Following the death of longtime land activist Berta Caceres, Honduras has another horrific tragedy to add to its books. The body of 49-year-old environmentalist Lesbia Yaneth Urquia was recently discovered in a roadside bin on the outskirts of Marcala, a small town about 100 kilometers west of Tegucigalpa. A spokesman says that Urquia had been missing since last Wednesday.
— Renata Oliveira (@rboliveira1404) July 8, 2016
As with Caceres, her murder appears to be the result of a botched robbery (someone allegedly tried to steal her bicycle), but many citizens remain unconvinced. Now, four individuals, including current and former members of the Honduras military, have been arrested and taken in for questioning.
Urquia had been fighting construction of a hydroelectric dam in the country’s La Paz region. The dam is owned by the husband of Congressional Vice-President Gladys Lopez, whom one environmental group, the Honduran Council of Indigenous Peoples (COPINH), is holding responsible for the murder. Lopez denies they had anything to do with the murder, going so far as to label the activist a “family friend.”
Urquia was also a member of COPINH. On its website, the organization states:
“The death of Lesbia Yaneth is a political femicide that tries to silence the voices of women with courage and the bravery to defend their rights… We hold the Honduras government directly responsible for this murder… Lesbia Yaneth was a fervent defender of the community rights and opponent of the granting of concessions and privatization of rivers in La Paz… A plan has been put in motion to disappear those who defend nature’s common goods.”
Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world, with approximately 100 murders taking place between 2010 and 2014 alone. Rumors of a military hit-list have run amok since 2009, but according to one former Honduran soldier, a hit-list does in fact exist. Speaking under the pseudonym Rodrigo Cruz, the Sergeant told the Guardian that he and others were trained by U.S. Special Forces and that his unit was given the order to murder Caceres.
“The lieutenant said he wasn’t willing to go through with the order as the targets were decent people, fighting for their communities,” he explained in a recent interview. “He said the order came from the Joint Chiefs of Staff… If I went home, they’d kill me. Ten of my former colleagues are missing. I’m 100 percent certain that Berta Caceres was killed by the army.”
Cruz also identified men such as 52-year-old Vitalino Alvarez, a high-profile member of the United Peasant Movement, as potential targets. Alvarez is one of 123 individuals currently named by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as requiring “urgent protective measures.” Since 2010, he has survived four attempts on his life.
“There’s been a systematic strategy to eliminate the most belligerent social leaders,” Alvarez explains. “Since they killed Berta, the rumors are I’m now at the top of that list.”
Despite these disturbing revelations, some remain skeptical that anything can be done to prevent further bloodshed.
“Cruz’s testimony suggests death squads are targeting political opposition,” says Annie Bird, director of Rights and Ecology. “But the justice system is so broken, and directly controlled by figures implicated in corruption, that there is no one [in Honduras] who can credibly investigate.”