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LatinNews Daily - 4 March 2016

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Murder of Indigenous activist in Honduras raises international concern

Development: On 3 March Berta Cáceres, a prominent indigenous and human rights leader, was murdered in her home in the town of La Esperanza in Honduras’s western Intibucá department.

Significance: Details of the attack and the motivation of the killers were not immediately clear, although President Juan Orlando Hernández has said that the police are following up significant leads, and there are reports of one arrest and one witness being held under police protection. At the very least the killing will highlight Honduras’s reputation as having one of the world’s highest homicide rates. Activists believe, however, that this was a politically motivated crime. And with the Cáceres murder being condemned across Central America and even by the US, the investigation will come under intense international scrutiny.

  • Cáceres was known as a leader of the Lenca indigenous community, as a human rights activist, and as the co-founder of the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (Copinh) NGO. In 2015 she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her opposition to the ‘Agua Zarca’ hydroelectric project, a campaign that led to the withdrawal of both China’s Sinohydro and the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) from the project.
  • As a result of her campaigns, Cáceres had reported receiving anonymous threats. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) had requested that the Honduran government provide her with police protection. Public Security Minister General Julián Pacheco said that this had been provided as requested but that Cáceres’s security detail was unaware that she had moved to the house in La Esperanza, where she was shot dead by two unidentified intruders.
  • It is possible, as some government officials have suggested, that the killing was a robbery gone wrong. If so, it will renew the focus of attention on the country’s epidemic-level crime wave. Although the homicide rate fell from 86.5 to 60 per 100,000 inhabitants between 2011 and 2015, according to estimates by the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras (UNAH), it still remains one of the highest in the world.
  • Yet it is also possible that this was a politically motivated reprisal killing. In 2010-2014 a total of 101 human rights activists were murdered in Honduras according to data compiled by Global Witness, an international NGO. Days before her death Cáceres had said that four of her fellow campaigners had been murdered and others had received threats. Her mother said that police were investigating the hypothesis of a robbery gone wrong but “we all know it was because of her struggle…I hold the government responsible”.
  • Some in the international community share this view. The Costa Rica-based NGO Centro para la Justicia y Derecho International (Cejil) condemned the murder, accused the Honduran government of not providing “adequate protection” to Cáceres, and demanded an extensive investigation. This was echoed by human-rights organisations in Panama, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador – where even the left-wing Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) government issued a statement repudiating the crime and demanding justice. Some of the regional NGOs also staged demonstrations outside Honduran embassies in repudiation of the “Honduran state’s negligence” in protecting Cáceres. Meanwhkile the US ambassador to Honduras, James Nealon, “strongly condemned the crime” and offered the US’s assistance to help to quickly solve it.

Looking Ahead: The death of such a prominent figure has undoubtedly stepped up international scrutiny of human-rights violations in Honduras at time when the country is already in the spotlight. The United Nations Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Rights, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, who described the killing as indicative of “the high level of impunity in Honduras” is due to publish a report on Honduras in the next few months. It is likely that this report will make for worrisome reading for the Hernández government.