The Assassinations of Honduran Activists: Where Are the Roots of the Violence?


This month, two indigenous rights and environmental justice activists—Berta Cáceres and Nelson García—were murdered in Honduras. They were leaders of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (COPINH), of which Cáceres was a co-founder. Honduras is known for being the most dangerous place in the world for environmental justice activists, according to Global Witness. But where is the danger rooted—who fuels and funds this violence? Not just the Honduran government, that’s for sure.

U.S. Complicity in the Attacks

Honduras has been an extremely violent place since the 2009 coup that ousted the democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya. Hillary Clinton, then Obama’s Secretary of State, played a key role in supporting the coup. Cáceres herself pointed to Clinton’s role in the coup, criticizing Clinton’s book Hard Choices as essentially being a confession. Clinton used her connections throughout Latin America to pressure the leaders of other countries to support the ousting of Zelaya and recognize the regime replacing it. She also ensured the U.S. gave continuous financial support to the new regime, which went on to brutalize the Honduran people, particularly dissenters and activists. “Since the coup, Honduras has become one of the most dangerous places in the world,” says Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!

As Latin American history professor Greg Grandin says on Democracy Now!, Cáceres’ assassination is just one atrocity of many. “Hundreds of peasant activists and indigenous activists have been killed. Scores of gay rights activists have been killed. I mean, it’s just—it’s just a nightmare in Honduras.”

Transnational Corporations Terrorize Latin American Communities

Democratic regimes like that of the ousted Manuel Zelaya have often worked to nationalize major industries in their countries, particularly those industries that involve the extraction of natural resources. They no longer wish to allow foreign governments and corporations to reap the lion’s share of profits from those industries. This is perceived as a huge threat by politicians and corporations in the U.S. and Canada, who want unfettered control over those industries and resources. When a country’s leaders resist the neoliberal economic agenda that aims to crush any attempts to improve human rights, working conditions, and environmental regulations, those leaders are at risk of being deposed—just as people organizing for such rights are at risk of being attacked or killed.

Assassinations, violent displacements of human beings, and extreme exploitation are carried out by the powerful corporate interests seeking to claim people’s land and resources. In Colombia, four Canadian oil companies and six Canadian mining companies have been linked to genocide, murder, union-busting, and other atrocities against human beings, as researcher Asad Ismi documents in his report “Profiting from Repression: Canadian Investment in and Trade with Colombia.” Serafino Iacono, a key leader and financier of two of these companies—Gran Colombia Gold and Pacific Rubiales—has been connected to major human rights crimes such as the attempted murder of a leader of the National Union of Mining and Energy Workers of Colombia (SINTRAMIENERGETICA). Ismi says, “The familiar pattern in Colombia is that, when a multinational company explores for or extracts a resource, paramilitaries appear to remove obstacles in its way, especially unionists and Indigenous and Afro-Colombians who object to the company’s activities.” A powerful corporate leader like Iacono, who also has connections throughout the government and can bend it to his will, has free reign to threaten and murder any leaders of unions and human rights groups who stand in his way. In Honduras, the very plane in which Zelaya was kidnapped and flown away belonged to Miguel Facussé, known as “the palm oil plantation owner of death,” who played a strong role in enacting the coup.

Those responsible for these human rights abuses are often the same people at the helm of the most destructive extreme extraction efforts that have been springing up in the U.S. and Canada. Iacono is on the board of directors of US Oil Sands, the Canadian company aiming to be the first tar sands mining company in the U.S. that produces a viable fuel, which Peaceful Uprising and our allies have been campaigning against for years. When we fight tar sands in Utah, we are also fighting Iacono’s human rights abuses. We are working to halt an operation that, if successful, could enhance his power south of our border. In the U.S., where many of us face much less severe repercussions for climate justice activism than those in Latin America, we have the responsibility to halt the expanse of corporations causing death and destruction for people whose lives are threatened for fighting back.


The Fast Violence of Corporate Greed

We often talk now about slow violence in social justice circles, because it’s a devastating and too often overlooked reality. But violence fueled by U.S. and Canada-based corporations often comes fast and hard, especially for people in nations south of our borders. The evictions of the Lenca community Berta Cáceres was working to defend came at a devastating speed, with police illegally forcing 50 families from their homes, which were quickly demolished. The Agua Zarga dam that people were being displaced to make way for was a project of Desarrollos Energéticos, SA (DESA), partly owned by the powerful Atala family of Honduras but also supported by World Bank money. Cáceres’ family believes that someone in Agua Zarga ordered her assassination.

Not Just a Honduran Problem

The extreme danger activists face in Honduras and many other hotbeds of human rights violations plays out there, but its roots live elsewhere. It can be found in fancy homes and elite conferences in wealthier nations like the U.S. and Canada, in the disturbed minds of people like Iacono, for whom wealth has cost them their humanity; in the leaders many of us revere who are actually doing the bidding of those powerful corporate interests. This violence is not just a problem of Honduras—it’s a problem that those of us in wealthier nations have the responsibility to stand up to, in defense of land and life throughout the world.

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Image of Berta Cáceres, by Ella Mendoza