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Berta Cáceres, Honduran indigenous and environmental rights campaigner. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.
Berta Cáceres, Honduran indigenous and environmental rights campaigner. Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize.
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Berta Cáceres: her fight for human rights in Honduras continues

Verenice Bengtsson

8th March 2016

Last week the environmental and human rights activist Berta Cáceres was murdered by gunmen in an early morning attack on her home which may have been carried out by or in collusion with state agents. Now her friend and colleague Gustavo Castro, himself wounded in the attack and the only witness to Berta's murder, has been detained for questioning.

Although they managed to extinguish her life, Berta's light will keep on shining. Although they killed the human being, her example as a courageous woman, her example of struggle and consistency, will live on.

Berta Cáceres could be seen raising many flags. She was a defender of human rights, of women rights, and the co-founder and coordinator of the Indigenous Council of Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).

Her spirited fight in defense of the right of peoples to land and natural resources, and against the construction of hydroelectric projects awarded by the Honduran government to national and transnational corporations, crossed borders. In 2015, her work was recognized internationally when she won the Goldman Environmental Prize.

Indigenous and social movement leaders from around the world, artists, politicians and regional and international organizations have expressed their rejection and condemned the crime.

Among them, the recently award-winning actor, Leonardo Di Caprio, and the Nobel Peace Prize, Rigoberta Menchú, have expressed their condemnation and distress at the assassination of the Lenca people's leader. The Lenca are one of the most impoverished, exploited and excluded indigenous people in Honduras.

But the persecution and threats on Berta's life were not recent. She was one of the women leaders of the indigenous resistance against the coup in 2009, backed by the then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Because of her struggle for the rights of peoples and her strong opposition to the civilian-military power that ousted Manuel Zelaya Rosales, she was targeted with serious threats, including rape and murder.

This is why, from that year on, given the military harassment around her home, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH) granted precautionary measures to protect her life and integrity.

Unfortunately, in Honduras, such measures were not taken seriously by the state. Berta is not the first person enjoying such protection to be killed.

As detailed in a 2015 report from Global Witness, Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists.

Gustavo Castro, key witness and campaigner, held in detention

And now we learn that Gustavo Castro - coordinator of Friends of the Earth Mexico / Otros Mundos Chiapas, the Mexican Network of People Affected by Mining (REMA) and the Mesoamerican Movement against the Extractive Mining Model (M4) - is being held against his will by the Honduran authorities.

On 6th March, after giviong witness statements to the police, Castro was intercepted by Honduran authorities before passing through migration in the Tegucigalpa International Airport, on the basis that he had to give further testimony. He was attempting to leave Honduras legally, under the protection of the Mexican Embassy.

Castro, who had been staying in Berta's home on the night before her murder, was the only witness to the early morning attack. He also appears to have been an intended victim in the attack, during which he received a gunshot wound. He is considered to be in severe danger so long as he remains in Honduras.

Civil society groups around the world are now demanding his immediate release and an end to the criminalization of environmental activists and land defenders in Honduras.

"The killing of Berta Caceres was a political assassination", said Jeff Conant, senior international forests campaigner with Friends of the Earth US. "Now the Honduran state appears be manipulating  the investigation in order to continue criminalizing and maligning her and the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras.

"The US State Department should take immediate action to withdraw security aid from Honduras, and should pressure the Honduran authorities to ensure the security and prompt release of our colleague Gustavo Castro, of Friends of the Earth, Mexico."

Erich Pica, president of FoE US, added: "We continue to fear for the life of our colleague Gustavo Castro, and ask that US authorities do everything in their power to ensure his safety, to ensure that the parties responsible for killing Berta Cáceres are brought to justice, and to end the criminalization of environmental activists in Honduras."

State murder or state collusion in murder?

Berta's case not only reflects the lack of political will to protect human rights defenders, but is also the result of the impunity in which the murders of dozens of indigenous people, peasants and social movement leaders remain unresolved in Honduras.

It would be frivolous to hastily attribute Berta's crime to the government. The government, however, must show a public commitment to carry out serious investigations leading to find out those responsible for the crime, and prosecute them.

And according to COPINH, there are also reasons to fear that the Honduran state may be implicated in Berta's murder:

  • early in the morning on 3rd March, the day of Berta Cáceres' murder, witnesses saw hit men from DESA in a blue Ford 150 vehicle near La Esperanza, and heard them speaking ill of Berta Cáceres.
  • on 25th February, during the forced eviction of COPINH Lenca families in Jarcia, Guinse, Intibuca, by the police and military, a member of the National Direction of Criminal Investigation (DGIC in Spanish) police unit harassed Berta Cáceres and told her that they would not be responsible if anything happened to her.
  • on 20th February, during COPINH's protest against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, the vice-mayor of San Francisco de Ojuera publicly asked that Berta Cáceres be killed.
  • on 16th February, armed men followed Berta Cáceres and other COPINH members near Rio Blanco.

Since Berta enjoyed precautionary measures, however, it is clear that even if the state investigates and convicts the murderers, it will not be able to elude its international responsibility as a state, for not having effectively guaranteed the right to life of the indigenous leader.

Although they managed to extinguish her life, Berta's light will keep on shining. Although they killed the human being, her example as a courageous woman, her example of struggle and consistency, will live on.



Petition: 'Release Gustavo Castro, at risk in the community of La Esperanza, Honduras'.

Verenice Bengtsson is a Swedish lawyer specialising in human rights, and a columnist for Asuntos del Sur.

Also on The Ecologist: 'Berta Cáceres, Honduran eco-defender, murdered'.

This article was previously published by Asuntos del Sur. It was republished by openDemocracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. This version includes additional reporting by The Ecologist. Original version also available en Español.

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