I remember meeting Bertha Oliva in Tegucigalpa in the late 1980s, the wall outside her small office tagged with graffiti death threats, gunshots in the night bringing an unnatural stillness to the city center, silencing even the dogs and roosters. Decades of human rights defense later, Bertha Oliva told Congress last week that death squads are back in Honduras. Death squads, like the one that kidnapped her husband back in the 1980s. Death squads, like the ones that threatened her and the Committee for the Relatives of the Disappeared throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s.
Her testimony came less than six weeks after the March 3 assassination of environmental activist Berta Cáceres, and about three weeks after the murder of her fellow activist Nelson García. Other members of the organization that Cáceres and García led, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (Copinh), report that, since the assassinaitons, they been harassed, detained, and followed by cars without license plates.
Besides Oliva, witnesses in the Congressional hearing included Gaspar Sanchez, who three weeks ago escaped with his life after soldiers dragged him away from a protest outside the Honduran Public Ministry and beat him.
The current repression in Honduras began with the 2009 coup, which ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya. While coming from the center-right Liberal Party, Zelaya had blocked a series of hydroelectric dam projects and had incurred the wrath of the military and right-wing. For a contemporaneous account of the 2009 coup, see this News Day post.
Post-coup, human rights abuses multiplied, with threats coming from successors claiming descent from Battalion 316, the military unit notorious for political torture, kidnapping and assassination during the 1980s. TeleSur reported in 2015 that:
“According to [Dana] Frank, [professor of History at the University of California Santa Cruz, and] an expert on human rights and U.S. foreign policy in Honduras, the clearest and most alarming examples of post-coup strategies that follow the model of Battalion 316 are the TIGRES special units of the police force and FUSINA inter-agency task forces that bring together military, police, military police, prosecutors, and other government officials under military control.”
And into this mix comes — U.S. military aid. Of course. $5,250,000 in military and police aid in 2016, despite the Leahy Law, which purports to require suspension of military aid to human rights violators. Aid goes beyond money and weapons — arms sales of more than a billion dollars in 2011 and more than $32 million in 2014, the last year reported. According to The Intercept:
“The U.S. military also maintains a force of more than 600 troops in Honduras, as part of a program called “Joint Task Force Bravo.” U.S. Special Forces play a large role in training their Honduran counterparts. In February, the Wall Street Journal published a video report, showing Green Berets teaching Honduran soldiers how to raid homes.”
As it did in 2009, the U.S. government has paid lip service to human rights, condemning the murders of Cáceres while continuing aid to the Honduran military and police. It’s long past time to make human rights a higher priority than multinational mining and hydroelectric interests.