There Is an Epidemic of Assassinations Targeting Human Rights Defenders in Latin America
By Sarah Lazare
On October 18, human rights defenders José Ángel Flores and Silmer Dionisio were murdered after they left a meeting of peasant farmers in the Bajo Aguán region of Honduras. Both were organizers with the Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MUCA), whose former president Johnny Rivas said “death squads chasing peasant families fighting for land rights" were behind the assassinations.
On September 18, indigenous environmental defender Máxima Acuña de Chaupe says she was attacked at her remote farm in the northern Andean highlands of Peru by private security under the employ of the Yanacocha mining company, a local subsidiary of the Denver-based Newmont Mining Corporation. Máxima has attracted international claim for her years-long resistance to the company’s campaign to transform her plot into the open-pit Conga gold and copper mine, and she says this latest incident is just one of many physical attacks she has endured.
According to a new briefing from Oxfam International, such attacks—many of them deadly—reflect a record-high surge of violence targeting human rights defenders across Latin America. This trend, Oxfam says, is “related to the expansion of extractive industries as a national revenue model for Latin American and Caribbean countries.”
“When the state fails to fulfill its role and allows the rights of some to be violated while increasing the economic and political power and impunity of others and granting them privileges, it appears that government institutions have been captured for the benefit of economic elites,” states the report.
The human toll continues to rise. The advocacy organization Global Witness reports  that 2015 was the most deadly year for human rights defenders yet. According to the group, at least 185 defenders around the world were killed, 122 of them in Latin America.
The Oxfam briefing notes, “This trend appears to be continuing in 2016, given that 24 defenders were murdered in Brazil in the first four months of the year; 19 defenders were killed in Colombia between January and March; seven were murdered in Guatemala between January and June and at least six defenders in Honduras and two in Mexico were assassinated between January and April.”
According to Oxfam, the “link between violence and the mining and agro-industrial sectors” has been building for years. “A case reported by CODEHUPY in Paraguay involved the execution and disappearance of 115 leaders and members of farmers' organizations between 1989 and 2013,” the report explains. “This was part of a strategy to displace rural communities by force and appropriate their land, using a form of state aggression that is a clear example of the appropriation of state institutions in favor of landowning groups linked to agribusiness.”
Cindy Wiesner, national coordinator for the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, told AlterNet, “Unfortunately, this blood is on our hands here in the United States. We know that U.S. corporations are driving the oil and energy extraction happening across Latin America and the Caribbean. U.S. military aid has directly supported this horrific spike in violence against women and Indigenous human rights defenders.”
Many of those killed had repeatedly warned of threats against them or were even under government protection, raising questions about state inaction and complicity. The briefing states that “of the 63 human rights defenders murdered in Colombia in 2015, 21 had previously reported threats and four were under the protection of the National Protection Unit. In Honduras, 14 people under IACHR precautionary measures have been killed in the past four years.”
Due to patriarchal cultural norms, the report warns, women are “victims of stigmatization, hostility, repression and violence more frequently and to a greater extent than men.”
"We are witnessing an unmitigated rise in attacks, including killings of leaders who fight in their own countries for basic human rights such as equality, access to water, or access to water or land,” said Asier Hernando, the Oxfam´s regional deputy director in Latin America and the Caribbean. “Even international recognition or support for human rights defenders has offered little protection, as seen in the cases of Berta Cáceres, murdered in Honduras, or Máxima Acuña, who continues to suffer ongoing attacks in Peru. If they can kill and threaten these recognized figures, the level of exposure and vulnerability for lesser known leaders is that much greater."
But Wiesner said concrete actions could help stem the violence. “Right now there is a bill before U.S. Congress—HR5474: the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act—that would stop all U.S. military and police aid to Honduras until these abuses cease,” she said. “As a feminist, I call on Hillary Clinton in particular to support this bill, especially after having supported the military coup that set the conditions for this kind of violence against women defending their land.”