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Blitzer writes: "The Honduran activist Berta Cáceres was at home last week, in a town called La Esperanza, when gunmen stormed in and shot her dead. Cáceres, who was forty-four, had known she was in danger."

Demonstrators protest the murder of Berta Cáceres last week in La Esperanza, Honduras. (photo: STR/epa/Corbis)
Demonstrators protest the murder of Berta Cáceres last week in La Esperanza, Honduras. (photo: STR/epa/Corbis)

The Death of Berta Cáceres

By Jonathan Blitzer, The New Yorker

13 March 16


he Honduran activist Berta Cáceres was at home last week, in a town called La Esperanza, when gunmen stormed in and shot her dead. Cáceres, who was forty-four, had known she was in danger. Late last month, while leading a march in a nearby village, she had an altercation with soldiers, police officers, and employees of a Honduran company, Desarrollos Energéticos S.A., or DESA, that she had been fighting for years. In 2010, the Honduran Congress passed a law that awarded contracts to a group of private companies, including DESA, to build dozens of hydroelectric dams throughout the country. Four of the approved dams, which are known collectively as the Agua Zarca Dam, were along the Gualcarque River, in western Honduras, on territory inhabited by the indigenous Lenca people.

The Lenca voiced their opposition as soon as the plans became public, around 2011—first with formal votes and entreaties, and, after those were ignored, with road blockages and demonstrations. In the spring of 2013, these turned to violent confrontations with police, who arrested Lenca protesters en masse. That summer, soldiers based out of DESA’s local headquarters opened fire on a crowd of residents, killing one indigenous leader and seriously injuring several others. Cáceres was on the front lines from the start, having founded the group that has organized much of the opposition, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).

At one point, in 2013, Cáceres was briefly forced into hiding. At least three of her colleagues had been murdered for opposing the Agua Zarca Dam, and DESA had launched a criminal case against her, first for possession of an unlicensed gun and later for incitement. “They follow me. They threaten to kill me, to kidnap me; they threaten my family. That is what we face,” she said afterward. Later that year, two of the dam’s main backers—the Chinese engineering and construction company Sinohydro and an arm of the World Bank­—withdrew their support because of the public opposition and increasingly bloody state crackdown. (Last year, Cáceres won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her role in persuading them to abandon the project.) The threats against Cáceres increased. This past October, and again in December, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (I.A.C.H.R.) called on the Honduran government to take “precautionary measures” for her security. COPINH complained of a fresh wave of threats just days before she was murdered.

Between 2010 and 2014, a hundred and one environmental activists were killed in Honduras, which is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and the most perilous for environmental activists, according to a report from Global Witness. Ninety-eight per cent of violent crimes in Honduras go unsolved. A week after Cáceres’s assassination, there is little clarity on how it happened. Were there two killers or as many as ten, as some rumors have suggested? Did they fire just the four shots that killed her, or were there more? The police at first claimed Cáceres was killed in a robbery, and also insinuated that her killing might have been a “crime of passion.” President Juan Orlando Hernández was more diplomatic in his statements, calling Cáceres’s murder “a crime against Honduras” and “a blow for the people.” At present, the only two people who are said to have been in police custody in connection to the murder are a fellow activist and a Mexican colleague who was with Cáceres when she died and was shot twice himself. As the sole witness to the crime, he has been ordered not to leave the country, and his life remains in danger; in an open letter to a local newspaper, he insisted that the investigating authorities tampered with the crime scene and that Cáceres’s killers would likely return for him. Two other members of COPINH are reportedly under investigation. (A spokesperson for the Honduran government said it was working with American law enforcement, including the F.B.I., to investigate the killing.)

On Tuesday, I called a longtime friend of Cáceres and a fellow human-rights advocate, a Jesuit priest named Ismael Moreno Coto, better known as Padre Melo, who runs the Jesuit-sponsored community radio station Radio Progreso. The station is openly critical of the government, and its employees work in a climate of extreme danger. In 2014, its marketing manager was stabbed to death, even after the I.A.C.H.R. spent three years petitioning the government to protect him. Cáceres had been scheduled to appear on Melo’s show the day we spoke. “I always had a certain fear of Berta Cáceres,” Melo said, in a wry, melancholy voice. They met when Cáceres was a twenty-year-old schoolteacher obsessed with social justice. “She had a special way of making us uncomfortable,” he said. “She wouldn’t leave us in peace until we were all part of the fight.”

Cáceres was born into the Lenca community, and grew up in western Honduras in the nineteen-eighties, when violence was sweeping through neighboring El Salvador. Her mother, who was a midwife and social activist, cared for the refugees who streamed across the border. Cáceres became a student leader, gaining prominence in the community for fighting logging operations on Lenca land. She was also a mother of four—a son and three daughters—who eventually received threats as well. As the pressure on Cáceres mounted, in the winter of 2013, her son and two of her daughters fled the country.

For the past three years, Melo told me, the threats against Cáceres and COPINH were constant—“dozens of them, and getting stronger each time,” he said. “All of them were documented. They came from people working for, or with, DESA.” For Melo, the fact that the government hasn’t followed those leads, focussing instead on a group of fellow activists, was typical. “Anyone who questions the government winds up penalized as being opponents of the public order,” he said. “We are portrayed in the media as bad people. We are persecuted, subjected to repression or worse, death, like what happened to Berta Cáceres.” He called for a serious investigation conducted under the direction of international monitors. (The Honduran government denies ever having “made negative public comments about the activities” of COPINH and says it is pursuing all open leads in its investigation.)

When I asked Padre Melo if speaking out might put his own life at even greater risk, he was unflinching. “I want it to be absolutely clear. The government of Juan Orlando Hernández is responsible for the death of Berta Cáceres.” He was suggesting, as so many others in Honduras have, that the government knew about the escalating clashes between the local community and DESA but did nothing to stop them. The thugs who beat up, intimidated, and even evicted Lenca residents were given cover by federal troops, who often broke up peaceable demonstrations themselves.

Just days before Cáceres’s murder, President Hernández was in the U.S. to meet with American leaders and reassure them of his continued commitment to tamping down violence in Honduras. The U.S. continues to treat Hernández as a partner in fighting corruption and swelling gang violence in the region. But as Dana Frank, a historian and Honduras expert at the University of California, Santa Cruz, pointed out last year in Foreign Policy, the current government “is perpetuating an ongoing human rights crisis while countenancing a cesspool of corruption and organized crime.” Before becoming President, Hernández, a member of the conservative National Party, was in Congress, where, in 2009, he endorsed the military coup that toppled then-President Manuel Zelaya and plunged the country into a period of unprecedented violence and lawlessness. (The U.S. government all but endorsed the coup and in many ways remains responsible for the chaos that ensued.) It was in the aftermath of the coup that Congress awarded DESA its dam contracts, even while the principal financiers of the company were roundly denounced as key supporters of the 2009 uprising.

A few years later, Hernández helped depose four Supreme Court judges, then led an effort to illegally appoint a new attorney general. When he ran for President, in 2013, there were multiple allegations of vote buying, intimidation, and the killing of political opponents. His time in office has been bloodier still. Rather than root out the corruption in the state’s police forces, Hernández expanded the military and tasked it with domestic policing. Claims of rapes, beatings, and intimidation have trailed soldiers across the country. Echoing these complaints, Melo has demanded that the government remove federal soldiers from Lenca territory, where they’ve been strong-arming the population in apparent coördination with DESA.

In remarks made the day of Cáceres’s memorial service, U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, called for the Agua Zarca Dam project to be abandoned. A few days later, I spoke to a member of his staff on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Tim Rieser, who has helped Leahy shape key deals in the region in recent years. “Will Honduras stop supporting projects like this that disrupt local communities and threaten the environment?” he asked. (Rieser was authorized to speak for the Senator.) “The local population was not properly consulted, they are unlikely to benefit from the project, and look at all the problems it has caused,” he added. At this point, a few foreign contractors are still on board—among them, Siemens and Voith Hydro—but Cáceres’s slaying, and what it brings into view, may change that.

How Honduras responds to Cáceres’s murder may also affect how the U.S. deals with the government in the future, Rieser told me. For the current fiscal year, Congress has already approved seven hundred and fifty million dollars in aid to Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, with various strings attached. The U.S. may withhold further aid to Honduras unless it demonstrates a commitment to defending human rights, including those of social activists and journalists, Rieser said. On Thursday, more than two hundred interfaith, environmental, and human-rights groups worldwide called on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to support a thorough investigation into Cáceres’s assassination.

Cáceres and her legacy will haunt the Honduran government as it decides how to proceed, both with the murder investigation and the Agua Zarca Dam project. “She was a person with an enormous capacity to communicate humanity and to defend it,” Padre Melo said. She could empathize and spar with humble people, he told me, telling jokes and stories “with the same smile as always.” But when she was in front of the police or the military, he said, “se engrandecía”—she grew big—“speaking firmly, elevating her voice with strength. She was like a machine gun. She would finish talking to the authorities who opposed the community, and then return to the people. She would go back to being Berta.” your social media marketing partner


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+10 # Farafalla 2016-03-13 22:35
"It was in the aftermath of the coup that Congress awarded DESA its dam contracts, even while the principal financiers of the company were roundly denounced as key supporters of the 2009 uprising." Voila! There you have it.
-4 # lewagner 2016-03-13 23:59
They protested government takeover of the people's land with road blockages and demonstrations, and some had guns?
Sounds like Oregon, with similar results.
It's too bad, it's shameful, it's murder.
+2 # reiverpacific 2016-03-14 13:01
Quoting lewagner:
They protested government takeover of the people's land with road blockages and demonstrations, and some had guns?
Sounds like Oregon, with similar results.
It's too bad, it's shameful, it's murder.

'Cept it was only temporary in Oregon, unless you impute the robbery and past murder of the original stewards of that land, the Paiutes.
And the recent perpe-traitors, including the original thugs in Nevada, are getting' their come-uppins with knobs on!
+12 # sharag 2016-03-14 02:20
As a Goldman Environmental Award winner, Berta C'aceres would have met President Obama as part of the award ceremony or in a meeting with other award winners shortly after. Does Obama remember her? It was his administration after all, with Secretary of State Clinton, who did little to stop the coup by the current Hondurian President and its rapid descent into overt corruption and lawlessness. But what can a sitting US President do? A lot actually. Stop arming them for starters.
+4 # Texas Aggie 2016-03-14 18:59
Did little to stop the coup?!

Those people helped it along and encouraged it. Read Hillary's emails about it.
+7 # reiverpacific 2016-03-14 11:04
Thank you again Hillary Clinton, for approving the overthrow and flight to Brazil of Manuel Zelaya.
So this great woman, whose imminent death was predicted by her closest friends, joins the long list of murdered activists, rebels and eace seekers from Christ, William Wallace, Crazy Horse, Ché Guevara, JFK, RFK and so many others.
A Brave New World right enough.
+1 # Johnny 2016-03-15 11:09
And after the coup the other nations of the Americas demanded restoration of the democracy, while Hillary demanded that they recognize the military dictatorship, which has murdered hundreds of innocent Hondurans with Hillary's enthusiastic backing. As Hillary intended, the dictatorship now is turning all of Honduras's resources over to multinational corporations and selling the Honduran people into slavery.

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