Friday, March 4, 2016

Outrage over Honduran environmental leader's killing (March 4, 2016)

The horrific murder of indigenous leader Berta Lidia Cáceres yesterday morning has gripped Honduras. Her 45th birthday would have been today, and local and international media mourn the killing of an environmental leader who organized a grassroots mobilization of opposition to the Agua Zarca Dam, a hydroelectric project on a river sacred to the indigenous Lenca people that could cut off their water supply.

Her death has spurred international outrage at the life-threatening situation for environmental activists in Honduras, reports the Guardian.

Last year she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her advocacy efforts. "They follow me, they threaten to kill me, to kidnap me,"  said Cáceres accepting the prize last April in San Francisco. "They threaten my family. This is what we are facing."

Cáceres was gunned down in La Esperanza yesterday morning. A Mexican environmentalist who was staying with her was also wounded and left for dead. There's no clear culprit yet. El Heraldo reports that one hypothesis is that a person of trust was involved. 

According to local police, Cacéres was killed during an attempted robbery, reports the Latin Correspondent. She fought against her killers, who were masked and heavily armed, reports La Tribuna. She scratched one of her attackers, capturing skin under her nails that could be used to create a DNA profile.

Her death is a new low point for a country already ranked as the world's most dangerous for environmental activism, notes the Washington Post.

Cáceres has been a well known environmental activist for years. Together with her then-husband, Salvador Zúñiga, she founded the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (Copinh) in 1993, reports El Heraldo. Their efforts focused on the 400,000 strong Lenca community, living in poverty in the Intibucá, Lempira y Santa Bárbara areas of the country. Their territories are desirable for hydroelectric and mining interests.

In recent years her actions focused on defending the Gualcarque river, where 2013 protests succeeded in stopping the Agua Zarca project, which was backed by Chinese Sinohydro and the World Bank's International Finance Corporation, reports El Heraldo.

The international backers pulled out of the project, after Tomás García, the co-founder of the council, was shot and killed during a peaceful protest against the dam in 2013. But the Honduran company behind the dam, Desarrollos Energéticos S.A., continued with the project. And the Honduran business community has spoken negatively about Cáceres' efforts to stop the 22 megawatt hydroelectric dam, reports the New York Times.

Construction on the project resumed last fall. Threats against Cáceres and her organization have increased since security forces detained more than 100 people during a peaceful protest on Feb. 20, according to the NYTimes.

Last month, some 50 Lenca families were forcibly removed by police from their homes, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The killing affects not only the communities she defended, but also Honduras' spotty human rights record, emphasizes El Heraldo in an editorial. Cáceres had received numerous death threats and the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights had ordered the government to enact protective measures against her. She was not under protection from security forces yesterday. Julián Pacheco Tinoco, the Honduran security minister, said yesterday she was not in the place she had reported as her home when she was killed, reports the NYTimes.

Cáceres had recently moved home because she felt the new house in La Esperanza would be safer, reports the Guardian. Honduran media clarifies that the house was hers.

Cáceres was well aware of the danger. She said indigenous leaders like her were frequent targets and pinned at least some of the blame on the government. "In my organization alone," she told CNN, "we have 10 people who've been killed with total impunity."

In an interview with the Guardian at the time of her award, Cáceres was realistic about the risks she faced, but said she felt obliged to fight on.
"The army has an assassination list of 18 wanted human rights fighters with my name at the top," she told the Guardian in 2013.

Last week Cáceres had held a news conference to denounce the killing of four fellow activists who, like her, opposed the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project reports the Washington Post.

President Juan Orlando Hernández spoke in a national address yesterday, promising justice for Cáceres and saying her death is a direct attack on the country, reports La Tribuna.

Though authorities vowed to find the culprit, activist say the killing is a sign of a wider problem in Honduras, reports CNN.

"We don't believe the Honduran authorities are going to solve this case," her nephew Silvio Carrillo told the Wall Street Journal.

Since the 2009 coup in Honduras (which Cáceres prominently protested), journalists, judges, labor leaders, human rights defenders and environmental activists have been assassinated in targeted killings, with their murders often going unsolved, notes the NYTimes.

Honduras is particularly lethal for environmental defenders. Twelve were killed in 2014, which makes it the most dangerous country in the world, relative to its size, for activists focused on the environment. The Global Witness report says that between 2002 and 2014, 111 environmental activists were killed in Honduras, reports La Tribuna.

Honduras has embarked on a series of large-scale industrial development projects since the 2009 coup, notes the Latin Correspondent. Nearly 30 percent of the country was designated for mining projects, and massive hydroelectric power projects cropped up to supply them with energy.

"The cowardly killing of Berta is a tragedy that was waiting to happen. For years, she had been the victim of a sustained campaign of harassment and threats to stop her from defending the rights of indigenous communities," said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.

Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy called on the Honduran government to support an independent investigation of Cáceres' death, and asked what steps it would take to protect other activists, reports the WSJ. "The answers to those questions will weigh heavily on the Congress's support for future assistance for that government," said Leahy, a ranking member on a subcommittee that oversees foreign appropriations.

Celebrities who noted the crime include Calle 13 singer René Pérez and Leonardo DiCaprio, reports El Heraldo.

Yesterday a group of students of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras (UNAH) protested her murder and faced off against security forces, reports La Tribuna.
  • Honduras note: Transparency International in Honduras, Asociación para un Sociedad más Justa (ASJ) launched a new anti-corruption ap. Dilo Aquí Honduras is a new mobile phone app, developed by the Transparency International chapter in Venezuela, allows record instances of corruption, in words and with pictures, and it gets automatically sent to the Ministerio Público and the Transparency International Advocacy and Legal Advice Center.

Brazil's ever-widening corruption investigation sucks up Lula

Brazil's federal police searched the home and offices of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva early this morning, reports the Wall Street Journal

Prosecutors say they have evidence he participated in a bid-rigging and bribery scheme that robbed state-owned oil company Petrobras of billions of dollars.
Police detained him for questioning today, reports Reuters. "There is evidence that the crimes enriched him and financed electoral campaigns and the treasury of his political group," according to police.

Although he was in custody, he has not been arrested or charged, notes the New York Times.

Authorities claim Lula benefited from renovations made to a beachside penthouse and a sprawling country estate performed by two construction companies implicated in the investigation. 

Its one of the most dramatic developments yet in the sprawling corruption case at the oil giant Petrobras, notes the Associated Press.

Around 200 federal policeman and 30 tax auditors participated in Friday's operations, which included searches of other sites belonging to other suspects, the police said in a statement.

No charges have been filed against the former president, who led Brazil from 2003 to 2010. And the growing scrutiny against him has provoked anger and rebukes from him and his supporters, reports the NYTimes.

The huge investigation – easily the biggest in the country’s history – initially focused on corruption and money laundering at the oil company Petrobras but has since widened to include construction and brokerage firms, reports the Guardian.

The evidence against Lula also brings the operation closer to his protegee and successor, the embattled President Dilma Rousseff. But it's just one more element of bad news for her efforts to stay afloat. 

Yesterday a Brazilian magazine report described a plea deal by Delcídio do Amaral, the government's former leader in the Senate, in which he would claim that she had maneuvered to appoint a justice to one of Brazil's highest courts in an attempt to release executives jailed in the Petrobras scandal, reports the New York Times.

Yesterday Rousseff questioned the political motivations for leaking details of plea agreements, contending that doing so was illegal. Rousseff has also repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Pressure against her continues to rise.

The powerful speaker of Brazil's lower house of congress Eduardo Cunha defiantly said he would not resign yesterday, despite facing trial on charges of corruption related to the ever-widening Petrobras graft scandal, reports the Wall Street Journal separately. (See yesterday's briefs.) 

Cunha is accused of pocketing at least $5 million in bribes from suppliers looking to do business with Petrobras, a pay-to-play scheme that Brazil's Attorney General Rodrigo Janot this week likened to a "bribery pipeline." Cunha has become Rousseff's political foe, though his PT party forms part of her governing coalition. As leader of the lower house he controls the ongoing impeachment effort against her, and his continuation in the post seems likely to prolong the political stalemate plaguing Brazil, according to the WSJ.

News Briefs
  • WOLA's Andrea Beltrán analyzes the Obama administration's 2017 foreign aid budget request in relation to Central America. The $750 million request (slightly down from the historic $1 billion requested last year) "sends a strong signal of the United States’ long-term commitment to helping Central America address the underlying factors fueling insecurity, impeding development, and causing many children, families, and individuals in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras to leave home. Its success or failure, however, will be determined by the strategy behind the assistance, and the commitment and willingness of the governments of Central American to hold up their end of the bargain," she writes. But spending alone is not enough. "Ultimately, the details and implementation of U.S. assistance will determine whether the new strategy is effective in addressing dire conditions in Central America." Aid must be tied to strong conditions, she says. 
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry won't go to Cuba ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama's state visit later this month, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See yesterday's briefs.) Kerry had hoped to travel to lay the groundwork for Obama's visit and to "have a human rights dialogue, specifically," reports the Los Angeles Times. Diplomats are negotiating over which political dissidents Obama will be allowed to meet with while in Havana.
  • In the midst of political questioning in the U.S. over Obama's upcoming trip, he "has not given up on human rights in order to pursue normalization; he is pursuing normalization as a path to improving human rights. Nor is this a particularly new or exotic strategy; it’s been American policy toward China since President Richard Nixon’s trip to Beijing in 1972," argues William M. Leogrande argues in a New York Times op-ed. "... Human rights has never been off the agenda of Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy, but experience has taught him that making imperious demands and issuing ultimatums did nothing to advance the cause. Instead, he is playing a long game, knowing that his strategy of engagement and persistent persuasion will not produce dramatic change overnight."
  • Obama's subsequent trip to Argentina has been modified to keep him out of Buenos Aires on the fortieth anniversary of a brutal military coup with U.S. support. The shuffle came at the request of human rights organizations, including Nobel peace prize laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel who said his presence on the 24 of March was a political decision, reports the Guardian. "In 1976, while you were only 14 years old, we were starting the most tragic period of our history, with the implementation of a state terrorism which subjected our people to persecution, torture, death and the forced disappearance of persons," Pérez Esquivel wrote in an open letter to Obama. "I am writing as a survivor of that horror [which included] financing, training, and coordination by the United States."
  • U.N. human rights experts have chastised the organization's head, Ban Ki-moon, who who accuse him of undermining the world body’s credibility and reputation by denying responsibility for the devastating outbreak of cholera in Haiti, reports the Guardian. (See Wednesday's briefs.)
  • The Mexican treasury secretary, Luis Videgaray, made the government's first official response to Donald Trump's promise to build a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border and to make Mexico pay for it, reports the Guardian. "I say it emphatically and categorically: Mexico, under no circumstance is going to pay for the wall that Mr. Trump is proposing," he said.
  • Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán has financed the election of senior Mexican politicians and entered the U.S. twice after a much publicized prison escape last year, according to an interview his daughter gave to the Guardian.

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