Central America Theater
El Salvador has deployed a new special unit to fight criminal gangs that are now said to be operating not only in the cities but in rural areas throughout the country. The 1,000-strong Specialized Rapid Reaction Force is equipped with helicopters, armored cars and assault weapons. A mixed unit of 600 military troops and 400 National Civil Police agents, it is charged with "pursuing and neutralizing" the gangs, which are said to have 70,000 members in the country. At an April 20 ceremony to unveil the new force, Vice President Oscar Ortiz said: "The moment has come to stop the scale of violence which has imposed itself in the last few years on our country, and which has created so much blood and sacrifice... We are going to go after them in the countryside and in the city." He added that human rights will be respected. National Civil Police director Howard Cotto pledged the new force will "disarticulate the command structure" of the gangs. (BBC News, Reuters, La Prensa, Honduras, April 20)
On May 2, authorities in Honduras arrested four people in connection with the March murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres. As part of an operation code-named "Jaguar," police arrested the four in different locations around the country, including the capital Tegucigalpa. Two were members of the security forces: Mariano Chávez, a Military Police major; and Edilson Duarte Meza, a retired military officer. The two others were linked to the Honduran company that is building the Agua Zarca dam on the Río Gualcarque, which Cáceres was leading the campaign against: Sergio Rodríguez Orellana, a manager for social and environmental issues with the company, Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA); and Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, a former security guard hired by DESA for the dam project.
Nearly 15,000 converged on Guatemala City on Earth Day, April 22, the culmination of a cross-country march by peasants and popular organizations to demand local rights over access to water. Marchers set out April 11 from Tecun Uman in the southern coastal department of San Marcos, and from Puruhá, Baja Verapaz, in the central highlands. The March for Water, Mother Earth, Territory and Life was called to "defend water resources against the voracity of agro-industry and extractive industry," according to a statement form the indigenous organization Winaq. The statement said the movement "condemns the abusive, inhuman and impune use of by companies linked to agro-industry and extraction of metals, and the commercialization of the same." The statement called access to water an "elemental human rights," and called for it to be enshrined in Guatemala's constitution.
In a meeting with the NY Daily News editorial board April 9, Hillary Clinton insisted that the 2009 overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya in 2009 was not an illegal coup. In an exchange later broadcast on Democracy Now, journalist Juan González cited evidence from released e-mails that then-Secretary of State Clinton was being urged by her top aids to declare Zelaya's removal a military coup—to no avail. Clinton responded:
Human rights group Global Witness last month released figures naming Honduras as the most dangerous country for environmental defenders, based on a finding of at least 109 killed there between 2010 and 2015 "for taking a stand against destructive dam, mining, logging and agriculture projects." The report of course noted the March 3 slaying of Berta Cáceres, a leader of indigenous environmental group COPINH. But this was only the latest in a string of such slayings. Another COPINH member, Moisés Durón Sánchez, was murdered in May 2015 after receiving death threats for defending his community's land rights. COPINH leader Tomás García was shot dead by a military officer in a protest in 2013.
A Guatemalan court convened March 16 for a fourth attempt to try former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity committed in the bloodiest period of the nation's long civil war. Attorneys for the ex-dictator immediately filed motions to delay the trial yet again. Attorneys with the Actin Center for Human Rights (CALDH), representing victims, in turn argued that Ríos Montt and his co-defendant, former intelligence chief Mauricio Rodríguez Sanchez, should be tried separately. Judge Maria Eugenia Castellanos admonished attorneys on both sides over their "resorting to formalities." The co-defendants are charged with the killings of nearly 2,000 indigenous Quiché Maya peasants under a 1982-3 counter-insurgency operation in the Ixil highland region known as "Plan Sofía."
Thirteen Maya villagers are to stand trial in Belize over their expulsion of a settler they said had illegally encroached upon the grounds of an archeological site. A trial date of March 30 has been set in the case of the "Santa Cruz 13," who were arrested in a police raid of their village in June—days after expelling Rupert Myles from the Uxbenká site in southern Toledo district. Among the 13 charged with "unlawful imprisonment" is Q'eqchi Maya community leader Cristina Coc. Villagers say Myles illegally built a house on the grounds of the site against the wishes of the community, and Belizean authorities failed to respond to their call to have him removed. Villagers admit they restrained Myles when he became unruly at a community meeting that had been called to work out the matter, but deny his claims that they assaulted him. They also deny his charge that they are discriminating against him because he is Creole. Myles, who has a common-law wife in the Maya village, built his house on the Uxbenká site after being denied a request to do so on village lands. Village authorities say the decision was made based only a shortage of available land.
Honduran activist Nelson Noe García Lainez was murdered March 15, becoming the second member of the indigenous environmental group COPINH to be shot to death in the country over the last two weeks. He was gunned down at his home in the Rio Lindo community, Francisco de Yojoa municipality, Cortés department—12 days after the shooting death of COPINH co-founder Berta Cáceres. COPINH said that García was shot upon arriving home after a violent eviction by Military Police of a peasant community on disputed lands at Río Chiquito, in nearby Omoa municipality. A statement by the National Police said the slaying was unrelated to the eviction and the matter is under investigation. The community at Río Chiquito was established two years ago to reclaim lands that local peasants say were fraudulently taken by landlords with the complicty of corrupt officials. Human rights groups in Honduras and around the world have demanded the protection of COPINH members since the assassination of Cáceres. (COHA, March 16; TeleSur, El Heraldo, Tegucigalpa, El Tiempo, San Pedro Sula, March 15)