Honduran environmental defenders shot dead in broad daylight
Aly Domínguez and Jairo Bonilla, co-founders of grassroots resistance group to iron ore mine in Guapinol, murdered in street
by Nina Lakhani , first published on Wed 11 Jan 2023 by the Guardian
Two environmental defenders have been shot dead in broad daylight in Honduras, triggering fresh calls for an independent investigation into the persecution and violence against a rural community battling to stop an illegally sanctioned mine.
Aly Domínguez, 38, and Jairo Bonilla, 28, from Guapinol in northern Honduras, were murdered on Saturday afternoon as they returned home on a moped after finishing work collecting payments for a cable company. They were intercepted by armed assailants and died at the scene, according to relatives.
Domínguez and Bonilla were co-founders of Guapinol’s grassroots resistance against an iron ore mine owned by one of the country’s most powerful couples. Domínguez was among 32 community leaders falsely accused of crimes by the mining company and local authorities.
Local police and prosecutors immediately ascribed the deaths to a botched mugging – even though the assailants fled without taking the victims’ moped, cellphones or money.
UN agencies, rights groups and the US embassy condemned the killings. Relatives and lawyers have questioned the official version of events, pointing to the ongoing threats and harassment faced by the community.
“We reject the official hypothesis. These two young men were founders of the struggle to protect our natural resources from an illegal mine that is destroying rivers in the national park. For five years we’ve been threatened, criminalised and falsely imprisoned, the only thing left was murder,” said Rey Domínguez, 58, a community leader and Aly’s brother.
“It’s vital that an independent impartial investigation is carried out which must take into account the possibility that Aly and Jairo have been retaliated against for their work defending human rights,” said Michael Phoenix, head of research for the UN special rapporteur for human rights defenders.
The Guapinol case stems from a huge open-pit mine in nearby Tocoa, which was authorised inside a protected national park in a process mired by legal irregularities, according to international experts. Community members, including Domínguez and Bonilla, set up a peaceful protest camp after the mine polluted rivers relied upon by thousands of people.
Security forces violently evicted the encampment and dozens of arrest warrants were issued against the protesters. Rey and Aly Domínguez spent time in jail on bogus charges in 2019. International legal and human rights experts widely condemned the criminalization of the activists and the subsequent militarization of the community, which forced several people to flee and seek asylum in the US.
The mine was among hundreds of environmentally destructive extractive projects greenlit by National party leaders, several of whom now face drugs and arms trafficking charges in the US. After 2009, Honduras became one of the most dangerous countries in the world to defend natural resources.
The highest-profile victim was the Indigenous defender Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated in March 2016 after suffering years of threats and harassment linked to her opposition to an internationally funded dam.
The post-coup regime ended a year ago, when Xiomara Castro, the wife of Manuel Zelaya, the president ousted in 2009, came to power promising to reinstate the rule of law and protect defenders.
Initially, there were high hopes after the supreme court freed Guapinol leaders who had been convicted on bogus charges. But the mine continues to operate, and the community have reported ongoing police harassment.
Joaquín Mejía, a prominent Honduran human rights lawyer, said the new government was partially responsible for the murders as it had failed to suspend or cancel the illegal mining concessions granted by the former regime.
Phoenix said: “Xiomara Castro came into government promising to protect human rights defenders. The imposition of extractive projects on communities without their consent is one of the root causes of attacks against defenders in Central America, but where there is political will, governments can address it. The Honduran government must do more.”