Honduras elites is the responsibility of violence against environmental activists

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After the murder of at the least 123 activists since 2009 military takeover, the Global Witness group points to involvement of politicians and business moguls

High-ranking politicians and business tycoons are implicated in a wave of violence against environmental activists in Honduras, according to an investigation by the anti-corruption group Global Witness, which says the countrys elites are using criminal methods to terrorize communities with impunity.

At least 123 land and environmental activists have been murdered in Honduras since a military takeover dtat forced out the populist chairperson Manuel Zelaya; many of the victims have been members of indigenous and rural communities opposing mega-projects on their territories.

The murder last year of human rights and indigenous activist Berta Cceres, recipient of the prestigious 2015 Goldman environmental prize, triggered international censure but failed to stop the bloodshed.

Cceres was shot dead after years of death threats and country persecution linked to her campaign to stop the internationally funded Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque river, which is sacred to the Lenca people. Two of her colleagues have since been killed.

Desarrollos Energeticos SA( Desa ), the private company behind the dam, was awarded the project without any community consultation. Company records obtained by Global Witness for the first time reveal that the companys board of directors includes influential political, military and business leaders.

The company president, Roberto David Castillo Meja, is a former military intelligence officer and employee of the Honduran state-owned energy company. Before her death, Cceres told Global Witness that Castillo had offered her a bribe to stop campaigning against the dam, research reports says.Castillo has denied trying to bribe her.

The company secretary, Roberto Pacheco Reyes, is a former justice minister, while the company vice-president, Jacobo Nicols Atala Zablah, is president of the BAC Honduras bank, and a member of a powerful business family.

Seven people have so far been arrested for Cceress murder, including 2 Desa employees andactive and former military officers, but the activists family has repeatedly called for the intellectual authors to be held accountable.

Last year, an investigation by the Guardian revealed that Cceress name seemed with dozens of social activists on a military hitlist to be given to US-trained special forces units.

A spokesman for Desa said the company was not involved at any level in Cceress murder.

Since the 2009 takeover, violence has increased dramatically, while successive rightwing governments have induced environmentally destructive mining, agribusiness, tourism and energy projects the cornerstone of the countrys economic growth strategy.

Environmental checks and balances have been watered down or dismissed and hundreds of concessions awarded en masse. Despite this, many of the projects are backed by prominent international financiers and organizations such as the International Finance Corporation and the Inter-American Development Bank.

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Boys fish in water near Barra Vieja, on the northern coast of Honduras. We Garifunas are being persecuted by the government to evict us from our land for their touristic developings, which arent for the benefit of our communities, told Jos Guzmn Niri, from the Barra Vieja Garifuna community. Photograph: Giles Clarke/ Global Witness

A report titled Honduras: The Deadliest Place to Defend the Planet investigated five controversial projects opposed by local communities.

One of the most explosive allegations is of a conflict of interest for Gladis Aurora Lpez, leader of the ruling National party and vice-president of congress.

Lpezs husband controls the Los Encinos hydroelectric project in western Honduras, where three indigenous activists have been tortured and murdered, and two pregnant women were severely beaten by a group of civilians and country forces-out, causing one woman to have a miscarriage.

The licences for Los Encino and another dam were granted in 2010 when Lopez was secretary of congress, even though it is illegal of the membership of congress or their spouses to obtain contracts or concessions granted by the state.

Lpez and her husband deny any wrongdoing. Arnold Castro said that out of respect for the constitution, his wife, Lpez, did not participate in its present session when the contract was approved.

Another high-profile project featured in the report is Hondurass flagship luxury tourism project, the five-star Indura Beach and Golf Resort on the northern Caribbean coast. The report details a wave of oppression including attempted illegal land grabs and false criminal charges against human rights and indigenous Garifuna families who live next to the resort.

The company behind the resort, Desarrollo Turstico Baha de Tela, which has country and private investors, is also implicated in one the countrys biggest recent corruption scandals the theft of $350 m from the Social Security Institute through a network of phantom companies which left sick patients without medicines. Some of those debases funds were laundered through the hotel project, according to documents from the official criminal investigation obtained by Global Witness.

In addition, the hotel project was loaned $20 m from a consortium of regional banks led by Ficohsa Bank, whose Panama division is currently under investigation for fund laundering.

The bank is owned by the billionaire Camilo Atala, a former cabinet minister and cousin of the Desa board member Jacobo Atala.

The hotel resort became part of Hiltons luxury Curio Collection in November 2016 after the alleged wrongdoings; there is no suggestion Hilton took part in these events. Desarrollo Turstico Baha de Tela did not respond to the allegations made by Global Witness.

We Garifunas are being persecuted by the government to evict us from our land for their touristic developings, which arent for the benefit of our communities, told Jos Guzmn Niri, from the Barra Vieja Garifuna community.

The report notes that while on rare occasions arrests have been induced, impunity remains the norm. This has induced Honduras the most hazardous country in the world for environmental and land rights defenders.

Billy Kyte from Global Witness told: Our investigations uncover how Honduras political and business upper-class are using corrupted and criminal means to cash in on the countrys natural wealth, and are enlisting the support of state forces-out to murder and terrorise the communities who dare to stand in their way.

Despite growing international outrage about the violence, Honduras still receives millions of dollars of US aid.

As Honduras biggest aid donor, the US should help bring an end to the bloody crackdown on Honduras rural population. Instead it is bankrolling Honduran state forces-out, which are behind some of the worst assaults, told Kyte.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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