Central America Theater

Accused author of Berta Cáceres murder on trial

The trial of the alleged mastermind behind the March 2016 murder of environmentalist Berta Cáceres began in Honduras on April 6. Cáceres was slain when a squad of gunmen invaded her home at the village of La Esperanza, Intibucá department. A visiting Mexican friend, Gustavo Castro, was also shot but survived. Cáceres had been campaigning against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project, then under construction by company Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA). Four of eight defendants were each sentenced in December 2019 to 34 years in prison for the murder of Cáceres, and 16 years for the attempted murder of Castro. Three others were sentenced to 30 years as co-conspirators in the crime. In the new trial that opened in a Tegucigalpa court, a former DESA president and military intelligence officer, Roberto David Castillo, is charged with being the "intellectual author" of the murder.

Indigenous water protector slain in Honduras

On March 21—the eve of World Water Day—an indigenous activist who was leading the fight against construction of a hydroelectric dam was shot dead in front of his family in Honduras. Juan Carlos Cerros Escalante, a member of the Lenca indigenous people, was gunned down directly outside the church at the pueblo of Nueva Granada, in the Caribbean coast department of Cortés. He was on his way to visit his mother, and his children were beside him. Cerros Escalante led the local group Communities United, which is mobilizing residents along the Rio Ulúa to oppose El Tornillito hydro-dam. The pending project would displace 10 communities in the departments of Cortés and Santa Bárbara.

Nicaragua: armed colonists invade indigenous lands

In a video conference with representatives of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) March 18, indigenous leaders from Nicaragua's eastern rainforest protested an illegal "invasion" of their titled territories by armed campesino colonists, who seize lands, clear trees and terrorize their communities. The four-way computer link brought together IACHR representatives in Costa Rica and Washington DC, Nicaraguan government officials in Managua, and Miskito and Mayangna indigenous leaders in the rainforest town of Bilwi, North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region. The Miskito and Mayangna leaders said 13 indigenous residents were killed by settlers last year, with eight wounded and hundreds forcibly displaced. One of the worst attacks was in January 2020, when colonists burned 16 houses in the community of Alal, and killed six inhabitants. As recently as this March 4, an attack on the Mayangna community of Kimak Was left one resident wounded and another missing.

Guatemala: protesters set fire to Congress building

Thousands protested in Guatemala's capital Nov. 21 against a newly approved 2021 national budget that imposes deep cuts in funding for health care, education and programs to combat malnutrition—at a time when the country is hit hard by natural disasters and COVID-19. One breakaway group of protesters hurled improvised incendiary devices at the Congress building, setting it on fire. Police used batons and tear-gas to push protesters back, attacking not only the some 1,000 in front of Congress but also a much larger demonstration in front of the National Palace. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemned what it called an "excessive use of force" by the National Civil Police, while the government of President Alejandro Giammattei accused the protesters of "terrorist acts" that will be "punished with the full force of the law." (NYT, Al Jazeera, Prensa Libre, Prensa Libre)

Villagers abandoned in Eta's deadly aftermath

Some 150 are dead, with remote indigenous and campesino communities left stricken and without aid, a week after Hurricane Eta tore through Central America. Eta made landfall south of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, as a Category 4 storm on Nov. 3. Two güiriseros, or artisanal gold-miners, were among the first killed, as a landslide inundated the mining camp of Tigre Norte in Bonanza municipality of Nicargua's North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region. Far worse was to follow in Guatemala, where officials have called off the search for dozens believed to have been buried when a mountainside collapsed, engulfing the hamlet of Queja. Ovidio Choc, mayor of San Cristobal Verapaz municipality, said the site of Queja will probably be declared a cemetery. Elsewhere in Guatemala's Maya Highlands, villagers have had to mobilize their own rescue and recovery efforts, effectively abandoned by the government.

Nicaragua: sweeps target opposition activists

Over 30 opposition figures were detained by the National Police in nationwide sweeps across Nicaragua on Sept. 26. Most were released after questioning, but some are still being held. The majority of the detained were members of a newly formed opposition body, the National Coalition, which brings together three political parties and several dissident organizations. Among those detained were 17 indigenous Rama and Kriol (Afro-Nicaraguan) activists from the Caribbean coastal department of Río San Juan. Included in this group were prominent Kriol environmentalist Princess Barberena and Jaime McCrea Williams, president of the Territorial Government of Rama & Kriol. In Managua, police surrounded the offices of the Maria Elena Cuadra Movement, which advocates for the rights of working women, and interrogated the group's representative Sandra Ramos when she arrived on the scene.

Maya villagers attacked by gunmen in Guatemala

Q'eqchi Maya campesinos in Guatemala's central Alta Verapaz department were attacked by a group of unknown gunmen who violently evicted them from their homes before setting them to the torch on Aug. 16. At least 40 families lost their homes in the attack at the hamlet of Balbatzul, in Cobán municipality. President Alejandro Giammattei said National Civil Police troops have taken control of the hamlet, and the Fiscalía has opened an investigation. Some of the targetted homes were on occupied lands of a large farm, Finca Cubilguitz, which appears to have been at issue in the conflict. Local campesinos moved onto the lands last year, but leadership of the occupation has been contested between followers of the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC) and ex-guerilla commander César Montes.

Ex-Salvador military officer goes on trial in Spain

A former Salvador military commander, Inocente Montano, went on trial in Spain this month, accused of ordering the murder of six Spanish Jesuit priests in 1989. Two Salvadoran women were also killed in the incident. Montano was formerly held in the US, but was extradited to Spain in 2017. Ex-colonel Montano was the vice-minister of public security in El Salvador during its civil war from 1979-1992. Montano commanded troops believed to be responsible for at least 1,169 human rights violations. Additionally, prosecutors believe Montano was part of the paramilitary group La Tandona. This far-right group of military leaders carried out extrajudicial executions of those who supported a peace deal with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerillas.

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