HONDURAS
(Senate - November 09, 2017)

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[Congressional Record Volume 163, Number 183 (Thursday, November 9, 2017)]
[Pages S7152-S7153]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office [www.gpo.gov]





                                HONDURAS

  Mr. LEAHY. Mr. President, I want to speak about a subject that many 
Senators are aware of and should be deeply concerned about.
  As we remember, in the early morning hours of March 3, 2016, Honduras 
lost one of its most courageous and charismatic indigenous leaders, 
Berta Caceres. Ms. Caceres was the general coordinator of the National 
Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, COPINH. 
She was gunned down by assassins in her home in the village of La 
Esperanza, Intibuca.
  Berta Caceres spent her life defending indigenous rights, 
particularly to land and natural resources. In 2015, she won the 
prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her outstanding activism 
and leadership. She and COPINH had been supporting land struggles 
throughout western Honduras, and because of that--because she was 
exercising rights guaranteed by Honduran law and international law--she 
and the communities that she and COPINH supported were the frequent 
targets of death threats.
  In Rio Blanco, her organization and the community of Rio Blanco were 
threatened repeatedly as they engaged in peaceful protests to protect 
the river and their way of life from the construction of the Agua Zarca 
hydroelectric dam by DESA, a Honduran company supported by 
international banks.
  It was as a result of the threats she received for supporting the Rio 
Blanco struggle that Ms. Caceres was granted precautionary measures by 
the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. However, the Honduran 
authorities not only failed to protect her, they vilified her and other 
social activists like her.
  Berta Caceres was an inspiration to people around the world, and her 
death was a terrible loss for people everywhere. As I said in this 
Chamber the day after her death:

       The immediate question is what President Hernandez, and his 
     government which has too often ignored or passively condoned 
     attacks against Honduran social activists, will do to support 
     an independent investigation, prosecution, and punishment of 
     those responsible for this despicable crime. And beyond that, 
     what steps will the government take to protect the many 
     others, including members of COPINH, who are in need of 
     protection, and to stand up for the rights of people like 
     Berta who risk their lives peacefully defending the 
     environment and their livelihoods.

  Not surprisingly to those who are familiar with Honduran law 
enforcement, the investigation of the murder got off to a bad start. 
Not only was the crime scene at Ms. Caceres's home tampered with, the 
government's first response to the killing was to attempt to falsely 
pin the attack on her COPINH associates. When that went nowhere, they 
sought to intimidate the one eyewitness to the shooting, Gustavo 
Castro, a Mexican citizen who had been wounded. That also failed.
  Thanks to intense international pressure including from the U.S. 
Embassy, eight people were eventually arrested, including one active 
duty army officer and low-ranking employees of DESA, the hydroelectric 
company. This is notable, because the assassination of Berta Caceres 
was only the latest of more than 100 reported killings of environmental 
activists in Honduras since 2010. Since her death, there have been 
others. Investigators for Global Witness, a widely respected human 
rights organization that documented those crimes, were subjected to 
threats and spurious accusations by Honduran officials who sought to 
discredit their report. As far as I am aware, no one has been brought 
to justice for any of those crimes, and had it not been for the 
international outcry, there is no reason to think that Ms. Caceres's 
murder would have been treated any differently.
  Shortly after the murder, due to the long history of impunity for 
killings of journalists and social activists, Ms. Caceres's family 
urged the Honduran Government to permit the Inter-American Commission 
on Human Rights, IACHR, to send an independent team of legal experts to 
conduct their own investigation. Not only did the Honduran Government 
refuse, the Public Ministry has refused to share the bulk of the 
evidence with the Caceres family's legal representatives, as required 
by Honduran law.
  The family also asked that independent forensic experts be allowed to 
analyze the ballistics and other evidence. The Honduran Government 
similarly rejected that request.
  Like Ms. Caceres's family, I also called for an independent 
investigation and urged that the concession granted to DESA for the 
Agua Zarca project be abandoned. It clearly cannot coexist with the 
indigenous people of Rio Blanco who see it as a threat to their safety 
and way of life; yet while some of the international banks have 
withdrawn, it is 20 months since the murder of Ms. Caceres, and not 
only does DESA deny any responsibility, it refuses to cancel the 
project.
  After the arrests of the eight suspects, there was hope that those 
who conceived of and paid for the assassination of Ms. Caceres would 
also be tracked down and captured, but that did not happen. For more 
than a year, there has been no further word from the Public Ministry 
about the case, except that the investigation is ongoing--a familiar 
refrain in Honduras where criminal investigations have a way of either 
never beginning, or never ending.
  The U.S. Embassy also repeatedly assured me and others who inquired 
that the investigation was being handled professionally in accordance 
with the highest standards. It now appears that was uninformed, wishful 
thinking.
  After the Honduran Government refused to permit the IACHR to 
investigate, Berta Caceres's family arranged for an independent team of 
international human rights lawyers to conduct their own review of the 
evidence. Over a period of a year, the group, consisting of five 
experienced lawyers from the United States, Colombia, and Guatemala, 
known as the International Advisory Group of Experts, GAIPE, 
interviewed witnesses and analyzed what cell phone data and other 
evidence they could obtain from the Public Ministry. While the data 
they analyzed represented only a small fraction of what is known to 
exist, it included thousands of text messages that revealed a great 
deal.
  There is now little doubt about the identities of at least some of 
the intellectual authors who conceived of and paid for the 
assassination of Berta Caceres; yet the Public Ministry has failed to 
act on this evidence, perhaps because it implicates DESA executives 
with ties to officials in the Honduran Government.
  As I said on October 31, 2017, when GAIPE released the report of its 
investigation:

       [t]his damning report corroborates what many have 
     suspected--that the investigation of Berta Caceres' murder 
     has been plagued by incompetence, attempts to stonewall and 
     deflect blame to protect those who conceived of and paid for 
     this plot, and a glaring lack of political will. The Public 
     Ministry needs to fully disclose, without further delay, all 
     testimony and electronic and ballistics evidence to the 
     Caceres family's legal representatives and defendants' 
     lawyers, as required by law. The Ministry also needs to 
     ensure that every piece of evidence is properly safeguarded, 
     and to follow the evidence wherever it leads to arrest those 
     responsible. It is shameful that despite intense domestic and 
     international pressure, this horrific case has languished, 
     while those responsible have sought to derail it. And there 
     are hundreds of other Honduran social activists and 
     journalists who have been similarly threatened and killed, 
     whose cases have not even prompted investigations.

  It is important to note that the GAIPE report indicates that the 
evidence not only implicates DESA executives and employees, as well as 
Honduran state agents, in the surveillance, spreading of false 
information, and plot to assassinate of Berta Caceres; the evidence 
also reveals other crimes such as obstruction of justice, abuse of 
authority, and unlawful association. The report documents the shocking 
extremes to which the company was willing to go, including murder for 
hire, in pursuit of its financial goals.
  In addition to immediately disclosing the evidence to the Caceres 
family and others who are entitled to it under Honduran law, the Public 
Ministry should act on the petition of the Caceres family's legal 
representatives to arrest the intellectual authors.
  The Public Ministry should immediately ensure that all electronics 
and other evidence is adequately safeguarded to eliminate any risk of 
tampering. For whatever reason, much of the evidence is reportedly in 
the possession of the National Directorate of Investigations and 
Intelligence, and given the history in Honduras of evidence 
disappearing or being destroyed

[[Page S7153]]

or stolen, and witnesses being intimidated and killed, securing the 
evidence in this case is imperative.
  The Honduran Government should take whatever steps are necessary to 
protect the leaders of COPINH, whose lives remain in jeopardy. The 
government's past responses to requests for protection have ranged from 
inaction to ineffective.
  The Agua Zarca concession and other hydro or extractive concessions 
that were obtained without the consent of local people whose lives or 
territory would be adversely affected should be cancelled. The Honduran 
Government needs to substantially reform the way it reviews and grants 
such concessions, which have too often been the product of corrupt 
dealings that resulted in environmental degradation, social unrest, and 
violence.
  The assassination of Berta Caceres, as outrageous and tragic as it 
was, presented the Honduran Government with an opportunity to show that 
justice is possible in such cases and that even people who hold 
positions of economic or political privilege and power can be held 
accountable. Instead, we have witnessed more of the same--important 
evidence being mishandled and possibly even ignored and withheld from 
those entitled to it. A partial investigation that resulted in the 
arrest of those who reportedly carried out the crime, followed by 
months of silence without identifying those who were behind it. This is 
not acceptable.
  Over the past 2 years, President Hernandez and other top Honduran 
officials have traveled to Washington to lobby for Honduras's share of 
U.S. funding for the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity of the 
Northern Triangle of Central America. Among other things, they have 
earnestly voiced their commitment to human rights and respect for civil 
society. They are going to find out that action, not words, are what 
matter.
  Over the past 2 years, the U.S. Congress has provided a total of $1.4 
billion to support the plan, of which a significant portion is for 
Honduras. I supported those funds because I recognize the immense 
challenges that widespread poverty, corruption, drug trafficking, gang 
violence, and impunity pose for those countries. These problems will 
not be solved by building a wall along our southern border or deporting 
tens of thousands of Central Americans currently living in the United 
States.
  I mention this because the assassination of Berta Caceres brings U.S. 
support for the plan sharply into focus. Today that support is in 
jeopardy.
  It is why those responsible for her death and the killers of other 
Honduran social activists and journalists must be brought to justice.
  It is why Agua Zarca and other such projects that do not have the 
support of the local population must be abandoned and replaced with an 
inclusive, transparent process that complies with international 
environmental and social safeguards.
  It is why the Honduran Government must cease its attempts to 
undermine the work of the Mission to Support the Fight against 
Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, MACCIH, which has begun to 
investigate the link between the assassination of Berta Caceres and 
corrupt dealings between DESA and Honduran state agents.
  It is why the Honduran Government must finally take seriously its 
responsibility to protect the rights of journalists, human rights 
defenders, other social activists, COPINH, and civil society 
organizations that peacefully advocate for equitable economic 
development and access to justice.
  Only then should we have confidence that the Honduran Government is a 
partner the United States can work with in addressing the needs and 
protecting the rights of the Honduran people, particularly those who 
have borne the brunt of official neglect, corruption, and violence for 
so many years.
  Today any hope that the Honduran Government may have of continued 
U.S. assistance under the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity will 
hinge in part on the outcome of the Caceres case, concrete actions that 
demonstrate support for the legitimate role of civil society and the 
independent media, and real reform of the justice system.
  (At the request of Mr. Schumer, the following statement was ordered 
to be printed in the Record.)

                          ____________________