Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On Another Environmental Activist Assassinated in Honduras

Mr. President, it has been four months and 8 days since Berta Caceres, an internationally respected indigenous Honduran environmental activist, was shot and killed in her home.  Ms. Caceres had led her Lenca community in a campaign over several years against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project financed in part by a Honduran company, Desarrollos Energeticos (DESA), on the Gualcarque River which the Lenca people consider to be sacred. 

Honduran police officers tampered with the crime scene, and they and some Honduran government officials sought early on to falsely depict the killing as a crime of passion.  But that dishonest strategy failed and five individuals were subsequently arrested, including a DESA employee and active duty and retired army officers, for which Honduran Attorney General Oscar Fernando Chinchilla and investigators provided by the U.S. Embassy deserve credit. 

It is widely believed, however, that the intellectual authors of that horrific crime remain at large.  While the Attorney General’s investigation is continuing, as it should, I and others have repeatedly called on the Honduran government to also support a thorough, independent, international investigation of the Caceres case under the auspices of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission.  Given Honduras’s history of impunity for such crimes and the public’s understandable distrust of the justice system, it is imperative that such an inquiry be conducted expeditiously.

Ms. Caceres’ death was one of scores of killings in the past decade of environmental activists, journalists, human rights defenders, and other social activists in Honduras.  Hardly anyone has been punished for any of those crimes.  In fact, the rate of conviction for homicide in Honduras is less than 5 percent. 

If that were not bad enough, just two weeks after Ms. Caceres’ death, Nelson Garcia, another indigenous environmental activist, was fatally shot in Rio Chiquito after helping dozens of residents move their belongings when government authorities evicted them from land they had occupied. 

And on July 6, 2016, Lesbia Janeth Urquia, also a member of the indigenous rights organization COPINH (Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) which Ms. Caceres led, was found stabbed to death.  Her body was left at a municipal garbage dump in the town of Marcala in the western department of La Paz.  It is shocking that her death was reportedly one of four murders in a period of five days in that town alone, which tragically illustrates the appalling extent of lawlessness in Honduras today.

No one has been arrested for Ms. Urquia’s assassination and it is too soon to assign a motive, but there are disturbing similarities with the Caceres case. 

In the first place, before conducting an investigation the police speculated publicly, without citing any credible evidence, that the crime was the result of a robbery, a family dispute, or extortion.  This is what we have come to expect of some members of the Honduran police.  

Beyond that, Ms. Urquia had reportedly been at the forefront of a community struggle against a privatized hydroelectric project along the Chinacla River in Marcalas, La Paz.  Like Agua Zarca, the Chinacla project has the support of top Honduran government officials and was being implemented without the consent of the local communities whose lives will be most disrupted by it.

Last year the Congress, with my support, provided $750 million to help El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras address the poverty, violence, injustice, and other factors that contribute to the flood of unaccompanied minors to the United States.  On June 29, 2016, the Senate Appropriations Committee, again with my support, approved another $650 million for these countries.

A portion of these funds is for direct assistance for their central governments, and is subject to the Secretary of State certifying that they have met certain conditions.  In the case of Honduras, how that government resolves conflicts with local communities over the exploitation of natural resources, such as the Agua Zarca and Chinacla hydro projects and others like them, and its investigations of the killings of Berta Caceres, Nelson Garcia, Lesbia Urguia, and other activists will factor heavily in whether I will support the release of those funds. 

The government’s efforts to protect civil society activists and journalists, who for years Honduran government officials and law enforcement officers have treated as criminals and legitimate targets for threats and attacks, will also be a factor. 

Mr. President, I have followed events in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras since the 1980s.  I have watched governments in those countries come and go.  They have all shared a tolerance for corruption and impunity, and I regret to say that despite this they were supported by the United States.  Top officials and their families have gotten rich, while the vast majority of the population is trapped in poverty and struggle to survive.   

During those years the United States spent billions of dollars on programs purportedly to raise living standards, reform the police, and improve governance.  The results have been disappointing.  While there are many explanations, I believe the lack of political will on the part of those governments, and the willingness of successive U.S. administrations to ignore or excuse the corruption and abuses, played a big part.  We owe it to the people of those countries, and to American taxpayers, to not repeat those costly mistakes.

Finally, it is important to note that the persecution and killings of environmental activists is a worldwide phenomenon, as documented by Global Witness in its June 2016 report “On Dangerous Ground”.  More than three people were killed each week in 2015 defending their land, forests and rivers against destructive industries. 

The report lists 185 killings in 16 countries – the highest annual death toll on record and more than double the number of journalists killed in the same period.  In Brazil alone, 50 such activists died.  Just last week, we learned of the assassination of Ms. Gloria Capitan, an environmental activist who opposed the construction and presence of coal stockpile facilities in Lucanin, Bataan province of the Philippines. 

So in this regard, Honduras is not unique.  But its government is seeking substantial economic and security assistance from the United States.  In order for us to justify that assistance the Honduran government needs to demonstrate that it has met the conditions in our law and is taking the necessary steps to bring those responsible for these crimes to justice.   

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