The Story Of Berta Cáceres: How Her Fight For Indigenous, Environmental, & Gender Rights Cost Her Her Life

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The incredible story of Berta Cáceres, courageous campaigner for indigenous, environmental, and gender rights: her life and assassination, as told by her nephew Silvio Carillo.

On March 3 2016, I awoke to the news of a brutal reality: the assassination of Berta Cáceres. Berta was a courageous campaigner for indigenous, environmental and gender rights. She led this battle from the small mountain town of La Esperanza (‘the hope’ in English) in Honduras.

Bertita — as we called her — was my aunt. We were only two years apart in age, and I always thought of her as my sister.

Berta Cáceres holds up the Goldman Environmental Prize, April 2015. (Courtesy Goldman Environmental Prize)

A childhood exposed to poverty and inequality

Growing up, I would visit my family in Honduras almost every year. My parents fled to Washington DC in the early ’70s, forced to leave Central America due to threats to their lives by the US-supported military government.

Seeing us in my grandmother’s garden playing soccer or hide and seek, you would never have known that violence and repression existed. But, there was plenty of evidence of poverty and inequality around us.

Security forces in downtown Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Each morning of every day of the week, I would wake up to the smell of wood burning in the 1950s-era wood stove, the faint hint of coffee, and the sterile smell of packaged medicine. I’d hear the quiet murmur of indigenous languages, the cry of unknown children and my grandmother shouting above the din: “No se preocupe niño, no va doler” (“Don’t worry child, it won’t hurt”) as she stuck a vaccination needle recently sterilized in a metal container on the stove, into a malnourished indigenous Lenca child’s dark brown arm. The line of women, men, children and elderly was waiting here every morning.

Austra Bertha Flores López (Berta’s mother) with Agustina Flores López (Berta’s grandmother) and Bertha Isabel Zúniga Cáceres (Berta’s daughter).

Berta was not deterred, but our concern for her safety grew. She knew she was dealing with violent people to whom life matters little.

Bertita’s mother, my grandmother, was a midwife, mayor and — at one point — governor of the state of Intibucá. She provided medical care for thousands of underserved indigenous people who had nowhere else to turn for care. Bertita assisted her mother every day, whether it was by fetching medication from the armoire in my grandmother’s bedroom or by lighting candles for a child dying from dehydration caused by untreated diarrhea.

From civic engagement to political activism

When Bertita was 19, she co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, known by its acronym in Spanish as COPINH. The organization united the Lenca peoples from all over Honduras and helped by providing education, inspiring leadership, and offering a badly needed platform for expression.

Berta speaking at an event.

COPINH soon became influential and an important support for local and national political candidates, mostly shoring up left-leaning parties. On the other side of the political spectrum was the rightist Partido Nacional, primarily made up of lighter-skinned, middle to upper class Hondurans. In 2006, COPINH helped elect Mel Zelaya, a wealthy rancher from the left-leaning Partido Liberal. Zelaya sought out Berta’s help on policy issues for the indigenous populations of Honduras. Even though she realized that Zelaya was deeply flawed and more interested in power and attention, Berta continued to pressure him. She successfully advocated for policies to improve the lives of rural poor, such as a raise in the minimum wage.

Zelaya tacked further left, creating closer ties with U.S. enemy number one in the region: Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Three years later, angered by a potential loss of profits and with support from the US, the Honduran business elite ousted Zelaya in a coup. They claimed that he was attempting to change the Honduran constitution when he called for a non-binding vote as to whether or not to create an assembly tasked with updating the 1982 constitution drafted in the waning days of military rule. The Obama administration’s Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, signed off on the illegal transfer of power from a democratically-elected president to the National Party oligarchy.

Berta at a forum.

Soon thereafter, the government declared ‘Honduras Open for Business’. President Porfirio Lobo, along with the head of Congress at the time, Juan Orlando Hernández, passed ‘a raft of business-friendly laws favouring multinational investments in energy, mining and tourism’. These investments included the selling of a concession to build a dam on Lenca indigenous territory near a village called Rio Blanco. The government had never approached the Lenca about it nor about any of the other concession they sold, although Lobo had signed a treaty with Berta herself on July 28, 2011 which reiterated the fact that Honduras is a UN International Labor Organization 169 Treaty signatory, and has been since 1995.

A fight against government corruption

The skirmishes began in 2013, the year current illegally re-elected president Juan Orlando Hernández became president. Bulldozers cleared fields, and large swaths of earth were scraped from the sides of the surrounding valley where the Gualcarque river flows. The indigenous community of Rio Blanco protested, to no avail. They reached out to COPINH for help. Berta quickly supported the community to organize and the struggle began in earnest.

The company building the dam — Desarollos Energeticos S.A., or DESA — is owned by one of the wealthiest families in Central America, the Atala Zablah. They are a cornerstone of the business elite in Honduras and closely allied with the National Party and Juan Orlando Hernández. Soon the villagers organized blockades to block more construction equipment from entering. Close ties to the state secured the presence of the Honduran military to protect the dam even though the protests had always been non-violent.

Berta at the COPINH radio station hosting a program. (Courtesy Goldman Environmental Prize)

I asked her how she was doing: “Ya sabes, aquí, en la lucha contra estos jodidos” (“You know, here fighting against these fuckers”), she replied nonchalantly.

An investigation by Sierra Club from June 2017 connects some of the dots: “The close cooperation between the dam builders and the military was part of a larger relationship. DESA’s executives and board of directors come from the Honduran military and banking elite. DESA’s secretary, Roberto Pacheco Reyes, is a former justice minister. The company president, Roberto David Castillo Mejia, is a former military intelligence officer accused of corruption by the Honduran government’s public auditor’s office. The vice president, Jacobo Nicolas Atala Zablah, is a bank owner and a member of one of Honduras’s wealthiest families.”

“En la lucha contra estos jodidos”

The campaign to stop the dam would soon take a deadly turn. Smear campaigns against COPINH and death threats against Berta were already underway. Then, in July of 2013 a Rio Blanco community leader who was peacefully protesting was killed by the military protecting the dam. The police tried to frame Berta on a trumped up gun charge. The chaos was making investors uncomfortable and some pulled out as the project continued at an increasingly slow rate.

During the next two years, Berta and other members of COPINH were increasingly harassed, shot at, and intimidated by Honduran members of the military protecting the dam, members of DESA’s leadership, and state actors who had something to gain from the dam being built.

Berta was not deterred, but our concern for her safety grew. She knew she was dealing with violent people to whom life matters little. Berta sent her children abroad to study on scholarships in Argentina and Mexico so they couldn’t be used as pawns to get to her. It pained her to drive them to the airport, and they became increasingly aware that each time they said goodbye could be the last.

In April 2015, Berta and COPINH were awarded the Goldman Prize for their work in defending land rights and the environment. I had my last conversation with her days after she received the award. I was living in Hong Kong at the time and hadn’t seen her for a year. I asked her how she was doing: “Ya sabes, aquí, en la lucha contra estos jodidos” (“You know, here fighting against these fuckers”), she replied nonchalantly.

A stream of obfuscation & chaos

The Goldman Prize brought her notoriety and a worldwide stage for the struggle. It also made her a bigger target. On February 5 and 6, 2016, an attack on Berta had been planned but was subsequently aborted “due to the lack of a vehicle and the presence of other people with Berta,” reported one of the alleged hitmen now on trial, according to a reported conducted by an independent team of lawyers, known in Spanish by the acronym GAIPE. The group of lawyers, all of them specialists in human rights, was brought together by the family and COPINH after the government of Honduras refused to allow an independent international investigation.

Just before midnight on March 2, 2016 at least two gunmen broke into her house. Berta was shot at least three times. Her friend and fellow Mexican rights defender Gustavo Castro was also shot in the house that night. He survived by playing dead. After the gunmen left, Gustavo got up and went over to Bertita. He held her, begging her, “Quedate con migo, quedate con migo Bertita” (“Stay with me, stay with me Bertita”).

A minute or two later, she died in his arms.

The next hours and days were just a stream of obfuscation and chaos.

When the local police arrived, they did not close off the crime scene, Berta’s newly purchased house. Dozens of people trampled throughout. Family members were brought in to identify the body. The complete autopsy report and video of the autopsy were never given to the family despite numerous legal requests. Lists of evidence demonstrate several pieces of equipment were taken from the house and never returned to the family. Among them were a mobile phone and a computer.

US-trained investigators showed up at the scene and finally secured it. The Honduran police investigating the crime interrogated Gustavo Castro, a Mexican national, who spent the next 30 hours in blood-stained clothes. He was being asked the same questions over and over again, without any legal representation from the Mexican consulate. At the same time, members of COPINH were also being questioned about their whereabouts. It was becoming increasingly apparent that US-trained police investigators were attempting to confirm a narrative that state-owned media were already reporting: “Cáceres Murder Was a Crime of Passion,” or “COPINH Leadership Fight Led to Killing.”

Berta’s killing was a message: “If you speak out, you will pay with your life.” It’s a message that has been delivered dozens if not hundreds of times in Honduras, a country of only 8 million that is one of the most dangerous places in the world to live where a whopping 99% of murders go unpunished.

Berta speaking to a Rio Blanco community members in 2015. (Courtesy Goldman Environmental Prize)

The fight for justice

The photos from the crime scene photos as well as the preliminary autopsy results appeared in state-run media before anyone from our family was provided any information about the investigation. My family requested an international investigation which was denied. We then requested an autopsy by a forensics team from Guatemala that had worked on several high-profile genocide investigations. It was denied. I personally asked the US ambassador at the time, James Nealon, to support our call for an international investigation. He repeatedly deflected and stated how much great work the US-trained police investigators from the Honduran public prosecutor’s office were doing conjuring up CSI-type investigative techniques.

GAIPE examined the minuscule amount of evidence the public prosecutor handed over to the prosecutors of the 8 men charged in Berta’s assassination. They learned three things: the public prosecutor seemed to be in possession of over a terabyte of evidence, yet he was only handing over about 50 gigabytes; most of the evidence had not been properly examined in the 20 months since Berta’s assassination; and there is mounting speculation that the rest of the evidence is being systematically destroyed. One of the phones handed to the prosecution had a hole going through it from spearing. The phone belonged to one of the detained men who had ties to military intelligence, making it impossible to extract data from it. The final discovery was that not only was the evidence leading high into the dam company DESA’s leadership, but there appeared to be more connections into Honduran Army Intelligence as well as government officials.

2015 Goldman Environmental Prize Winners. (Courtesy Goldman Environmental Prize)

The trial for those responsible for Berta’s murder finally began after being delayed several times due to writs filed against the court itself requesting the recusal of the three-judge panel for bias and incompetence. A curious Tweet went out from the highest-ranking official, Ms. Heide Fulton, in the US embassy in Honduras: “…@USEmbassyHN continues to call for free, fair and transparent legal processes grounded in due process and respect for the rule of law.”

It was curious because Ms. Fulton — the highest ranking U.S. official — knew that up until that moment on the morning of October 15 2018, not one part of the process had been transparent, fair, and it completely lacked any “due process and respect for the rule of law.”

It wasn’t a call so much as it was a directive to an illusion, a magic trick, “this is what your eyes will see.”

Subsequently, the three-judge panel dismissed Berta’s family’s request for the judges’ removal, then removed the family’s lawyers from the case leaving the public prosecutor to defend the family. The same public prosecutors who have repeatedly refused to hand over more evidence to prosecute the assassins, find the masterminds and get to the truth.

Berta’s killing was a message: “If you speak out, you will pay with your life.” It’s a message that has been delivered dozens if not hundreds of times in Honduras, a country of only 8 million that is one of the most dangerous places in the world to live where a whopping 99% of murders go unpunished.

The thousands of people fleeing Honduras in caravans and otherwise come from all walks of life. They aren’t fleeing because they are being used as political pawns to discredit the Honduran president as Ms. Fulton — the highest ranking US embassy official in Tegucigalpa — claims. Berta was fighting for their right to live in Honduras, empowering those who are underrepresented because it is their last hope.

The same reason my parents left over 40 years ago.

Berta Cáceres and her mother, Austra Bertha Flores López. (Courtesy Goldman Environmental Prize)

Editor’s note: On November 29, 2018, a Honduran court found seven men guilty of the murder in the assassination of Berta Cáceres after a six-week trial. Among those convicted are two former executives of Desarrollos Energéticos (or DESA), the company with concession to build the 21-megawatt dam Ms Cáceres was fighting against,as well as DESA’s director of social and environmental development and five others in connection with the assassination, and one acquittal. According to Global Witness, in 2016, 14 environmental activists were killed for their work in Honduras.

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