In a country where violent crime is unfortunately common, the murder of environmentalist Berta Cáceres caused an outcry. After fearlessly defending a sacred river from certain destruction from a hydro-dam, the indigenous woman was assassinated in her own home for holding up the project. In the second of a three-part series focusing on Honduras, Jess Casey travelled to the Central American country with Trocaire where she met the family of the murdered activist.
USTRA Bertha Flores Lopez’s prevailing memory of her late daughter Berta Cáceres is that of her as a little girl holding a candle.
A midwife who delivered thousands of children throughout her career, Austra, 87, often took her young daughter with her when she travelled to the homes of expectant mothers in La Esperanza, Honduras.
Childbirth was often dangerous and accompanied by complications. This would mean Austra would have to stay with families for a few days to keep a close eye on the recovery of the new mothers.
Often, families kept her close even after she left. “I have many godchildren,” she chuckled.
It was through this work that her daughter Berta saw firsthand how many indigenous people lived, explained Austra.
“It was shameful and embarrassing to witness the state of poverty people were forced to live in,” she said. “When they didn’t even have the heat to warm up water to bathe their newborns.”
Austra would bring her own children’s hand-me-down clothes to help families when she could.
“They were living in shacks, and they still are, sleeping on mattresses made of plantain leaves.”
When she accompanied her mother, Berta would bring a candle with her for the homes without electricity so there would be light and so they could heat a small basin of water.
We met Austra at her home in La Esperanza, a city in the southwest of Honduras.
Throughout the city, it’s common to pass walls and murals adorned with the words ‘Berta Vive’, Berta lives.
Geographically speaking, La Esperanza is considered the centre of the Ruta Lenca, a region of Lenca ethnic influence. The Lenca are an indigenous community, living between Honduras and its neighbour El Salvador. Today, there are approximately 300,000 Lenca living in Honduras.
Berta herself was a Lenca woman. Following her murder in 2016, thousands of mourners filled the narrow streets of her hometown to pay their respects to her extended family.
A petite woman in her late 80s, it is disconcerting to see that Austra’s home is flanked by armed guards who stop us on our way in.
Inside, among a shrine of flowers and photos of her daughter in happier times stands the Goldman Environmental Prize that Berta received in 2015 for successfully pressuring the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam.
Austra thought her daughter receiving such a prestigious international award might help to protect her, but less than a year later, Berta was assassinated in her own home.
As a child, Berta Cáceres was active, restless even, constantly playing games like basketball to keep moving. She was a good student, and a beauty queen who won pageants.
She studied to be a teacher but she later decided teaching in a classroom wasn’t for her.
She became involved in student activism, maybe taking inspiration from her mother who was the first female mayor of La Esperanza.
The most important thing on her agenda as a politician was making women more visible.
“Seeing women afraid to be themselves, thinking that they are only useful for having babies, inspired me to start an open forum,” said Austra.
“Back then, men were overzealous and they didn’t want women to participate in political life or in decision making.”
In 1992, at the age of 22, Berta founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras -COPINH-.
She based the organisation’s core values around fighting in defence of the environment, protecting and rescuing Lenca culture, and raising the living conditions of the people in the region.
COPINH was to be anti-capitalist, anti-racism, and anti-patriarchy.
Berta was relentless in her activism, according to her mother, often leaving early in the morning, waving over her shoulder with her backpack on, and returning home late at night.
“I think the wisest thing my daughter did was to organise COPINH, to teach indigenous men and women how to defend their lands,” said Austra.
Peaceful protests tend to be highly suppressed in Honduras. The military can be dispatched quickly, and shots can, and often are, fired indiscriminately into crowds.
In a place where the odds are stacked against you when you stand up for human rights, Berta successfully launched a campaign of peaceful direct action against a corporation moving in on Lenca territories.
She went on to pay a high price for it.
“It’s very difficult to feel at ease, and it’s hard to fight for justice but I have no other option,” said Austra.
“The absence of Berta for me, there isn’t words.”
Berta’s successes in waging an almost decade-long grassroots campaign against a colossal hydroelectric dam project had singled her out as a target for some time.
The Agua Zarca Dam was going to be the largest hydro project in Central America.
It was to be a joint venture between a Honduran company called Desarrollos Energéticos SA -DESA- and the world’s largest developer of dams, Sinohydro, a Chinese state-owned corporation.
Due to be constructed on the Gualcarque River in Western Honduras, the proposed project could have been disastrous for the Lenca people living in the surrounding areas of the river’s banks.
Not only would the dam have severed their supply of water, it would have devastated their cultural heritage; the Gualcarque River is an area considered sacred by the Lenca.
The ancestral lands of indigenous people are also supposed to be protected to some degree through a convention called IOL C169. It obligates companies to seek consent from local communities prior to construction.
Like many of the ecologically damaging projects in Honduras, this did not happen in the case of the Agua Zarca Dam.
In fact, the first the local people learned of the Agua Zarca Dam was when heavy-duty machinery began arriving at the site.
Through COPINH, Berta began to organise and mobilise the Lenca people to take peaceful, direct action.
She organised open forums and petitions, and raised the profile of the project internationally.
In April 2013, they successfully staged a road blockade that completely blocked access to the proposed site of the dam.
Despite violent attacks and opposition from armed forces, the community managed to maintain its peaceful protest at the site, setting back construction for more than a year.
In 2013, indigenous Lenca leader Tomas Garcia was killed and his son seriously injured when military forces shot indiscriminately into a peaceful protest opposing the project.
At this point, Sinohydro withdrew its support of the project, citing the outcry over the incident.
The International Finance Corporation (IFC) also withdrew its financial support from the project.
With the project stalling indefinitely and its construction never seeming likely, Berta began receiving a series of escalating threats made against her and her family.
On March 2, 2016, a group of gunmen broke into her home late at night, shooting her dead in her bedroom two days before her 45th birthday.
Mexican environmentalist Gustavo Castro was also shot and wounded in the attack but he survived.
“Hearing that news very early that morning, it is difficult to find the words to describe that,” her mother Austra told us.
“I can’t find the words to explain how it feels.”
Irish readers may be taken aback by the fact that the high-profile daughter of a well-respected local politician could be executed in her home apparently without the fear of repercussions. I know I was.
But the plotting of Berta’s assassination is an emblem for the impunity that typically accompanies violent crimes in Honduras.
With crimes like rape and murder more often than not going unpunished, the vast majority of attacks against human rights defenders also remain unpenalised.
The situation is particularly dangerous for those working to protect land, territories, and the environment.
Environmentalists are often targeted by both businesses and their government, subjected to smear campaigns in a bid to discredit them, and regularly face intimidation and credible threats against them and their families.
Most attacks against environmentalists also go unpunished.
In Honduras, more than 120 people were killed between 2010 and 2017 for opposing ecologically devastating projects, according to research carried out by Global Witness.
According to the international non-profit, these victims were just ordinary people opposing dams, mines, logging, or agricultural projects proposed on their land, and they were murdered by either state actors, security guards, or hired hitmen.
“Her killers were wrong to think they could end her by murdering her,” said Austra. “Because her life goes on through her work.”
Austra believes it is not only important to highlight the level of impunity in Honduras and to advocate for justice for her own daughter.
“But for all women in Honduras and around the world killed in waves of femicide.”
When we arrive at Utopia, the COPIHN headquarters, we are greeted with the remnants of a recent event.
It is here we met Berta’s daughters, Laura Zúniga Cáceres, 27, and 29-year-old Bertha Zúniga Cáceres, also known as Bertita.
A few days before we arrived, close to 500 people had gathered at the organisation to remember Berta in the run up to the fourth anniversary of her death.
“We don’t invite them but people feel called because the crime against my mom was so tough for many people that they feel compelled to come,” Bertita tells us.
Honduras has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, with just over 40 murders per 100,000 inhabitants; in 2013, it was even higher again at almost 80 homicides per 100,000 people.
In comparison, Ireland’s homicide rate is 0.80 murders per 100,000 people.
But in a country where murder and violent crime are unfortunately common, Berta’s murder caused an outcry.
At the same time as thousands lined the streets of La Esperanza for her funeral, protests took place in Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras.
When asked why she thinks her mother’s murder resonated with so many people, Bertita is not sure.
One reason might be that her mother’s work was very internationally focused and she worked on many projects outside of the country, she thinks. “Her struggle was very acknowledged in this country as well.”
People also saw the threats, harassment, and murder Berta faced as a repeated pattern across Latin American countries when it comes to defending the land, she added.
“My mother’s struggle was very comprehensive. As the co-ordinator of COPINH, she was very broad on her coverage of topics. She didn’t focus just on specific [issues], she understood diversity. She was a female leader who had a lot of ethics, and this really got to people’s hearts.”
In Honduras, people accepted violence to some extent, said Laura. “The idea that being killed, being murdered is something that is natural. My mother’s killing broke that conception and it mobilised people.
“This compelled people to rebel against the idea that they should be killed and we should accept that. This had a lot of effect outside Honduras too.”
Two weeks before Berta’s murder, five members of the indigenous Tolupan people were murdered. A week after Berta’s murder, 30 people were massacred because of street violence.
“Both murders, one over defence of the land, the other due to street violence in Honduras, didn’t have the same impact as her murder.”
Bertita is now the general co-ordinator of COPINH, assuming the role after her mother’s death. She is in charge of co-ordinating each of the organisation’s different commissions working on land rights, women’s rights, health, and education.
She was in Ireland earlier this year, travelling over with Trócaire to speak about her family’s experiences and her mother’s work. COPINH is one of Trócaire’s partner organisations in Honduras.
It’s no coincidence that Berta’s children have all grown up to work for COPIHN now, said Bertita.
“Because she would bring us here to Utopia and she would include us in all the activities happening at the centre, like the painting of the murals, and [she would involve us in the] youth activities as well with the organisation.
“She would always make a point of inviting the older members so that they would tell us about the foundation of the organisation, and about its history.
Laura remembers her mother bringing her to a meeting about a development plan for the region when she was a very young child.
“They were denouncing these plans at a meeting, analysing them, and I remember as a kid, raising my hand wanting to say something too but nobody would listen to me.
“Then my mom said, ‘okay, wait, we need to listen to her’ and they gave me my chance to speak. Looking back on that, I remember that my mom was always looking for ways to let people speak up.”
In the immediate aftermath of Berta’s murder in 2016, her family called for an independent investigation, fearful that the Honduran police would not pursue the perpetrators behind the crime.
This followed state officials attributing her death to a former partner, insinuating that it had been a ‘crime of passion’.
An international civil society called GAIPE was set up in November of that year. The panel of independent assessors conducted four on-site visits to Honduras, interviewed more than 30 people connected to the case, and reviewed numerous criminal cases.
Importantly, they were also able to gain access to the evidence associated with the criminal investigation.
International support has been very important for the case, said Bertita. The independent preliminary analysis would also become crucial.
“This provided us with a version of what happened in this case and it was a huge relief for the victims, the communities, and every organisation that was involved.”
Following its investigation, GAIPE was able to prove that Berta’s murder was not an isolated incident, rather it was the accumulation of a long campaign of intimidation launched against the Lenca who opposed the Agua Zarca Project.
The Honduran company behind the dam, DESA, knowingly adopted a plan to eliminate any opposition to the project, the report found.
This included the use of smear campaigns, surveillance, threats, contract killing, and sabotage, and required the co-operation of justice officials and security forces.
GAIPE claimed that the Secretariat of Security -Department of Defence- deployed military personnel and resources to fight Lenca opposition to the project based on its good relationships with DESA shareholders and executives.
The same department failed to protect Berta, despite the serious threat to her life.
Evidence found by GAIPE in the possession of the Public Prosecutor’s Office showed that the plotting, execution, and planned cover-up of Berta’s murder began almost six months prior to her death.
The publication of this report prompted the Honduran officials to act. Eight people went on to be arrested and put on trial in connection with Berta’s murder.
In November 2018, a court ruled her murder was carried out by hitman on the orders of the executives of DESA specifically because of the financial losses they suffered due to the protests she led.
Seven of the eight arrested were found guilty for their part in the crime and sentenced to up to 50 years in prison. Among the seven are two employees of DESA.
It was a victory, of sorts, her daughters believe.
“This process has been very complex because of the conditions of structural impunity governing over Honduras,” said Bertita.
“Even in the case of such an iconic murder, the pursuit of justice has to deal with challenging that.
“This case came from a sector that has a lot of influence over Honduran officials, and the Honduran state itself played a role in her murder because of all the persecution, harassment, and legal prosecution that [my mother] faced while doing her work.
“At the same time, we feel like they have achieved a historic sentence with the case because the judgement was that the murder took place because of her struggle and because of her work and at the hands of business,” she said.
“But still, the ruling is still confined to the material details of the case and it has not brought the masterminds to justice.”
This is a view echoed by Austra, Berta’s mother. “The seven captured are just the ones who pulled the trigger.”
The last four years have been very challenging, and currently the Cáceres family is at a complex stage with their case. The sisters are beginning to feel burnt out about the fact the case still remains unsolved after working so hard to raise its profile.
“And then the fact that those who planned the murder for four years are still free,” said Bertita. “But we feel like, unlike other cases, this case has a chance to be solved.”
There is also no political will in Honduras to see the case solved, she added.
Getting justice from a corrupt system is difficult but by continuing with their fight they hope to change the system that allowed their mother’s murder. That is what their mother fought to change.
“So we are in the process of strengthening ourselves and articulating just to continue struggling to try and change the reality.”
There is another aspect of their case, still unproven, that they are working on bringing to light. “That is the implication of the state,” said Laura.
The Cáceres family believes active military members were involved in Berta’s murder. They are aware of communications between business partners of the company and top-level government officials that could prove this.
“This is a very concerning issue for us,” said Laura. “And we know that there are steps being taken to prevent us from accessing this information. We have been fighting over a narrative — a narrative that is coming from the extractive sector — of criminalisation against defenders of the land, and of the territories, and of resources.”
It is a risky process for them. “We are assuming a risk by pursuing justice because while the masterminds of the murder are intact, the fact is that we’re fighting against them, basically, and that places us at risk.
“One thing we have witnessed is that a government such as Honduras with such a lack of legitimacy is only sustained when other governments support it.”
This can be seen in the case of the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, she says.
Last October his brother, Juan Antonio Hernández, was found guilty in a New York court on cocaine trafficking charges.
Prosecutors in the case alleged the former congressman had benefited from “state-sponsored drug trafficking” to allow him to move tonnes of cocaine into the US. They argued that the Honduran president had looked the other way in exchange for bribes. President Hernández has denied any connection with drug trafficking. He remains considered a key ally of Washington.
“We have found that working on and attacking their main sources of support compels them to act at least on the minimum,” she said. For example, international companies withdrew support from the Agua Zarca Dam project when they saw the groundswell of people who opposed it, she added.
“People need to understand that justice for Berta Cáceres is achieved also when we stop violence in indigenous communities, not just in Honduras but also in Latin America.”
In continuing their mother’s work, both Bertita and Laura have also become targets. Austra says she fears for her granddaughters’ safety.
“It’s a huge concern, just like my daughter. They’ve been harassed already.”
Bertita and Laura currently drive an armoured car, given to them as part of a protection order extended to them after their mother’s murder.
“Definitively Honduras has a high level of extreme violence that happens on a large scale; any ordinary person is subjected to it,” said Bertita.
Those who stand up for the rights of indigenous people and women are more at risk. “It places us at risk as well,” she said.
The fact they work on an international scale does not help either, she added. “Because we are labelled as people who are damaging the image of the country abroad, and that causes smear campaigns to be created against us.”
Berta Cáceres wanted to see the complete re-foundation of her country, said Bertita.
“This included that everyone here, including women, indigenous people, unions, students, be listened to by the state, and also that the state responds to their interests over the interests of business.
“The struggle that she had for respect, dignity, and also peace of living which is, I think, the dream of every person in Honduras.”
Trocaire is asking the public to hold their Trocaire Boxes at this time until it is safe to return them. Donations can still be made online by visiting www.trocaire.org/donate or by calling 1850 408 408 (0800 912 1200 in NI).