On the night of March 2 one year ago armed men burst into the home of the indigenous environmental activist Berta Cáceres Flores in La Esperanza, Honduras, and gunned her down.
On this first anniversary of Cáceres’ assassination, there are solidarity gatherings around the world, and heightened calls for justice.
Cáceres was the coordinator and co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH) and was a key opponent of plans to build the Agua Zarca dam on indigenous community land in Río Blanco. She won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize (South and Central America) in 2015.
There was international outrage over her murder.
The president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, John Goldman, said: “She was a fearless environmental hero. She understood the risks that came with her work, but continued to lead her community with amazing strength and conviction.”
The Canadian author and environmental campaigner Naomi Klein, reacting on Twitter, said: “Devastating news. Berta was a critical leader and fierce land defender. Part of a global wave of such attacks.”
The “Justice for Berta” campaign issued a message on the eve of the anniversary of her assassination and renewed its calls for an independent international investigation into the killing.
“It’s now been a year since Berta’s assassination and yet the intellectual authors of the crime remain at large,” the campaigners stated.
“If the authorities were certain they had the real people responsible then they should allow an independent international investigation to confirm their findings. Instead, the government of Juan Orlando Hernández continues to obfuscate and completely reject an investigation by an outside entity.”
Cáceres’ relatives say that there has been “destruction of evidence” along with “the burglary of case files, alleged perpetrators’ ties to the army, and allegations of army hit lists”.
All these things, Cáceres’ relatives say, “are all clear indications that the Honduran government is not capable of conducting a proper investigation”.
Yet, says Cáceres’ nephew, Silvio Carrillo, the United States state department “continues its unabashed support for this criminal syndicate that claims to be a legitimate government”.
Cáceres’ relatives and COPINH have appealed for an independent international investigation into her murder, led by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). They say there are serious and credible doubts about the ability of the Honduran police to investigate, as well as allegations that the government had prior knowledge of, and possible involvement in, the assassination.
Carrillo, who is based in San Francisco, is calling for a “Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act” to be passed in the US Congress that would cut off all security funding for Honduras “until human rights violations by Honduran security forces cease and their perpetrators are brought to justice”.
The Act will be introduced in the House of Representatives on March 2.
Today (Wednesday) hundreds of people gathered outside the Supreme Court in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, demanding justice and pledging to continue the struggle against the Agua Zarca dam, which is owned by Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA).
Campaigners against the dam want the government to permanently nullify the concession granted to DESA for the project.
Demonstrations in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, on March 1.
Tomorrow, COPINH is launching an international month of mobilization, and has called for for solidarity actions at Honduran embassies and consulates around the world on March 2 and 3.
There will be remembrance events in numerous countries, including Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Argentina, the United States, Ireland, Australia, Germany, and Spain.
The events will not only be a tribute to Cáceres, who courageously confronted those who wanted to silence her, and continued to defend Lenca lands and rivers despite continued death threats. They will highlight the ongoing battles of those who are still fighting to stop the destruction caused by the extractive industries, and the urgent need for protection for environmental activists.
Photo taken in Tegucigalpa by Giorgio Trucchi/Rel-UITA.
Just four months before she was killed, Cáceres told delegates to the World Indigenous Summit on Environment and Rivers, held in Sarawak, Malaysia: “The military, paramilitaries, police, and hitmen are sent into Lenca territory. Ten members of our organisation have been murdered; four of them for defending the Gualcarque River.”
Less than two weeks after Cáceres was assassinated, another member of COPINH, Nelson García (pictured left), was shot dead by unidentified gunmen as he returned home after the Honduran security forces evicted a Lenca community from its land.
After Garcia’s murder, the Dutch development bank, FMO, which was the main European funder of the Agua Zarca project, suspended all its activities in Honduras. The Finnish aid-financed investment fund Finnfund has also suspended disbursements to the Agua Zarca dam.
In July last year, the body of another COPINH activist, Lesbia Janeth Urquía, was found on a rubbish dump with machete wounds to the head.
The non-governmental organisation Global Witness recently released a scathing report about the murder of environmental activists in Honduras.
According to Global Witness, Honduras is the deadliest country in the world to be an environmental defender. More than 120 Hondurans have been killed since 2010 for protesting against the theft or destruction of their land or rivers.
Global Witness says that most of the activists murdered in Honduras are from indigenous and rural communities and were protesting about mining, hydropower, and agribusiness projects.
The organisation’s campaign leader Billy Kyte says that indigenous and environmental activists are under threat throughout Latin America.
According to Global Witness, two-thirds of the murders of environmentalists worlwide since 2002 occurred in that region.
The most recent murder of a high-profile environmentalist in the region was that of Isidro Baldenegro Lopez, a leader of the indigenous Tarahumara people.
Baldenegro (pictured below) was shot in January this year after campaigning against a powerful alliance of loggers, drug gangs, and local political leaders.
Eight men have now been arrested in connection with the murder of Berta Cáceres.
Two of those arrested have links to DESA, and four of them have ties to the Honduran army.
The eighth suspect – a former Honduran soldier, Henry Javier Hernández Rodríguez – was captured in Mexico in January this year.
The legal team representing Berta Cáceres’ family and COPINH said they were not notified of Rodriguez’s arrest and has reported “serious inconsistencies and weaknesses in the public prosecutor’s approach to the case”.
The other suspects arrested in the case include Sergio Ramón Rodríguez, who was an environmental engineer employed by DESA, and Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, who was the company’s former head of security, and an ex-army lieutenant and military intelligence specialist.
Suspect Edison Duarte is also a retired military officer and another of those arrested, Major Mariano Díaz, was a special forces veteran and military police trainer.
Bustillo stands accused of hiring Edison Duarte and his brother Emerson as hit men.
The COPINH leader Tomás Gómez told Global Witness that Cáceres’ was on a list being touted to hit men, and US$1,000 was on offer for her murder.
Writing in The Guardian, Nina Lakhani says that a legal source close to the investigation into Cáceres’ killing told her: “The murder of Berta Cáceres has all the characteristics of a well-planned operation designed by military intelligence, where it is absolutely normal to contract civilians as assassins.
“It’s inconceivable that someone with her high profile, whose campaign had made her a problem for the state, could be murdered without at least implicit authorisation of military high command.”
Lakhani wrote that Díaz and Bustillo both received military training in the US.
She wrote that Hernández was a former special forces sniper, who had worked under the direct command of Díaz.
The head of the Honduran armed forces, Francisco Álvarez, has denied that military deaths squads were operating in the country.
DESA denies any involvement in Cáceres’ murder.
Amnesty International issued a statement on the eve of the anniversary of the murder, saying that “the scandalous lack of an effective investigation to find those responsible for ordering the brutal killing of Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres sends a terrifying message to the hundreds of people who dare to speak out against the powerful”.
Amnesty’s Americas director, Erika Guevara-Rosas, said: “Berta’s tragic murder illustrates the woeful state of human rights in Honduras. The message is clear: if your human rights work disturbs those with power, you will be killed.”
Guevara-Rosas said the investigation into Cáceres’ murder had been “scandalously poor” and had so far failed to identify those responsible for ordering her killing.
She also spoke of “the lack of an effective mechanism to protect witnesses and other human rights defenders”, which, she said, “shows the Honduran authorities’ lack of interest in securing justice”.
She added: “Every day that goes by without justice being delivered pushes Honduran environmental activists one step closer to a tragic end. Failing to protect them is failing to protect the natural resources which everyone depends on for survival.”
COPINH has filed 49 official complaints about concessions in Lenca territory, including 41 hydroelectric dam concessions.
The organisation says the exact number of concessions on Lenca territory is unknown because there is a lack of transparency about how many the government has granted and the status of projects.
Three government officials have been charged with alleged abuse of authority for granting permits for the Agua Zarca dam in violation of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention 169 and the right of the Lenca people to free, prior, and informed consultation.
The accused are the former Vice-Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment (SERNA), Marco Jonathan Lainez, the former SERNA vice-minister, Dario Cardona, and the former mayor of Intibucá, Martiniano Dominguez.
On March 1, COPINH presented a constitutional challenge to the Honduran Supreme Court, arguing that the decrees that govern the Agua Zarca project should be revoked and cancelled.
The Agua Zarca dam construction site. Photo from COPINH.
Mexican environmentalist Gustavo Castro Soto, who witnessed Cáceres’ murder, and was injured in the attack, was only allowed to return home a month after the killing.
Castro (pictured left), who is the coordinator of Otros Mundos Chiapas (Friends of the Earth Mexico), was treated more like a suspect than a victim and there were serious fears for his safety.
Four days after Cáceres’ assassination, Judge Victorina Flores Orellana issued a thirty-day “migratory alert” preventing Castro from leaving Honduras and the activist was only able to return to Mexico on April 1 after the First Courthouse of Letters in Intibucá, acting on instructions from Judge Victorina Flores Orellana, lifted the ban.
At a congressional hearing in the US, one of Cáceres’ daughters, Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, said Castro was subjected to psychological torture “because they left him in the same bloody clothes for 24 hours”.
She told the hearing: “They didn’t let him sleep; they haven’t let him return to his country or see anybody, including us. He hasn’t received psychological attention. They even made him travel long distances from my town to the capital several times.”
Friends of the Earth said that, as a Mexican citizen, and as a witness and victim of attempted murder in Honduras, Gustavo Castro had the right to collaborate with the Honduran authorities from his own country.
Castro’s lawyers have filed a complaint with the IACHR, alleging that the state of Honduras violated his human rights during his detention. Castro has also made a criminal complaint against Judge Victorina Flores Orellana. He plans to file other cases against the Honduran government this year.
The “Justice for Berta” campaign is calling for donations to Cáceres’ mother and children and to COPINH.
“The money is needed to keep pressure on both the US and Honduran governments. The more people we educate about what is happening, the more Berta’s work and legacy can bring change to Honduras.”
Photos courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Foundation.
Article updated on 2/2/2017 and 4/2/2017.
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