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Violence Against Indigenous Hondurans Shows Us What Fuels Migration

The United States government bears direct responsibility for the violence—militarizing the region and ensuring U.S. corporations can extract profit and resources.

People carry the coffin of indigenous leader and environmental activist Berta Caceres, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, March 3, 2016. (Photo: CNS/EPA/Stringer)

People carry the coffin of indigenous leader and environmental activist Berta Caceres, Tegucigalpa, Honduras, March 3, 2016. (Photo: CNS/EPA/Stringer)

A little more than a week ago, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led a three-day Congressional delegation to Central America. They visited Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Texas to “promote regional stability” and explore the causes of and possible solutions to migration from Central America to the United States. Frankly, it’s long overdue. But it’s also all the more important to finally look at the root causes of migration, instead of just blaming and criminalizing the migrants.

Why do migrants and refugees keep coming north? To find the answer, let me describe an incident that happened last week in Honduras. As Congressional leaders were boarding their plane to Texas, I was receiving frantic voice and text messages from Grassroots International’s partner the Black Fraternal Organization in Honduras (OFRANEH): “Please help us. In this moment, two cars with armed people are entering Vallecito. The people of Vallecito are terrified. Please help us.” The Afro-Indigenous Garifuna are in a fight for their lives and land — offering a concrete, chilling example of what exactly fuels migration.

On August 2nd, six to eight armed men fired upon three Garifuna community members forcing them to flee their homes along the Honduran coast. Since then, their community at Vallecito, which includes dozens of children, has sheltered in terror as bands of thugs carrying assault weapons have cut through fences, rolled up in cars, and fired indiscriminately at them. The situation is critical. In the words of one Garifuna activist, “at any moment there could be a massacre.”

As Grassroots International’s Solidarity Program Officer for Latin America, I have accompanied and supported the Garifuna and OFRANEH in their struggles for years. Vallecito is sacred for the Garifuna. Although a chronic target for attack, it is also a symbol for reclamation and resistance among the ancestral territory that has been stolen from them. This most recent assault has come after a resurgence of narco-traffickers in the area. For years, narcos had used the Garifuna’s tree cover and easy access to the coast to run drugs — including at one point through a clandestine airstrip. Members of OFRANEH believe drug-runners are now trying to steal back the land Garifuna have been able to reclaim.

The Honduran government, in bed with narcos and corporate raiders, has a deep apathy and antipathy towards the Garifuna. “Repeatedly the police have told us that they know these people and they are ‘friends with them,’” Miriam Miranda, a leader in OFRANEH, said of the response to the recent assaults. “Unfortunately, what we see is that there is no political will on the part of the State to protect our projects and our lives. The truth is that they want us to leave.”

After a 2009 coup against the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya government, the new right-wing President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) handed out up to a third of the country’s land for mining, and gave out hundreds more land concessions for hydroelectric dams.

Besides the narcos’ illicit trade, the Garifuna’s coastal lands have also been targeted for tourism, a naval base, palm oil plantations and oil and gas extraction — all with government approval. Miriam herself has been detained twice in the last six months by the Honduran National Police, treated like a criminal merely for traveling around her own community’s land. This harassment clearly violates Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ orders for the government to protect Miriam and allow her to continue her work.

Violent land grabs like these drive migration: cause and effect, push and pull. Back in 2014, Humberto Castillo estimated half the Garifuna population between 12 and 30 years old had left Honduras. As Miriam said, Garifuna “are going to the United States, leaving our land, because they are attacking us here.”

The Garifuna aren’t alone. After a 2009 coup against the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya government, the new right-wing President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) handed out up to a third of the country’s land for mining, and gave out hundreds more land concessions for hydroelectric dams. These resource grabs and the ensuing violence, especially against Indigenous People, turned Honduras into the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activism. The 2016 murder of Berta Cáceres, the Indigenous Lenca activist who fought the Agua Zarca dam, and the dozens of other murders since, were one sordid result. The mass migration of Hondurans to the U.S. was the other.

The United States government bears direct responsibility for the violence — militarizing the region and ensuring U.S. corporations can extract profit and resources. The Obama administration backed the military coup, lobbying international bodies to recognize the new, illegitimate government. Since then, Hernández has received our bipartisan support, even as Honduras’ murder rate skyrocketed. Most recently in late 2017, the Trump administration again backed JOH while Honduran streets filled with huge protests against election irregularities and the government responded with violence.

Honduras is just one example. The U.S. is aiding governments across the region that abet land-grabbing corporations and criminal elements, or that perpetrate violence themselves. It is rank hypocrisy for the U.S. to foster this bloodshed and instability, and then shut the gates on the very people we forced to flee.

Ms. Pelosi raised the plight of Indigenous Peoples and the fight against corruption and impunity during her remarks in Honduras last week. She is right to say, “You cannot have prosperity unless you promote justice,” and it was good that she mentioned the murder of Berta Cáceres. But as Berta’s family and our partner, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), told her, Honduras is “a country that expels hundreds of people every day by denying them a dignified future… with the regrettable support of the U.S. government.”

If we’re serious about finding solutions to the migrant crisis, we must address the violence driving it. This starts with solidarity with communities like the Garifuna currently under attack. But it also must acknowledge and end the violence our own government perpetuates — both by immigration officials and by proxy support for despotic allies. That’s why Grassroots International and our allies not only support an end to deportations and detainment. We also support the Berta Cáceres Act, which would suspend U.S. military and police aid to Honduras until “human rights violations committed by Honduran security forces cease and their perpetrators are brought to justice.”

“Passing the Berta Cáceres Act is the first step toward doing the right thing in seeking justice for our societies and preventing more deaths and displacements in Honduras,” COPINH wrote in their statement to the delegation. “It is the right way to ensure that children and young people should not leave their country to seek the future of prosperity and dignity that they should have in their own land.”

Jovanna Garcia Soto

Jovanna Garcia Soto is the Solidarity Program Officer at Grassroots International, a public foundation that partners with social movements to create a just and sustainable world by advancing the human right to land, water and food through global grantmaking, solidarity and advocacy.

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