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Obama Urged to Stop Funding Honduran Military as Questions Grow over US Role in Berta Cáceres' Death

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Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson has returned from a visit to Tegucigalpa, where he met with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández to discuss migration and security. Johnson’s visit comes as a growing number of activists in Honduras and in the United States are calling on the United States to stop funding the Honduran military, over accusations that state security forces have been involved in human rights violations, extrajudicial killings—and the murder of internationally renown environmentalist Berta Cáceres. Before her death, Berta and her organization COPINH was long the target of repression by elite Honduran security forces and paramilitary organizations. Earlier this month, four people were arrested in connection with her murder, including Army Major Mariano Díaz Chávez and Edilson Duarte Meza, who is reportedly a retired captain. Press accounts report Díaz Chávez graduated from the prestigious U.S. Ranger-supported Honduran special forces course TESON, raising questions about whether U.S.-trained troops were involved in carrying out Berta’s murder. We speak to Annie Bird, director of Rights & Ecology, a project of the Center for Political Ecology.

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AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Honduras. The Department of Homeland Security secretary, Jeh Johnson, has returned from a visit to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, where he met with the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, to discuss migration and security. Johnson reiterated the United States’ pledge to continue providing hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to Honduras through the Northern Triangle’s Alliance for Prosperity Plan. According to the White House, out of the $750 million slated for Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, $222 million is allocated for international narcotics control and law enforcement, while an additional $30 million is allocated for foreign military financing and military education and training.

Johnson’s visit comes as a growing number of activists in Honduras and in the United States are calling on the U.S. to stop funding the Honduran military, over accusations that state security forces have been involved in human rights violations, extrajudicial killings—and the murder of internationally renowned environmentalist Berta Cáceres. Before her death, Berta and her organization, COPINH, was long the target of repression by elite Honduran security forces and paramilitary groups. Only hours before she was killed, Berta Cáceres gave a workshop in her hometown of La Esperanza, where she accused the military, including the U.S.-funded special forces TIGRES unit, of working on behalf of international corporations.

BERTA CÁCERES: [translated] We have to understand why these projects are so important. The government has all of its institutions at the service of these companies, because they are capable—as in Río Blanco, in the defense that we had in Gualcarque—because these businesses are capable of moving antiterrorism commandos, like the TIGRE commandos, the military police, the national police, security guards, hit men, etc.

AMY GOODMAN:That was Berta Cáceres herself, criticizing the Honduran military. Only hours later, Berta was killed in her home by armed gunmen. Earlier this month, four people were arrested in connection with her murder, including Army Major Mariano Díaz Chávez and Edilson Duarte Meza, who is reportedly a retired captain. Press accounts report Díaz Chávez graduated from a prestigious U.S. Ranger-supported Honduran special forces course, raising questions about whether U.S.-trained forces were involved in carrying out Berta’s murder. Her family continues to call for an independent investigation into her death.

For more, we’re joined by Annie Bird, the director of Rights & Ecology, a project of the Center for Political Ecology, which tracks the connections between economic and development policy and human rights violations.

Annie Bird, welcome back to Democracy Now!

ANNIE BIRD: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the latest in Honduras, what you understand Jeh Johnson, the Homeland Security secretary, was doing in Honduras, and the latest on those arrested for Cáceres’s murder?

ANNIE BIRD: Well, Secretary Johnson was visiting to Honduras to witness the return of deportees from the United States to Honduras. He said that since October of last year, over 22,000 people have been deported to Honduras and El Salvador, and so he was witnessing the return of some of those people. But the problem is that, you know, the U.S.—and what we see in the case of Berta Cáceres, is that the U.S. continues to support economic policies that are generating this exodus of people, as well as military and security forces that are involved in human rights abuses and are widely perceived by the population to be part of the violence—and there are many cases that illustrate this—and at the service of organized crime and the interests that are generating so much instability and violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Annie Bird, can you talk about who’s been arrested for Berta Cáceres’s murder, and go through each person?

ANNIE BIRD: So, two of the people arrested were employees of a hydroelectric development company called DESA, which was building the Agua Zarca Dam, which Berta was a vocal—vocally campaigned against, because it affected the Lenca communities in the area. And so, one, Sergio Rodríguez Orellana, was an environmental engineer, and the narrative by the Public Prosecutor’s Office is that Rodríguez, with the help of Geovanny Bustillo, who had been a chief of security for the same company but was also a retired military officer, hired an active-duty military police instructor, who you mentioned, Mariano Díaz Chávez, to help plan the murder, and that he then hired two hit men—or three hit men, two of which, of the alleged hit men, have been arrested and were twin brothers. The first one, Edilson, Edilson was initially reported to be a retired military officer also, Edilson Duarte Meza, but then, as the reporting continued over the next few days, despite the spokesman for the Honduran military having affirmed that he was a retired captain, after a few days they began reporting that he had not been a military officer. And then his twin brother was also arrested, though at the time it was not reported. It was—he was only reported to have been arrested after his twin brother pleaded not guilty. And then prosecutors then prosecuted him for—in conjunction to the murder. And there’s a third material author, alleged material author, who is currently, you know, being looked for by the police.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the link between Major Mariano Díaz Chávez, one of those arrested, and the U.S. Ranger-supported Honduran special forces course called TESON?

ANNIE BIRD: Yes, Major Díaz is reported in the press to have served in Iraq, to have worked for multilateral peacekeeping missions, and also to have completed this elite, intense training program called the TESON training program, that the Rangers helped to start. So it’s almost undoubted that he has received at some point U.S. military training, and probably on multiple occasions. And, you know, this also raises concern, because in the thesis that I described of the company hiring him as a rogue officer to carry out these assassinations, people—there’s a lot of concern that what that narrative does is remove the crime from the chain of command, and that this killing may well actually have been a crime of the state. And so, when that thesis is prosecuted, it could be protecting people higher up in the military. And, you know, one of the flags that are raised is that Major Díaz was a rising star in the military. You know, he was among the military elite. And for him to do a rogue operation like this is not—does not seem very likely.

AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to turn to the words of Berta Cáceres’s daughter Olivia, who was on Democracy Now! She was at a mobilization in Tegucigalpa in March.

OLIVIA ZÚNIGA CÁCERES: [translated] Today, we are here to demand justice and an explanation for the crime of the death of my mother, Berta Cáceres. I’m her oldest daughter. And we’ve launched a struggle, a battle at the international level, to exert pressure in order to demand that the aid agencies that fund these multinational corporations that come to plunder, to exterminate our people, to spill our blood in our territories, to create territorial conflicts, that they stop being financed and that they leave our country, because we don’t want international companies that come to finance death, blood and extermination in our communities.

AMY GOODMAN: Annie Bird, I was wondering if you could respond to this. And also, since Berta Cáceres’s assassination, COPINH has reported multiple other attacks against activists, including the murder of Nelson García, who we have reported on. What happened to Nelson? What are these other attacks? And how is this linking up with the prosecution of those that the state is accusing of being involved with Berta’s murder?

ANNIE BIRD: Well, I think Olivia’s comments are very important, that this murder comes because of Berta’s defense of natural resources and of the rivers and of the Lenca people’s right to have their rivers and use them and benefit them—from them within their way of life. And the day of the killings—the day of the arrests, the very day that an active-duty military officer was arrested, the Honduran president began participating in a Central America energy summit with the different presidents of Central America and Joe Biden in the White House. And, you know, USAID and the State Department affirmed their commitment and even announced increased commitment to funding energy projects like the Agua Zarca Dam in Honduras, when there’s not—when the justice system is absolutely dysfunctional. There’s no way of protecting people from defending their basic rights to their means of livelihood, to their land. And there are dozens of projects like this being promoted throughout the country—palm oil production, hydroelectric dams, mines—which are taking away people’s access to a way of making a life for themselves and supporting their families, which is obviously something that fuels migration and the need to migrate.

And, you know, as you mentioned in the introduction of the program, the U.S. is affirming their commitment to the Alliance—the plan of the Alliance for Prosperity, and, you know, there’s this $750 million commitment from the White House. But in addition, there’s $22 billion of investment projected from the development banks. And the development banks are funding—the IFC, the private sector lending arm of the World Bank, doesn’t—I went with Berta last time she was in D.C., about a year ago, to present a complaint against 49 projects that take—that would take livelihood away from Lenca communities, to present a complaint to the private sector lending wing of the World Bank, saying—against these projects, and with the expectation that many of these are likely receiving funding from the World Bank, because so much of their money is going into the private—into private banks and investment funds. The IFC’s answer to that complaint was that they don’t really—they can’t tell if the IFC’s money is ending up funding any of these almost 50 projects that she denounced, because there’s not control, and the World Bank is not able to determine, really, whether it is complying with its mandate of eliminating poverty and promoting shared prosperity. And, in fact, communities across Honduras are saying that their investments are instead generating poverty and inequality, and increased inequality. In—

AMY GOODMAN: Annie Bird—

ANNIE BIRD: Uh-huh?

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to be wrapping up in a minute, and I wanted to quickly ask about the calls of activists and Berta’s families for the U.S. to cut off military funding to the Honduran government.

ANNIE BIRD: Right. So, they’ve called for the cutoff of military funding and also the funding to these kinds of development projects. And they continue to demand the cutoff of military and security assistance. And, you know, I think the arrests earlier this month show that the Honduran security forces are deeply involved in, you know, human rights abuses.

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