Central America Theater
Fears are being raised for the security of activists and rights observers in Honduras following the March 3 assassination of indigenous leader Berta Cáceres. Amnesty International has issued an urgent call for Honduran authorities to allow Mexican human rights defender Gustavo Castro Soto, sole witness to the murder, to leave the country. Castro, who works with Amigos de la Tierra México, had been staying at Cáceres' home to witness in the event of an attack, and she is reported to have died in his arms. He was also wounded in the attack, although not gravely. Three days after the slaying, he was detained by authorities at the Tegucigalpa airport while attempting to board a flight for his country. Officials from the Mexican embassy arrived at the airport, and succeeded in securing his relase to embassy staff. He now remains at the embassy in Tegucigalpa, despite demands of Honduran officials that he return to Intibucá department, where the slaying took place, to be deposed. He has already provided testimony and fears for his safety in Honduras, according to Amnesty. (Amnesty International, March 7; La Jornada, March 6)
Berta Cáceres, a prominent indigenous rights activist in Honduras, was slain by unknown gunmen who invaded her home at La Esperanza, Intibucá department, on March 3—the day before what would have been her 46th birthday. One of her brothers was also injured in the attack. Cáceres, director of the National Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize last year for her campaign to stop the Agua Zarca hydro-electric project in the Río Gualcarque watershed. Authorities said she was killed during an attempted robbery, but her family said that Cáceres was assassinated "because of her struggle." (NPR, ICTMN, La Prensa, Honduras, March 3) The killing sparked angry student protests at National Autonomous University of Honduras in Tegucigalpa, with police using tear-gas. (The Guardian, La Prensa, March 4)
A retired lieutenant colonel and a former paramilitary were sentenced to 120 years and 240 years in prison, respectively, for sexual slavery and other crimes against humanity during Guatemala's civil war. In a Feb. 26 ruling, Judge Jazmin Barrios found that the actions of retired Lt. Col. Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón and former paramilitary Heriberto Valdez Asij did "irreparable harm." Reyes and Valdez were tried for murder, forced disappearances and the sexual enslavement of multiple women. The court also found that the women's husbands and children had been forcibly disappeared.
This January marked 84 years since the 1932 uprising of rural peasants and Communist Party organizers and the state-led genocide that followed in El Salvador. Indigenous organizations in the country gathered in the western departments of Ahuachapán and Sonsonate to remember those lost and call for justice. "For us, this is a painful moment. They killed many defenseless people. Our grandparents cried for justice, they couldn’t stand the hunger, the misery, the slavery, and they started to organize,”"Rafael Latin, elected indigenous leader of the town of Izalco, explained. "We have been pushed from our lands since the Spaniards arrived. They took away our collective lands; they tried to eliminate us."
The Supreme Court of Guatemala on Jan. 28 rejected a request to strip a member of congress of his immunity from prosecution for allegedly overseeing grave human rights violations during the country's civil war. Edgar Justino Ovalle is a top adviser to President Jimmy Morales and a member of Congress, which gives him immunity from prosecution. A spokesperson for the court stated that there was insufficient evidence that he participated in the alleged acts. However, the spokesman also explained that the court decided to reject the request "in limine," without further investigation. Edgar Ovalle was accused of having led operations as a military officer in which 77 massacres took place. The request to lift Ovall's immunity came from Prosecutor General Thelma Aldana.
Prosecutors in Guatemala on Jan. 6 announced the arrest of 14 former military and government officials for alleged crimes against humanity committed during the country's 1960-1996 civil war. Among the detained is Benedicto Lucas García, chief of the army High Command under the rule of his late brother, ex-dictator Fernando Romeo Lucas García, between 1978 and 1982. Also detained were retired Gen. Francisco Luis Gordillo, who helped bring José Efrain Rios Montt to power in the coup that toppled Lucas García in 1982, and Byron Barrientos, who was interior minister during the 2000-2004 presidency of Alfonso Portillo. "The cases that we have documented were [attacks] against the non-combatant civilian population including children," the country's chief proscutor Thelma Aldana said, asserting that they were among "the largest forced disappearances in Latin America."
The International Court of Justice on on Dec. 16 recognized Costa Rica's sovereignty over a 2.5-square-kilometer disputed territory on the border with Nicaragua, one of the main claims fought over by the two countries at The Hague-based court. "The sovereignty over the disputed territory belongs to Costa Rica," Justice Ronny Abraham stated. The ruling found that an artificial canal opened by Nicaragua in 2010 through Isla Calero, also called Isla Portillos or Harbour Head Island, was within Costa Rican territory and not part of the common border between the two countries. Justices also unanimously found that Nicaragua violated Costa Rican territory by invading Isla Calero with military personnel, by dredging canals in Costa Rican territory, and by violating Costa Rica’s navigation rights on the Río San Juan. Nicaragua was ordered to compensate Costa Rica for damage caused to its territory.
The Trinidad-based Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) delivered a judgment Oct. 30 in a land-rights case brought by indigenous Maya elders in Belize, finding that the government violated communal rights. The case, Maya Leaders Alliance et al v the Attorney General of Belize, concerned indigenous communities in Toledo district whose lands have been usurped. The case was first brought in the Belizean courts more than 20 years ago. The country's Court of Appeal ruled in 2010 that the Maya do have communal land rights, but failed to order any restitution in the case. Maya leaders then brought suit before the CCJ. In its new ruling, the CCJ wrote that the Belizean government had "breached the appellants' right to protection of the law by failing to ensure that the existing property regime, inherited from the pre-independence colonial system, recognized and protected Maya land rights." It ordered Belize to take positive steps to secure and protect constitutional rights and to honor its international commitments, including its obligations to protect the rights of indigenous peoples.