TEGUCIGALPA-What began as an attempt to honor assassinated human rights and indigenous leader Berta Caceres at the very river she lived to protect, ended in an attack on the hundreds of supporters who traveled the 5 hours to the Gualcarque River in the Lenca community of San Ramon, Intibuca for the memorial ceremony. Community leader Caceres was assassinated on March 2, 2016 following years of death threats and the failure of the Honduran government to provide protection for her as obligated under protection measures designated to her by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, a division of the Organization of American States (OAS). In 2009 the OAS booted Honduras from the organization following a military coup that preceded a wave of government and military violence against the people of Honduras. The country was reinstated in 2011 under heavy opposition from human rights groups.
Photos: KGNU News
A group of Desarrollos Energéticos S.A.(DESA) backers-and identified by locals as employees of the Honduran company building hydroelectric projects along the river-met the international delegation at the fork in the road leading down to the river. DESA is currently building hydroelectric projects that are opposed by the majority of the locals because the projects are destroying the pristine mountain area as it blasts into the sides of mountains to install cement foundations and barriers for these projects. Those living in the immediate area showed support for the international delegation of mourners asking them to stay. One woman came out and said, “Just ignore [the DESA backers] and keep walking.” Two other households in the immediate vicinity provided drinking water to the delegation.
Opposition to the dam projects also comes out of the projected displacement of communities from their ancestral land and the predicted displacement from the expected flooding of entire communities. The armed DESA supporters met the international delegation and attacked the unarmed delegation that included pregnant women and children both as they arrived and to a greater extent as the delegation attempted to leave the area after the ceremony. Several of the memorial participants were injured.
The DESA supporters confronted the mourners with raised machetes while yelling threats but also attacks on the late Caceres and eventually submitted to throwing rocks at the delegation despite the presence of about a dozen National Police officers. The attackers held nearly identical signs penned using language, spelling, and penmanship of someone likely educated outside of the community where not even a small store exists to support the needs of the people.
Attackers capitalized on the opportunity to speak to cameras saying that they wanted education, electricity, and jobs that DESA has promised but stopped short of saying that they wanted clean water-a major achievement of the work of Caceres and the group she founded, Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). “Get out COPINH!” and “No more Berta!” were heard coming out of the group of attackers as they attempted to provoke those who came to mourn Caceres who continued to walk in the direction of the river.
Additional National Police arrived on the scene which concerned the delegation because of the common practice that government paid employees who in practice are used to protect corporations and by extension, their profits. Upon dissension to the river by the international delegation, both police and military were seen surrounding the storage facility holding piles of cement bags.
A traditional Garifuna memorial ceremony took place at the river with song and dance and a traditional fire. Banners bearing a likeness to the late Caceres and messages of support were set in the area for the ceremony while police watched from an area higher in the mountain.
A more violent attack happened as the ceremony was leaving the area and mourners attempted to board buses back to the capital. Several of the delegation were injured with rocks and machetes and were hospitalized.
Vitalino Alvarez, longtime human rights defender and land rights activist was one who was injured and told KGNU that he was attacked by the group with rocks and machetes. He held his face that bore a large contusion while his leg bled from having been slashed with a machete. He was taken to an area hospital for treatment.
No arrest was made by police of those who attacked drawing heavy criticism by the injured and by witnesses. COPINH has since denounced the attack but also pointed to the history of violence that the group has experienced in the past that also has resulted in impunity. On this occasion however, hundreds of international observers were witnesses to the violence.