Gómez Membreño speaks outside of Sen. Durbin's office building. (Parker Asmann)

Honduran Indigenous Leader Asks Sen. Dick Durbin To Help ‘Stop the Assassinations’ in Honduras

Activists say U.S. policy in the region is still leading to violence.

BY Parker Asmann

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A small crowd gathered outside of Chicago’s Federal Plaza Wednesday morning to demand that Senator Dick Durbin halt all security aid to Honduras and instead support an independent investigation into the assassination of Berta Cáceres.

Tomás Gómez Membreño of the Consejo Popular Indígena de Honduras (COPINH) was joined by organizers and members from the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America (CRLN), La Voz de Los de Abajo-Chicago and Witness for Peace before delivering their message. Stan Smith of the Chicago ALBA Solidarity Committee, a group that supports progressive movements in Latin America, said his group was in attendance to show solidarity with the Lenca people of Honduras and the increasing privatization of the nation’s natural resources.

“Tomás and his people are being abused by the government of Honduras,” he said. “And the United States is backing the government in Honduras and what they’re doing since the coup in 2009 has contributed to the problem today.”

Tensions have risen in Honduras after security forces raided the home and murdered environmental activist Berta Cáceres in March, the former General Coordinator of COPINH. After her murder, Gómez Membreño assumed the role as general coordinator and has been leading a speaking tour across the United States to raise awareness about U.S. influence in Honduras.

U.S. intervention in Central America has persisted for decades. Throughout the 1980s the Reagan Administration created various U.S.-backed and funded right-wing rebel groups based in Honduras, known as the contras, to oppose the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Numerous reports were generated that accused the Contras of committing severe human rights abuses with no discouragement from the C.I.A. Many of the contras’ bases were located in Honduras, with the backing of the U.S.-allied Honduran government.

In 2009 amid a constitutional crisis, the United States significantly influenced a military coup by the Honduran Military that ousted then-president Manuel Zelaya. The coup was largely condemned by organizations around the world such as the United Nations and European Union and led to extreme violence in the region that has persisted over time.

Activists say that a major issue in the country today is the continued exploitation of the indigenous Lenca people—specifically with the Agua Zarca Dam, a hydroelectric project that would be situated on the Gualcarque River, sacred land to the Lenca people. The project would create a 300-meter reservoir that would jeopardize water resources and the livelihood of the Lenca.

Senator Durbin is a ranking Democrat on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and a member of the State and Foreign Operations subcommittee. As a result, Durbin wields an unprecedented amount of power over the flow of U.S. security aid to Honduras. The letter presented to Durbin insisted that, “Instead of funding the Honduran security system … , U.S. policy should focus on conditioning human rights in 100 percent of security funding.”

In addition to a halt on funding, Gómez Membreño and the members of COPINH have demanded that the investigation into Cáceres’ assassination be carried out by the independent Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and not the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).

The letter claimed that “the MACCIH is not only closely tied with the Juan Orlando Hernandez administration and thus fails to deliver justice or adequately investigate Hernandez's use of public health funds in his private election campaign in 2014; the MACCIH is also merely an advisory body and has no power to implement any of its recommendations.”

Liz Moldan of the group Witness for Peace, which is in direct partnership with COPINH and helped organize efforts to bring Gómez Membreño to Chicago, held signs in remembrance of Cáceres.

“We are here supporting Tomás and his work and the work of our supporters in Latin America,” Moldan said. “Senator Dick Durbin has direct power on the subcommittee to suspend aid to Honduras, and with that power he can do a lot to moving this movement forward.”

While Gómez Membreño says the continued fight on the ground in Honduras is critical, Americans also have multiple opportunities to act in solidarity with the Honduran people. “Visiblity is very important, making sure that the American people are aware of the problems COPINH and the Lenca people are facing.” He says that Americans should “continue to pressure different senators to cut the economic funding to the Honduran Police and the Honduran Military.”

Gómez Membreño and Celeste Larkin of CRLN were stopped on the 38th floor of the Federal Building by Senator Durbin’s staffers and prevented from delivering their message personally, though they say the note was delivered to the senator. Organizers in Chicago will continue to pressure Senator Durbin to shift U.S. influence in Central America.

“We have to end the assassinations. We have to make sure that the interests of the police and the army are not influenced by the economic and political interests of international businesses,” Gómez Membreño said.

Parker Asmann is a Summer 2016 Editorial Intern at In These Times. He is an Editorial Board Member for the Chicago-based publication El BeiSMan as well as a regular contributor to The Yucatan Times located in Merida, Mexico. He graduated from DePaul University in 2015 with degrees in journalism and Spanish, as well as a minor in Latin American Studies.

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