Friday, July 5, 2013

Human Rights Crisis in Río Blanco / Crisis de Derechos Humanos en Río Blanco

Military in Río Blanco community in unmarked truck without plates.
en español 


To the Honduran and international media
To national and international human rights authorities
To the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
To the President, Congress and Supreme Court of Honduras
To the Honduran public and international community

We are extremely worried about the deterioration of the already volatile situation in Rio Blanco, in particular the militarization of the area and recent accusations made in the Honduran media against indigenous Lenca community members and their supporters by the police and the SINOHYDRO and DECA companies who seek to build the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River near Rio Blanco. Blood has already been shed and there is grave danger of a broader bloodbath in the near future. Many media reports have irresponsibly repeated serious claims and accusations that police themselves admit have yet to be corroborated and we have serious questions regarding the official version of events and express our concern in the strongest terms possible about the potential worsening of violence, intimidation, repression, criminalization and legal persecution.

We are a 15-person delegation of international Human Rights observers organized by La Voz de los de Abajo, an organization that has been working for 15 years accompanying social justice movements in Honduras and reporting on human rights violations. Our delegation is made up of teachers, youth and experienced human rights observers from Chicago, Illinois, United States. We are in communication with the United Nations Working Group on Paramilitary Activity and members of the United States Congress as well as human rights monitors around the world. We visited Rio Blanco on July 2nd and 3rd, 2013 to investigate allegations of human rights abuses, intimidation and violence faced by the indigenous Lenca community of Rio Blanco because of that community’s opposition to the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam by the Chinese company SINOHYDRO and the Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos (DECA) as well as the allegations made against Rio Blanco community members, the Rio Blanco Indigenous Council, and the organization with which the community is affiliated, the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), including its General Coordinator Berta Cáceres.
COPINH coordinators Berta Cáceres and Doña Pascualita conversing 
with Río Blanco Indigenous Council about the cultural and spiritual
significance of the Gualcarque River for the Lenca indigenous
people and the non-violent struggle to defend it

Our delegation was able to interview dozens of members of the community of all ages, representatives of the Rio Blanco indigenous council and COPINH, as well as police, military, administration and personnel of DECA and SINOHYDRO, and community members employed by the company. We were witness to a lengthy and democratic discussion by over 100 community members facilitated by the Indigenous Council of Rio Blanco together with COPINH about the offers made by the company to the Rio Blanco community. We were witness to the community’s overwhelming decision not to accept anything less than the withdrawal of the Agua Zarca dam and the foreign companies seeking to build it and repeated insistence on their right to consultation and respect for their cultural and spiritual rights under Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization of the United Nations. 

The community has been blocking one of the access roads to the site for the dam construction for over 90 days. Numerous community members including children, youth, adults and elders during separate interviews shared the same concerns and versions of events about numerous acts of repression and intimidation that have occurred since the beginning of the blockade including:

Children who are present every day at Río Blanco blockade listening in
and participating in assembly of Indigenous Council and COPINH about
company offers. These children told of being threatened by military/police

  • Over 150 police and military appearing at the blockade on Sunday June 23rd and pointing high caliber automatic weapons at small children and elders
  • Police and military arbitrarily entering the homes of many community members and circulating the community with heavy armament intimidating community members
  • Residents of a nearby community allegedly employed by the dam company intimidating people at the blockade, arriving at the site appearing drunk and wielding machetes and making death threats to community leaders and supporters
  • A machete attack on one community member leaving him in grave condition missing part of his hand and with a severely disfigured face. This community member was in the hospital at San Pedro Sula at the time of our visit
  • The targeting of supporters of the blockade by military and police operations, the most recent of which was on the first day of our delegation’s visit when Berta Cáceres and other members of COPINH on their way to Río Blanco were stopped, told to all exit their truck, yelled at and searched, as has happened on numerous other occasions  
  • Death threats against Berta Cáceres, Aureliano Molina, Tomas Gomez, Francisco Javier Sanchez, Lucio Sanchez and other members of the community
  • Close collaboration with private security by the national police and military, who are supervising the company’s privately contracted guards and are being housed and fed by the company as well as using company vehicles. We believe this negatively affects any possibility of the military and police acting objectively and it serves as a further intimidation of the community who see the company as controlling the national security forces. 

Human rights delegation interviewing engineer for Agua Zarca dam as
well as police, military and community members collaborating with them.
On the morning of July 3rd we conducted a thorough interview with police, military and company administration and personnel as well as community members who were with them on company property and were identified to us as family of the person accused of the recent machete attack. The police and dam engineer claimed that on the night of Saturday June 29th there were shots fired at the site of dam construction next to the Gualcarque River and that the night of July 2nd (the night before we interviewed them) at approximately 8pm there were shots fired at the cafeteria and offices for the company at the site across from the blockade. Our delegation was present at the blockade until 7pm at which point we went to the town of Rio Blanco because a severe storm with a heavy downpour of rain and loud and frequent thunder and lightening that lasted well into the night. According to the engineer and police version of events, they heard shots and hit the floor, though they mentioned nothing of the thunder and rain storm that was taking place at the exact time of the alleged gun fire and showed us no bullet shells or bullet holes. They explicitly blamed Berta Cáceres, General Coordinator for COPINH, for inciting the alleged violence, saying, “every time she comes something happens.” They had no answer when asked if she was present before the alleged gunfire on Saturday. They had nothing to say about the judge throwing out their last case against her due to lack of evidence. Our delegation explained that throughout the meeting at which she was present on Tuesday afternoon she repeatedly reminded people that the Rio Blanco struggle has been and must remain a non-violent struggle. Our delegation asked the police, military and company personnel if they had interviewed any community members opposed to the dam about the alleged violence and they said that they had not. Our delegation asked them if they had looked into the possibility of involvement from potentially competing interests in the Gualcarque River such as the Grupo Terra energy company associated with Miguel Facussé’s son-in-law Freddy Nasser, which has expressed interest numerous times in building a dam on the Gualcarque River. They responded that they had not. Our delegation asked if they would be providing jobs to those community members that had been collaborating with the company. They said that they would provide as many as they could, looked at the community members who were amongst them and nodded reassuringly.

As we were finishing the interview, two truckloads of additional police from Santa Barbera bearing high caliber automatic weapons arrived and they informed us that more were on the way, supposedly to investigate the alleged gunfire of the previous night.

Military in company truck at Agua Zarca plant headquarters.
The day after we left, accusations appeared in the mainstream Honduran media accusing the community of Rio Blanco and COPINH of somehow making their way past all of the police, military and private security and burning down part of the infrastructure of the dam site. The police appear in these reports also accusing COPINH and Rio Blanco community members of additional gunfire. The mainstream media reports are using the word “terrorism” and denouncing community members for supposed use of violence, mentioning only briefly that community members repeatedly say that their struggle is non-violent and the only thing they carry are the machetes they carry as work instruments.  The only firearms our delegation saw or heard of the entire time we were present in the community, at the blockade, in the very small houses of key community leaders and around the site of the company were the high power weapons wielded by the army, police and private security. 

We call into question the credibility of the allegations being made against COPINH and the Rio Blanco community and the credibility of the limited investigations by the police. The police and military we spoke with claimed to be there for the general safety of the area yet are staying on company premises, guarding company property, being fed by the company and are very friendly with both company administrators and the handful of community members employed by the company. The spokesperson for the local residents employed with the company was introduced to us as a family member of the person involved in the machete attack that sent one community member to the hospital. He and the police said that attack was in self-defense because the now-hospitalized community member was supposedly trying to “knock down his house” but said they couldn’t show us any evidence of that supposed attempt and more importantly the police said they had not spoken to any of the other community members opposed to the dam about that incident.

We call for the de-militarization of the Rio Blanco community and surrounding areas and remind the Honduran and international authorities as well as the DECA and SINOHYDRO companies of the duty to consult indigenous peoples about projects that affect them and respect their cultural, spiritual and land rights as is clearly outlined in Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization of the United Nations. We also remind the authorities that Berta Cáceres has precautionary measures from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States as a high-risk target of repression and that unsubstantiated implicit and direct accusations against her, COPINH and Río Blanco community members by police and media are contributing to a climate of fear and intimidation. The numerous death threats against her and other community members and supporters should not be taken lightly nor should the possibility that accusations against them are fuelling these threats and the overall climate of repression, intimidation and criminalization. We fear that the current media campaign is aimed at criminalizing COPINH and the Río Blanco community in order to justify further human rights violations.

As human rights observers we will continue to closely monitor the situation and eagerly await a response from the Honduran state, media, local and national police, the U.S. government (who provides funding to the Honduran military and police), the Chinese company SINOHYDRO, the Honduran company DECA and regional, national and international human rights bodies to the human rights crisis unfolding at Rio Blanco. 

La Voz de los de Abajo
Published from El Progreso, Honduras July 4th, 2013

See call to action with list of contact info for national and international authorities

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