Environmental activist’s murder spotlights spiraling violence in Honduras

Berta Cácares' daughter speaks at a rally seeking to pressure the Organization of American States to investigate her case. (Photo by Daniel Cima / Comision Interamericano de los Derechos Humanos)
Berta Cácares’ daughter speaks at a rally seeking to pressure the Organization of American States to investigate her case. (Photo by Daniel Cima / Comision Interamericano de los Derechos Humanos)

Environmentalist Berta Cáceres came to Seattle last November to share stories of struggle and progress from one of the world’s most dangerous areas for activism: Honduras.

Four months later, she was murdered for her work.

Threats against her life had become so common that Cáceres was forced into hiding. Three of her colleagues had been killed for their involvement in protecting the same indigenous territory she was working to help. Those threats increased shortly before her assassination.

The violence in Honduras is very real, and you don’t have to be involved in political or criminal activity to become consumed by it.

Each-and-every one of my cousins has a story about being robbed or an attempted robbery, often at gunpoint. In January, a family member was kidnapped and held for three days before being released. I fear for my loved one’s safety in such unstable circumstances.

Having visited Honduras many times I’ve witnessed both the beauty and danger of the country. So I couldn’t miss the opportunity to hear from Cáceres and others familiar with the situation when they visited Seattle last year. She and fellow activist Miriam Miranda were guest speakers at the University of Washington, and attended a screening of the documentary film “Resistencia: The Fight for the Aguan Valley,” about environmental exploitation in Honduras.

At the event, some told stories of the struggle and violence that have become the Honduran narrative, a country geographically locked between the manufacturers and consumers of an enormous drug trade dominating the politics of Latin America.

That narrative, contrasted with the spirit of activism and fearlessness of Cáceres and Miranda was thick in the room that evening, like a humidity you can feel against your skin, seeming to say: our story will change, at some point our story must change.

Cáceres was no stranger to threats, nor was she delusional about the risk of activism in Central America. Honduras might be the most dangerous place in the world to be an activist. Over 100 human rights and environmental activists have been killed in the country over the last five years.

But despite the circumstances, she still continued to fight for the rights of indigenous communities against well funded opponents, as she had done her whole life.

Cáceres was born in the early 1970’s, and grew up during a turbulent time in Central America. Her mother, a social worker and activist, took in refugees fleeing neighboring El Salvador during war. As a young student activist, Berta fought against unapproved access and logging operations on indigenous Lenca territory. She later went on to co-found the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) in 1993. As a group of passionate and persistent activists, COPINH has since fought for the rights of indigenous communities across the country.

Cáceres won the Goldman Environmentalist Prize in 2015 for her work in the preservation of indigenous land, and gave a stirring acceptance speech describing her work.

Then on March 3rd, 2016, Berta Cáceres was shot and killed.

An armed group broke into her residence during the middle of the night, shooting her and one of her colleagues, Gustavo Castro. Castro was severely injured with multiple gunshot wounds, but survived the assault.

Since the assassination, protests have been held in anger over what some believe was a lack on the part of the government to protect Berta and others.

The suspicion and distrust of many in the public does not go unwarranted. Only 3.7% of the homicides that occurred in the country between 2010 and 2013 resulted in convictions, making response to gang violence and other targeted assassinations almost completely mute.

However, with the public outburst over the death of Cáceres, there has been increased pressure on the government to solve the case.

A rally at the Honduran Mission in New York City soon after Berta Cáceres was killed. (Photo by Natalie Jeffers / Matters of the Earth)
A rally at the Honduran Mission in New York City soon after Berta Cáceres was killed. (Photo by Natalie Jeffers / Matters of the Earth)

On May 2nd, 2016, four men were arrested and charged with Cáceres’ murder.

The arrests have been praised by the U.S. ambassador to Honduras James Nealon, who said, “We will continue to follow closely as the suspects arrested today enter the judicial process, as well as any future arrests, and will continue to support this investigation any way we can.”

Some believe that the four men arrested may be part of a larger criminal operation against activists involved in the region.

Meanwhile, many Hondurans continue to fight for the environmental and indigenous causes in Cáceres’ name, showing that even without their former leader, they continue to heed her words:

“We must undertake the struggle in all parts of the world, wherever we may be, because we have no other spare or replacement planet. We have only this one, and we have to take action.”

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