The news shocked the world, but it wasn‘t entirely unexpected. As an opposition leader up against giant companies and international financial institutions that sought to grab indigenous lands, as an organizer against a patriarchal system that dominates women by force, and as critic of imperialism’s arming of repressive forces in Honduras, Berta Caceres was a marked woman. And she knew it.
On March 3, hit men entered Berta’s house in La Esperanza, in Lenca indigenous territory. In the middle of the night they burst in and shot her and then her colleague, Mexican environmentalist, Gustavo Castro. The murderers committed this atrocious act knowing that to kill Berta—recognized worldwide for her defense of indigenous and women’s rights—would carry a high political price.
But their determination to silence Berta won out over political calculations, for two reasons. First, because the race to gain control of dwindling natural resources, removing all obstacles in the path, has reached a point where in lawless countries like Honduras social and human costs don’t matter any more.
And second, because Berta’s voice was not just any voice. It was, and continues to be even after her death, an extraordinarily powerful and articulate voice, a voice that united people in defense of land and rights, and that brought together thousands of likeminded people and organizations throughout the world.
Berta Cáceres led the opposition to the construction of the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project. The project included a series of dams on the Rio Gualcarque, the sacred river of the Lenca people. Indigenous communities protested that they had not been consulted and the project would cause severe environmental damage and uproot their communities and livelihoods. As a result of the efforts of the organization she co-founded, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), Chinese investors and the World Bank backed out of the project led by the Honduran company, DESA, but Finnish and Dutch financing remained.
COPINH members have organized to recover ancestral lands and have won victories in blocking infrastructure projects imposed despite indigenous and environmental opposition. In many ways, it was the success of the organization and Berta herself that made her a target. Just a week before the assassination, Honduran federal agents threatened Berta directly in a confrontation with members of the organization resisting evictions from their lands.
In a communiqué dated March 7, the COPINH explicitly linked Berta’s death to her defense of natural resources. “We know for certain that Berta Cáceres’ assassination was a political assassination with the motive of silencing a national leader in the struggle against the neoliberal model of destruction and death that the Honduran state seeks to impose. We hold responsible the Honduran government and the economic and political powers that wanted to silence Berta Caceres’ protests.”
The assassination brings worldwide attention to the human rights crisis in Honduras. What’s at stake is the effort to rapidly transform a sovereign nation into a hunting ground for transnational corporations where, armed with private security guards and the support of government armed forces, they hunt for profits in the forests, rivers and seas that have been the lifeblood of human and animal communities for centuries.
Since the coup, the governments of Porfirio Lobo and now Juan Orlando Hernandez have handed out hundreds of permits and concessions to private companies for energy and tourism megaprojects and mining operations. So eager is the government to sell off public resources that it has adopted a “model cities” plan, formally called Employment and Economic Development Zones”, to attract foreign investment. These zones cede national territory and natural and human resources to transnational companies, which are then allowed to institute their own legal, political and administrative systems based on neoliberal economic principles.
Indigenous, rural and urban communities that actively oppose this all-out effort to transfer natural resources to global capital automatically become the enemy. Global Witness reports that between 2010 and 2014, 101 environmental activists were assassinated in Honduras. The Mesoamerican Network of Women Human Rights Defenders reports that in the region women defenders of land and territory receive more threats and attacks than any other category of defenders.
The war on drugs and repression of grassroots movements
The process of transformation of land use in Honduras has been accompanied by massive militarization. Private security guards hired by companies and businessmen now outnumber police and armed forces, according to a UN report, and in some cases can be considered mercenaries due to their role in clashing with the population to defend the interests of foreign companies. Then there are the military and police, which have been known to attack populations organized in defense of land and territory, as in the recent case of a young Garifuna man murdered by the Honduran armed forces last December.
The US government has supported the deployment of the Honduran armed forces with the pretext of the war on drugs. Millions of dollars in aid have flowed to the country, despite hundreds of documented cases of human rights violations and executions of civilians. In a nation where impunity reigns, and where violation of the law is a constant within the same institutions that are charged with enforcing it, U.S. support to the security forces bolsters a repressive apparatus that is frequently used against the population itself.
The result is the erosion of what was left of the rule of law. Drug trafficking has increased alarmingly in Honduras since the coup, at the same time as U.S. arms and security programs have spread throughout the country. In her last public declaration, Cáceres invited the society to join an international effort called the Caravan for Peace, Life and Justice against the misnamed war on drugs that creates the conditions for imposing the neoliberal transformation, as the force of contention against popular resistances.
Sins of Origin
The murder of Berta Cáceres occurred in the context of the 2009 military coup d’état that was never resolved. That year, after many deaths and daily mass demonstrations in the streets for nearly five months, the maneuvers of the U.S. government and the coup leaders prevented the return to power of the democratically elected president, Mel Zelaya and the restoration of the constitutional order. Illegal elections were held, organized by the coup and boycotted by a large part of the population that demanded an end to the illegitimate regime.
In her autobiography, Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State during the coup and currently candidate for the presidency, wrote about the 2009 coup in Honduras: “In the subsequent days [after the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary [Patricia] Espinosa in Mexico… We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.”
Cáceres cited this statement frequently to prove firsthand what was already evident at the time: the central role of the U.S. government in perpetuating the coup d’état in Honduras.
That history that goes beyond the scope of this article. What’s relevant is that this sin of origin—the failure to restore constitutional order in Honduras after the 2009 coup—gave rise to the many deadly sins that have followed, giving Honduras one of the worst human rights records in the world and culminating in the assassination of Berta (up to now, because there were many before and, sadly, there will likely be others to follow).
They killed her because she was an obstacle, and because the message of 2009 was read loud and clear: if crime benefits the powerful, it will go unpunished. In other words, they killed her because they knew they could get away with it.
Endemic crime and corruption in Honduran institutions make it absolutely necessary to demand an independent investigation into the assassination. There is a major risk that the Hernandez government will attempt to write it off as a crime of passion, a common robbery or a conflict within her own organization. In this way it could attempt to criminalize, and it won’t be the first time—the victims. The U.S. State Department has steadfastly refused to call for an international investigation to date.
In the context of predatory capitalism, human life is devalued. If people have to be killed to pave the way for profits, they will be. And Berta was a huge boulder in the road to converting Honduras into the latest laboratory for corporate globalization. She ended up on the growing list of defenders of the rights of indigenous peoples, campesino, LGBT, dissidents and others who have fallen in Honduras since the coup.
But in addition to her role, Berta Cáceres had an extraordinary voice. Her indigenous worldview gave her spiritual strength and the clarity of viewing the environment as Mother Earth that must be constantly protected. Her anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist analysis provided her with a framework to understand and explain what was happening to her people by linking it to the national and global context. She believed in international solidarity to confront an international system that continually threatens the peace and wellbeing of the vast majority in all parts of the world.
And she was profoundly feminist. She said that defense of the environment is by definition anti-patriarchal, that the defense of territory implies the fight for women’s rights because patriarchy considers a woman’s body as its territory.
It is this integral resistance that they wanted to kill. Berta Cáceres united sectors and issues, across borders. And by bringing paths together, she was building a broad road to freedom. That is the road she has left to her children, and to the many others who will follow in her footsteps.