Berta Caceres, a major Honduran indigenous activist and human rights defender, was assassinated early Thursday morning. Caceres was a founder of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (COPINH) and a winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work to fight against the Agua Zarca dam. The dam, funded by Sinohydro, one of many Chinese companies investing major funds in the region, was to be built without the consent or consultation of local communities. Caceres’ important organizing work helped prevent the dam’s construction.
Caceres’ death has been widely reported in American media, and many such reports rightly condemn the violence that is currently endemic to Honduras. The country has been ranked as the world’s most dangerous country for environmental activists, and the United Nations reports that it has the world’s highest murder rate. Sadly, Caceres was not even the first indigenous rights activist associated with Agua Zarca dam to be killed. In 2013, fellow organizer and COPINH member Tomás García was killed by an army officer in a peaceful protest against the dam. While it is right to mourn the death of an important human rights figure like Caceres who fought for indigenous rights and self-determination, what goes unsaid in many reports is the role of the United States in Honduran violence. Americans should be wary of condemning Honduras before taking a look at the United States’ own role in that country’s crisis.
As Caceres’ and García’s deaths attest, human rights conditions in Honduras have worsened seriously since the 2009 coup against President Mel Zelaya. The coup was led by General Romeo Vasquez, an alumnus of the School of the Americas (or the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), a U.S. Army institution infamous for having graduated some of Latin America’s most brutal dictators and officers, and for training its students in techniques such as torture and counterinsurgency. Yet after the coup in 2009, Washington did not call for the return against democratically-elected Zelaya, but rather backed elections under the new repressive regime, which put Porfirio Lobo in power.
Since the coup, the Honduran police force has faced widespread reports of police corruption and death-squad style killings. However, despite these and other increasing human rights violations in the past several years, the U.S. State Department has continued to funnel millions of dollars into the nation through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Between 2008 and 2012, at least $50 million dollars went to Honduras from the United States. And in 2016 a proposed Central American aid package will send $1 billion to the region, some of which will go to Honduras. One of CARSI’s priorities is to “build the capacity of law enforcement and the justice sector to serve citizens and to address regional threats.” As such, much of this monetary aid has supported and will continue to support the militarization of law enforcement – the same law enforcement accused of multiple human rights problems. If the results of U.S. investment in Honduran law enforcement are death squads and police corruption, the United States needs to seriously reconsider this “aid.” The United States cannot continue to subsidize a Honduras that criminalizes the defenders of human rights while enabling police and military impunity.
Berta Caceres played an important role in the self-determination of Honduran communities, and if the United States denounces her murder, we should also stop promoting state violence through law enforcement that leads to instability and further human rights abuses. Furthermore, if Americans are disturbed by high immigration from Central American countries like Honduras, they should consider why so many people are fleeing their homes, and question the United States’ support of the military coup that led to such increasingly dangerous conditions. Loudly denouncing Honduran human rights violations is futile and hypocritical if we do not also denounce and change U.S. policies that contribute to a climate that allows such violations to occur.