the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ by its Spanish acronyms), shares these serious concerns and has noted that the initial proceedings of the investigation reveal significant signs that the murder scene has been tampered with and manipulated.
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director for Amnesty International echoed similar sentiments in Tegucigalpa on Tuesday March 8 expressing, “Authorities in Honduras are saying one thing and doing another. They have told us they are committed to finding those responsible for Berta Caceres’ death, yet they have failed to follow the most basic lines of investigation, including the fact that Berta had been receiving serious death threats related to her human rights work for a very long time.”
Criminalization of COPINH
COPINH’s defense of natural resources and organized struggle against the plunder, exploitation and privatization of their territories has put their leadership and communities in direct opposition to the economic and political interests of the Honduran government, authorities and transnational corporations since Cáceres founded the organization in 1993. This has come with incredible repression especially in the context of post-coup Honduras presently under the Juan Orlando Hernandez administration.
Tomás Gómez Membreño, sub-coordinator of COPINH, expressed that the organization’s leadership and its members continue to be the targets of persecution, repression and criminalization by the Honduran state and private interests. Gómez referred to the constant and endless hours of interrogations of COPINH members on behalf of the Public Ministry, state prosecutors’ office and other authorities as harassment. Gómez announced that the organization is planning actions and demands in the coming days to denounce the Honduran government’s attempts to implicate members of the organization in the assassination.
Disgracefully, Cáceres is one more victim in a long list of targeted assassinations of human rights defenders in Honduras. For years, she received constant death threats and harassment by state as well as private security forces and had been informed that she was at the top of the Honduran army’s hitlist. For this very reason the Inter American Court of Human Rights authorized the highest level of protective measures for Cáceres; which the Honduran government failed to uphold. Within hours of the assassination, Minister of Security, Julián Pacheco, publicly blamed Cáceres for her murder by claiming that she had not registered her home address and allegedly refused police escorts. Her family has publicly refuted the Minister’s statements.
In the two weeks leading up to Cáceres’ assassination, harassment and death threats against her intensified. According to a COPINH statement and an international human rights delegation that was present on February 16th, while leaving the Rio Blanco community, Cáceres and members of COPINH were pursued by armed men in a pickup truck. A few days later on February 20th, during a mobilization against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, the managing engineer of Desarrollo Energético, S.A. (DESA) – the private company behind the project – was reported to have verbally issued a death threat against Cáceres. After the forced eviction of Lenca community members in Jarcia, Guise on February 25th, an official from the Criminal Investigative Police allegedly warned Cáceres they would not be responsible should anything happen to her. The following day Cáceres received a phone call informing her that a car was circling her house. She reported this to the police stating that two men carrying unregistered weapons were threatening to kill her. Finally, on the morning before her murder, witnesses reported hitmen in a blue Ford 150 that they connected to DESA heading towards La Esperanza issuing epithets against Cáceres and COPINH.
Moreover, Cáceres’ family members, COPINH and human rights defenders voiced their concern over the treatment of sole witness and victim Gustavo Castro Soto, Mexican human rights defender and journalist of Otros Mundos-Chiapas. They expressed that “Gustavo is doing bad, he’s tired. He has not been able to sleep or rest…he has become less lucid and we know that in order to give good testimony he must be [lucid].” In response to the Honduran government’s widely denounced decision to place a 30 day immigration hold on Castro, “every hour that passes that Gustavo is here, he and his family in Mexico are caused more anguish.” They also emphasized Castro’s willingness to collaborate in the investigation and that there are measures to guarantee his participation from his home in Mexico.
US Connection and Pressure on Honduran Government
The assassination of Cáceres has hurt the Honduran government’s attempt to clean up its image. A few weeks ago, the government published “2 Years of Accomplishments,” outlining the Hernández administration’s last two years of social programming, counter narcotics operations and infrastructure projects among other issues. The assassination and the government’s response or lack thereof has significantly put into question any claim put forth about “their achievements” as well as their commitment to upholding human rights and protecting human rights defenders.
The US Embassy continues to call for a thorough and timely investigation. While Ambassador James D. Nealon has expressed deep concern over Caceres’ assassination, the US Embassy’s ongoing, tacit cooperation with the Honduran-led investigation undermines unified demands for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to take over the investigation. Thousands of activists have written to the US Embassy in Honduras in support of the family and COPINH’s demands while also urging the US State Department to recall Ambassador Nealon for consultations until the Honduran government signs an agreement with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to conduct the investigation.