Central America Theater
Nicaragua’s Congress on June 8 approved an amnesty law that will offer protection to police and others involved in crimes against anti-government protesters over the past year. According to rights groups, more than 700 people were arrested in demonstrations that erupted in April 2018 when President Daniel Ortega tried to cut social security benefits. More than 300 mostly opposition protesters died in clashes with security forces, while more than 60,000 Nicaraguans have gone into exile due to political strife over the last 14 months. The new law was approved by 70 votes from Ortega's Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in the 92-member chamber. It also allows for the release of detainees arrested during the protests, despite the fact that Ortega labelled them "terrorists." The new law has faced harsh criticism from human rights groups and the UN.
Recent headlines from Central America shed light on the migrant exodus from the isthmus that has now sparked a political crisis in the United States. The ongoing protests against neoliberal "reform" in Honduras saw a frightening escalation June 25 as military police opened fire on students demonstrators at the National Autonomous University in Tegucigalpa, injuring at least four. President Juan Orlando Hernández has deployed the army and military police across the country after clashes left three dead last week. (BBC News, La Prensa, June 25) In a hopeful sign a few days earlier, riot police stood down in Tegucigalpa, returning to their barracks and allowing protesters to block traffic and occupy main streets. Troops of the National Directorate of Special Forces said they will not carry out anti-riot operations if they do not receive better benefits. (Reuters, June 19)
In the wake of angry protests that swept through Tegucigalpa April 29, Amnesty International is denouncing attacks against human rights defenders by Honduran security forces during the unrest. Amnesty charged that riot police used tear-gas outside the headquarters of the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras (COFADEH), where demonstrators tried to take shelter. Members of the group were also detained. The prelude to the protests also saw detention and harassment of social leaders across Honduras. On April 19, Míriam Miranda and Aurelia Arzú, leaders of the Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH), were stopped and briefly detained by National Police at a road checkpoint in Sabá, Colón department. Miranda has continued to face arbitrary detention and harassment despite being under an official order of protection due to threats against her.
Sergio Rojas, a leader of the indigenous Bribrí people in Costa Rica, was slain March 18 in an attack by unknown gunmen at his home in the indigenous territory of Salitre, in Buenos Aires canton of Puntarenas province. Rojas was president of the Association for the Development of the Indigenous Territory of Salitre and coordinator of Costa Rica's National Front of Indigenous Peoples (FRENAP), and had long been leading a campaign for the recovery of Bribri traditional lands. He was reportedly shot 15 times in the attack. An investigation into the murder has been opened by the Judicial Investigation Police.
A court in Honduras convicted seven men in the 2016 murder of indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres on Nov. 29. Until her assassination on March 2, 2016, Cáceres had been leading a campaign against the Agua Zarca dam in western Honduras, a joint project by Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) and Chinese-owned Sinohydro. The dam was being built on the Rio Gualcarque without prior consultation with the Lenca indigenous community that depends on the river for their food and water. Cáceres, who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, had received numerous threats for her activism against the dam before she was killed by gunmen at her home in the town of La Esperanza. Mexican environmentalist Gustavo Castro was also shot, but he survived the attack. Two of those convicted are former DESA managers.
Days after the Catholic Church declared El Salvador's martyred Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero a saint, a judge in the Central American country issued an arrest order for a former military captain long suspected of ordering the killing of the religious leader. Judge Rigoberto Chicas issued the order Oct. 23 for national and international authorities to apprehend Alvaro Rafael Saravia, 78. He remains at large and is believed to be in hiding. Saravia had been arrested for the crime in 1987, but the case against him was dropped when El Salvador passed its amnesty law in 1993. The case was re-opened after El Salvador's Supreme Court struck down the amnesty law in 2016.
UN human rights experts on Oct. 22 welcomed a recent Guatemalan court ruling that the deaths of 1,771 ethnic Ixil Mayan people between 1983 and 1984 constituted a "genocide," stating: "Impunity for perpetrators is unacceptable. It is essential that judicial processes respect international standards in determining the responsibilities of the perpetrators and masterminds of serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law." The deaths occurred during the 36-year-long Guatemalan civil war, in which 200,000 civilians were killed. It was determined that under "Operation Sofia" (documents, PDF), then-dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt had ordered the army to annihilate the entire Ixil population. Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide in 2013, but that verdict was overturned for procedural errors. Trial resumed last year, but Ríos Montt died in April 2018, before the case was concluded.
Guatemala’s special anti-corruption Court for High Risk Crimes on Oct. 9 sentenced former vice president Roxana Baldetti to prison for 15 years and six months for her role in the so-called "Magic Water" scandal. The case concerned the awarding of an $18 million dollar contract to decontaminate Lake Amatitlán, an important water source for peasant communities outside the capital. The contract went to Israeli firm M. Tarcic Engineering Ltd. The company claimed it had a "special formula" that could clean the lake within months. An investigation revealed that the "formula" consisted of water, salt and chlorine. The Authority for the Sustainable Management of Lake Amatitlán (AMSA), establsihed by the government to oversee the clean-up, documented illegal dumping of agricultural and municipal waste into the Río Villalobos, which empties into the lake. The UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) supported Guatemalan prosecutors in the conspiracy case against Baldetti and 12 others. Baldetti is also accused of involvement in "La Linea" scandal, in which Guatemalan officials brought imports into the country at a discounted tariff. (Jurist, BBC News, Al Jazeera,Oct. 10; Times of Israel, Prensa Libre, El Periódico, EmisorasUnidas, Guatemala, Oct. 9; Prensa Libre, May 18)