Human rights activist Berta Cáceres was killed for fighting for the rights of others
Cáceres' legacy won't be forgotten, say family, as supporters continue to press government for investigation
Honduras is the world's most deadly place to be an activist, report says
In one of the most dangerous countries in the world, one woman paid the ultimate price for her cause.
One day before her 45th birthday on March 3, 2016, Berta Cáceres was shot dead in her home after years of threats to her life for her work as a fearless human rights activist.
The mother of four, herself a member of the indigenous Lenca group, was a hero to rural indigenous populations in Honduras, who have been under constant threat in recent years from groups wanting to build mega-projects such dams and mines and carry out logging on their land.
She was tireless in their defense.
Awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, Cáceres was regarded as one of the world’s leading grassroots environmental activists.
On the one-year anniversary of her death, we speak to her nephew and one of her close friends about her lifetime protecting human rights – and their fight for justice – in one of the world’s most corrupt nations, as ranked by Transparency International.
Strong female role model
Growing up in the 1980s, Cáceres was no stranger to the violence of Central America and civil wars in Honduras and neighboring El Salvador.
Her mother, Austra Bertha Flores López, was throughout her life a midwife, two-term mayor of their hometown of La Esperanza, a congresswoman and a governor.
She also helped many El Salvadoran refugees fleeing a bloody civil war which started in 1980.
“She was raised by a powerful woman,” Karen Spring tells CNN. Spring befriended Cáceres in 2009 while working as the coordinator for the Honduras Solidarity Network, a Canadian-U.S. group which supports social causes in the country.
“She (Cáceres’ mother) taught her about indigenous communities, the difficulties of indigenous women, and the racism they lived with. Berta was raised in that environment,” explains Spring.
Before this time, there was generally little tension with the Lencas because their lands had not been targeted for development projects, explains Caceres’ nephew Silvio Carrillo.
Carrillo says Cáceres’ mother (his grandmother), looked out for the underprivileged Lencas of the region, who often lacked access to education, and were subject to what he calls “pervasive racism.” This had a huge influence on Cáceres’ views.
“Every day my grandmother tended to tens of dozens of indigenous people that would come down from the mountain to get healthcare,” says Carrillo, a California-based journalist who is working to forward the investigation into his aunt’s murder.
“She helped give birth to over 5,000 children. Berta saw this every day of her life.
“Imagine what that did to her?”
Back to the beginning
To truly understand Cáceres, one must examine Honduras’ recent history, struggles and its increasingly dangerous atmosphere.
In 1993, Cáceres co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) with her ex-husband Salvador Zúniga, who she met in her teens.
The organization helped fight for the Lenca people’s rights as they witnessed the destruction of their homeland and rivers.
Because of her upbringing, Cáceres had realized that despite indigenous rights being recognized by law, many indigenous groups lacked clear titles to their land and suffered land grabs by powerful business interests, said Carrillo.
This conflict over land is the main driver of violence against Honduran activists, says watchdog Global Witness.
COPINH grew to defend about 240 Lenca communities, who live in western Honduras and El Salvador, and campaigned against the privatization of their land, says Spring.
As the organization grew, so did Cáceres’ profile in Honduras.
“(Cáceres) had such an amazing political clarity and understanding of global issues,” recalls Spring.
She was invited all over the world to speak because of her ability to “connect the local to the global.”
Cáceres spoke in Europe, Asia, Latin American and at the United Nations about her work and the plight of indigenous groups everywhere.
Charisma, according to Spring, was her biggest weapon.
“She had the ability to go and talk to poor families, but could also walk into the Honduran Congress and relate to them, and talk on their level. She was a force to be reckoned with,” says Spring.
“It was really hard for any corporation to push forward any project without having to deal with her.”
“She was a threat. They (those in power) had a problem on their hands. She was clearly on the right side of the people and the law and there’s no impunity in Honduras,” he says.”There was no other way to stop her … she was an obvious problem.”
In 2009, a coup by the Honduran military removed President José Manuel Zelaya from office.
Since then Honduras has sunk to new levels of corruption and danger say both Carrillo and Spring, and reports from human rights groups support their claims.
In its 2016 annual report, Amnesty International describes “a general climate of violence that has forced thousands of Hondurans to flee the country. Women, migrants, internally displaced people, human rights defenders – especially… environmental and land activists – (are being) targeted with violence.”
It also asserts that “a weak criminal justice system (has) contributed to a climate of impunity.”
Graphic created by Sofia Ordonez
It’s in this environment that more than 120 environmental activists have been killed in Honduras since 2010, making it the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists, according to Global Witness.
The Honduras Secretary for Human Rights declined to reply to the accusations in Amnesty International’s report, when approached by CNN.
Amnesty International says Honduras has to protect human rights activists.
“Honduras has turned into a ‘no-go zone’ for anyone daring to campaign for the protection of the environment. How many more activists have to be brutally murdered before the authorities take effective action to protect them, or even be willing to talk about this crisis?” says Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.
The Honduran government has repeatedly said it works hard so those responsible for the crimes are brought to justice, and to ensure that the most vulnerable groups are not bothered or attacked.
When CNN reached out to the Honduran government it provided a press release urging the Prosecutor’s Office to continue its investigation into Cáceres’ case, and expressing their satisfaction with the course of the investigation so far.
As Honduras was spiraling into poverty, Cáceres’ fame grew – at a time when she became increasingly critical of the government in an increasingly dangerous environment.
In 2010, she began working on what was to become her best-known – and most dangerous – project.
The Agua Zarca dam was to be built on the Gualcarque River, the spiritual home of many Lenca and a vital source of water and food to the communities that live on its banks.
Over a period of five years, Cáceres was instrumental in a campaign that eventually stopped the dam from being built.
But regular threats, which began in 2013, started to grow.
“She had at least 30 threats to her life via text, voicemail or in person,” said Carrillo.
Three years later came that fateful shot in the night.
“Berta’s assassination wasn’t about one project, it was a calculated assassination of a woman that had gained so much prominence, reputation and power, not through money or academic credentials, but of her lifelong work to defend human rights in the region,” says Spring.
“After the coup, she led the social movement to stop and denounce it. Because of this, she lost her life. She was killed.”
Dangerous place to be an activist
Today, COPINH continues the fight against similar projects.
And Spring points out that when she visits the Lenca communities there is still a lot of hope and happiness.
“Berta said, ‘Well, we always have happiness to help us keep moving forward. They can’t take that away’. That became her slogan,” says Spring.
Cáceres’ nephew continues fighting to keep her case on the government’s radar, and he says that although they have made arrests linked to her death, they must do more to bring justice for her and her family.
This week, the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, said that the executive power is available to provide support to the prosecutor’s office and added that the government of Honduras will do everything they can to get justice.
To date, eight people have been detained by the authorities in connection to Cáceres’ death, including the man who managed the Agua Zarca dam project for Desarrollos Energeticos.
The authorities, however, have said they are yet to capture the “intellectual authors” of this murder. But the family says that is not enough.
“We have to denounce who designed the crime, who planned it, who paid for it, and also the people inside the company who promoted the harassment, prosecution, criminalization that lead to her being murdered,” Cáceres’ daughter, Berta Zuniga Cáceres, told CNN en Español.
The company denies involvement in the killing or any wrongdoing.
“The family has been asking for an international independent investigation to find the masterminds because there is little confidence in a place as corrupt as Honduras that they will be found and tried,” says Carillo.
In a statement to mark the anniversary of Cáceres’ killing, Susan Gelman, president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, described her death as an immeasurable loss to “grassroots activists around the world who stand at the frontlines of climate change and destructive development projects.”
She added: “We carry on with heavy hearts, filled not with sadness but with determination and what Berta called the best form of resistance: joy.”
Carrillo notes that there is a Honduran saying that Cáceres’ family and friends keep repeating: “Berta no murió, se multiplico.”
In English the meaning is just as poignant.
“Berta didn’t die, she multiplied.”