A leading Honduran environmental defender who opposed a controversial mining project that he thought would poison his people’s water supply was killed by unknown gunmen in his home this week.
Arnold Joaquin Morazán Erazo defended his community against an open pit mine that began operating in 2012 and allegedly polluted a local river, turning the local tap water brown.
Nearly 150 environmental defenders have been killed in Honduras with near total impunity in the last decade. Fourteen environmentalists were killed in Honduras in 2019, the most killings per capita of any country, according to the annual Global Witness report on threats to environmental defenders.
Other environmental defenders from Morazán’s town of Guapinol have been threatened, detained and targeted by smear campaigns for opposing the mining project, say locals.
“We’re all worried about what happened yesterday,” said Gabriela Sorto, an activist who worked alongside Morazán to protect the community’s local water source. “It shows us the level of risk that we face because we’re not even safe in our own homes.”
Honduras is one of the most violent nations in the region, and corruption in government is rife. The town of Guapinol sits very near the country’s northern coast, some 200 miles from the city of San Pedro Sula. Honduras is a major transit nation for cocaine heading to the United States, and Guapinol sits near valued coastline used by traffickers moving drugs north. Criminal interests can often fuse with those of powerful business and government elites.
The Guapinol case fits into a “pattern of violence, harassment, and intimidation directed towards human rights defenders in Honduras” and “illustrates the government’s tendency to favor economic interests over human rights,” according to a September 2020 report by the International Human Rights clinic at the University of Virginia.
Earlier this year, five young men were abducted from the town of Triunfo de La Cruz, on the same stretch of coast as Guapinol. Locals there think the kidnapping was orchestrated by the powers behind efforts to seize land occupied by local Garifuna communities.
Guapinol locals have protested the mining project since 2012, when the government granted a mining concession to Inversiones Los Pinares, a company owned by Lenir Pérez and Ana Facussé, a powerful couple linked to alleged human rights abuses.
The community says that the permits granted by the government are invalid because the local people were not properly consulted as required by law. They also say the mining project pollutes the nearby river, which provides water to more than 40,000 people.
Morazán Erazo was one of 32 defenders named in an ongoing case on charges related to a protest in September 2018 outside the mine, including aggravated arson, damages against Inversiones Los Pinares, and participating in an illegal gathering that “threatened national security”. Eight of those activists have been behind bars in pre-trial detention for more than a year.
Lawyers say the charges have no basis, and that there is a lack of evidence and discrepancies for some of them: they claim a deceased resident was charged for crimes allegedly committed after his death.
“[Morazán Erazo] always expressed this fear [of violence] and a distrust of the way that the judicial branch was handling the case,” said Jímenez. “It’s not unknown that the company can exercise its power and influence over authorities.”
There are no current suspects for the murder of Morazán. The Honduran Presidency or Inversiones Pinares did not respond to requests for comment.
“Regardless of the individuals that were responsible for what happened last night, you have to put this in context. The Honduran government has an international obligation to protect these people and prevent this sort of violence,” said Camilo Sánchez, director of the International Human Rights clinic at the University of Virginia.
Honduras has failed to meet these standards time and time again, he added. Crimes against land and human rights defenders have increased since a 2009 coup removed leftist president Manuel Zelaya from office and brought a series of pro-business governments to power.
Morazán’s killing came just days after the announcement that the 32 defenders from Guapinol were nominated for the prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament, along with Berta Cáceres, the revered Honduran environmentalist murdered in 2016 who was nominated after her death.
Seven men were sentenced in 2019 to 30 to 50 years in prison for the murder of Cáceres, who led the struggle of the indigenous Lenca people against a controversial hydroelectric dam. The convictions were a rare example of justice for crimes against environmental defenders in Honduras. But the alleged intellectual author of her murder, David Castillo, still awaits trial.
For eight years in a row, Latin America has been the deadliest region in the world for environmental defenders and 2020 is on track to be another deadly year.
Inversiones Los Pinares expressed their condolences for Morazán's death in a statement emailed to VICE News, and called for a peaceful resolution of the dispute between the company and community members. Leaders in Guapinol are now calling for an investigation into the killing.
Cover: People demonstrate for the liberation of 13 convicted environmentalists of the Guapinol community with a banner depicting Honduran murdered environmental leader Berta Caceres as they arrive for a hearing in Tegucigalpa on February 28, 2019. ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images.