One year after the world was shocked by the brazen assassination of prominent Honduran Indigenous activist Berta Caceres, her murder remains unsolved and justice elusive. Now, controversial changes to Honduras’ penal code criminalizing protesters and protecting abusive state forces — coupled with already high rates of violence and impunity — provide a dangerous breeding ground for more cases like that of Berta Caceres in the future.
Earlier this week, sweeping reforms of the country’s penal code were introduced in the Central American country, sending warning signs for environmental and human rights activists.
Protest movements, in particularly human rights advocates and anti-government protesters in the Honduras, are already heavily oppressed and criminalized by the state. Now the new changes will raise the definition of anti-government protests to acts of terrorism.
Honduras already has one of the highest rates of violence and impunity in the region. According to UNODC’s latest homicide report from 2013, Honduras had a staggering murder rate of 90.4 people per 100,000 people. While many of these murders can be attributed to gang-related violence, the country also has the mantle of the deadliest country in the world for environmental activists. According to the international rights organization Global Witness, 120 land and environmental defenders have been killed in Honduras since 2010, and dozens of others have suffered threats, attacks and intimidation.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2015 described conditions of “structural impunity” in Honduras, with data from 2013 showing that 80 percent of murders in the country go unsolved.
Under the institutionalized changes, state forces including the military and police will now be given legal immunity to protect them from prosecution for using weapons in the line of duty. While there is significant alarm from rights groups that the changes will allow impunity for the arbitrary use of force — including in cases of extrajudicial killings and torture — state forces have welcomed the changes.
Honduras has a dark history of military and intelligence abuses, including allegations of death squads operating in police and military ranks in the wake of the 2009 U.S.-backed military coup against former President Manuel Zelaya. Many activists, including members of Caceres' COPINH organization, have warned that the Cold War-era death squads that kidnapped, tortured and assassinated opponents right-wing government in the 1980s have made a comeback in the country in recent years.
President Juan Orlando Hernandez has repeatedly noted that state forces have been happy with the recent penal code reforms.
In developing the reforms, in addition to holding discussions with judicial bodies, Hernandez also sought the input of FUSINA, an inter-agency task force launched in January 2014 that brings state forces and prosecutors under military control.
FUSINA, initially led by Colonel German Alfaro, a graduate of the infamous U.S. School of the Americas, has raised alarm both for merging agency functions under a military mandate and for boasting U.S.-backed intelligence capacities. It has also sparked fears of a rebirth of the U.S.-backed death squads of the 1980s. Understandably, rights groups have been concerned about the influence FUSINA had in the penal code reform. Hernandez backed and praised the special unit for informing the changes.
Indeed, Carceres’ yet-to-be-solved murder is a concerning example of state forces role in targeting activists. While many have long suspected the role of state forces in the murder, a new investigation detailed how out of the eight suspects arrested in connection with the murder, three had previously served in the Honduran military and had links to U.S.-trained special forces.
More disturbing, however, are reports that Caceres was at the top of a military hit list, which also included other Indigenous, environmental and political activists and had been handed over to FUSINA. At the time of her death, Caceres was under internationally-mandated police protection because of previous death threats, but her supporters suspect foul play from authorities.
In response to Caceres’ death, the representatives in U.S. Congress last year introduced the “Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act,” which demands that Washington condition aid more rigorously so that the country could be stripped of U.S. aid supporting security training, equipment and loans if Honduran authorities fail to meet human rights standards.
The act, however, remains in limbo. Although some have argued that the issue is a double-edged sword as cutting funding could have the unintended effect fueling further violence and impunity within already under-resourced and unstable institutions, many point out that a large chunk of U.S. funding support corrupt state security forces implicated in human rights abuse and promote corporate interests that fuel land and resource conflicts.
A recent report by Global Witness called for the U.S. to implement conditions on aid to Honduras and halt investment in industries linked to violence until crimes such as Berta Caceres' murder are brought to justice.
The report also echoed the demands of many Honduran social movements in calling for Honduran authorities to guarantee the protection of land and environmental defenders and prosecute the perpetrators of crimes against activists.
Unfortunately, by further criminalizing activism as "terrorism" and institutionalizing impunity for state security forces that abuse their power, Honduras' new penal code steers the country in the opposite direction.