Thursday, March 17, 2016

Second activist killed in Honduras (March 17, 2016)

Nelson García, the colleague of recently murdered Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres, was killed on Tuesday by unidentified gunmen, reports the Associated Press.

His death comes less than two weeks after Cáceres' shook the country and has led to increased international focus on the dangers faced by activists in the country. (See March 4's post.)

He was shot dead in the face by unidentified gunmen as he returned to his family home in Río Lindo.

Authorities say García died in an "isolated" act of violence, unrelated to Cáceres' killing. 

But, local reports suggest that the assassination happened during an evacuation of occupied land executed by Honduran military police, reports TeleSur.
And, the Indian Council of People's Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), to which both García and Cáceres belonged, described the new murder as part of "the government's constant harassment" of Indian groups.

The council said in a statement that "repression, intimidation and threats against colleagues who are fighting to recover lands to plant and preserve nature have worsened in recent days."

Amnesty International denounces ongoing harrasment of COPINH members and Cáceres' relatives since her murder on March 3.

The Guardian reports "an escalating wave of repression against the relatives and colleagues" of Cáceres.

Legislator Bartolo Fuentes denounced a "climate of permanent repression" in the country, reports TeleSur.

The second killing of a high profile activist in such a short time is affecting funding for a high profile dam project they have opposed in recent years, reports the Financial Times

Two European development banks, Netherlands Development Finance Co., or FMO, and FinnFund, to suspend their funding of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project that Cáceres spent a decade protesting, reports Foreign Policy.

FMO, the Dutch development bank, announced yesterday it is suspending all activities in Honduras, which includes the Agua Zarca dam project which Cáceres opposed, notes the AP. 

FMO first invested in Agua Zarca in 2014, a year after another activist, Tomás García, was shot and killed by a Honduran soldier during a protest against the project.

The move comes after nearly 50 activist groups demanded the Dutch government distance itself from the project and take steps to protect a Mexican environmental activist who was with Cáceres when she was killed, reports Foreign Policy (in a piece from before the García murder and the banks' withdrawal from the project). 

Gustavo Castro survived the attack by playing dead and has been prevented from leaving the country since, as the crime's only witness.

Several international human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have voiced concern about Castro's situation.

In a letter to the local press he claimed his life was in danger, that the crime scene had been altered, and that Honduran authorities were investigating other members of Cáceres’s organization rather than individuals who had threatened her in the past.

According to COPINH, eight of the organization's nine coordinators in La Esperanza have since been interrogated for up to 12 hours at a time on numerous occasions without being properly informed of the reasons for their questioning, reports the Guardian.

Amnesty says COPINH's various centers, including a community radio and a women's shelter, have been subject to illegal monitoring since Cáceres' murder. Protesters demanding justice in the case have been photographed by police officers, and one of her daughters has also reported being followed by plainclothes armed men in Tegucigalpa.

The Honduran attorney general defends the country's investigation into the killing, saying there are more than 50 individuals on it, reports El Tiempo.
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. A Global Witness report says that between 2002 and 2014, 111 environmental activists were killed in Honduras. (See March 4's post.)

Cáceres' nephew and daughter have spoken out since her death denouncing long-standing threats to her life. Copinh and Cáceres' daughter Bertha have called for an independent investigation into the activist’s death. (See yesterday's and Monday's briefs.) Her daughter Berta Isabel Zúniga Cáceres, is expected to address the U.N. General Assembly this week.
She told the Financial Times the suspension of funding was "a partial victory" for the indigenous Lenca activists. She said eight COPINH members working to block the dam had been killed since the start of construction in 2013.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs points to a history of human rights abuses in Honduras, and voices concern at it's apparent immunity for these violations in the international community. The group's director Larry Birns criticized the U.S.'s muted response, saying Washington seems to have crafted a policy selecting certain Latin American countries for special criticism while minimizing systematic killing in others like Honduras.

Honduras aside: David Romero Ellner is the director of Radio Globo and Globo TV, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for defamation of the wife of a prosecutor. He will remain free while he appeals the conviction, reports the Associated Press. Romero Ellner said he was targeted for exposing corruption.

News Brief 
  • Former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva accepted a cabinet post in current President Dilma Rousseff's government yesterday. He will be swearing in later today, reportsFolha de S. Paulo. His new position as chief of staff could shield him from an ongoing investigation into corruption at state-run oil company Petrobras. While he could still be investigated, it would have to be by the country's Supreme Court, and in practise that could mean avoiding detention, reports the New York Times. But his new political position could also help Rousseff's fight against impeachment proceedings in Congress, as Lula adds his popularity and political clout to her government, reports the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ emphasizes how the move represents a return to centrality by the former president, even as he battles allegations of corruption. And that some analysts say he will effectively replace Rousseff in running the country. It could even signal a new bid for presidency in the 2018 elections. (See yesterday's briefs and Tuesday's post.)
  • But the move also further polarizes Brazil's already tense political field, notes the New York Times. It's a doubling down on the part of the governing Workers' Party. Yesterday Judge Sergio Moro, who heads the broad Petrobras corruption investigation, released recordings of phone taps of Lula, which he said suggested attempts were made to influence prosecutors and judges in the former leader's favor, reports the Associated Press. The judge did say in his filing that there's no evidence that any inappropriate action taken by the individuals discussed in the taped dialogues. One of the conversations released, however, appears to be between Rousseff and Lula and suggests he could use a cabinet posting "in case of necessity," reports Folha de S. Paulo. Some analysts say it could be obstruction of justice, reports Folha de S. Paulo in a separate piece.
  • Police used tear gas and stun grenades against an estimated 5,000 anti-government protesters who massed outside of Congress last night, reports the AP. Demonstrations flared up in several cities, reports the New York Times. And dozens of lawmakers opposed to Rousseff chanted "resign" at a Congressional session late yesterday, in a sign of rising political tensions in Latin America's largest economy, reports Reuters.
  • It seems the scandal never stops, and citizens, who came out in unprecedented droves on Sunday (see Monday's briefs) are angry about it. But that's a good thing, argues Juliana Barbassa in a New York Times op-ed. Rousseff should resist the temptation to tamper with the process as she comes ever closer to being accused of corruption herself (see yesterday's briefs). "Because this investigation has remained independent and unafraid to go after the country’s most powerful politicians, it has emerged not as a tool for coup-mongers, as some have charged, but as evidence of the country’s maturing democracy. Despite the headlines and the scandals, Brazil is now a place where the law applies to all, equally. Ms. Rousseff should recognize that this is worth preserving — even if it costs her the presidency," she writes.
  • An Embraer sales consultant who says he paid bribes on behalf of the company told prosecutors the aircraft maker's top executives were aware of the illicit payments, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • About 1,000 old or sick prison inmates in El Salvador will be released as part of a temporary measure approved by the country's congress to free up police guards to focus on the country's crisis causing gang violence, reports the Associated Press.
  • Jimmy Morales, the recently inaugurated Guatemalan president who won last year's election riding a wave of citizen anger at corrupt establishment politicians, may already be a lame duck less than three months into his mandate, according to Foreign Policy. Though Morales is a political neophyte and made use of that in his election, he has filled his cabinet with former government officials and businessmen. His political party is linked to generals with ties to human rights violations during the country's bloody civil war and "it has also become clear he lacks the vision to transform the government," writes Lauren Carasik. That doesn't mean observers should despair about the fate of the Guatemalan Spring though. "For Guatemala to move forward, Morales will have to help uproot the entrenched military-criminal enterprises (dubbed the "hidden powers") that still wield outsized influence, and challenge the grip of powerful business groups such as CACIF that vigorously resist a reckoning with the bloody past. He also will have to ferret out corruption at all levels, strengthen weak institutions, and attend to the impoverished and disempowered majority. Judging from his leadership so far, his cheerful campaign slogan aside, it’s hard to be sanguine. But, even if Morales doesn’t have a major role to play in ushering in a brighter future, the newly mobilized civil society that helped bring him to power is sure to continue pushing Guatemala beyond the dark shadow of its past."
  • Colombia's Supreme Court removed a cap on the maximum amount of marijuana a person can legally carry, effectively permitting residents to have any quantity of the drug for personal use, according to Colombia Reports. The court’s landmark ruling followed a case of a Colombian soldier who had been caught with 50 grams of the illicit herb. Until this ruling the maximum was set at 20 grams for marijuana and one for cocaine.
  • "Venezuela is simmering with small-scale street protests as water and electricity services stutter, labor disputes mount, and basic food items become more scarce and expensive amid a worsening economic crisis across the OPEC nation," reports Reuters.
  • China voiced concern over Argentine sinking of a Chinese trawler allegedly engaged in illegal fishing activities Argentina's territorial waters. Argentine officials say the incident is the second involving a Chinese fishing boat in two weeks, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • A new study suggests that a woman infected with Zika during her first trimester of pregnancy has about a 1 percent chance of the fetus developing microcephaly, reports the Wall Street Journal. The estimate was published this week in The Lancet, and is based on an outbreak in French Polynesia. Other experts caution that the current Brazil outbreak might be different.
  • The town that was washed out by a flood of toxic mud in a tailings dam accident in Brazil's Minas Gerais state last November wants the mine to reopen, reports Reuters. It may have been the country's worst environmental disaster, but residents worry about unemployment, which is already on the rise.
  • Hundreds of thousands of cars were banned from driving yesterday in Mexico City as part of an attempt to control smog that triggered an air pollution alert for the fourth day running. Its the first such alert in 11 years, and smog well above accepted levels forced some residents to cover their mouths with scarves or paper masks as they moved through the streets, reports the Associated Press.

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