Two Indigenous activists were murdered in Honduras during December in less than a week, confirming the country as amongst the deadliest in the world for those opposing land grabs and environmental destruction.
The killing of Tolupan Indigenous leader Adan Mejia took place three days after the murder of Lenca farmer leader Felix Vazquez. They join a death toll of over a hundred Indigenous people murdered in the past decade defending their lands against illegal exploitation through dams, mining, logging and agribusiness.
An ongoing international campaign is also demanding answers from the Honduran authorities about the July 2020 kidnapping in the Caribbean coastal town of Tela, of four members of OFRANEH, the Afro-Indigenous Garifuna Peoples’ organisation of Honduras, by heavily armed gunmen wearing national police uniforms and badges.
OFRANEH has been resisting illegal incursions by banana and oil palm companies, among others, and more recently land grabs for housing and tourist developments.
Despite continued complaints by a number of national and international organisations, no information or effective response has been forthcoming about investigations into the abduction of the men.
While Honduras’s powerful and corrupt US-backed elites benefit enormously from the rapacious development of the country’s natural resources, about 48% of the population lives below the poverty line, and over 60% in rural areas.
These patterns of exploitation, violence and impunity are the responsibility of a succession of right-wing governments that have corruptly held onto office, with significant US diplomatic and financial support, since the 2009 coup that toppled former president Manuel Zelaya.
Zelaya’s progressive programme had included reforms to the minimum wage and the distribution of the land, support for sexual and reproductive rights and LGBTQ communities, and changes to address the poverty and violence that force migration.
The post-coup governments headed by the National Party have promoted an economic strategy of prioritising mining, agribusiness and energy projects, but unlike Morales’s Bolivia, Honduras has welcomed unchecked foreign investment.
In 2011 a government-hosted conference proclaimed the country ‘Open for Business’. As a Global Witness report has described, this led to a tsunami of exploitation: “foreign investors…once again able to snap up mining concessions, water resources …privatised, environmental checks and balances…diluted, and policies governing how companies should engage with local communities…ignored.”
In the last decade, money channelled into Honduras from the US and other countries, including Britain, through aid programmes or through international financial institutions such as the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has been used to fund large projects such as hydroelectric dams and their infrastructure that have been illegally imposed, trampling over local people’s rights.
The interest payments on loans to the Honduran state for these ‘modernisation’ projects have contributed to Honduras’s rising fiscal deficit, which current hard-right President Juan Orlando Hernandez has sought to conceal with more debt and sovereign bonds. Between 2009 and 2020 Honduras’s public debt increased from US$3.2 billion to US$16 billion.
According to a recent report by former president Manuel Zelaya, the co-ordinator of the Freedom and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), Hernandez has allocated over 40% of tax revenues to pay foreign debt creditors.
There has been heroic resistance on the ground to these projects’ exploitation of Honduran land and natural resources, but the dangers faced by environmental activists in Honduras first hit international news when Berta Cáceres, the winner of the Goldman environmental prize, was killed in 2016.
She had suffered years of threats and harassment linked to her opposition to an internationally funded dam before being shot dead by gunmen who broke into her home. Seven men were sentenced for her killing but activists say those who ordered, paid for and benefited from her assassination are still at large.
National Party governments have been maintained in power in part by using aid money to equip police and military forces to repress and criminalise dissent generally, not just by human rights and environmental defenders.
As well as the attacks and killings of Indigenous leaders, there have been murders of more than 32 journalists, over 1500 students and at least 250 members of the LGBTQ community. There are also frequent killings of trade unionists, such as Felix Vasquez, secretary-general of the Union of Rural Workers (UTC).
Most recently, nursing student Keyla Martinez died in police custody after being detained for breaking curfew. Honduran human rights activists allege that Martinez was murdered by the National Police.
Conditions in Honduras have worsened as a result of the devastating impact of Hurricanes Eta and Iota and the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the outbreak of the pandemic,107 health workers have died, 23 of them this year. Honduras has had 154,568 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 3,721 related fatalities, and over 1,000 patients admitted to health care institutions.
Thousands of poor Hondurans have tried to leave the country and trek north through Guatemala and Mexico to the USA, but caravans of migrants are being violently stopped by the Guatemalan police and forced to return to Honduras.
Faced with crime, corruption and mismanagement, dissent and resistance against the regime can be expected to grow, but the cost of further repression.
The British government has a hand in this. When Boris Johnson was Foreign Secretary, the government sanctioned sales of telecommunications interception equipment to Honduras which is suspected of having been used in surveillance activity against organisations and individuals protesting against Honduras’ illegitimate and repressive regime.
These Honduran organisations and others are calling for the UK to put a permanent stop to exports of both surveillance equipment and arms to the Hernandez regime.
This is all the more necessary in the light of further claims that Hernandez is implicated in running a massive drug-trafficking network. A current US federal prosecution case is alleging that Hernandez, whose brother was convicted in 2019 of smuggling cocaine through Honduras to the US, took bribes from drug traffickers and employed the country’s armed forces to protect a cocaine laboratory and shipments to the US.
Please sign and circulate the petition against such equipment sales to Honduras, at https://www.change.org/p/stop-uk-exports-of-surveillance-equipment-to-honduras