BERTA CÁCERES HAD SEEN the signs. She knew, better than most, that her time was running out. But the threats being leveled against Honduras’s most famous land and human rights defender—the venomous messages on WhatsApp, the armed stalkers—had become so regular that, even as the danger escalated late in 2015, her family and friends thought nothing would ever come of them. Any illusions of invincibility were shattered the night of March 2, 2016.
Berta’s assassination marked an ominous new era. As early as 2002, police or military-affiliated death squads in Honduras—resurrecting the tradition of state killings carried out by groups such as Battalion 3-16 in the 1980s—would execute low-level political activists or teenagers accused of gang activity. But Berta was different. She’d been famous on an international scale: waging successful campaigns against powerful dam corporations, traveling the world raising awareness of those struggles, meeting the pope, and winning the Goldman Prize—the “Green Nobel”—for her work. If they could kill her, it meant no one in Honduras was safe.
Her murder added another macabre chapter in the history of Honduras, which in the wake of a 2009 U.S.-backed military coup has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world—especially for human rights defenders.
Invoking the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and reiterating the state’sresponsibility to provide assistance to the poor, Honduras Solidaria, an emergency response plan ordered by President Juan Orlando Hernández’s executive decree on March 28, is intended to help Hondurans at risk of starvation during the COVID-19 shutdown.
On paper, the sweeping emergency relief program, whose stated objective is “supplying food rations in a basic basket to at least 800,000 Honduran families” affected by the pandemic, marshals the Honduran Armed Forces and the National Police to deliver relief to the country’s most vulnerable. The bolsa solidaria, or “solidarity basket” as it is known, brings rice, coffee, sardines, flour, and hygiene products, among other essentials, to those trapped at home while the virus sweeps the country. It mobilizes 355 million lempiras ($14.2 million USD) to provide supplies to those unable to work to earn money for food and supplies. “I thank God, and the President, for remembering us, the poor people,” one woman said of the aid program in a government press release.
But according to many, the ruling conservative party, Partido Nacional, is both targeting delivery to supporters to expand their political base and neglecting communities with majority support for opposing parties. “The bolsas solidarias are arriving only and exclusively to the communities that are already aligned with the Partido Nacional,” Mario Argeñal, a teacher and TV show host in Danlí, told me over WhatsApp, speaking from his rural home in the El Paraíso Department near the Nicaraguan border.