Political and business elites in Honduras are involved in a violent crackdown against scores of environmental activists, according to anti-corruption group Global Witness.
In a new report on Tuesday, the watchdog said more than 120 Honduran activists have been killed since 2010 while trying to protect their rivers, forests or land. This makes the Central American country the deadliest per capita in the world for land and environmental defenders.
Global Witness claimed the killings are driven by influential political and business figures imposing mining, agribusiness and hydroelectric projects on rural communities.
“People are speaking out against these harmful projects and are often being silenced by hitmen hired by local companies or by state forces, such as the Honduran military and police,” Billy Kyte, a campaign manager for Global Witness, told Al Jazeera.
Honduras is the third poorest country in Latin America, according to data by the United Nations World Food Programme.
Yet, it is rich in natural resources and, historically, that has made it a paradise for national and international companies that have been able to obtain lucrative rewards, often at the expense of impoverished communities.
The report claims that exploitation is still flourishing. In particular, it highlights two hydroelectric projects which are, according to Global Witness, controlled by the husband of one of Honduras’s most powerful women: Gladis Aurora Lopez, the vice president of the Honduran congress and head of the country’s ruling party, Partido Nacional.
Global Witness says that means her husband’s companies represent an illegal conflict of interest. In Honduras, the government cannot grant contracts or concessions to members of congress or their spouses.
Leaders of the indigenous Lenca group have protested for more than two years against the two hydroelectric projects – called Los Encinos and La Aurora. They say the projects affect their land and water supply. Lenca leaders also say they were not consulted before building began.
Indigenous leader Felipe Benitez’s nephew is one of three opponents to the projects who have been killed. He was found in a ditch, strangled.
Speaking by phone to Al Jazeera, Felipe Benitez said no one has been convicted of the murder, amid an atmosphere of persecution by police.
“There are people that they can’t get off their land, so they’ve blackmailed them, tried to frame them with other crimes. Because we are in this struggle, we’ve been criminalised. When we have a protest the police say that it’s a terrorist act.”
Benitez says the intimidation reached a peak in September 2014 during a police raid of the Santa Elena community, in which those in opposition to the hydroelectric projects were shot at, had their crops destroyed and their possessions burned.
Benitez and other indigenous leaders blame Aurora Lopez, the vice president of the National Congress of Honduras, for the violence.
Neither she, nor her husband, responded to Al Jazeera’s emailed request for a written response to the allegations or an interview.
Gladis Aurora Lopez replied to Global Witness.
In a letter to Global Witness, which also contacted them on the allegations, Aurora Lopes “denied any links to violent attacks against those opposing her husband’s dam projects,” the watchdog said.
The Global Witness report also highlights indigenous opposition to mining operations, tourist developments and other hydroelectric projects such as the Agua Zarca dam.
The project achieved notoriety after the 2016 killing of Berta Caceres, an internationally renowned environmentalist who was fighting against it.
Three of the men charged with her murder had ties with the Honduran army. It was far from the only time that state forces have been implicated in violence against activists and it led a group of US Congress members to call for the United States to stop its multimillion-dollar aid to Honduras’s police and military. The US is Honduras’s biggest donor.
The Global Witness report also calls for a rethink of US spending in Honduras, but Kyte, the group’s campaign manager, says it is not just in Honduras, but across the region that indigenous and environmental activists are under threat.
“In 2015, almost two-thirds of the global killings took place in Latin America according to Global Witness research. We know that this is because of the failure of the rule of law and because corrupt elites are able to impose harmful projects like mining, agribusiness and dams on indigenous-held land.”
The latest high-profile environmental leader in Latin America to be killed is Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, whose campaigning to protect the forests of the Sierra Madre area in northern Mexico earned him the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.
A leader of the indigenous Tarahumara people, Baldenegro was shot this January, after campaigning against a powerful alliance of loggers, drug gangs and local political leaders.