She knew the risks and led the struggle anyway

March 8, 2016

Sarah Lynne pays tribute to Honduran environmental rights and indigenous activist Berta Cáceres, who was assassinated earlier this month.

WE KNEW it might happen. But it's one thing to know that death by bullet is a common end for any powerful activist in Honduras, and another thing to experience it with someone you know personally. Sadness, indignation and rage don't really cover it.

I met Berta Cáceres three years ago when she invited me to her home in La Esperanza, Honduras. Cáceres was a leading indigenous and environmental activist, and founder of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). She was pivotal in the indigenous Lenca people's struggle against the Agua Zarca hydro dam built in the sacred Gualcarque River without permission from the people. For her work, Cáceres won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, a prestigious award for environmental grassroots activism.

But in Honduras, the reality is that being an activist is often a ticket to die young. In the years that she struggled against the Agua Zarca dam, Cáceres was the victim of intimidation, wrongful detention, and threats. She was number one on a secret "kill list" of activists, lawyers, and politicians, leaked to the press in November 2013.

Berta Cáceres
Berta Cáceres

Bottom line: Cáceres knew her days were numbered but she fought anyway.

"[Cáceres] arguably did more than any one person to make the Lenca struggle for land and dignity respected both inside and outside of Honduras. But she didn't just demand respect for the land and lives of her people, she also extended solidarity to others," recalled Jesse Freeston, freelance journalist and friend of Cáceres.

I saw that quality firsthand as we sat there sipping coffee and chatting about a story I was researching at the time. When I left that day, she told me to call her if I got into any trouble while in the country. She would help me.

THREE YEARS and two months later, I woke to the devastating news that Cáceres had been gunned down in the middle of the night in the same place that we had had coffee. It was March 2, 2016. Cáceres is survived by her four children and her mother, all of whom are actively calling for justice.

As of this writing, the only known witness to the assassination, Gustavo Castro Soto, is currently in detention after he went to report the crime to local authorities on the morning of March 3. Castro, who was injured in the attack, was staying with Cáceres as part of a peacekeeping mission from Mexico. The Mexican Embassy is working to secure his safe return.

Cáceres' attacker remains at large, although early reports suggested that a security guard at the complex where Cáceres lived had been detained. Still, the list of potential assassins remains long--the military, police, private security, hired thugs, etc. What is almost certain is that she was killed because she was too much of a threat to Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), owner of the Agua Zarca Dam, and its bottom line.

The Tico Times reported that other members of COPINH claim to have been threatened by "self-described hit men allegedly hired by energy company DESA, whose hydroelectric project the group is fighting."

The world is calling for retribution. Thousands marched in the streets of Honduras and in countries around Latin America, demanding justice and a proper investigation.

But in Honduras, 98 percent of such human rights crimes go unpunished, so it will take a huge popular movement to get answers.

And this case is far from unique. Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world to be an environmental or indigenous activist. Journalists are killed by the dozen, and campesinos are targeted by U.S.-backed security forces and killed for fighting for land and labor rights. Hundreds of people have been assassinated in Honduras since the 2009 military coup.

A letter from Global Witness to the Honduran government, signed by more than 50 organizations, stated: "Mrs Cáceres' case is the most high-profile killing within a growing trend in the murder, violence and intimidation of people defending their indigenous land rights in Honduras."

FROM WHERE I stand, the U.S. government and military are primarily to blame for the carnage--and specifically for Cáceres' death. The circumstances of Cáceres' assassination were best summed up by Rights Action's Grahame Russell:

[Cáceres] was 500 years of European racist, violent, dispossessing imperialism; by 200 years of U.S. military interventions, exploitation, corruption and impunity, by generations of violent and exploitative, racist and sexist "governments" of Honduras; ... all propped up, all the time, by the "international community": the United States, Canada, global corporations, the IMF, World Bank, IDB...

Capitalism's reliance on a "Global South" has determined the historical trajectory of the tropical nation for centuries. And the U.S. has traditionally been the biggest promoters of the interests of capital in the region.

In the 1980s, wars tore through the region from Guatemala to Nicaragua as the U.S. used "Cold War" policy to enforce its economic and political agenda by killing leftists opposed to privatization. Only the verbiage of justification has changed.

In 2006, the U.S.-promoted Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) became the next blow to Central American sovereignty. The policies correlate with an increase in regional crime, rapid privatization and urbanization. CAFTA changed Honduras from a net exporter of agricultural goods to a net importer of the same goods in the span of just six years.

These days, the U.S. maintains this economic policy of free trade and privatization under the pretense of the so-called "war on drugs." In 2015, the State Department requested $44.7 million for "development assistance" in Honduras, and another $3.1 million for "foreign military financing," earmarked primarily to combating narco-trafficking. Rather than fighting crime, Honduran troops trained by the U.S. are often deployed against social movements and are implicated in dozens of deaths and assassinations.

The 2009 military coup that removed the democratically elected populist Manuel Zelaya from the presidency in Honduras solidified the neoliberal agenda in the country, and all but legalized the violence used to promote it. The coup government, which is still in place today, promotes the interest of multinationals more aggressively than ever. Honduras has seen explosive growth in environmentally-hazardous megaprojects since 2009.

For its part, the U.S. only nominally rejected the coup, despite staunch claims that it wanted democracy for the region. Under the table, the U.S. supported the coup by maintaining military funding to the country. The biggest agent of that support agenda was current Democratic Party presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.

In her memoir Hard Choices, Clinton admits to supporting the outcome of the Honduran coup as well as having a hand in its aftermath. In the days after the coup, Clinton met with regional colleagues to strategize "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."

Those post-coup elections came with U.S. approval, but they were never free or fair. They only served to legitimize the coup-government that would continue draconian trade policy and militarization.

When I say that the U.S. and Hillary Clinton are responsible for Cácares' death, this is what I mean: CAFTA, the war on drugs, militarization and the 2009 coup. Cácares' was collateral damage of this whole system and these policies. And because she was killed by a system, it follows that the whole system must be brought to justice.

ACTIVISTS AROUND the region are shaken by Cáceres' death. If such a popular, world-renown figure can be killed, what does that mean for lesser-known activists?

But Cáceres' death has also sparked movement. Thousands came out to her funeral, where some young protesters clashed with riot cops. Throughout the world, people are holding vigils to remember her. Even Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio paid tribute to the activist, tweeting, "Incredibly sad news out of Honduras this morning. We should all honor the brave contributions of Cáceres."

One can only hope that this time, the capitalist powers-that-be might have bitten off more than they can chew. A protest big enough to bring the murderer to justice would be a huge blow to the systematic impunity with which crimes against activists are committed in Honduras everyday.

Unless we change the system, Berta Cáceres won't be the last murdered activist. We owe it to her to keep the struggle moving forward, to push for a world where people and our environment come first. A large part of that struggle needs to be waged within the U.S., where we must pressure our government to be accountable for what it does south of the border.

Rest in power, Berta Cáceres. Thank you for all that you have done. We'll carry it on from here.

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