Theater of Cruelty

Protest can cost you your life

Who Killed Berta Caceres?
Forfatter: Nina Lakhani
Forlag: Verso (Storbritannia)
HONDURAS / Nina Lakhani's dangerous search for the truth behind the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres ends up in more questions than answers.


Berta Cáceres (1971–2016) was a Honduran environmental activist, indigenous leader and co-founder of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) with her then-husband Salvador Zúñiga. The couple had four children, and although they divorced in 2000, they continued to lead the organization together.

After several years of death threats, and just one year after receiving an environmental award, Cáceres was shot and killed by assassins in her own home on March 2, 2016. Another activist, Gustavo Castro, was injured during the attack. Cáceres turned 44 years old.

The murder of Berta Cáceres in 2016 sparked an international outrage, but the outrage did not stop the carnage.

Author Nina Lakhani works as a reporter for The Guardian newspaper in the USA. In the book, she examines links between corrupt government officials and organized crime through conversations with Cáceres' family members and other political figures who knew the environmental activist.

Lakhani writes that she herself has ended up in the firing line through her work with the book, but that this is a risk she is willing to take, since she believes it is important to find Berta Cáceres' killers and culprits.

The guerrilla woman

Cáceres belonged to the Lenca indigenous people of La Esperanza in southwestern Honduras. She grew up in the 70's, a time of unrest and violence in Central America. His mother Austra Bertha Flores López (b. 1933) was a nurse, midwife, activist and politician in the Liberal Party and her greatest role model. The mother was elected mayor of La Esperanza two terms in a row, she was a congresswoman and governor of the Intibuca ministry.

Together with her husband, Cáceres participated in several guerrilla groups. The couple smuggled warriors such as Fermán Cienfuegos, leader of the Fuerzas Armadas de la Resistencia Nacional in El Salvador, in and out of the country and escorted him between Nicaragua and El Salvador, often through the house of Cáceres' mother.

Cáceres was criticized for neglecting his own children the children by prioritizing the political struggle over the role of mother. The truth was that she loved her children, but she also loved her country.

In 1993, she and her husband founded COPINH with the intention of reviving the wealth of the Lenca people in Honduras. The couple thought the political climate was right to talk about human rights, indigenous peoples' rights and demilitarization in Honduras. The year before, the peace agreement that ended the civil war in El Salvador was signed, and the Guatemalan Mayan feminist leader Rigoberta Menchú was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The UN also declared 1993 the world's first international year for indigenous peoples.

Dam construction among the Lenca indigenous people

In 2006, a group of Rio Blanco Lencans asked if Cáceres could investigate the new construction work underway in their area. She found that four hydropower dams were to be built in the Gualcarque River, a collaborative project between Chinese Sinohydro, the World Bank's International Finance Institute (IFC) and Honduran Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA).

Then followed the coup in Honduras in 2009, in which the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya (b. 1952) was deposed and taken to Costa Rica by masked men. Roberto Micheletti Bain (b. 1943) became the country's new president.

The assassination of Cáceres was the culmination of a state-sponsored illegal campaign against Cáceres and COPINH.

Cáceres 'second eldest child, Bertha, describes the coup as follows: "After the coup, the United States' policy was to ignore the Honduran people, and the United States thus legitimized an illegal takeover. Since then, we have lived in a militarized society with gross violence and criminalization of demonstrations. My mother wanted to build a better Honduras, but that hope died with the coup. "

Cáceres found out that the dam developers had violated international law by not consulting the indigenous people in advance. The Lenca people were very concerned that the project would hinder their access to water and food and get in the way of their traditional way of life in harmony with nature. Cáceres worked with them on a protest campaign against the development.

Protesters were killed

During a demonstration in July 2013, the Honduran military killed a member of COPINH and injured three others. The Lenca people frequently reported threats and harassment from workers involved in hydropower development, and members of COPINH were constantly killed.

Eventually, Amnesty International demanded that the Honduran authorities stop the criminalization of protests and demonstrations, and wanted threats against human rights defenders to be investigated. The situation was very aggravated. In February 2016, more than 100 protesters were arrested by security guards.

In the period 2010-2015, Honduras was considered the most dangerous country in the world for anyone who demonstrated against the destruction of nature, according to figures from the London-based group Global Witness. The assassination of Berta Cáceres in 2016 sparked outrage internationally, but the outrage did not stop the carnage. The country was also life-threatening for those who wanted to defend the law, with at least 151 lawyers killed in the years 2010–2018. After the coup, violence against the LGBT community also increased. In addition, freedom of expression was attacked: Over 75 journalists were killed until 2018, according to the National Human Rights Commission (CONADEH).

We live in a time when the climate is in danger, and time is our worst enemy because it is slowly but surely running out. Society must change radically if we are to be able to save the planet. Berta Cáceres was one of those who worked for these changes. But the work was not completed. The murder of Cáceres is not only a crime against her family, COPINH, the Lenca people and Honduran society, but a crime against all of humanity.

A state-sponsored campaign

Who really killed Berta Cáceres? In December 2019, seven men were indicted and convicted: Elvin Rapalo, Henry Hernandez, Edilson Duarte and Oscar Torres Velasquez were sentenced to 34 years in prison for murder and 16 years for attempted murder. Three others were given 30 years for their participation, among them a former military officer, a former soldier and a leader in the steam project. But these men are just the tip of the iceberg, according to the book.

Former director of DESA, David Castillo, has since March 2018 been in custody, charged with organizing and facilitating the murder. The trial is still ongoing.

Cáceres' family and COPINH have been recognized as victims, and their lawyers are working hard to prove that the murder of Cáceres was the culmination of a state-sponsored illegal campaign against Cáceres and COPINH. Castillo's lawyers insist he is innocent and a victim of political persecution.

Berta Cáceres was one of the most prominent environmental activists from Honduras, but there are also many others who fight for the environment and indigenous peoples' rights. On July 23, 2020, Nina Lakhani published an article in The Guardian that five men from the Garifuna people in Honduras had been kidnapped by heavily armed men wearing police uniforms just weeks after the assassination of Garifuna leader Antonia Bernández. All five fought against theft of land and tried to prevent new evictions.

Pinar Ciftci
Pinar Ciftci
Ciftci is a journalist and actor.

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