Central America Theater
Human rights group Global Witness last month released figures naming Honduras as the most dangerous country for environmental defenders, based on a finding of at least 109 killed there between 2010 and 2015 "for taking a stand against destructive dam, mining, logging and agriculture projects." The report of course noted the March 3 slaying of Berta Cáceres, a leader of indigenous environmental group COPINH. But this was only the latest in a string of such slayings. Another COPINH member, Moisés Durón Sánchez, was murdered in May 2015 after receiving death threats for defending his community's land rights. COPINH leader Tomás García was shot dead by a military officer in a protest in 2013.
A Guatemalan court convened March 16 for a fourth attempt to try former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity committed in the bloodiest period of the nation's long civil war. Attorneys for the ex-dictator immediately filed motions to delay the trial yet again. Attorneys with the Actin Center for Human Rights (CALDH), representing victims, in turn argued that Ríos Montt and his co-defendant, former intelligence chief Mauricio Rodríguez Sanchez, should be tried separately. Judge Maria Eugenia Castellanos admonished attorneys on both sides over their "resorting to formalities." The co-defendants are charged with the killings of nearly 2,000 indigenous Quiché Maya peasants under a 1982-3 counter-insurgency operation in the Ixil highland region known as "Plan Sofía."
Thirteen Maya villagers are to stand trial in Belize over their expulsion of a settler they said had illegally encroached upon the grounds of an archeological site. A trial date of March 30 has been set in the case of the "Santa Cruz 13," who were arrested in a police raid of their village in June—days after expelling Rupert Myles from the Uxbenká site in southern Toledo district. Among the 13 charged with "unlawful imprisonment" is Q'eqchi Maya community leader Cristina Coc. Villagers say Myles illegally built a house on the grounds of the site against the wishes of the community, and Belizean authorities failed to respond to their call to have him removed. Villagers admit they restrained Myles when he became unruly at a community meeting that had been called to work out the matter, but deny his claims that they assaulted him. They also deny his charge that they are discriminating against him because he is Creole. Myles, who has a common-law wife in the Maya village, built his house on the Uxbenká site after being denied a request to do so on village lands. Village authorities say the decision was made based only a shortage of available land.
Honduran activist Nelson Noe García Lainez was murdered March 15, becoming the second member of the indigenous environmental group COPINH to be shot to death in the country over the last two weeks. He was gunned down at his home in the Rio Lindo community, Francisco de Yojoa municipality, Cortés department—12 days after the shooting death of COPINH co-founder Berta Cáceres. COPINH said that García was shot upon arriving home after a violent eviction by Military Police of a peasant community on disputed lands at Río Chiquito, in nearby Omoa municipality. A statement by the National Police said the slaying was unrelated to the eviction and the matter is under investigation. The community at Río Chiquito was established two years ago to reclaim lands that local peasants say were fraudulently taken by landlords with the complicty of corrupt officials. Human rights groups in Honduras and around the world have demanded the protection of COPINH members since the assassination of Cáceres. (COHA, March 16; TeleSur, El Heraldo, Tegucigalpa, El Tiempo, San Pedro Sula, March 15)
Fears are being raised for the security of activists and rights observers in Honduras following the March 3 assassination of indigenous leader Berta Cáceres. Amnesty International has issued an urgent call for Honduran authorities to allow Mexican human rights defender Gustavo Castro Soto, sole witness to the murder, to leave the country. Castro, who works with Amigos de la Tierra México, had been staying at Cáceres' home to witness in the event of an attack, and she is reported to have died in his arms. He was also wounded in the attack, although not gravely. Three days after the slaying, he was detained by authorities at the Tegucigalpa airport while attempting to board a flight for his country. Officials from the Mexican embassy arrived at the airport, and succeeded in securing his relase to embassy staff. He now remains at the embassy in Tegucigalpa, despite demands of Honduran officials that he return to Intibucá department, where the slaying took place, to be deposed. He has already provided testimony and fears for his safety in Honduras, according to Amnesty. (Amnesty International, March 7; La Jornada, March 6)
Berta Cáceres, a prominent indigenous rights activist in Honduras, was slain by unknown gunmen who invaded her home at La Esperanza, Intibucá department, on March 3—the day before what would have been her 46th birthday. One of her brothers was also injured in the attack. Cáceres, director of the National Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize last year for her campaign to stop the Agua Zarca hydro-electric project in the Río Gualcarque watershed. Authorities said she was killed during an attempted robbery, but her family said that Cáceres was assassinated "because of her struggle." (NPR, ICTMN, La Prensa, Honduras, March 3) The killing sparked angry student protests at National Autonomous University of Honduras in Tegucigalpa, with police using tear-gas. (The Guardian, La Prensa, March 4)
A retired lieutenant colonel and a former paramilitary were sentenced to 120 years and 240 years in prison, respectively, for sexual slavery and other crimes against humanity during Guatemala's civil war. In a Feb. 26 ruling, Judge Jazmin Barrios found that the actions of retired Lt. Col. Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón and former paramilitary Heriberto Valdez Asij did "irreparable harm." Reyes and Valdez were tried for murder, forced disappearances and the sexual enslavement of multiple women. The court also found that the women's husbands and children had been forcibly disappeared.
This January marked 84 years since the 1932 uprising of rural peasants and Communist Party organizers and the state-led genocide that followed in El Salvador. Indigenous organizations in the country gathered in the western departments of Ahuachapán and Sonsonate to remember those lost and call for justice. "For us, this is a painful moment. They killed many defenseless people. Our grandparents cried for justice, they couldn’t stand the hunger, the misery, the slavery, and they started to organize,”"Rafael Latin, elected indigenous leader of the town of Izalco, explained. "We have been pushed from our lands since the Spaniards arrived. They took away our collective lands; they tried to eliminate us."