A new report by the watchdog group Global Witness suggests that state institutions co-opted by business and political elites helped transform Honduras into the world's most dangerous place for environmental activists, highlighting how criminal networks can turn development projects into deadly illicit enterprises.
The report by Global Witness -- an organization that investigates how corruption and the exploitation of natural resources drive environmental and human rights abuses -- says that 123 environmental activists have been killed in Honduras since 2009, when a coup ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya.
According to the report, "Nowhere on earth are you more likely to be killed for protesting the theft of land and destruction of the natural world than in Honduras."
Over the course of two years, Global Witness interviewed dozens of witnesses and conducted extensive research to better understand the "economic and political forces" behind the murders. These investigations helped produce five specific case studies -- three of which involved the murder of an environmental activist -- that highlight how corrupt and criminal acts allowed "well-connected Hondurans to push through their business deals at a huge cost to whole communities and the environment."
While each study details a specific case, the sheer influence and power of Honduran business and political elites is a constant theme. In one study, Global Witness alleges a "clear conflict of interest" for Honduran National Party President and Vice President of Congress, Gladis Aurora López, in two hydroelectric dam projects that violently repressed the community members who opposed them.
According to documents leaked to Global Witness, López's husband, Arnold Gustavo Castro, is the sole director of Inversiones Encinos S.A. and Inversiones Aurora S.A., the two companies that own the Los Encinos and La Aurora hydroelectric dam projects. Global Witness alleges López's political influence helped the companies illegally obtain contracts for the projects while she was in Congress. Under a Honduran law cited by the report, the government is not authorized to grant members of Congress or their spouses contracts or concessions granted by the state.
Instead of bringing economic development to the area, the allegedly illegal dam projects appear to have brought a wave of deceit and violent repression.
After heavy machinery arrived for construction of the Los Encinos dam, residents of Santa Elena "organized a series of peaceful protests" demanding that the company formally consult with those who would be affected. In response, community members allege that López backed an attempted violent eviction of Santa Elena's residents where they were "shot at, had their crops destroyed and belongings set on fire."
This came after three indigenous activists who opposed the dam in Santa Elena were murdered. One was found dismembered, while reports described another who was found with burns across his body and his hands bound with military boot laces.
To quell the opposition, eyewitnesses told Global Witness that López allegedly arranged for "almost 600 Salvadoran nationals" who were promised work on the Los Encinos dam to sign agreements to the concession of the dam as if they were part of the communities to be affected. When Global Witness reviewed the document outlining the consultation, however, the signatures were missing.
For three years, the Lenca Indigenous Movement of La Paz (Movimiento Indígena Lenca de La Paz Honduras - MILPAH) filed requests to the Sant Elena Mayor's office for the signatures. It also filed a complaint with the anti-corruption prosecutor. But the mayor's office never disclosed the list and eventually said it had lost it, suggesting what Global Witness described as a "deliberate effort by authorities to cover up the fake consultation on the dam."
When Lo?pez was asked to comment on these allegatons, Global Witness reported that she "denied any involvement in the consultation meeting for the Los Encinos project or in the violent police incursion of September 2014." Regarding the contracts that Congress approved for the projects, Lo?pez and her husband both denied any conflict of interest or illegality.
InSight Crime Analysis
Economic development can be a messy business, especially in places like Honduras where endemic corruption and impunity expose vulnerable communities to the possibility of exploitation. Through forming criminal structures that use violence and corruption, some business and political elites appear to have taken advantage of these development projects for their own enrichment.
The situation became particularly acute, according to Global Witness, following a 2009 coup in which then-President Manuel Zelaya was deposed. In the aftermath, business and political elites solidified control over certain industries and development projects, exploiting the country's resources and violently repressing communities occupying the land.
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While corruption and impunity are a given in Honduras, it seems that economic development projects are increasingly being used, at times illegally, to enrich political elites. And Honduran accountability systems have shown difficulties in holding allegedly corrupt officials accountable. As Global Witness outlines, accountability systems that have been put in place, such as the law preventing concessions to members of Congress and their spouses, have been ineffective. Elites have either ignored these laws all together or found ways around them through corruption.
Finding ways to battle corruption and impunity is no new challenge in Honduras. And while efforts are already underway to reform state institutions, their long-term effectiveness in combatting corruption and violence surrounding economic development projects remains to be seen.