Reps. Johnson, Ellison call for independent murder investigation of human rights activist Cáceres

March 17, 2016
Press Release

More than 60 colleagues sign on to effort to hold Honduran government accountable, urging Sec. Kerry to push pause on Central American nation’s security funding pending outcome of review

In the wake of the tragic killing of the Honduran environmental and indigenous leader Berta Cáceres on March 2, Reps. Hank Johnson (GA-04) and Keith Ellison (MN-05), together with 60 House colleagues, today sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew requesting their support in combating human rights violations and rampant impunity in Honduras.

In the letter, members of Congress call for an independent, international investigation into the murder of Cáceres with backing from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The letter was signed just hours before the murder of Berta Cáceres’ colleague and fellow activist, Nelson García, further highlighting the ongoing nature of these crimes and the need for urgent action.

In addition, the letter calls for the full implementation of IACHR precautionary measures for Berta Cáceres’ family, COPINH and key witness Gustavo Castro and the immediate institution of an effective system of protection for Honduran social activists, human rights defenders and members of the political opposition.

The letter urges the State Department and Treasury to carry out a review of the scheduled increase in security funding to Honduras and of U.S. support for multilateral loans to private-sector projects in Honduras.

“The U.S. provides millions of dollars of security assistance to Honduras and yet frequent attacks and killings of environmental activists like Cáceres continue without any effective response from the authorities,” said Rep. Johnson. “It’s time for our government to leverage security assistance and multilateral loans so as to put real and lasting pressure on the Honduran government to protect its activists and pursue those responsible for these hideous crimes.”

“Peaceful activists should be able to speak out without living in fear, or being killed for their work. Berta Cáceres and Nelson García were courageous and extraordinary leaders who fought for Honduras’ indigenous community despite ongoing threats. We’ve waited too long for action already – the U.S. government should pressure the Honduran government to make sure those responsible for these horrific crimes are held responsible,” said Rep. Ellison.

Berta Cáceres – co-founder of the indigenous rights organization COPINH and winner of last year’s Goldman Environmental Prize and one of Honduras’ most prominent activists – was shot by an unknown gunman on March 2 at her home in La Esperanza. She had received numerous threats as a result of the campaign she and her colleagues at COPINH have been waging against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project in the Rio Blanco Lenca indigenous community. Four other COPINH members have been murdered over the last few years.

International Environmental NGO Global Witness reports that Honduras is the most dangerous place in the world for people engaged in environmental activism with 109 environmental activists killed between 2010 and 2015.  In recent years, Honduras has also been identified as one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, legal professionals and LGBTI activists.


Letter below:

March 16, 2016

The Honorable John Kerry


U.S. Department of State

2201 C St NW

Washington, D.C.       


The Honorable Jacob Lew


U.S. Department of Treasury

1500 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW

Washington, D.C. 20220

Dear Secretary Kerry and Secretary Lew:

We write to urge you to act expeditiously to address appalling levels of violence and extreme violations of civil rights in Honduras. We are profoundly saddened and angered by the brutal assassination of Berta Cáceres, and appalled by our government's continuous assistance to Honduran security forces, so widely documented to be corrupt and dangerous.

To combat harsh violations of human rights and a growing culture of impunity in Honduras, we request that the Department of State and the Department of Treasury use all possible resources to achieve the following:

•          Significant pressure on the Honduran government to sign an agreement with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to create an independent international investigation into the murder of Berta Cáceres, as requested by her family;

•          Strong pressure on the Honduran Public Prosecutor to allow Berta Cáceres’ family limited access to the investigation, including proposing independent experts.;

•          Significant pressure on the Honduran government to implement and comply with the precautionary measures granted by the IACHR to Berta Caceres’ family, members of COPINH, and Gustavo Castro;

•          Significant pressure on the Honduran government to immediately institute and fund a system of protection for the social activists, human rights defenders, and members of the political opposition who remain at risk, from providers of each individual’s choosing. This system could be modeled after other systems in place in countries such as Colombia and Mexico;

•          A review of the scheduled increase in funding for the Honduran security forces. We strongly believe that the U.S. government should immediately stop all assistance to Honduran security forces, including training and equipment, given the implication of the Honduran military and police in extrajudicial killings, illegal detentions, torture and other violations of human rights;

•          The review of U.S. support for loans to projects in Honduras from U.S.-funded multilateral development banks, including the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund to ensure no future awards are funding projects in Honduras that undermine the land rights of indigenous people and small farmers; and

•          Significant pressure on the Honduran government to immediately and permanently stop the Agua Zarca dam, following the request made by Senator Leahy.

The murder of Ms. Cáceres, the co-founder and coordinator of COPINH, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, should trigger the strongest possible diplomatic response. She was internationally renowned for her courageous work defending indigenous land rights and opposing environmentally destructive megaprojects.  In 2015, she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.

The killing of Ms. Cáceres fits into a broad pattern of attacks against and targeted killings of Honduran activists, and community leaders since 2009, in which state security forces have allegedly been involved.  COPINH has been a frequent target.  In July 2013, the Honduran armed forces shot and killed Tomás García, a COPINH Lenca community leader, while he was peacefully protesting against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam. Amnesty International reports that Cáceres and other COPINH leaders have been subjected to judicial persecution and have faced "unfounded charges in relation to their actions as human rights defenders."  In 2013, Cáceres was jailed on a falsified charge of weapons possessions, and only freed thanks to the pressure of Amnesty International and an international outcry.

We also note that many other Honduran social activists, members of the political opposition, and human rights defenders have been victims of targeted killings and attacks.  According to Global Witness, Honduras was the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists in 2015.  International human rights bodies including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, the United Nations, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have all documented a dramatic increase in targeted killings of journalists, legal professionals, LGBTI activists, land rights activists, labor activists, Afro-Indigenous and Indigenous activists, and other activists in the years since the 2009 military coup.

Disregarding her family's request, Ms. Cáceres’ body was subjected to an autopsy by Honduran officials without the presence of an independent forensic expert. Such action underscored the danger of allowing the Honduran government--with its established track record of corruption and subversion of the rule of law, including the destruction of evidence--to proceed further in the investigation without independent international oversight.

Honduras and the world have lost an extraordinary advocate for environmental and social justice.  We must now do everything in our power to ensure that her tragic assassination will serve as a catalyst for positive change in Honduras, not just empty promises and more of the same.  Therefore, we urge you to carefully rethink our country’s close and supportive relationship with the Honduran government. 

We look forward to your response to our heartfelt concerns about terrible human rights violations in Honduras.


Henry C. “Hank” Johnson

Member of Congress

Keith Ellison

Member of Congress


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