Berta Cáceres

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Berta Cáceres
Berta Cáceres interview 2015.jpg
Cáceres in 2015
Born Berta Isabel Cáceres Flores
(1971-03-04)4 March 1971 (or 1972 or 1973; see references)
La Esperanza, Honduras
Died 3 March 2016(2016-03-03) (aged 44)
La Esperanza, Honduras
Cause of death Murder by shooting
Nationality Honduran
Occupation Environmentalist, indigenous rights activists
Years active 1993–2016
Known for work to defend Lenca people habitat and rights, Río Gualcarque for which she won the Goldman Prize
Children Olivia, Bertha, Laura, Salvador

Berta Isabel Cáceres Flores (Spanish pronunciation: [ˈbeɾta isaˈβel ˈkaseɾes ˈfloɾes]; 4 March 1971,[1] 1972,[2] or 1973[3] – 3 March 2016)[4][5][6] (Lenca) was a Honduran environmental activist, indigenous leader of her people,[7] and co-founder and coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).[8][9][10] She won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, for "a grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam" at the Río Gualcarque.[11]

She was assassinated in her home by armed intruders, after years of threats against her life.[12] Twelve environmental activists were killed in Honduras in 2014, according to research by Global Witness, which makes it the most dangerous country in the world, relative to its size, for activists protecting forests and rivers.[13] Her murder was followed by two more of activists within the month.

A former soldier with the US-trained special forces units of the Honduran military asserted that Caceres' name was included on a hitlist distributed to them months before her assassination.[14] According to a February 2017 investigation by The Guardian, court papers show that three of the eight people arrested in connection with the assassination are linked to the US-trained elite troops. Two of them, Maj Mariano Díaz and Lt Douglas Giovanny Bustillo, received military training in the US, in Fort Benning, Georgia. This was the site of the former School of the Americas (SOA), now known as WHINSEC; the SOA has been linked to thousands of murders and human right violations by its graduates in Latin America[15][16]

Early life[edit]

Cáceres was born into the Lenca people in La Esperanza (Intibucá), Honduras.[17] This people are predominate in southwestern Honduras. Cáceres grew up in the 1970s during a time of civil unrest and violence in Central America. Her mother Austra Bertha Flores Lopez was a role model of humanitarianism: she was a midwife and social activist who took in and cared for refugees from El Salvador.[18][19] Austra Flores was elected and served as a two-term mayor of their hometown of La Esperanza, as a congresswoman, and as a governor of the Department of Intibucá.[20]

After attending local schools, Cáceres studied education at a university and graduated with a teaching qualification.[17] She found in Fr. Ismael Moreno, director of Radio Progreso & ERIC-SJ, a close friend and collaborator.[21]

Activism[edit]

In 1993, as a student activist, Cáceres co-founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), an organization to support indigenous people's rights in Honduras.[22] She led campaigns on a wide variety of issues, including protesting illegal logging, plantation owners, and the presence of US military bases on Lenca land.[23][24] She supported feminism, LGBT rights, as well as wider social and indigenous issues.[25][26]

In 2006, a group of indigenous Lenca people from Río Blanco asked Cáceres to investigate the recent arrival of construction equipment in their area.[11] Cáceres duly investigated and informed the community that a joint venture project between Chinese company Sinohydro, the World Bank's International Finance Corporation, and Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos, S.A. (also known as DESA, see Empresa Nacional de Energía Eléctrica) had plans to construct a series of four hydroelectric dams on the Gualcarque River.[27]

The developers had breached international law by failing to consult with the local people on the project. The Lenca were concerned that the dams would compromise their access to water, food and materials for medicine, and therefore threaten their traditional way of life.[13][28] Cáceres worked together with the community to mount a protest campaign. She organized legal actions and community meetings against the project, and took the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.[13]

From 2013, Cáceres led COPINH and the local community in a year-long protest at the construction site to prevent the companies from accessing the land. Security officers regularly removed protesters from the site. [13] On 15 July 2013, the Honduran military opened fire on the protesters, killing one member of COPINH and injuring three others.[29] The community regularly complained of threats and harassment from the company employees, security guards, and the military. In May 2014, members of COPINH were attacked in two separate incidents that resulted in two members dead and three seriously injured.[30]

In late 2013, both Sinohydro and the International Finance Corporation withdrew from the project because of COPINH's protests.[11] Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA) continued, however, moving the construction site to another location to avoid the blockade.[13][27] Other local business leaders supported the project. Officials filed criminal charges against Cáceres and two other indigenous leaders for "usurpation, coercion and continued damages" against DESA for their roles in the protest, which was alleged to have incited others to cause damages to the company.[31] In response to the charges, Amnesty International stated that, if the activists were imprisoned, Amnesty International would consider them prisoners of conscience.[32] Dozens of regional and international organizations called upon the Honduran government to stop criminalizing the defense of human rights and to investigate threats against human rights defenders.[33]

On 20 February 2016, more than 100 protesters were detained by security while protesting, and threats against their organisation began to increase.[13][34]

Cáceres singled out Hillary Clinton for her involvement in the Honduran coup:

"The return of the president, Mel Zelaya, became a secondary issue. There were going to be elections in Honduras. And here, she, Clinton, recognized that they didn’t permit Mel Zelaya’s return to the presidency. There were going to be elections. And the international community—officials, the government, the grand majority—accepted this, even though we warned this was going to be very dangerous and that it would permit a barbarity, not only in Honduras but in the rest of the continent. And we’ve been witnesses to this."[35]

Clinton claimed that her method of handling the situation was better for the Honduran people, although at the time Honduras topped the World Bank's list of countries with the highest rate of intentional homicides.[36]

Threats and human rights concerns[edit]

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights included "Bertha Cáceres" (sic) on its 28 June 2009 list of people under threat during the 2009 Honduran coup d'état.[37] because of the threats that had been made against her.[38] The following day the IACH issued so-called "precautionary measures (MC 196-09)" in defense of her and other activists, while acknowledging reports that military forces had surrounded her home.[37]

In 2013, Cáceres told Al Jazeera:

The army has an assassination list of 18 wanted human rights fighters with my name at the top. I want to live, there are many things I still want to do in this world but I have never once considered giving up fighting for our territory, for a life with dignity, because our fight is legitimate. I take lots of care but in the end, in this country where there is total impunity I am vulnerable... When they want to kill me, they will do it.[39]

During the campaign against the dam, Cáceres and other organisers were frequently intimidated by the military; on one occasion they were stopped and their vehicle was searched while traveling to Rio Blanco. Cáceres claimed that during this search, a gun was planted in the vehicle; the organisers were subsequently arrested on weapons charges and detained overnight in jail.[40] The court placed Cáceres under preventative measures, forcing her to sign in at the court every week and preventing her from leaving the country. The measures were in effect until the case was dismissed in February 2014.[41]

Court records from 2014 publicized in May 2016 showed that "the government and DESA repeatedly sought to tar Caceres and her colleagues as violent anarchists bent on terrorizing the population through their protests, [...] usurpation, coercion and continued damage and even attempting to undermine the democratic order."[42]

One of Berta’s favorite expressions was "They are afraid of us because we are not afraid of them," according to Gustavo Castro Soto.[43]

Honors[edit]

In April 2015, the international human rights organization Global Witness highlighted Cáceres' case as emblematic of the severe risks faced by environmental activists in Honduras. This country had the highest number of killings of environmental and land defenders per capita in the world.[44]

Death[edit]

Cáceres was shot dead in her home by armed intruders on the morning of 3 March 2016.[45][46] Mexican environmental activist Gustavo Castro Soto was also wounded,[47] by two gunshots, to the cheek and the hand.[48] Gustavo had arrived in La Esperanza a day prior for a meeting with 80 others "to discuss alternatives to the hydro-electric project". Berta invited him to stay at her place for the night, "as her place had a better internet connection than his accommodation".

He said:

I was working on a presentation when I heard a loud bang. I thought something had fallen, but when Berta screamed, ‘Who’s there?’, I knew it was bad, that it was the end. [...] When the hitman arrived, I covered my face. He was three metres away. I moved as he fired, and the bullet passed my ear. He thought he’d killed me. It’s a miracle I survived.[43]

Under the so-called "precautionary measures" recommended by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Honduran government was required to protect Cáceres, but on the day of her death she was not under any protection. The Honduran security minister said that she was not at the place which she had identified as her home.[13] She had recently moved into a new house in La Esperanza.[34]

Cáceres is survived by her four children with former husband and co-leader, Salvador Zúniga.[17][47]

"Justice for Berta Cáceres!" protest in Washington, D.C.
A graffiti tribute to Berta Cáceres in Palma, Spain

Reactions[edit]

Berta Isabel Zúniga Cáceres, the 25-year-old daughter of Berta Cáceres, said in an interview she holds the company that wanted to build the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam responsible for her mother's death. She said it is "very easy to pay people to commit murders in Honduras, but those who are behind this are other powerful people with money and an apparatus that allows them to commit these crimes" and that "they had paid assassins on several occasions to kill her."[49]

Cáceres' death was widely condemned, with calls for an investigation coming from the Organization of American States (OAS),[50] the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras,[51] and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.[52] Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández declared the investigation of the murder a priority,[53] and Luis Almagro, the Secretary General of the OAS, reiterated the OAS's previous call for special protection of indigenous human rights defenders in Honduras.[50]

Other expressions of support came from American actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio, Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein, Amnesty International, singer René Pérez of Calle 13, former Colombian senator Piedad Córdoba, Oxfam, the Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, and Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.[27][34][54][55][56][57][58][59][60]

A group of around 100 COPINH members marched to the provincial police station after her death, to demand an independent international investigation into her murder.[34] There was a protest at the Harry S. Truman Building, in Washington, D.C.[6] On 4 March 2016, students at the National Autonomous University of Honduras staged a protest over Cáceres' death, angry that she was not given more protection during her lifetime, demanding an independent investigation and throwing rocks, while police used tear gas to break up violent clashes during the protest.[59] Protests were also held outside the Embassy of Honduras in Bogotá, San Cristóbal de las Casas, Vienna, Berlin, and Barcelona.[61][better source needed][62]

Investigation[edit]

On 3 March 2016, the day of her death, government officials performed an autopsy of Cáceres' body without oversight, even though her family had requested an independent forensics expert,[63] an independent investigation by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.[64] The same day, the government began its investigation and activated its Violent Crimes Unit (Unidad de Delitos Violentos) on the case, which coordinates its work with the United States.[65] COPINH member Aureliano Molina Villanueva was detained on 3 March as a suspect in the killing.[66] COPINH denounced this action, saying it was an attempt to falsely blame him for the murder.[48] On 5 March, Molina was released for lack of evidence linking him to the crime.[66] Security guard José Ismael Lemus was also detained and released.[66] Judicial orders required Ismael and Castro, the sole survivor of the attack, to remain in the country as the investigation continued.[66]

Attack survivor and sole witness Castro later said he was "paraded through ministries and court houses, ordered to tell his story over and over again,[...] prevented from leaving the country for a month and effectively treated as a suspect [...]. After a month, the judge in charge of the case suspended my lawyer. They violated all my rights. I was very scared every day. I thought that something could happen to me at any time. I felt like a scapegoat."[43]

In a 5 March press conference, Cáceres' four children: Olivia, Berta, Laura, and Salvador, expressed their lack of confidence in the Honduran government investigation. Describing their mother's murder as a political act, they called for an international investigation into the homicide.[67] On 6 March 2016, President Hernández asked UN High Commissioner on Human Rights Zeid bin Ra'ad Al-Hussein to assist in the investigation into Cáceres' death.[65]

In the days following the murder, an Amnesty International (AI) delegation met with the Minister of Human Rights, Justice, Interior and Decentralization and representatives from the Ministry of Security, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Attorney General's Office, the Prosecutor's Office, and civil society, as well as Cáceres' family members.[68] Amnesty criticized President Hernández for his refusal to meet with Cáceres' relatives, human rights defenders, and AI. Amnesty condemned "the Honduran government's absolute lack of willingness to protect human rights defenders in the country" and noted that the Honduran authorities had failed "to follow the most basic lines of investigation, including the fact that Berta had been receiving serious death threats related to her human rights work for a very long time."[68]

One month after Cáceres' death, Honduran authorities announced that on 13 March they had searched DESA’s offices and taken testimonies from the company’s employees.[43]

On 2 May 2016, the government arrested four men;[43] one is DESA's manager for social and environmental issues, another a former employee of a security company hired by DESA; the other two are an army major and a retired captain.[64] The US ambassador to Honduras applauded the government.[69]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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External links[edit]