Latin America is considered the most dangerous region for activists working for human and environmental rights. Every year, hundreds of people are criminalized, persecuted or murdered for engaging in land rights, environmental protection or the rights of minorities. In rural areas, conflicts take place where companies mine raw materials, build dams or clear forests. German companies and banks are also frequently involved. In Latin American cities, engaging in police violence and racism, as well as women's and minority rights, is often equally life threatening.
Yet, many people put up with this risk, resisting the oppression and exploitation of common goods, and are committed to social justice and their right to self-determination. Often it is women who are at the front and risk their lives.
Even though the murders, as the cases of Berta and Marielle show, silence individuals for ever, the resistant ideas and actions continue to live. Berta Cáceres aptly expressed this during her lifetime with her famous sentence: "You have the ball, I say the ball dies when it detonates, the word lives if you pass it on."
Berta Cáceres was a well-known environmental and human rights activist working with the indigenous organization COPINH against illegal mining and hydropower projects on the traditional land of the indigenous Lenca. Their resistance to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric power plant, which ia. was financed by European development banks and was to be supplied with turbines by the German companies Voith and Siemens. In 2016, she was murdered after years of threats and attacks. Their killers were commissioned by the operator of the hydroelectric power plant.
Marielle Franco was a human rights defender and councilor in Rio de Janeiro. A black, lesbian and single mother, she campaigned against racism and police violence in the Brazilian metropolis and campaigned for the rights of women, LGBTIQ and Favela residents. In 2018, she and her driver Anderson Gomes were murdered by militias carrying a weapon from the German defense company Heckler & Koch, which had originally been delivered to police special forces.
The murders of social activists, journalists, and lawyers are reaching record highs in Latin America and even exceeding the numbers of war zones. The increasing shift to the right in recent years further exacerbates these developments. In addition, many countries in the region have close links between state security agencies, local politicians, businesses, and paramilitary structures and criminal organizations. The latter often engage in "dirty work" for politics and business in this context. But it is also the state itself that is repressing social movements and human rights defenders.
These interconnections also play a role in the assassination of Berta Cáceres and Marielle Franco: in the case of Berta, several contract killers and middlemen have since been convicted, including former employees of the operator of the hydroelectric power plant (such as the ex-security chief of the company) and a Major of the Honduran Army. The suspects arrested one year after the murder of Marielle are two former Brazilian military police, with the alleged gunman living in the same housing complex as Brazil's current right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro.
German companies are active worldwide - they supply the machinery for mining projects, pesticides for the fields of agriculture and weapons (supposedly not in crisis and war zones). Again and again, human rights violations are documented in the environment of their activities.
The turbines for the Agua Zarca hydroelectric power plant project should be supplied by VoithHydro, a joint venture between German companies Voith and Siemens. Although repeatedly referred to human rights abuses surrounding the project, they continued months after the murder of Berta Cáceres on the supply contract with the operating company. The weapon used to murder Marielle Franco was a product of the German weapon manufacturer Heckler & Koch, which had been delivered to special units of the Brazilian police. Despite German arms export control it came into the hands of militia.
Umbrella Association of Critical Shareholders (in german)
Study on European companies and banks in the hydropower business (in german)
Background to German arms exports (in german)