A $750 million U.S. economic aid package for Central America was touted last year as a way to slow migration into the U.S. by making one of the world’s most violent regions more prosperous.
But the March assassination of indigenous land-rights activist Berta Cáceres has shined an international spotlight on the Honduran government’s abysmal human rights record, casting doubt on whether it can meet conditions for claiming a large chunk of the aid money.
Cáceres’ daughter, Laura Cáceres, 23, said she believes the Honduran military was involved in her mother’s killing. The U.S. has funneled tens of millions of dollars to the military in recent years ― even after a coup in 2009 that helped turn Honduras into one of most violent countries in the world.
Laura Cáceres traveled with other protesters to the U.S. political conventions last month, carrying a giant puppet in the image of her mother that towered over the crowds. They rallied support for a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives that would cut all U.S. security aid to Honduras until there’s an independent investigation, along the lines of the probe into the abduction of 43 missing students in Mexico.
“The United States is financing these soldiers and police, and training them too,” Cáceres told The Huffington Post.
The legislation, authored by U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), has dozens of Democratic backers, but has slim chances of passing. Regardless, U.S. funding for Honduras looks increasingly unlikely to move forward, as the Cáceres assassination continues to raise questions about the government’s human rights record.
Last year’s U.S. economic aid package, often referred to as the Alliance for Prosperity, for the Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, was sold as a way to curb a flood of migration from those countries by making them more livable. The three nations, known collectively as the Northern Triangle, are among the world’s most violent, bogged down by the legacy of civil wars, U.S. military intervention and out-of-control gang violence.
A large chunk of that money will go to civil society groups. Funds intended for the three governments carry restrictions. The State Department must certify that the governments have made progress on human rights, corruption and other criteria before receiving half of that money.
All three governments have major problems, but Cáceres’ killing has elevated foreign concern over Honduras, much in the same way that the 43 missing students case catalyzed an international movement against the Mexico government’s impunity. Last year, the State Department declined to certify Mexico’s progress on human rights, which was necessary to obtain some 15 percent of the annual U.S. security aid through a drug-war package called the Merida initiative.
The State Department has until Sept. 30 to decide whether to recommend granting the Honduran government’s aid. So far, none of the money has changed hands, according to Tim Rieser, foreign policy aide to U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
“As a practical matter, none of these funds are moving at this time,” Rieser told HuffPost. “There are too many questions, too many concerns.”
Even if the State Department concludes that Honduras has made progress, Leahy, who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, may continue to block the funds unless the Honduran government agrees to an independent investigation into Cáceres’ killing. So far, the Juan Orlando Hernández administration has balked at such a probe.
“A key question is whether or not there will be further progress in Barta Cáceres’ case and others like it, and whether the Honduran government is going to agree ― as Sen. Leahy and others have been urging ― to an independent, international investigation into who was responsible for her assassination,” Rieser said. “It requires the cooperation of the Honduran government, but so far the Honduran government has refused.”
Berta Cáceres received some 33 threats to her life for protesting the construction of dams on indigenous land. She and the group she founded, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, contended that the concessions to private companies to build the dams were granted illegally in 2010 because the government never consulted the local communities.
“We woke up one day to find our rivers sold off,” Laura Cáceres told HuffPost. “But people don’t want to give up their land. A lot of times this is the first time a police officer has ever visited these communities and they come to repress them.”
On March 3, gunmen killed Berta Cáceres in the town of La Esperanza. Despite international attention, killings continue of environmental defenders in Honduras.
Activist Nelson García was killed days after Cáceres. Lesbia Yaneth Urquía, who had worked with Cáceres,was found dead last month, bearing a machete wound to her skull.
The killing prompted Spanish newspaper El País to refer to Honduras a “field of death for environmentalists.” Some 114 environmentalists have been killed in the country since 2010, the year after the coup, according to watchdog group Global Witness.
The threats have continued as well. Recently, a military truck pulled alongside a car carrying several leaders of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras and tried to run it off the road, Laura Cáceres said. The soldiers told activists in the car they were looking for the people who killed Berta Cáceres ― which Laura Cáceres said she viewed as a threat.
U.S. military aid drops
In 2015, the U.S. sent $18 million to Honduran security forces in counter-narcotics funding, according to a May report by the Congressional Research Service. By next year, that figure will have dwindled by a third to $12 million.
A spokeswoman from the Department of Defense declined to explain the reasons for the drop, but wrote in an email that the counter-narcotics support consisted of “non-lethal equipment, infrastructure and training.” The State Department vets military and police units that receive support, the spokeswoman said.
That U.S. aid is still far too high, according to Berta Cáceres’ nephew, Silvio Carrillo, who lives in the U.S. and works as a television news producer for Fusion.
“We’re pouring millions of taxpayer dollars to support this government that is very corrupt,” Carrillo told HuffPost. “How much more evidence do you need?”