From Brazil to Honduras, Israeli arms are tied to the murder of activists

Eitay Mack Jun. 30, 2021

A fire in Brazil's Amazon rainforest, August 15, 2020. In the last two years there has been a huge increase in the rate of deforestation due to massive logging and burning of trees.
A fire in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, August 15, 2020. In the last two years there has been a huge increase in the rate of deforestation due to massive logging and burning of trees.

A fire in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, in August 2020. In the last two years there has been a huge increase in the rate of deforestation due to massive logging and burning of trees.Credit: Carl de Souza/AFP

Fear has struck the families of activists working for human rights, workers’ rights and indigenous communities’ rights, as well as families of environmental activists and of former guerrillas in northeastern Colombia, who were tortured, murdered and “disappeared” by a murderous paramilitary organization. Hernán Giraldo Serna, the leader of that group, the Tayrona Resistance Bloc, was deported to Colombia after being released from a federal prison in the United States on January 25.

While Serna – who was sentenced to 12 years in jail following a conviction on drug offenses – remains in custody in Colombia, there is concern that due to political considerations and corruption in the political and legal systems, he will be released, even though he and the militia he led are suspected of perpetrating crimes against humanity during the country’s decades-long civil war.

Serna earned the nickname “the Drill” when, as part of the terror he inflicted on residents of the Santa Marta area, he raped hundreds of female minors from poor families. At least 13 became pregnant as a result, and nine were under the age of 14 when they gave birth.

A U.S. soldier training a member of Honduras' elite Tigres unit, carrying an Israeli-made Galil automatic rifle, in 2014. Israel's Defense Ministry does not monitor how the weapons are used or by whom.
A U.S. soldier training a member of Honduras’ elite Tigres unit, carrying an Israeli-made Galil automatic rifle, in 2014. Israel’s Defense Ministry does not monitor how the weapons are used or by whom.

Members of Serna’s Tayrona militia were trained by Israelis and used the skills they acquired to slaughter civilians. Specifically, since the 1980s, the security forces of right-wing governments in Colombia and their affiliated paramilitary groups have been using Israeli-made weapons and rifles manufactured in Colombia by the government-owned Indumil company. With the approval of Israel’s Ministry of Defense, Indumil manufactures various models of Galil rifles without monitoring how they are used or in whose hands they end up.

Officially, the Colombian civil war ended in June 2016, when the government in Bogota reached a peace agreement with the country’s main guerrilla organization, the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces, aka FARC, but for many civilians the war has never ended. The country’s rotating right-wing governments have refrained from prosecuting members of the brutal paramilitary groups, so as not to reveal the fact of the state authorities’ support for them.

As it happens, former members of wartime militias (Serna’s and others) continue to operate within the framework of “new” criminal organizations and paramilitary groups that violently seized areas relinquished by FARC as part of the peace accord five years ago, which included surrendering weapons and rehabilitation of ex-combatants. Every week, even today, activists from human rights, workers’ rights, and indigenous rights organizations, along with environmentalists and former guerrillas are being murdered across the country.

About half of Colombia’s landmass is still forested, with the Amazon rainforest taking up two-thirds of that territory and the rest consisting of “cloud forests” on the slopes of mountain ranges and unique ecosystems near the Pacific coast and the Caribbean Sea. In many forests where trees are being felled for lumber, local communities and activists (both indigenous and non-indigenous) are the last barrier standing in the way of corrupt politicians, criminal organizations and militias that are seeking to exploit natural resources and causing tremendous environmental damage.

It is no coincidence that in 2018, 18 environmental activists were murdered in Colombia; in 2019, 64 were murdered. In October 2020, the body of activist and businesswoman Juana Perea Plata was found on the beach in Nuquí, in western Colombia, after being abducted from her home and shot in the head by a right-wing militia. She had organized a campaign against the establishment of a commercial port in the area.

Masked assassins at home

In March 2016, Berta Cáceres one of Honduras’ leading indigenous rights and environmentalists, was shot dead in her home. Cáceres, a member of the Lenca indigenous people, had spearheaded a struggle against the construction of a dam and hydroelectric power station in western Honduras, which threatened to cause severe environmental damage and indigenous dispossession. In April 2015, she had received the Goldman Environmental Prize for grass-roots activists after gaining international recognition for her endeavors.

On December 26, 2020, Felix Vasquez, also a Lenca activist, a campaigner for environmental issues and workers’ rights, was shot dead by masked assassins at home in a village in central Honduras, in the presence of his family.

Colombian paramilitary leader Hernán Giraldo Serna escorted by U.S. DEA Agents when arriving in Florida in May, 2008. He was deported to Colombia this past January.

The murders of Cáceres and Vasquez are not exceptional. They are in line with the modus operandi of Honduras’ national security forces and their affiliated paramilitary and criminal organizations, which consider environmentalists a legitimate target. In 2019, 14 activists were murdered; in 2018, four more were killed.

The close security ties the State of Israel still maintains with the regime of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández (who just visited Israel in late June) began after his inauguration in January 2014, after a victory in disputed elections. At the end of October 2015, a delegation from Honduras that included Hernández, his minister of defense and the Honduran army’s chief of staff, visited Israel. Thereafter, the two countries signed a bilateral memorandum of understanding (February 2016) and a major security-related agreement (December 2016)

Hernández transformed his country’s military police and two of its elite squads – Cobras and Tigres, known as serial human rights abusers – into the country’s most powerful security force. According to U.S. legal authorities, Hernández’s brother and the head of the Tigres commando team both have links to the cartels. Moreover, the U.S. Anti-Drug Authority suspects Hernández himself is involved in drug trafficking and money laundering. There is evidence that Tigres was involved in several murders including that of Cáceres.

Supporters of prize-winning Honduran rights activist Berta Cáceres, outside the courtroom where the trial of her suspected murderer is being held, April 6, 2021.

Officers in Honduras’ military police and its two elite units carry Tavor and Galil ACE assault rifles with the approval of Israel’s Ministry of Defense – which, again, does not monitor how the weapons are used and by whom. Authorities in Honduras admit that some of the Israeli-made weapons have “leaked” to criminal elements after they were “stolen” from the police.

Extrajudicial executions

In April 2019, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right extremist who was one of the world leaders closest to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, visited Israel. Before being elected, Bolsonaro repeatedly expressed support for extermination of his country’s indigenous population and for privatization of the Amazon rainforest, which global activists dub “the lungs of the earth.” Among other things, he said, in 1998: “It is a pity that the Brazilian cavalry were not as efficient as the Americans, who destroyed the natives.” In 2016, he promised that “in 2019, we are going to eliminate the Raposa Serra do Sol indigenous reserve. We will arm every farmer.”

Due to the small number of seats his party won in the congressional election in October 2018, Bolsonaro is limited in his ability to repeal existing environmental protection laws. Instead, he operates by draining the budgets of federal agencies dealing with that realm and with the country’s indigenous communities, and has also dramatically reduced penalties for violating environmental laws. The result: In the last two years there has been a huge increase in the rate of deforestation in Brazil, due to massive logging and intentional burning of the forests. In 2019, deforestation by the latter method worsened; fires consumed about 5,500 square kilometers of forest (according to data by Human Rights Watch, as reported in a letter to the OECD on January 27, 2021).

In response, the international community threatened to impose sanctions on Brazil and cancel trade deals with it. In 2019, 24 rights activists and environmentalists were murdered in Brazil.

Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández during his visit to Israel, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, on June, 24, 2021.
Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández during his visit to Israel, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, on June, 24, 2021. Credit: Amos Ben Gershom/GPO

All the federative units in the country have their own regular military police and elite squads. The latter units were established during the military dictatorship that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985 and have continued to use the same violent tactics even after the transition to democracy. For example, the Sao Paolo military police, in particular its elite Rota patrol team, are among the most murderous municipal police units in Brazil. They carry out extrajudicial executions, and most of their victims are poor, Black or mestizos living in Sao Paolo’s favelas, which are home to more than two million people.

According to an official report by the Sao Paulo Police Comptroller, 851 people were killed in the city by police in 2018 and the following year 867 people were killed – 95 percent of them were by the military police. In 2018 58 people were killed by the Rota squad; in 1994, its men killed 104 people. Police forces throughout Brazil also use Israeli-made machine guns, rifles and pistols. Last August, the Sao Paolo military police and its Rota unit began receiving shipments of Negev machine guns.

One serious problem in Brazil is the widespread phenomenon of off-duty police participation in “death squads,” in the activities of criminal groups and in “private security services,” which are involved in assassinations, extortion and other criminal acts. According to the United Nations, these police death squads kill people for a fee, or as part of “settling accounts.”

The U.S. State Department’s annual reports also repeatedly mention the involvement of Brazilian police officers in assassinations. Thus, on March 14, 2018, a death squad of former officers murdered rights activist and politician Marielle Franco in Rio de Janeiro. The Israeli Ministry of Defense has no way to surveil Brazilian police or to ensure that they do not use Israeli-made weapons in murders and other criminal activities carried out in their “leisure time.”

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, April w,2,2019
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, in April 2019. Symbolically the tree he planted there has shriveled up.Credit: Gali Tibbon / AFP

Elsewhere around the globe

In the more distant past, Israel also lent a hand to other environmentally destructive regimes. For example, in Haiti, a scam involving raising donations to plant trees was initiated by the Duvalier family, which ruled the country for some three decades until the late 1980s, by means of a militia and a presidential guard armed with Israeli Uzi submachine guns. Along with planting millions of trees with the funds that were donated, the family sold logging licenses for large swaths of forestland – including areas with trees planted thanks to the contributions.

During its 17-year rule, ending in 1990, Augusto Pinochet’s junta in Chile – armed and trained by Israel’s security and intelligence forces – adopted an extreme neoliberal economic policy, privatizing and handing over natural resources, forests, lakes and rivers to corporations.

But the long arm of Israeli entities involved in the realms of defense, security and weapons manufacture extend elsewhere around the globe, as well. As has been reported in Haaretz, police forces and other authorities in a number of provinces of Indonesia, about half of which is covered by forests, use a cellphone hacking system designed by Israel’s Cellebrite digital intelligence company.

The system is used in the Indonesia regions of Sumatra and West Papua, and in Borneo, where indigenous communities suffer violence, incrimination and arrests by police and investigative units, which support expulsion of those communities by corporations – particularly those that destroy rainforests for the palm oil industry.

Once again, since the State of Israel has no diplomatic relations with Indonesia, the Ministry of Defense has no way of overseeing or controlling the way the Cellebrite system is used. In 2019, three environmentalists were murdered in Indonesia.

In the Philippines, where 40 percent of the territory is covered by tropical forests, police forces and their affiliated militias are armed with tens of thousands of Israeli-made rifles, machine guns and pistols. In 2019, 43 environmentalists were killed there.

This is not surprising given President Rodrigo Duterte’s incitement against native communities seeking to safeguard the environment. In July 2017, Duterte threatened to bomb indigenous schools, claiming that children there were being taught to rebel against his regime. In February 2018, he advised soldiers to aim at the genitals while firing at communist rebels. A month later, Duterte published a list of some 600 terrorist operatives, which included the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

An anti-fossil fuel rally in the Philippines, where in 2019 43 environmentalists were killed, on June 17, 2021.
An anti-fossil fuel rally in the Philippines, on June 17, 2021. In 2019, 43 environmentalists were killed in that country.Credit: Aaron Favila/AP

Zandberg’s challenges

Tamar Zandberg, Israel’s minister of environmental protection, is perfectly suited to her new role and has a great potential to succeed. Zandberg worked in this field for many years, both before and after she was first elected to the Knesset on behalf of the Meretz party. At the recent transitional ceremony at her ministry, she announced that she would enact a “climate law.”

But while Zandberg may resolve local environmental-hazard and pollution issues, protect nature reserves, improve the balance between development and the environmentalism, and perhaps even free the Nature and Parks Authority from the jaws of right-wing organizational interests – she has no real ability to influence the climate crisis through environmental legislation in little old Israel. After all this is a huge, planet-wide crisis.

Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, June 14, 2021
Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg, in early June. She must work to ensure that Israeli weapons, training and surveillance systems will not reach violent regimes.Credit: Emil Salman

If Zandberg is interested in participating in the global war against climate change, she must do so by reviving the proposal she boldly promoted in the Knesset for several years: amending the Defense Export Control Law. Only such legislation will ensure that Israeli weapons, training and surveillance systems will no longer reach corrupt and violent regimes around the world that violate human rights, among them those in Brazil, Honduras and Colombia. As long as such undemocratic and corrupt regimes survive with the aid of Israeli or other countries’ weaponry, and enable corporations to continue to plunder valuable natural resources, and as long as these regimes continue to assassinate local environmentalists – it will be impossible to ensure the future of humanity.

It is symbolic that the tree President Bolsonaro planted at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem during his visit there in April 2019 has dried up and no trace of it remains. To deal with the global climate crisis, the arms supply pipelines to his regime and that of similar leaders need to be urgently dried up.

Attorney Eitay Mack participated in writing the proposal to amend the Defense Export Control Law and is working to stop exports to the regimes mentioned in the article.