“We are constantly defying death”

One year after the murder of Berta Cáceres, Honduran lawyer reveals what it’s like to work in the most dangerous country in the world for human rights defenders

03/02/2017 agua zarga berta cáceres business and human rights copinh honduras hydroelectric dams latin america martín guzmán movimiento amplio

Exactly a year ago today, the prominent Honduran activist Berta Cáceres was murdered as she slept in her own home in the city of La Esperanza, some three hundred kilometers from the capital Tegucigalpa. In the early hours of that morning, her name was added to the list of 120 activists that have been killed since 2010 in the country – the most dangerous place on earth for human rights defenders, according to the NGO Global Witness.

Cáceres was known internationally for being one of the founders of COPINH (Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) and for her relentless commitment to the struggle against the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the lands of the Lenca people – the largest indigenous group in Honduras, to which she herself belonged.

The construction of the hydroelectric project, which began in 2011, never included a free, prior and informed consultation with the affected communities as determined by International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169, of which Honduras is a signatory, and it could irreversibly affect the life of the indigenous peoples who live in the region.

As a result of her activism, Cáceres lived under constant threats and had been granted precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

While visiting Brazil recently, the Honduran lawyer and general coordinator of the Broad Movement for Justice and Dignity, Martín Fernandez Guzmán, explained in an interview with Conectas what it’s like to work against this backdrop of ongoing violence and persecution of human rights defenders. His organization, founded in 2008, serves as the legal and technical arm of COPINH.

Guzmán, another recipient of precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, also analyzed the context and the contradictions that plague the investigations into the murder of Cáceres and the similarities between the situation in Brazil and Honduras on the subject of rural violence.

Conectas | One year after the murder of Berta Cáceres, Honduras is still the most dangerous country in the world for human rights defenders. What’s it like to work in this situation?

Martín Fernandez Guzmán | It’s as if you’re living in an environment of permanent crime. The situation for human rights defenders and environmental activists is very acute. It’s actually very acute for everyone in society – there’s just an extra dose of persecution against people who do the type of work that we do – and I think it serves the interests of the governing class.

We believe that this harassment of human rights defenders and environmental activists is a government program and an imperial program. It’s very complicated because if the State does not guarantee the life of everyone in society, it will hardly be sensitive enough to protect people in our line of work. On the contrary: there is a degree of persecution that is truly serious.

This process of criminalization, of persecution, is framed within the process of negotiating our lands, which involves both the political sector and the business sector, the transnational corporations.

The case of Berta’s death is a perfect example – and behind her death there are countless others. The key issue in this case is that nearly everyone in Honduras and many people around the world know who the perpetrators are – and they are not necessarily the people being investigated, but the people who are the architects of the murder and also who do business with the State. They are the people from the banks who apply for loans, who benefit from government and who pose as defenders of the environment. This is an enormous contradiction.
What is the relationship between the Broad Movement for Justice and Dignity and COPINH (Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras)? Are both organizations closely following Berta’s case?

For us it’s not about “following”. We personally live with everything that happens. Wherever there is a people struggling, we are present as an organization. And we do indeed have a very close relationship with COPINH, almost from the time when our organization was founded, in 2008. We struck a political alliance with COPINH.

Moreover, the Broad Movement is like the legal arm of COPINH and the technical arm for much of its work. In the process to criminalize Berta and the persecution she suffered, it was our organization that handled the defense until we secured her freedom. And afterwards we continued to file complaints, and a year before she was killed thirty complaints were filed on account of the direct threats she received.

What’s more, we contested 49 projects that were planned to be built on Lenca land – the land of the indigenous people where she conducted her work.

Over time we stepped up our work in collaboration with COPINH, but also with other social organizations and with communities that are not necessarily part of any organization but that have a struggle in defense of their land or a conflict inherited from the power structures in the country.

We embrace all the just struggles that occur on our lands. We’ve been involved in cases of land liberation in which we played around with the logic of the law, since we have a team of lawyers and technical staff that allows us, with all the legal levels that exist, to do this – and we had significant results in lands that had been dominated for perhaps five hundred years.

We initiated a case with the most massacred indigenous people in the history of Honduras, the Tolupan people, who were living in a situation akin to slavery or feudalism. One person had all the control and had the leaders flogged who opposed him. We remedied this situation by filing complaints and lawsuits and today the Tolupan people, who have seen more than 120 of their leaders killed since 1992, have control over their land again.
Therefore, on occasion we do work that is not always so visible, but that does produce results.
What is being done to protect the life and physical safety of human rights defenders in Honduras?

We usually say there is an individual and collective challenge, because even though I myself have precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, like many other leaders do, in reality there is no security.

The representatives of the State that ought to be taking more care to reach agreements and establish mechanisms to safeguard the life of rights defenders are almost always absent.

And proof of this is that Honduras has a large number of people with precautionary measures granted by this Commission of the OAS, but between 15 and 17 deaths have been registered among these people – one of whom was Berta. Our struggle is constant. We are constantly defying death.

How has the judiciary responded to these cases of violence?

The response of the judiciary has been dreadful. Let’s take a look at the background of the case: there was quite a sloppy attempt to make the death of Berta Cáceres look like a crime of passion. They also tried to link it to an internal conflict within the organization. This version ended up being ruled out because, luckily, Gustavo Castro [another activist who was with Cáceres at the time of the attack] survived and shed some light on what really happened. Afterwards, the case was labeled secret by the justice system, in contradiction of all legal standards.

This move was challenged in the Inter-American Commission and it could end up exposing the structures of government, such as the Attorney General’s Office, which in fact cannot keep the case secret from the family members and the legal team handling the case. Nevertheless, despite all this, the case remains secret, in a situation that re-victimizes the family members.

We believe there is sustained effort for this case to go unpunished. There are currently seven people being prosecuted, but the family and the organizations involved clearly understand that it’s not good enough just to prosecute the people who pulled the triggers, and that there was a very well-structured plan by a sector of the company [responsible for the hydroelectric dam] to carry out this killing. And while this structure remains untouched, there will be no justice for Berta.

The State, through its institutions, is complicit in this entire process. And it has become increasingly clearer that there is no political will, because all it takes is for a report to come out like the one by Global Witness [on the case] and the following week charges are pressed against another person, but never against the senior executives at the company. What it always tries to do is to cover things up and give the appearance that things are being done.
After Berta’s death, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights set up an office in Honduras. How do you view the role of international bodies in relation to what is happening in the country?

There’s a lot of talk about the weakness of Honduras’ institutions, but this talk has its limits because it’s clear that, when it’s an economic sector that’s under threat, the institutions work perfectly well. Overnight, lawsuits are filed against the people who complain or who go out on the streets to protest against a project that is considered illegal. So, you see, it does work perfectly well, but only for one class, the privileged class, but not for the majority of the Honduran population.

So this entire intervention process – we consider it an intervention process – at the end of the day has a high cost because it sends the message that the institutions in Honduras have failed.

The presence of these bodies, as far as we are concerned, sells a positive image of Honduras and legitimizes what is happening in the country. But substantially, it has not produced any changes. So far, it has only been a veneer, a façade.

In 2016, there was a very strong mobilization in which we called for the creation of an ICACI [International Commission Against Corruption and Impunity] due to the corruption in the country, a commission of the United Nations like the one in Guatemala. In Honduras, we got an OAS body, in complete disregard for everything the Honduran people wanted. Because the OAS, as far as we are concerned, was put to the test during the 2009 coup [against President Manuel Zelaya]. It has been sufficiently proven that this institution does not work.

We are giving them [these bodies] another opportunity to be here, but we will be on close guard throughout the process and, whenever possible, we will provide the information we have – and this is what we are doing.

We gave the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras [MACCIH in Spanish), a body backed by the OAS, all the information we have at our disposal. But a year has already passed and we haven’t seen any results. To date, the world owes an institutional debt to Honduras.

There is no enforcement and the political will of the governing class is not going to be unlocked. If we really want honest justice processes, these [international] bodies need to be more coherent and they need to wield much more clout over [national] institutions that are clearly flawed, that have serious shortcomings when it comes to dispensing justice.
What is the current status of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, one of the main projects behind Berta’s death?

It’s still the same. Berta’s family has requested the prosecution of the people who committed the crime and of those who masterminded it, and also the withdrawal of all the [construction and licensing] processes, but they are still in place. Nothing has stopped. On the contrary, they are trying to legitimize this type of project.

It is a complete contradiction. In this case of Berta’s murder, charges have been filed against two former vice ministers who granted licenses without prior consultation. However, this has not been enough to stop the legal case [to construct the project].

And the process continues to criminalize and shut down COPINH, because this too is one of the company’s intentions.
Although proportionally Honduras leads the ranking of violence against rights defenders, Brazil comes first in the absolute number of murders. What similarities are there between the two countries?

Geopolitically and strategically, we are very important countries for big business. In terms of natural wealth, we are also countries with many strengths – and having so much wealth can sometimes be a curse. I think the eyes of the world – in particular the business world – will always be on our nations.
How can civil society from other countries help with the work of Honduran organizations?

Make sure that the work it does is disseminated, that the organizations are recognized. What’s most important is that we do sound work, that the result is an active citizenry that is capable of defending its lands, capable of defending its sovereignty. I think this is the way to ratify the work we do.

Since we’re on the outside, we’ll be labelled enemies by the governing class. Because the impression is that when someone leaves the country, they only do so to complain and say perverse things, and that this definitely does not help because it deters investment.

I’d like to emphasize that Honduras is going through a critical situation in terms of human rights and the environment.

The government can establish any kind of mechanism that criminalizes protests, but the protests will not stop because people know that they cannot live without water. As each day goes by, we defy being criminalized, being killed. But if we don’t fight now for what gives us life – water – we never will.

It’s been a year since Berta’s death. I’d like to call on the population to protest. There is an established calendar, a day to light a candle as a symbol of solidarity and to demand justice. An image, a message for Hondurans that is vital and comforting for the struggle to continue. We will always continue with our work, but as more voices and souls join us, the struggle intensifies.

There is a possibility that, if we change the history of Honduras, this will be an example to change the history of Brazil. I know it’s quite asymmetrical to compare Honduras and Brazil, but the processes are similar. The example of one country can be important for another.