Silvio Carrillo is walking in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol. Since his aunt was killed, he has spent his days talking to lawmakers and influencers in Washington, trying to convince them that Honduras is a repressive regime that doesn’t deserve U.S. help.
His aunt, Berta Cáceres, was a beloved figure on the international stage. Earlier this month, gunmen entered her home and shot her dead. Her killing drew international condemnation. Environmental and human rights leaders called for a fair investigation.
Cáceres’ family says it has no trust in the Honduran government so it has embarked on a campaign to try to get the U.S. government to stop the flow of security aid to Honduras. Because of the deep ties between the two countries, this is a Herculean task.
Carrillo is headed to another meeting at the Methodist Building in Washington. He takes a deep breath right before he enters the room. About 30 non-profit leaders are waiting. They’re sitting around a long wooden table and quiet down as Carrillo begins to talk.
As he says thank you, Carrillo begins to cry.
He says that Cáceres knew the risks of her work. For years, she had tried to stop a government-backed dam from being built on indigenous land and for years, she had faced threats over her activism.
“We wouldn’t have ever asked her to stop, because we all believe in the mission. We all believe in Berta’s work, because we were trying to make this a better world, a better country for all of our children,” Carrillo says.
The details of Cáceres’ killing are still murky. But one thing that is clear is that Honduras has a poor track record on human rights.
Geoff Thale, the program director at the Washington Office on Latin America, which advocates for human rights in the region, says that in the past decade almost 200 LGBT activists and 100 journalists have been killed in the country. Opposition figures have also been attacked and in 2014, 12 environmental activists were assassinated.
“It’s a country where there’s a lot of political tension and where political activism can be very dangerous and where there seems to be very little consequence when people are killed,” Thale says.
Dana Frank, who studies Honduras at the University of California, Santa Cruz, says Cáceres’ killing marks a shift in the country. Cáceres was one of most outspoken opponents of a coup that ousted a leftist government and last year, she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.
Her killing, says Frank, is one of the most significant in the country’s history and the ruling class in Honduras is using it as a test.
“Can they kill absolutely anybody, no matter how internationally renowned they are and the U.S. won’t do anything?” says Frank.
It’s important to note that the Honduran government has not been implicated in Cáceres’ death. In fact, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández called her killing an “attack on Honduras.”
“Her death should be investigated,” he said. “And we demand that those responsible be brought to justice.” The Honduran embassy in Washington declined our repeated requests for comment.
Thale thinks how Honduras handles this case will be revealing. Government officials have said the right things so far, says Thale, but will authorities, for example, follow the evidence in the case wherever it may lead?
“A lot of people would say the Honduran political elites are nervous about investigating corruption because … where it could lead is to wealthy families and well-connected politicians,” Thale says.
For what Thale believes is the first time, Honduras has a lot riding on this investigation. Last year, before Congress approved significantly more money to help Honduras with its military and police operations, Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, added some strings.
Before Honduras gets half of that money, which will amount to many millions, the State Department has to certify that the country is making progress on things like fighting corruption and making its attorney general more independent.
On the floor of the Senate this week, Leahy called on Honduras to “do the right thing.”
“If they want us to be a partner, we have to have confidence that we can work with them and address the needs and protect the rights of all people of Honduras,” he said.
Frank says that the new strings puts the Obama administration in a awkward spot.
For decades, Honduras has been an unflinching American ally. The United States has used the country as a base to launch operations in Nicaragua and Guatemala and recently, as other countries have moved left and grown more anti-American, the Honduran president has remained loyal.
“That left Honduras as their only remaining standing, potential ally and I think that the U.S. is going to shore this guy up no matter what,” Frank said.
Back in Washington, Carrillo takes a break between meetings.
He says his aunt was special, that she took after his grandmother. Her house, he says, was always open to anyone who needed help. He remembers one instance when an indigenous woman needed help because her child had diarrhea. She had been carrying him for days and by then, there was nothing his grandmother or Cáceres could do. So they put the boy in a room and lit a candle.
“I walked into the room, I’ll never forget it, and I saw this child,” Carrillo says, crying. “She saw this everyday and she wanted to put a stop to this.”
Carrillo says he’s not optimistic that they’ll get justice. But he thinks the U.S. could nudge Honduras in the right direction.
“This has to be a place where there can be more Bertitas, to prosper and grow and be able to speak out if they want and that’s what Bertita was doing and that was against the wishes of the establishment,” Carrillo says.
Two days ago, another indigenous rights activist affiliated with Cáceres was gunned down. The State Department is expected to make a decision on aid in the next few months.