THREE WEEKS AGO, Honduran activist Gaspar Sanchez spoke at a briefing on Capitol Hill, urging lawmakers to support an impartial investigation into the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres.
Cáceres had mobilized native communities to speak out against the Agua Zarca Dam, a hydroelectric project backed by European and Chinese corporations, before being killed by two unknown gunmen last month.
Last week, back in Honduras at a protest outside the Honduran Public Ministry in Tegulcigalpa, Sanchez unfurled a banner demanding justice for Cáceres’s murder.
When nearby soldiers saw him, they dragged him away from the crowd and brutally beat him, stopping only after the crowd of protestors came to his defense.
Sanchez is a member of the organization Cáceres founded, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). The group’s leadership believes that Sanchez’s assault was meant to send a message against speaking out internationally, and that if the crowd had not intervened, Sanchez would likely have been imprisoned.
But Honduran activists are refusing to stay silent.
Back on Capitol Hill, two days after the beating, a panel of human rights leaders hosted by Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., spoke to lawmakers about the dangers of speaking out against the U.S.-backed Honduran government.
Victor Fernandez, a prominent human rights attorney and lawyer representing the Cáceres family, insisted that her assassination was carried out by either the Honduran government or by “the paramilitary structure of companies.”
“Honduras is the victim of international theft due to its national resources,” said Fernandez, speaking through a translator. “What we have now is our natural resources — minerals, rivers, forest. Cáceres was killed because she was confronting the extractive model.”
Bertha Oliva compared the current situation to the early 1980s, when the CIA funded, armed, and trained Honduran government death squads that murdered hundreds of opposition activists.
Oliva founded the Committee for the Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH, by Spanish initials) in 1981, after government forces kidnapped her husband from their home. He was never seen again.
“When we first began in 1982, we faced death squads,” said Oliva, also speaking through a translator. “Now, it’s like going back to the past. We know there are death squads in Honduras.”
In 2009, a coup toppled Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, who had long been seen as a leftist threat to the interests of international corporations. In 2008, Zelaya blocked a series of hydroelectric dam projects, citing concerns raised by native Hondurans. Less than a year after he was deposed, the new government had already approved 40 dam contracts. When the current President Juan Orlando Hernández came to power in 2013, his slogan was “Honduras is open for business.”
The coup was accompanied by a huge rise in political violence. By 2012, state security forces had assassinated more than 300 people, and 34 members of the opposition and 13 journalists had disappeared, according to data compiled by Honduran human rights organizations. The political assassinations added to the emboldened violence from gangs and drug traffickers, making Honduras one of the most dangerous countries in the world. In 2012, Reuters reported that it had the highest murder rate of any country.
Although the murder rate has since declined, political violence in Honduras has continued. Since the end of 2012, at least 22 prominent environmental activists have been killed, according to Global Witness.
Due to the Honduran government’s abysmal human rights record, critics have called on the U.S. to stop supporting the coup regime.
Citing the flow of drugs as a rationale, the U.S. government gave at least $57 million in military aid to Honduras between 2009 and 2014, not including the tens of millions of dollars spent on U.S. military contracts in Honduras. The Pentagon has not released figures for 2015 or 2016.
The U.S. military also maintains a force of more than 600 troops in Honduras, as part of a program called “Joint Task Force Bravo.” U.S. Special Forces play a large role in training their Honduran counterparts. In February, the Wall Street Journal published a video report showing Green Berets teaching Honduran soldiers how to raid homes.
The U.S. also helps maintain at least 13 military bases in the country, three of which were built after the coup, according to David Vine, author of Base Nation.
Congress has placed restrictions on military aid to countries with poor human rights records, but the State Department rarely applies them. The “Leahy Law,” for example, requires the State Department to suspend military aid to any country that it determines “has committed a gross violation of human rights.” Congress has even singled out Honduras in State Department appropriations bills, requiring the Secretary of State to withhold aid if he finds the Honduran government did not “protect the right of political opposition parties, journalists, trade unionists, human rights defenders, and other civil society activists to operate without interference.” The State Department, however, is still sending aid.
Under the spending laws passed last year, Congress can withhold 50 percent of the military aid budgeted to go through the State Department.
Following Cáceres’s murder, 62 members of Congress also signed a letter calling on the administration to “immediately stop all assistance to Honduran security forces … given the implication of the Honduran military and police in extrajudicial killings, illegal detentions, torture, and other violations of human rights.” More than 200 activist organizations signed a similar letter, requesting Secretary of State John Kerry suspend military aid until an independent investigation into Cáceres’s murder is completed.
Panelists at the briefing last Thursday argued that the Honduran government should receive the condemnation, not the assistance, of foreign governments.
Fernandez, Cáceres’s lawyer, said, “This government produces so much corruption, it can’t just have subtle backing from world governments.”
When asked by The Intercept whether U.S. aid is contributing to human rights violations in Honduras, State Department spokesperson Mark Toner responded by condemning Cáceres’s murder. “We strongly condemn the murder of civil society activist Berta Cáceres,” Toner said, “and extend our deepest condolences to her family, friends, and the people of Honduras, who have lost a dedicated defender of the environment and of human rights.” The Pentagon declined to comment, deferring to the State Department’s response.