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“The Spirit of the Struggle is in our Veins”: An Update on the Political Persecution of the Guapinol Water Defenders

The criminal justice system in Honduras continues to penalize environmental defenders, and international solidarity is urgently needed.

By UUSC Staff on August 18, 2020

Two years ago, members of the Guapinol community in Honduras set up an encampment to protect the source of their fresh water. The rivers on which thousands of peoples’ lives depend originate in the Carlos Escaleras National Park, and are now threatened by a private developer, Inversiones Los Pinares, which wants to build a mine in the pristine heart of the national park. The protest camp was violently evicted following 88 days of occupation, and since that time the water defenders have not only struggled to protect their natural resources, but have also had to fight for their own freedom from prison.

The Honduran courts and the government have colluded to protect the financial interests of the wealthy, and this weekend they dealt a particularly painful blow. Solidarity and visibility from the international community have been among the strongest defenses against this corruption and impunity and are needed now more than ever.

During the peaceful camp’s eviction, a young water defender was shot and injured by a private security guard. Other encampment members held the guard while awaiting the police, but instead of filing charges against the guard for the shooting, over 30 water defenders were charged for restraining him.

The first 12 water defenders arrested were released in the Spring of 2019, when prosecutors couldn’t prove that the crimes they were charged with had ever been committed at all. The state cracked down harder on a second group of seven water defenders, who have now been in pre-trial detention for almost a full year without any actual hearings in the case against them, while an eighth defender, Jeremías Martínez, has been in detention since December 2018 in the prison of La Ceiba. Their families have been particularly distraught during the COVID-19 pandemic, and their lawyers have filed appeal after appeal for their release.

Last week the Federal Appeals Court finally released their ruling five months after their deadline, and the results are devastating. Not only did it uphold the pre-trial detention of the eight water defenders, it also ruled to reverse the decision that freed the group of 12 and actively re-opened the case against five of them for the same charges. The team of defense lawyers and the Comité Municipal en Defensa de los Bienes Públicos y Comunes de Tocoa (Tocoa Municipal Committee in Defense of Public Goods and the Commons) held a virtual press conference over Zoom on August 15, and gave their argument as to why the decision is entirely political, illegal, and anti-constitutional.

“The court’s decision reaffirms the clear alliance between the public prosecutor [Ministerio Público], the judicial branch, and the private sector, to punish all of those who dare to defend the natural resources of Honduras,” declared Edy Tábora, a lawyer on the legal defense team. “This case is not only about Guapinol. The case is emblematic of all of those that fight for their rights against extractive projects in their territories.”

These latest developments have occurred as the Honduran government and President Juan Orlando Hernández have used COVID-19 as a pretext for martial law and to allow for the harassment and silencing of activists, like the kidnapping of Garífuna activist leaders one month ago who had been protecting their territory from hotel developers and African palm plantations. While communities face hunger during a nation-wide lockdown, government officials embezzle aid funding and the police and military officers roam freely, acting with impunity.

Meanwhile, the pandemic is providing cover to Inversiones Los Pinares and Ecotek as they plow forward with the construction of the open-pit mine in the Carlos Escaleras National Park and an iron pelletizing plant across the river from the Guapinol community. For the community, any act of protest during the pandemic would immediately lead to further repression and criminalization.

UUSC has accompanied the Guapinol water defenders, both physically and in spirit, since 2018. Soon we’ll follow up with specific actions requested from the organizers on the ground in Honduras. For now, you can call your Members of Congress at their D.C. office, (find Senators and Representatives and their contact info at these links) ask for the foreign policy staffer for Latin America, and express the following:

My name is [name], I am from [location], and as a constituent of [Senator/Representative] I urge your office to call the State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Honduras to express concern over the abuse of the Justice system in Honduras against the Guapinol water defenders. 

If you get the staffer’s e-mail address, you can follow up with an e-mail containing a link to this blog and the legal team’s press release in English and Spanish.


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!

Photo Credit: Radio Progreso

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