After Berta Cáceres, another Honduran Indigenous environmental activist murdered

The bloody campaign against opponents of Honduras’ right-wing president, Juan Orlando Hernández, continues, as worldwide resistance to the slaughter of indigenous and environmental activists reaches the halls of the U.S. Congress.

On Wednesday afternoon, July 7, the body of Lenca indigenous environmental activist Lesbia Yaneth Urquía was found near the municipal dump of the town of Marcala, about 190 kilometers west of the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. She had either been shot or hacked to death, according to different reports.

Ms. Urquía was a member of COPINH, the Civic Council of People’s and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras-the same organization formerly headed by Berta Cáceres, also an indigenous Lenca, who was shot to death on March 3. Urquía, like Cáceres, had been actively involved in organizing protests against mining companies that have been building dams in Honduras to provide water for their environmentally-destructive activities.  

Tomás Gómez, the coordinator of COPINH, dismissed the idea that this was a simple crime without political ramifications. Rather, he says, it was an attempt to silence opposition to the activities of extractive industries and their political allies. Since the coup d’état which ousted leftist President Manuel Zelaya in June 2009, more than 100 environmental activists have been murdered in Honduras, many in the same La Paz district where Ms. Urquía lost her life.

This new horror comes at a moment of increased controversy over the Cáceres murder. On June 21, the British Guardian newspaper posted a story based on an interview with a Honduran army officer, who was not named and is now in hiding. The officer, a non-commissioned man who was part of a militarized police unit, the Inter-Institutional Security Force, or FUSINA, reported that in 2015, he had seen lists of opposition activists distributed to the troops and marked as people to be assassinated. Berta Cáceres was one of the people whose name appeared on a list.

This would have been scandalous enough, but the military units which received these lists had been receiving training from the United States Marines and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Presumably, this training was paid for by the money that the United States has been sending to Honduras – $200 million supposedly assigned to “improve security” and thus prevent the arrival of children and families trying to flee violence at U.S. borders. The tendency in Honduras to subordinate policing to the military has been seen by Hondurans and others as a very alarming development, but the money has kept flowing nevertheless. 

On the day after the Guardian article appeared, the Honduran government hotly denied the accusations about the hit list, and threatened to sue the newspaper for slandering the country. However, Annie Bird, an expert in the repression of environmental activists in Honduras, quickly demolished Defense Minister Samuel Reyes’ claims, presenting detailed evidence of the existence of the units among which the death lists were said to have been circulated and much more.

Last month, the Honduran government reported the arrest of five men for the murder of Berta Cáceres, evidently giving up their original attempt to claim the attack was carried out by rival members of COPINH. The men include one active service military officer, Major Mariano Díaz, who had been trained by the U.S.-supported TESON training program, and Sergio Rodriguez, the former head of community relations for DESA, the main company involved in building the Agua Zarca dam. This is the project Cáceres had been protesting against at the time of her death.  The overall impunity rate for such murders in Honduras, however, remains high.

International calls for an end to U.S. support for the Honduran military and security forces continue to mount, including a new statement from the AFL-CIO. The U.S. State Department has at long last announced that it will look into the Guardian‘s accusations about hit lists, though details of what such an investigation will encompass are yet to be revealed.

Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., the organization 300 with Dignity (300 con Dignidad) urged the U.S. Congress to pass the “Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, HR 5474. This law, sponsored by Rep. Henry “Hank” Johnson (D-Georgia), now has 20 co-sponsors in the House and calls for a complete suspension of military and security aid to Honduras.

Members of the public are urged to contact their congressional representatives and insist that they support HR 5474.

Photo: Honduras’ largest tribe, the Lenca, protest a proposed hydroelectric dam in October 2006. Lesbia Yaneth Urquia, who also fought the dam, was assassinated.  |  AP 


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.