03.04.19

Senate Floor Address Of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Third Anniversary Of The Murder Of Berta Caceres

Mr. LEAHY.  Three years ago yesterday, Berta Caceres, an indigenous rights activist in Honduras who had been a vocal opponent of the construction of a hydroelectric dam that threatened the territory of the Lenka people, was murdered in her home. 

That cowardly crime, about which I have spoken many times, was the culmination of years of harassment and threats against her life, and it was by no means an isolated case.  At the time, it was only the latest of scores of assassinations of social activists who protested against the confiscation of land, forced evictions, and infrastructure development involving corrupt payoffs to circumvent environmental and social safeguards, and against abuses by Honduran security forces.  Nobody has been punished for any of those other, similar, crimes.

I did not know Berta Caceres, but I knew of her.  I remember when she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.  And I remember the disgust and outrage I felt when I learned that she had been murdered. 

I remember thinking that whoever would murder Berta Caceres, a charismatic leader who was recognized not only in her native country but around the world, must have been confident that they would never see the inside of a jail cell.  Because in Honduras only a small fraction of homicides, not to mention other violent crimes, ever results in conviction.  Impunity, and the corruption that enables it, is a way of life there.

It was no surprise that in the days and weeks after Berta Caceres was murdered, the Honduran police tried to cover it up.  It was only because of international pressure, including by the U.S. Embassy, that the fraudulent “investigation” did not end there, as so often happens in Honduras when the victim is not someone of notoriety. 

Eventually, last November, after what seemed like interminable foot dragging, a trial resulted in the conviction of seven of those involved.  That was a significant achievement, considering that absent international pressure Berta Caceres’ case would have faded from memory like all the others.  That trial also implicated top officials of the hydroelectric company DESA, one of whom is still awaiting trial three years later.

I was a prosecutor before I became a Senator.  I prosecuted many murder cases.  While premeditated murder is a horrific crime, it is often relatively easy to prove.  And in Berta Caceres’ case, there was a lot of evidence.  So to those who ask why, three years later, we are still waiting for justice, I think the answer is obvious.  There are powerful forces within the Honduran Government who are beyond the reach of the Honduran justice system, and the Attorney General recognizes that.

So today, three years later, there are some who conceived of, or knew of, the plan to murder Berta Caceres who have not been charged.  And the question, three years later, is when will they be charged?  When will they be brought to justice? 

Neither I, nor the world, have forgotten Berta Caceres.  Our desire to see justice done in her case is as strong today as it was three years ago not only because of the importance it has for her family and her community, but for the larger cause of justice in Honduras.  Impunity is a powerful, evil force, but I believe the whole truth about this crime will eventually be known. 

Beyond Berta Caceres’ case, the central question is whether the Honduran Government is serious about fighting the corruption that permeates not only the justice system, but practically every crevice of Honduran society and government. 

A government that is serious about fighting corruption would enact the plea bargaining law that has languished for years, without which it is extremely difficult to investigate and prosecute crimes involving top public officials or corporate executives.    

A government that is serious about fighting corruption would put an abrupt end to legislation referred to as the “impunity pact.”  That legislation would bar the Attorney General from bringing charges against someone for stealing public funds until the Supreme Auditing Tribunal, whose members are all loyal to the President, has investigated and ruled on the alleged theft.  It is a transparent attempt to ensure that cases of public corruption are never prosecuted.

A government that is serious about fighting corruption would support strengthening the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity, not seek to “renegotiate” its mandate to eliminate or substantially weaken its investigative authority. 

The Honduran Government, which professes to be a partner of the United States in fighting corruption, is not doing any of these things.  The inescapable truth is that it is not serious about fighting corruption, which is apparent to anyone who is not easily fooled. 

Until that changes, and until all those involved in the murder of Berta Caceres are brought to justice, and until Hondurans who speak out against corruption and impunity are no longer vilified and attacked, the amount of assistance we provide to the Honduran Government will be far less than it would otherwise be.

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