Demonstrators protest the murder of Berta Caceres last week in La Esperanza, Honduras. Pic Cred: STR/EPA/CORBIS.
Berta Caceres was murdered on March 3, 2016. The environmental and human rights activist was killed in her own home in Honduras when gunmen stormed in and shot her dead. Her friend and colleague, Gustavo Castro, was present when Berta was attacked and he also sustained injuries. He had been staying with Berta in hopes of deterring violence against her, but now, he has been detained for questioning.
Caceres, who was 44-years-old, 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 Energeticos SA, 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. Caceras 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).
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. Two weeks after Caceres’s assassination, there is little clarity on how it happened. Were there two killers or as many as ten, as some rumours have suggested? Did they fire just the four shots that killed her, or were there more? The police at first claimed Caceres was killed in a robbery, and also insinuated that her killing might have been a ‘crime of passion.” President Juan Orlando Hernandez was more diplomatic in his statements, calling Caceres’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 with the murder are a fellow activist and a Mexican colleague who was with Caceres 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 Caceres’s killers would likely return for him.
Indigenous and social movement leaders from around the world, artists, politicians and regional and international organizations have expressed their rejection and condemned the crime.