Bogotá January 13.- When several men shot dead Jairo Bonilla and Aly Domínguez in the village of La Concepción on the Honduran coast last Saturday, no one around them was surprised, not even Reynaldo Domínguez, who describes himself as “Aly’s blood brother” and Jairo’s combatant Brothers”.
Both were defenders of the Carlos Escaleras Montaña de Botaderos National Park and the Guapinol and San Pedro rivers. Together with thirty other environmentalists, they had denounced threats from the mining company Inversiones Los Pinares of the Emco Holding Group, and Aly had even been arrested after the company reported it.
“They’ve been after us for years. Everyone knew it,” says a heartbroken Reynaldo. “I know that points directly to me,” says the activist, who just a month ago came from a 35-day tour of Europe and denounced her situation.
According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, these are the first killings of environmentalists recorded in 2023. Juan López, compañero and president of the Municipal Committee for the Defense of the Commons and Public Goods of Tocoa, is clear: “We will not stop. And we know that this can lead to our deaths, but also to the contamination of our rivers because of this company. Either we die murdered or affected”.
It all happened around 3:30 p.m. on January 7, when the victims were riding a motorbike to get some money. Bonilla, 28 and the father of a two-year-old girl, was shot three times. An Domínguez, 38 years old and father of four children, four. The final shot for both was in the temple. On the same day of the murders, police attributed the crime to a robbery. The spokesman for the National Police in Colón, Corporal Ángel Herrera, assured local media that he “ruled out that the crime was related to environmental concerns”.
However, as confirmed by his brother, who went to the scene a few minutes later, the motorcycle was still there, as were the cell phones and the money he had collected. “We will never accept this hypothesis. They killed her for fulfilling the promise of their threats.” The activist has received seven death threats since 2019 with messages that read: “We must contain them so that they let us work” or “we will eradicate them”. Inversiones Los Pinares has not responded to requests from América Futura, nor has it made any media statements.
So far there have been no arrests, and no independent investigative body has been set up, as requested by relatives and colleagues. “We don’t want these police or this state department investigating what happened,” they agree. “We want the government to form a high-level commission to look into this.” Hopes already conveyed to President Xiomara Castro, who came to power on a promise to defend human rights in the Central American country.
In 2019 there were two other murders in Guapinol, Roberto Argueta Tejada and Arnold Morazán Erazo, also guardians of the territory, whose cases have never been investigated. “Unfortunately, impunity is now the law,” said César Muñoz, head of Human Rights Watch’s US delegation. “The state protection mechanism suffers from serious structural and operational deficiencies, which is why great efforts must be made to reform it.”
Funeral march in honor of Jairo Bonilla and Aly Domínguez in the village of La concepción Loan of Guapinol Resiste
For Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director of Amnesty International, “It is negligent and unwise to attribute robbery as the sole motive. It is these actions that have fueled the climate of impunity that exists over the violence faced by defenders and environmentalists in Honduras.” Guevara also agrees that an independent body is needed to investigate the killings: “ This claim is based on experience with criminalization, the abusive use of the justice system to silence defense attorneys and the involvement of authorities associated with interests, including corporations, hurting them.”
The struggle between this community and the mining company chaired by businessman Lenir Pérez has a history of more than five years. In 2018, the northern town of Guapinol, with a population of about 2,800, launched a mobilization against the concessions granted to the company to extract iron oxide from a protected space where 34 water springs are born. “Congress itself has changed the coordinates of the safe zone that it itself delineated less than a year ago. And months later, Inversiones Los Pinares had carte blanche to operate,” says López.
Since then, dozens of residents have seen the rivers retain an oily appearance, presumably due to the materials used in mining being dumped into the water untreated. They say that several people who used the water as in the past experienced itching and hives on their faces. “But no one has ever connected it,” says Domínguez. “Now we’re sending reports to be made.”
Fed up of deaf ears from the institutions, the company and the fact that its rivers are “full of mud and heavily polluted”, 450 residents decided to camp out as a sign of protest, first at the municipal building and then at the metallurgical headquarters. 88 days later, on October 27, 2018, they were “brutally” evicted in an operation involving 1,500 officers. After two complaints, 32 people are brought to justice for usurpation and serious arson. Seven of them spent 914 days in custody and another 468 days behind bars. Finally, the six convicts were released the following day because their detention was branded “arbitrary”. Juan and Aly, who had been detained for a month, met in prison. “We always suspected that this could happen. I remember he was very afraid to get out of prison, he was afraid that it would be his turn. But he continued to defend the matter. Our love for this land and these waters is greater than fear,” explains López.
A group of environmentalists during a protest in defense of Honduras’ rivers. Aly Domínguez is third from left to right in the bottom row. On loan from Guapinol Resiste
Despite the intimidation of various defenders of the rivers, they received no protection from the government, save for a risk analyst who took stock from time to time. “The idea that they would impose a security system on us was considered,” says López. “But the same people who put us in prison are the ones who sent us these letters and the ones who ordered the shooting. They are part of the same group. How do you think we would feel protected?” he wonders. Protection for them was being aware of each other. Reynaldo, he says, is at “God’s expense.”
Defending the world’s biodiversity costs you your life. Especially in Latin America, according to Global Witness the deadliest region in the world for environmentalists. At least 312 activists were killed around the world last year for taking action against mining projects. “It is important that Latin America has better protections for environmentalists to prevent crimes against them, justice when they occur, and a comprehensive approach to addressing the underlying issues that drive environmental conflicts,” adds Muñoz from Human added rights.
In a poem Juan López wrote two days after the murders, the verses commemorate them and also send a powerful message: “We do not live to destroy, the tender, free and true word tries to liberate and humanize and disturbs the demons they roll on the floor. (…) We will arrive in the new day and play with the water that flows on the paths”. So Reynaldo also wants to remind his little brother: “Splash in the rivers and laugh, laugh a lot.”