Witnesses say that Ponce was murdered by two brothers, Selvin and Marlon Matute, who have outstanding arrest warrants for killing three Tolupán leaders in August 2013 but are regularly seen in Locomapa. Just two months ago, another of the community’s members was beaten to death after receiving threats against his life. According to local rights group The Movement for Dignity and Justice (Movimiento Amplio por la Dignidad y La Justicia - MADJ) the local authorities have done nothing to bring the killers to justice.
According to Global Witness, Honduras is the world’s most dangerous country per capita to be an environmental or land defender, with at least 101 people killed between 2010 and 2014. The organisation is calling on the Honduran government to provide urgent protection to Ponce’s family and his colleagues in Locomapa, and to hold the perpetrators to account.
"Honduran indigenous peoples are being gunned down for simply defending their rights to their own land," says Billy Kyte, campaigner with Global Witness. "In Locomapa, assassins continue to roam free, regularly spotted by the community whilst the authorities do nothing. The Tolupán are paying in blood for their government’s inaction."
These murders are part of a dramatic increase in the killings of environmental and land defenders globally in recent years. At least 116 environmental activists were murdered in 2014 - almost double the number of journalists killed in the same period. A shocking 40 % of victims were indigenous, with nearly three-quarters of reported deaths in Central and South America. In Honduras – the worst-hit of all countries – deaths and violence are linked to a surge in destructive agriculture, mining and dam projects, recent regressive laws on extractives and environmental protection, and a climate of near total impunity.
Tolupán indigenous leaders, as part of MADJ, have been campaigning since 2009 against a mining project which initiated operations in Locomapa without proper consultation of affected communities. Tolupán members have also denounced loggers illegally pillaging their forests.
In August 2013, the Matute brothers, allegedly hired by a local mining company, opened fire on a peaceful sit-in and killed indigenous leaders Armando Fúnez Medina, Ricardo Soto Fúnez and María Enriqueta Matute. Many community members went into hiding after the 2013 murders and only returned 6 months later once they were granted protection measures by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR). One of these returning members, Luis de Reyes Marcía, was found murdered on 5 April this year, having recently filed a police complaint after receiving death threats. He was the husband of Vilma Consuelo Soto, one of the beneficiaries of the IACHR’s protection measures. Last month Consuelo Soto’s house was peppered with bullets by unknown gunmen.