Honduran and international march to commemorate Berta Cáceres attacked by counter-protesters
On 15 April 2016, during the closing march of a three-day international meeting - organised to commemorate the life and work of murdered Honduran human rights defender Berta Cáceres - demonstrators were violently attacked. Participants at the “Berta Cáceres Lives” meeting (Encuentro Internacional de los Pueblos "Berta Cáceres Vive") were demanding justice for Berta’s killing and expressing solidarity with COPINH (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras), the organisation the human rights defender had founded in 1993.
Honduran and international participants went to the village of San Francisco de Ojuera, western Honduras, and marched towards the Gualcarque river, a sacred place for the indigenous Lenca people, where a ceremony would take place.
Front Line Defenders Americas Protection Coordinator Ms. Ivi Oliveira, who represented the organisation at the international meeting, reported:
Before starting to walk down the river, we were surprised by a group of about 25-30 people, many with machetes and stones in their hands. They were carrying some posters saying ‘You come to our house without an invitation’ and ‘You will not violate our right to development’. They shouted at us to leave (‘go away gringos’,’go away Spaniards’) and threatened the protester. Specific threats were made against the new COPINH's coordinator and Lenca leader Tomás Gómez.
At the end of the ceremony on the river bank, as the first demonstrators started going back towards the buses, the same group of people attacked them using machetes and throwing rocks. At least nine people were injured.
The police were present on the premises during both incidents, but failed to effectively prevent and stop the physical attacks against the peaceful demonstrators. Some members of the caravan heard direct references to the killing of Berta Cáceres and reported that the attackers destroyed a big red blanket with her image.
Berta and COPINH fought relentlessly to stop the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project in the Gualcarque river basin, as the dams had the potential to disrupt the livelihoods of the local communities and their access to water.
According to COPINH, the attackers were affiliated with Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA), the private Honduran energy company which is behind the Agua Zarca project. Some of the attackers were identified as sicarios who had previously threatened Berta and COPINH's members and who had been temporarily detained in 2015 for carrying high calibre guns.
Ahead of the gathering, on April 12, the hydroelectric company had published a statement telling COPINH members and their supporters to “be reasonable” during their next demonstration and “let common sense prevail”. They also urged the police to protect the company’s equipment and accused COPINH and its supporters of vandalistic acts.
Only two days after the incident, on 17 April 2016, the 'Canada Honduras Delegation for Justice, Land and Life' - which includes Canadian and First Nations leaders, lawyers, human rights and solidarity activists - went to the San Andres mine in La Unión, Copán, western Honduras. The open-pit gold mine is owned by Minerales de Occidente, a subsidiary of Toronto-based mining company, Aura Minerals, and it has been strongly opposed by the local community.
As the Canadian delegation was arriving to the town of Azacualpa, a group of an estimated 180 mine workers - some armed with machetes, sticks and rocks - blocked the public road. Jen Moore, Latin America Program Coordinator at Mining Watch, reported that the police was present but initially it did not mediate. The delegation was later notified it could safely travel to the community and the police managed to dispel the crowd. Mining Watch and the other NGOs of the delegation, however, have expressed grave concerns for this type of intimidation.
The attack suffered on 15 April is not new for the Lenca people and is not an isolated event – it occurred in the same location as a similar counter-protest in February, at which death threats were made against Berta. She was killed less than two weeks after that incident.
Ms Oliveira said:
The international delegation witnessed what the Lenca people suffer in a daily basis and it's for their lives that we are more concerned, people who will stay in the region.
Berta's family and COPINH have called for an independent international investigation into her murder, lead by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, as there are credible and serious doubts about the ability of the Honduran police to investigate, as well as questions about the government's knowledge and potential involvement in the assassination of the 2015 Goldman Prize winner and indigenous leader.
Front Line Defenders supports Berta's family and COPINH members in that call, and reminds the Honduran government that any investigation into the murder of Berta has to take into consideration her human rights work, as well as at least 33 known threats she had received for carrying out that work.
Front Line Defenders expresses strong concern over the continuing attacks in Honduras, which represent a trend of intimidation and killings of those who defend environmental and lands rights. Front Line Defenders strongly condemn the ongoing attacks, threats and intimidation against COPINH members and its supporters, which have intensified following Berta Cáceres’ killing. It also expresses grave concern for the lack of an independent investigation into the killings of Berta Cáceres and other COPINH members and urges the Honduran authorities to provide effective protection to all human rights defenders in the country.