In La Esperanza, Intibucá, Honduras, the hometown of the murdered indigenous, feminist, environmentalist leader Berta Cáceres, a slogan has taken hold in the 18 months since her assassination. “Berta no se murió, se multiplicó.” Berta hasn’t died, she’s multiplied. There is maybe nowhere that the essential truth of this statement is as obvious as in the communities of Pajuiles, 135 miles to the north of La Esperanza, where the multiplications of Berta’s extraordinary work and life stand clear-eyed in the face of the same forces of capitalism, racism, patriarchy, criminalization, violence, and corruption that she lived and died fighting.
There are ways in which the reverberations of Berta and COPINH’s struggle are stark. Pajuiles is a small place, defending its essential rights to water and, by extension, life, against a hydroelectric project that was imposed on the affected communities by powerful economic interests and corrupt political officials. The escalation of criminalization and police brutality in Pajuiles, much of which we described here, has followed a pattern that we and others recognize from Río Blanco. But there’s also a deeper way that Berta echoes in Pajuiles – in the incredible organization of the community by our partners in the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (MADJ, for its initials in Spanish), and in the often staggering depth of moral clarity present in the struggle.
In terms of our larger analysis of the situation in Honduras, and of the US role here, the situation in Pajuiles brings two things into sharp focus. The first is that the struggles–against displacement, so-called development projects pushed through with a lack of community consent, and environmental devastation leading to public health crises–are not unique to indigenous peoples in the country. There is, of course, something distinct in these crimes when they’re perpetrated against indigenous communities exactly because they’re indigenous. But the same insidious tactics are used against other people in Honduras, with similarly monstrous effects.
A source of constant inspiration for us, though, is that these tactics are also met with the same steadfast resistance, born of the same inherent dignity and the basic moral truth that human beings have not just a right but an obligation to defend their water, their health, and their lives. The members of MADJ, and of the community in Pajuiles have, for more than 160 days, been working tirelessly in an encampment they call the Campamento Digno por el Agua y La Vida – Dignity Camp for Water and for Life – to defend themselves against an increasingly brutal onslaught of economic and political interests. It’s tempting to imagine this as David vs. Goliath, but of course there are thousands upon thousands of Davids in Honduras. We stand in awe of them.
The second way Pajuiles fits into our overall analysis of Honduras is in the role that state institutions and security forces have played there. We’ll start with the Public Ministry (MP), the state prosecutors of Honduras, who receive ample political, technical, and financial support from the United States. For more than a year, MADJ, on behalf of the affected communities in and around Pajuiles, has filed complaint after complaint about the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the Mezapa River. All of these complaints – filed over the course of 18 months and regarding everything from the illegal permit issued to the company, Hidrocep, to the environmental damages the construction has caused, to the threats and harassment against members of the camp – have been met with official silence. It’s equal parts revealing and unsurprising, then, that the moment complaints came from the political and economic interests behind the dam, the MP started judicial proceedings. There have been 18 months of complaints from MADJ and the community without so much as a response, but their members who were arrested on August 15th started their hearings less than two weeks later.
A Capacity Issue?
We hear constantly from the Embassy, in our own meetings with them and on official visits with delegations, about the capacity problems in the Honduran justice system. The support of the United States is necessary, their narrative says, because the root of the impunity in Honduras is that lack of capacity. But what we saw in Pajuiles is what we see time and again. Impunity is a one-way street, and capacity issues seem to magically disappear when the complainants are massive companies or municipal authorities.
This is also true with the police. When we last wrote about Pajuiles, the events of August 15th were occurring in real time, so we should fill in the details here. After the assault on MADJ’s General Coordinator, Martín Fernández, and Óscar Martínez on August 4th and the first wave of arrests on the 10th, members of the encampment were on high alert. At around 6:20 that morning, the first piece of heavy machinery showed up at the site of the roadblock. The community, as it has done for months, prevented it from traveling up the mountain. Less than half an hour later, a second piece of machinery arrived, this time with a police escort.
Stories told by the police and community members widely diverge about everything that happened next, but what is known for sure is that the head of the police in Tela, Alejandro Iglesias, ordered the community to let the machinery through, and they responded by demanding to see his warrant. At this, five people were violently arrested by police with guns drawn, including a woman who is 6-months pregnant, a man in his 70s, and a teenager. Police fired tear gas into people’s homes, and into the encampment itself, including the area where they cook. All of this was done in the presence of children, the elderly, and pregnant women.
When we arrived at about 10:30, there was still a massive contingent of police, including the riot squad, Cobras, and units of the preventative National Police. The atmosphere was tense, but the people we saw, as we’d seen them for months, remained in defiant and pacific resistance. The Cobra commander ordered us to stop photographing the scene there, and it seemed in the general interest to comply given the circumstances, but we did manage to capture a lot of how the scene looked when we got there. Representatives from Honduras’ Human Rights Commission, CONADEH, were on the scene, attempting mediation. We were invited by community members and CONADEH staff to attend an impromptu meeting with Hidrocep engineers, but nobody was at the Hidrocep office when we arrived. We left shortly after the largest group of police. The rest of the day passed without incident.
A Pajuiles community member after the arrests and police brutality on August 15th, 2017. HIs sign reads, “We don’t want a hydroelectric/Hidrosep out.” Cobras and national police in the background.
A group of Cobras with riot gear sit outside Pajuiles, August 15th, 2017.
National Police (left), Cobras (center), and community members (right), at the entrance to Pajuiles, August 15th, 2017.
A Pajuiles community member holds up a bag containing the discarded shells of tear gas rounds, August 15th, 2017.
“We demand the liberty of our compañeros” and “We don’t want a hydroelectric/Hidrosep out.” Signs held up by community members on August 15, 2017. The sign on the right-hand side in the background is from a USAID project in Pajuiles from 2004 – its last line says “Water is a human right.”
Cobras and National Police on the highway outside Pajuiles, August 15th, 2017.
Community members in Pajuiles, with National Police and Cobras in the foreground, August 15th, 2017.
The sheer size of the police presence in Pajuiles the morning of August 15th puts into serious question the capacity issues with Honduran security forces that are repeated constantly by the Embassy. Recall that on the 4th of August, when Martín and Óscar were threatened and beaten by a mob of 20 armed men, alleged to have been paid between 150-200 lempiras each by Hidrocep (somewhere between $6-8), three cops responded, no arrests were made, and no charges were filed. But an enormous number of police from various forces, led by the commander of the police for the Tela Municipality, replete with riot gear, massive armored vehicles, and tear gas, were somehow available for the twin purposes of dislocating the roadblock and escorting Hidrocep’s machinery to the construction sites along the Mezapa River. By some estimates, some 80% of the police force from Tela City were present in Pajuiles on the 15th. Any claims on the lack of capacity for Honduran security forces, like those for the Public Ministry, have to contend with how easily Hidrocep’s owner, Jason Hawit, was able to call upon a small army to dislocate a peaceful encampment opposed to his project. (They also have to contend with the question of priorities. It seems logical that for half a day on August 15th, the city of Tela was indeed faced with a crisis of capacity since the vast majority of its police force was occupying Pajuiles.)
Of particular interest and concern to us as U.S. citizens is the presence in Pajuiles of the Metropolitan Units for Prevention and Counter-Crime Intervention (UMEP, for their initials in Spanish), units of the National Police that are directly funded, trained, and supported by the United States. On paper, these units are designed to bring much-needed reforms to a police force that has historically been associated with corruption, violence, and human rights abuses, based on a model of violence prevention and community policing. As we’ve written before, the UMEPs are held up by people ranging from Embassy and State Department officials to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Enrique’s Journey, Sonia Nazario, as examples of how the U.S. can positively engage with Honduran security forces to bring about important changes and improve the National Police’s abysmal human rights record. That position is used as an argument against the passage of the Berta Cáceres Act, which Witness for Peace and all of our Honduran partners actively support.
We outlined in our previous piece on Pajuiles the essential contradiction in the Embassy’s position of believing it can support only the “good” Honduran security forces. This is made abundantly clear by what happened in Pajuiles, where UMEP units engaged in joint operations with the Cobras, who the United States no longer supports due to their role in widespread and systematic human rights abuses, including forced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings after the 2009 coup. The Embassy’s position on UMEP’s presence in Pajuiles is that they were following a legally issued judicial order. This is the same tired explanation given for the role a different UMEP unit, based in La Ceiba, played in the illegitimate arrests of the Garífuna human rights defender and journalist Geovanny Bermúdez in May and the student movement leader Armando Velásquez in July. Again, the best case the Embassy can make is that UMEP is just doing their jobs by enforcing human rights-violating judicial orders, but this betrays their position that they can train certain units not to violate human rights.
But what’s more in the case of Pajuiles than just UMEP’s involvement in the criminalization of a legitimate human rights campaign is that UMEP units are themselves implicated in human rights abuses. MADJ members allege that UMEP-affiliated police beat the teenaged detainee while he was in custody; treated the pregnant woman violently and kept her entirely under the supervision of male police officers during her time in custody; and kept all of the detainees on both August 10th and 15th in inhumane conditions. If these allegations prove to be true, and as of this writing we have every reason to believe that they are, the case against funding and training UMEP is no longer abstract. The “engagement argument” against the Berta Cáceres Act becomes even more specious when the model counterpoint is beating up kids.
Since the events of August 15th, the preliminary hearings have started in two different cases against members of the encampment and roadblock in Pajuiles. In the first of those, for the ten who were criminalized on August 10th, the hearing is suspended temporarily because the assigned judge in the case is the sister of Tela municipal mayor Mario Fuentes, who is accused by MADJ and the communities of colluding with Hidrocep to illegally approve the project. Citing the conflict of interest, MADJ’s attorneys representing the ten, Víctor Fernández and Ariel Madrid, have taken the case to an appellate court. That court’s answer, and the appointment of a new judge, is expected soon. These ten face the charge of usurpation, the same legal tactic used previously against Berta Cáceres and other members of COPINH, as well as Garífuna leadership and members of OFRANEH. As a result, pending the results of their trial, none of the ten are allowed to leave the country, they all have to check in twice a week with the judge in Tela, and they can’t attend public meetings.
MADJ lawyer Víctor Fernández addresses the supporters of the criminalized Pajuiles residents outside the courthouse in Tela, Honduras. The sign says, “The rivers are not for sale, they’re to be defended. We don’t want a hydroelectric. Freedom for our compañeros.”
In the second case, which involved four more who face charges stemming from the situation on August 15th, the preliminary hearings occurred over the course of three days – August 28th and 29th and September 1st. (Three of those charged are represented by Fernández and Madrid and the fourth, who runs a pulpería in Pajuiles but is otherwise not involved in the movement there, retained separate counsel.) The WfP Honduras team attended the first two days of the hearings as international observers. These four were charged with the very Orwellian-sounding “attending illicit meetings and damages.”*
(*On Friday, September 1st, after this blog was written but before it was published, the judge announced that she was dropping all charges in the second case, a welcome relief and victory for MADJ and the community. Víctor and Ariel deserve immense credit for presenting an impassioned, airtight defense of the inherent right to defend water and life. We hope, maybe against hope, that the judge in the other case will follow this one’s lead, and drop the absurd and trumped-up charges against the community.)
Four of the criminalized Pajuiles residents hold a sign outside the courthouse in Tela. It reads, “For water and for life/we will pursue this to the end/unity and struggle Pajuiles resists.”
Banners outside the courthouse in Tela. The yellow one reads, “The Pajuiles Sector does not restrict free movement/it only protects its water and, with it, life. STOP THE CRIMINALIZATION.”
Last Wednesday, August 23rd, Mario Fuentes held a sort-of town hall meeting that was promoted as a “dialogue” between the various stakeholders in this case. Jason Smith, the human rights and labor attaché from the U.S. Embassy, was present, as were representatives from MADJ, the National Police, Hidrocep, the Catholic and Evangelical churches, the municipality, and the UN. (And us, of course.) At the conclusion of the dialogue, a set of non-binding agreements were signed by the above-listed stakeholders as a proposed way to move forward. Among the most important provisions were the immediate cessation of construction pending further environmental impact assessments and review, and a promise from Mario Fuentes that he would encourage the Public Ministry, who were noticeably absent from the meeting, to drop charges against all those criminalized at Pajuiles. (We have no way of knowing whether Fuentes had anything to do with the results of the illicit meetings and damages case against the four, but we doubt it.)
MADJ General Coordinator Martín Fernández (left) chats with Padre Melo outside the “dialogue” in Tela.
The following day, we were present as Jason toured Pajuiles. While he was there, he saw first hand the incredible ecological destruction that the construction of the dam has already caused to the Mezapa River, heard stories of police brutality from its victims, and saw evidence of the effects the construction has had on the only source of potable water for these communities. This included deeply upsetting photos and video of the taps and showers in people’s homes spitting out sludgy, brownish-orange sand in place of water. Moreover, we all saw clearly the blatant violation of the previous day’s accords in the form of ongoing construction work. That violation has continued unabated since, and it is the very face of impunity. Because they know there will be no meaningful consequences, Hidrocep can go through the PR motions of sending engineers to the dialogue, signing a set of agreements that they know to be non-binding and know they’re going to ignore, and send workers to violate those agreements less than 24 hours later. To this point, there has been no public word from any of the other signatories on the subject.
The erosion of the mountain is clearly visible at one of the Hidrocep work sites. That soil has been spilling into the Mezapa River, contaminating the local water supply. Photo taken during the visit of U.S. Embassy personnel to Pajuiles.
The Active Protagonists of their Struggle
We’ve been working in Pajuiles since very shortly after the encampment and roadblock opened there on March 22nd, and were present for planning meetings with members of MADJ and the communities since September of 2016. Obviously, recent developments have given national and international attention to the struggle there against a litany of human rights violations – of the right to water, the right to health, the right to life, the right to assemble, and the right to a fair trial. For our part, we want to emphasize that as genuinely horrifying as the treatment of the community at the hands of municipal authorities, security forces, and business interests has been, nobody should think of the people of Pajuiles and the surrounding communities as being merely victims. Another critical way that the multiplication of Berta Cáceres is so evident in Pajuiles is in the crystal clarity of the political and moral analysis of the people there, and in the way they’ve taken on the role as the active protagonists in their struggle with extraordinary dignity, an abiding sense of community, and an unwavering commitment to the defense of their basic human rights.
In the course of our year of working with MADJ and the communities, we’ve developed, personally and as representatives of Witness for Peace, such an intense affection and admiration for the people there. For Albertina, Óscar, Angelica, and Silverio. For Chicho, Chanito, Santos David, and Arnaldo. For Don Santos, and Don Carlos. For David and Christian, for Martín, Víctor, Diego, Ariel, Darwin, Marlon, and Mario. And we unequivocally stand with Óscar, Angelica, Arnaldo, Santos, Andrés, Pablo, Regino, Jesús, Germán, and Rufino as they face continued criminalization for standing strong in defense of their water, their health, and their life.
Many of you will have seen our friend Karla Lara performing her song “Que corra el río” on her recent tour of the U.S. with Melissa Cardoza. In the song, which she performed in Pajuiles recently as well as at its sister encampment in Jilamito, Karla asks, “¿De dónde tantas Bertas?” Where do such Bertas come from? We’re certainly no closer to answering that question in the grand scheme than she is, but we can say with absolute confidence that they come from Pajuiles. We’ve seen this community grow, in such a short time, into the face of dignity, grace, strength, and resolve confronting a slew of Goliaths. We don’t know where that strength comes from, but It’s been our sincere and genuine honor to be a small part of it.
Karla Lara performs at a forum on the situations in Pajuiles and Jilamito, Tegucigalpa, August 16th, 2017.
Mass at the encampment, Pajuiles, August 17th, 2017.
Karla Lara performs at an assembly at the encampment in Pajuiles, August 17th, 2017.
How You Can Help
Witness for Peace’s commitment to grassroots organizing means we rely on y’all to continue our work. The ongoing crisis in Pajuiles has taken their share of our time, money, and energy the past five weeks or so, and we’ve relied on WfP’s Urgent Response fund to be able to be present on the days of repression, at the hearings of those criminalized, and at community assemblies and the official dialogue. Witness is currently running a campaign to fundraise for the Urgent Response fund, and your contributions are so dearly appreciated by us and our colleagues in the other WfP program sites. There is a general paucity of international presence in Honduras, and our ability to respond to everything in Pajuiles has been made possible by these types of contributions. We greatly appreciate your support.
As ever, we recommend following MADJ’s Facebook page for updates, photos, and video from Pajuiles. We hope you’ll consider coming and meeting these extraordinary activists for yourself by joining us on one of our delegations next year. And we will be in touch as things develop.
Bryan and Ryan
Witness for Peace Honduras International Team