In the early hours of March 2, 2016, notorious human rights defender Bertha Cáceres, who organized the Lenca people, the largest indigenous group in Honduras, in their fight against the Agua Zarca dam, was murdered in her home. The construction was to take place in the north-west of the country, on the Gualcarque river, sacred to the communities and vital for their survival. But the campaign succeeded in convincing the world’s largest dam builder, Chinese state-owned Sinohydro, to withdraw its stake in the hydropower project.
Since then, there have been 39 murders of indigenous and environmental human rights defenders in Honduras. Among the main victims are peasant and ethnic leaders, lawyers and journalists. To this number must be added the young Garifuna leaders who were kidnapped by soldiers and who did not reappear.
These are not easy times for those who defend life and the environment in Central America, especially in the countries of the so-called Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The first step in the strategy to silence them has been to stigmatize and defame them through false information in the media and on social networks. When that was not enough, the law was applied to them with energy and determination, until they were arrested, tried and sentenced in most cases. And when that wasn’t enough, they resorted to murder.
On April 22, on the occasion of Earth Day, the NGO Alianza por la Solidariedad-Action Aid, denounced the lack of commitment of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean with the international agreement Escazú sponsored by the ‘UN. The agreement, adopted in 2018, aims to ensure the safety of individuals and groups who defend life and the environment. However, the treaty has so far only been ratified by 12 of the region’s 46 countries and territories.
In fact, among the countries that have not signed the agreement are Guatemala and Honduras, which are among the countries with the highest number of attacks on leaders and references to environmental struggles.
“The commodification of natural resources is costing the lives of many people, those who are murdered and those who are imprisoned for years, like the Guatemalan Bernardo Casal Xol, who must be remembered on days like this (…) ”, Declared Almudena Moreno, responsible for sustainable development at the NGO Alianza por la Solidariedad-Action Aid, on April 22.
In addition to these assaults, there are limits to freedom of expression and false information. The aim is to destroy the social fabric of communities, co-opting sectors with bribes and thus breaking common solidarity. Other methods are the destruction of family or community plantations or constant surveillance by the army, police or individuals from the communities themselves, co-opted to act as executors of their own neighbors.
According to the report< Criminalisation des défenseurs des droits de l'homme en Amérique centrale >>, presented in the digital forum< Quand la justice devient injustice >>, these groups – which respond to the elites who concentrate power – attack and intimidate their victims, supported by a system of impunity which protects them from any trial.
“Criminalization is the use of legal frameworks, politico-judicial strategies and actions with the intention of treating the defense of human rights as illegitimate or illegal,” said Anabella Sibrián, director of Protection International Mesoamerica in Guatemala, participant in the forum.
However, for Honduran lawyer Edy Tábora, director of the Committee for Free Expression (C-Libre) << in Honduras, after the coup of 2009, an expropriation model was implemented which changed the legal framework linked to the granting of natural resources, and a political model which affected all citizens was also implemented ".
Incarceration in maximum security prisons for participating in protests, the pre-trial detention of environmental activists for years, the banning of human rights organizations and the persecution of peaceful protests are some of the facts. -one of the facets of the growing criminalization of human rights and environmental defenders in the Northern Triangle. from Central America.
What distinguishes criminalization from other attacks is the selective use of laws as a form of persecution. This gives the repression a false appearance of legitimacy, making the omnipotence of the state and mega-corporations clearly perceived.
The case of Sonia Sanchez, human rights defender at the Santo Tomás Women’s Organization in El Salvador, is one example. She and three other conservationists face charges of coercion to oppose a housing project that will affect their municipality’s environment.
Even when these people win their cases and are absolved of the crimes invented to criminalize them, the persecution does not stop. Businesses often continue to threaten and attack their homes, crops or livestock. Moreover, these attacks do not target only the leaders. Often, their supporters are also victims of persecution, with the aim of intimidating them and thus preventing them from organizing and acting as a community.
The already frightening outlook is even bleaker given the lack of prospects that the dominant groups entrenched in power in the three countries of the Northern Triangle will cede to their positions. On the contrary, it is planned to deepen its repressive actions, protected by almost total impunity, for the future. Social movements, despite growing international support, still lack the capacity and power to turn the situation around.
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