FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

In Honduras, USAID Was in Bed with Berta Cáceres’ Accused Killers

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 10.23.18 AM

Less than three months before Lenca leader Berta Cáceres was brutally assassinated, the social arm of Desarollos Energeticos SA (DESA)–the Honduran company leading the Agua Zarca dam project Cáceres was campaigning against–signed a contract with USAID implementing partner Fintrac, a Washington DC based development contracting firm.

The DESA representative who was present for the public signing of the USAID agreement was none other than Sergio Rodríguez, the company’s Social Investment Manager, who is now accused of Cáceres’ assassination  along with another former DESA employee and individuals with military ties. The arrests also included Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, a retired military officer and the former head of DESA’s security detail. The trial against the accused murderers began on Monday.

COPINH’s Powerful Political and Economic Enemies in Rio Blanco

As one of the strongest and most recognized indigenous organizations in Honduras, the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH, have challenged powerful economic and political forces while working to protect the environment and conserve the Lenca culture.

The Agua Zarca dam project is illustrative of DESA’s business dealings and of what COPINH is up against. DESA is owned by the Atala family, one of the most powerful families in Honduras. In fact, the dam project allegedly received funding from the largest bank in Honduras–Ficohsa, headed up by Camilo Atala. Although it has been recently under attack for its possible complicity with Cáceres’ assassination, it has a dark past including allegations of money laundering.

DESA also benefitted from military connections and support. In a newly released interview with Cáceres from 2013, Berta outlines these connections; the owner, David Castillo, is a West Point graduate and an expert in military intelligence. Moreover, Douglas Geovanny Bustillo who was the former head of security for DESA and a former military lieutenant is now being accused of planning Cáceres’ assassination. Military and police backing was also evident in the variety and quantity of armed forces during protests against the project that includes an elite US funded and vetted unit called Los Tigres, although they focus on combating gang violence and drug trafficking.

From the start, DESA counted on high level political support. The Secretary of Natural Resources and the Environment issued the company a 50-year Environmental License for the Agua Zarca Project without the consultation of affected community members. Perhaps more problematic, the Mayor of Intibuca supposedly received community consent even though the project was already way. Death threats even came directly from politicians themselves; on one of her last visits to Rio Blanco on February 20, 2016,  the vice-mayor of San Francisco de Ojuera publicly asked that Berta be killed. Moreover, the Honduran Public Ministry in charge of the investigation into Cáceres’ assassination, was a co-plaintiff along with DESA in 2014 filings seeking an injunction against COPINH’s demonstrations targeting the company.
Development or buying support for Agua Zarca dam project?

According to the company, DESA’s Social Investment Program dedicates a portion of its profits to “create and implement projects focused on bettering the quality of life in the neighboring communities to the project.” For COPINH, these initiatives were the company’s attempts to combat the negative press surrounding the controversial project and another means of buying the support of those directly affected by the dam project. An example of this was when company purchased backpacks for school children with large DESA logos as part of their Education project. COPINH also criticized the Social Investment Program’s Infrastructure activities were roads were built but to transport equipment rather than to deliver “development” needed or wanted by the community. In reality, DESA was likely donating very little of its own profits given that they partnered with state and foreign organizations like the Honduran Ministry of Education and USAID through Fintrac.

Helping the Poor by Helping the Rich

Ironically, while USAID was giving money to DESA, a company owned by an elite Honduran family, through Fintrac, to what some claim was essentially buying local support of vulnerable people in Rio Blanco, it made this observation on its website;

“Honduras has experienced a moderate recovery since the 2008-2009 global economic downturn. Despite this encouraging trend, economic gains over the past several years have largely favored the middle and upper classes, leading to greater income disparity in the country.”

One of many reasons Rio Blanco was part of a movement against the Agua Zarca dam project was that the dam threatens the Gualcarque River, on which they depend for their economic and cultural survival. Olivia Marcela Zuniga, Berta Cáceres daughter, addressed foreign financiers of, and accomplices to the Agua Zarca dam on her facebook page:

“development cannot trample over human lives, development should be to better the lives of living beings, not to kill life. The western world cannot impose its vision of development, because these are our territories, our bodies, our lives and our vision of development should prevail because it secures the existence of mother earth and that of humanity…it cannot be capitalist…Our vision of development is a vision of harmony, equilibrium and respect [with and,] for all living things”. (Original post in Spanish)

In a February 2016 action alert, COPINH denounced USAID for its complicity in maintaining a “smokescreen of “development, employment, clean energy and social responsibility”.

Fintrac and USAID’s Complicity

Proper due diligence on the part of Fintrac would have likely made this proudly “women owned company”, avoid getting into bed with DESA who was engaged in a dirty fight with one of Honduras most respected women leaders. From COPINH’s claim that the company’s dam project was moving forward without free, prior and informed consent of those who would be directly affected, to the claim that their security chief, Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, had threatened Berta with sexual assault, the allegations and evidence should have prevented their partnership with DESA per their code of ethics and other internal policies. USAID in Honduras on the other hand, would be hard pressed to claim ignorance about the conflict in Rio Blanco.

The contract between Fintrac and DESA was signed some time in December 2015 to provide agricultural technical assistance to 10 communities and 180 families in two municipalities in Western Honduras under USAID’s MERCADO Program. There is scarce public information about the contract other than a few local media outlets that covered the the contract public signing.

After Rodríguez, who signed the contract on behalf of DESA, was arrested, the company expressed surprise and claimed no involvement with the assassination. Yet, less than a month before Cáceres assassination, Rodríguez was among those denounced for “threatening the physical and emotional  integrity” of members of COPINH in one of the organization’s urgent action alert in the last demonstration organized in Rio Blanco before the assassination on February 20, 2016.

The Cáceres family was told that the non-binding contract was canceled at the family’s request in the weeks following Cáceres’ assassination. While Fintrac and USAID quietly dissolved the contract with DESA, history will remember whose side they were on. Both organizations should be held accountable to the Honduran poor they claim to serve and the US taxpayers who fund them.

More articles by:

Gloria Jiménez is a Latina activist from Los Angeles who has lived in Honduras and Nicaragua for the past year.

September 20, 2018
Michael Hudson
Wasting the Lehman Crisis: What Was Not Saved Was the Economy
John Pilger
Hold the Front Page, the Reporters are Missing
Kenn Orphan
The Power of Language in the Anthropocene
Paul Cox – Stan Cox
Puerto Rico’s Unnatural Disaster Rolls on Into Year Two
Rajan Menon
Yemen’s Descent Into Hell: a Saudi-American War of Terror
Russell Mokhiber
Nick Brana Says Dems Will Again Deny Sanders Presidential Nomination
Nicholas Levis
Three Lessons of Occupy Wall Street, With a Fair Dose of Memory
Steve Martinot
The Constitutionality of Homeless Encampments
Kevin Zeese - Margaret Flowers
The Aftershocks of the Economic Collapse Are Still Being Felt
Jesse Jackson
By Enforcing Climate Change Denial, Trump Puts Us All in Peril
George Wuerthner
Coyote Killing is Counter Productive
Mel Gurtov
On Dealing with China
Dean Baker
How to Reduce Corruption in Medicine: Remove the Money
September 19, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
When Bernie Sold Out His Hero, Anti-Authoritarians Paid
Lawrence Davidson
Political Fragmentation on the Homefront
George Ochenski
How’s That “Chinese Hoax” Treating You, Mr. President?
Cesar Chelala
The Afghan Morass
Chris Wright
Three Cheers for the Decline of the Middle Class
Howard Lisnoff
The Beat Goes On Against Protest in Saudi Arabia
Nomi Prins 
The Donald in Wonderland: Down the Financial Rabbit Hole With Trump
Jack Rasmus
On the 10th Anniversary of Lehman Brothers 2008: Can ‘IT’ Happen Again?
Richard Schuberth
Make Them Suffer Too
Geoff Beckman
Kavanaugh in Extremis
Jonathan Engel
Rather Than Mining in Irreplaceable Wilderness, Why Can’t We Mine Landfills?
Binoy Kampmark
Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under
Michael McCaffrey
A Curious Case of Mysterious Attacks, Microwave Weapons and Media Manipulation
Elliot Sperber
Eating the Constitution
September 18, 2018
Conn Hallinan
Britain: the Anti-Semitism Debate
Tamara Pearson
Why Mexico’s Next President is No Friend of Migrants
Richard Moser
Both the Commune and Revolution
Nick Pemberton
Serena 15, Tennis Love
Binoy Kampmark
Inconvenient Realities: Climate Change and the South Pacific
Martin Billheimer
La Grand’Route: Waiting for the Bus
John Kendall Hawkins
Seymour Hersh: a Life of Adversarial Democracy at Work
Faisal Khan
Is Israel a Democracy?
John Feffer
The GOP Wants Trumpism…Without Trump
Kim Ives
The Roots of Haiti’s Movement for PetroCaribe Transparency
Dave Lindorff
We Already Have a Fake Billionaire President; Why Would We want a Real One Running in 2020?
Gerry Brown
Is China Springing Debt Traps or Throwing a Lifeline to Countries in Distress?
Pete Tucker
The Washington Post Really Wants to Stop Ben Jealous
Dean Baker
Getting It Wrong Again: Consumer Spending and the Great Recession
September 17, 2018
Melvin Goodman
What is to be Done?
Rob Urie
American Fascism
Patrick Cockburn
The Adults in the White House Trying to Save the US From Trump Are Just as Dangerous as He Is
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The Long Fall of Bob Woodward: From Nixon’s Nemesis to Cheney’s Savior
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail