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The Legacy of Carlos Escaleras Looms Large Over Current Tensions in Honduras
By Leonardo Valenzuela Pérez & Suhra Nahib on October 19, 2020
Header Photo: Douglas Escaleras, Carlos Escaleras’ son, awarding the Carlos Escaleras National Prize to the Comité en Defensa de los Bienes Públicos y Comunes de Tocoa in 2019 (Credit: Radio Progreso)
October 18 marked 23 years since the assassination of Carlos Escaleras Mejía, a trailblazer Honduran environmental activist and progressive politician. Escaleras’ testimony as a defender of the Guapinol river has been a model for the Guapinol defenders of the Comité Municipal en Defensa de los Bienes Públicos y Comunes de Tocoa who are currently resisting the development of destructive mining operations. UUSC has been committed to support the Guapinol defenders in their struggle to protect their water and their territory.
Escaleras’ activism gained prominence in the mid-1990s, leading a campaign against the construction of a palm oil extraction plant near the Guapinol River. The polluting plant project was led by Miguel Facussé Barjum, one of the wealthiest men in Honduras at the time, and threatened the livelihoods of several communities in the municipality of Tocoa. Los Pinares and Ecotek, the mining companies that the Guapinol defenders are resisting today, are owned by Ana Facussé Madrid and Lenir Pérez Solis, daughter and son-in-law of Facussé Barjum.
Miguel Facussé Barjum attempted to bribe and threaten Carlos Escaleras several times, Escaleras was running for Mayor of Tocoa for the Democratic Unification Party at the time. After Escaleras rejected the bribes and ignored the threats, two hitmen went to the gas station where Escaleras worked and shot him three times on the evening of October 18, 1997; he was rushed to hospital but died shortly after the attack. The role of Facussé Barjum in the killing has been documented, but he did not face legal consequences.
Similarly to what has happened to many other human rights and environmental defenders killed during the last decade, like Margarita Murillo and Berta Cáceres, Honduran courts failed to adequately prosecute those responsible for the murder of Carlos Escaleras and incurred in gross denials of justice. This case was taken to the Interamerican Court of Human Rights that sentenced the Honduran state in 2018 for their responsibility in the violation of Escaleras and his family’s basic rights. As part of the negotiation of reparations, the Honduran state accepted to rename the Montaña de Botaderos National Park to Carlos Escaleras National Park.
Ironically, it is the Carlos Escaleras National Park that the Guapinol defenders are now protecting against the extractive projects of the Facussé family. Although the Honduran Court of Appeals ratified last week that the protests organized by the Guapinol defenders are lawful, dismissing charges against 11 of them, another eight are still facing criminal charges even after spending more than one year in illegal pre-trial prison.
The Guapinol Defenders, organized in the Comité Municipal en Defensa de los Bienes Públicos y Comunes de Tocoa, received last year the Carlos Escaleras National Prize in recognition to their excellence in the defense of land and nature, the same spirit that has them currently nominated as finalists, together with Berta Cáceres (posthumously), to the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize. UUSC celebrates the memory of Carlos Escaleras Mejía as an international example of courage in the defense of human rights and the environment, and recognizes his legacy in the defenders of the Guapinol River. We reaffirm our commitment to support the fundamental work of these environmental defenders and reiterate our call for their immediate liberation from their unjust imprisonment.
About UUSC: Guided by the belief that all people have inherent worth and dignity, UUSC advances human rights globally by partnering with affected communities who are confronting injustice, mobilizing to challenge oppressive systems, and inspiring and sustaining spiritually grounded activism for justice. We invite you to join us in this journey toward realizing a better future!