Sierra Club SF Chapter: Are Bay Area reps helping Honduras get away with murder?

Last June investigative journalist John Gibler wrote a comprehensive and disconcerting story about the assassination of my aunt Berta Cáceres, titled “Under the Gun: An Investigation Into the Murder of Berta Cáceres.” Bertita, as she was known to her friends and family, was a vibrant Honduran woman who was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015. She was given the prize for leading the struggle against the Agua Zarca dam, which was being built illegally on indigenous land. The project is owned by Desarollos Energéticos S.A. (or DESA), a company partially controlled by the Atala family, one of Central America’s wealthiest. The Atalas have close ties to the government; in fact, dam officials were using Honduran military and police to protect it from protesters.

In the Sierra magazine article Gibler asks, “Will those responsible get away with murder?” Today, several months after the piece went to print, and 19 months after her murder, my family and I believe the answer is a resounding “yes.”

Why are we so pessimistic? The biggest obstacle to change is our own U.S. policy. Some in Congress — including some of our very own Bay Area representatives — want to continue supporting a corrupt government charged with human rights abuses (and with documented ties to drug traffickers) that is aggressively curbing freedom of expression, speech, and press.

On March 2, 2017, the first anniversary of Bertita’s murder, Georgia Representative Hank Johnson introduced H.R.1299 the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act. This legislation would deny the government of Honduras $18 million in security aid until human rights violations by Honduran security forces cease and their perpetrators are brought to justice — including Berta’s killers and the masterminds behind the plot. The legislation would also deny Honduran police and military further training, which they have been using to repress peaceful dissent and commit human rights abuses.

Supporting and passing this legislation does not mean U.S. presence will disappear from Honduras as is often argued by those against the bill. The $18 million targeted by H.R. 1299 is a drop in the bucket of the total amount of aid we provide Honduras yearly. The U.S. also has military personnel and support staff at several facilities around Honduras.

What this legislation does do is send a message to the government of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández that the U.S. will not tolerate the systemic corruption, kleptocracy, impunity, and human rights abuses against land defenders and other rights advocates, as has been repeatedly documented by the press and NGOs. We should not support a government that Global Witness called “The Deadliest Country in the World for Environmental Activism” in a report earlier this year.

Sounds like a no-brainer, right?

I traveled to Washington seeking more support for the bill on Capitol Hill from Bay Area Democrats. I was dismayed at some of the responses I got from foreign-policy aides. “If we don’t engage we think it will be worse,” is what I heard from Representative Jared Huffman’s office. What’s worse than the assassination of a mother of four who spoke against the injustices being committed against the Lenca indigenous population and who became a hero to thousands in a place that doesn’t have heroes? What’s worse than a country whose justice system is bankrupt with an impunity rate of 95 percent? What’s worse than a corrupt president stealing money from social security for his party’s use? What’s worse than a government, police, military, and justice system that repeatedly stifles freedom of the press and criminalizes free speech?

The mere fact that I was born in the United States over four decades ago is proof that U.S. policy in Latin America since the Cold War began is utterly flawed and that a change is needed; In the early 1970s my parents fled Honduras and Guatemala after the U.S. supported and shored up military dictatorships, some of which have since been charged with human rights abuses based on evidence provided by the U.S. government itself. This trend continues today, which begs the question we should all ask our congressperson:

“How many more Bertas have to die before we change our policy?”

Representative Huffman — who was endorsed by the Sierra Club — wants to continue to support the Hernandez government, though he has signed on to letters critical of it. Representatives Matusi, Bera, Garamendi, Thompson, McNerney, and Swalwell have all remained silent on the matter for now.

After John Gibler’s story for Sierra went to print and was posted online, he had to update it. Berta’s daughter, 26-year-old Bertha Zúniga Cáceres, had been elected to head the organization her mother co-founded. As she was out meeting an indigenous community that requested the organization’s help, machete-wielding men chased her and attempted to run her off the road. Luckily she escaped unharmed, though terrified. No one was ever arrested. The incident was an ominous message we already knew: no one is safe from harm.

Berta’s death doesn’t mean she is gone; we are all Bertas. Like seeds planted in an immense fertilized garden she prepared, we are ready to rise up and be heard. Let’s make sure our elected officials take notice.

What You Can Do:

Write to your Bay Area congressperson and ask them to support H.R.1299 the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act. (Barbara Lee and Mark DeSaulnier have both signed on already and Nancy Pelosi has supported the legislation.)

Congressman Jared Huffman (2nd District):
Contact Scott Rasmussen at or 202-225-5161

Congressman Mike Thompson (5th District):
Contact Jennifer Godke at or 202-225-3311

Congressman Eric Swalwell (15th District):
Contact Carly Reed at or 202-225-5065

By Silvio Carrillo

Photo: Berta Cáceres, courtesy Goldman Environmental Prize

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