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HONDURAS
“Berta lives, the struggle continues”
Jennifer Ávila
3/9/2016
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Indigenous activist and defender of the environment and human rights, was murdered despite the presence of precautionary measures on her behalf.

Berta Cáceres, the renowned environmentalist and defender of the Lenca indigenous people in Honduras, was murdered by three armed persons on Mar. 3 in her house located in La Esperanza, the capital city of the western department of Intibucá. She was buried two days later amid a multitudinary gathering shouting slogans such as “Berta lives, the struggle continues and continues.”

Cáceres was the general coordinator for the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), as well as a staunch defender of the environment and human rights. Last year she received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize “for her fearless work to defend the Gualcarque River, its surrounding environment and people from the Agua Zarca Dam.”

In 2010 the government approved the construction — by the Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) — of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, located in the Gualcarque River, considered to be sacred by the Lenca indigenous people. The measure did not respect the right to prior, free and informed consultation, something that is guaranteed by the Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Over 150 indigenous assemblies voiced their rejection to the construction of the dam, which, if constructed, it would force the people in the communities to move and would prevent them from pursuing their agricultural activities.

The indigenous communities blocked the highways between 2013 and 2014 to keep all machinery and equipment out. The harassment from the police, the military and from private security guards hired by the company, increased during this time. Three Lenca leaders were killed during the time of the roadblocks, according to Global Witness.

Although the construction of the hydroelectric plant is stopped for now, COPINH has denounced the intentions of DESA of reviving the project without the consent of the Lenca people.

María Paulina Gómez, a defender of the Gualcarque River, commented to Latinamerica Press that on Feb. 20, during a demonstration on the road to the San Francisco de Ojuera municipality, in Intibucá, a group of police agents, military personnel, and the city mayor threatened those participating in the protest. Cáceres immediately made public this threat through the social media.

“Employees from DESA Agua Zarca and the mayor’s office of San Francisco de Ojuera and the [governing] Partido Nacional are detaining and harassing more that 100 supporters who are taking part in the peaceful march that COPINH is conducting at the moment, this is happening in San Francisco de Ojuera, with the backing from the army, security guards, hitmen, and the police. We are filing a complaint against Sergio Rodríguez, from DESA, as well as Mayor Raúl Pineda and the nationalist hordes for threatening the physical and emotional integrity of our fellow demonstrators,” declared Cáceres at the time.

According to Gómez, armed men, the Mayor and Vice-Mayor accompanied DESA executives.

“They told Bertita that they were going to kill her at any time. What will happen now is that they are going to finish us all, the defenders of the river, but we are not afraid, we are not afraid of bullets,” she said.

Anticipated her own death
One day before her murder, Cáceres was participating in a workshop on renewable energy in La Esperanza with defenders of the Gualcarque River. Gómez points out that Cáceres told the participants to continue the fight without her because she could be killed at any moment.

On Feb. 29, when Cáceres was at the airport with her former husband Salvador Zúniga, dropping off one of their daughters who was traveling at the time, warned him regarding the threats that she was a victim of.

“When we were at the airport, Berta told me that she had already prepared her will and testament and that she was letting me know this just in case. I told her that this was not important, what was important was for her to take care of her life,” Zúniga told Latinamerica Press, who is the coordinator of the Popular Indigenous Council of Honduras (CINPH).

“In this country, anyone can be murdered at any time because this is a violent country, she told me. Berta confronted death constantly. Her coherency, her rebellious attitude, led her to give her blood for these people. That is why we must continue with the fight,” Zúniga added.

The government of president Juan Orlando Hernández qualified the murder of the indigenous leader as “a hard blow for Honduras” and made a commitment to solve it. Although Cáceres was the beneficiary of precautionary measures, the police was no around to prevent her murder. Security minister Julián Pacheco Tinoco said in a press conference that Berta had declined the precautionary measures by not informing of her change of address to the authorities.

Cáceres’ three daughters and son demanded that an international mission named by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), who had already awarded interim protection measures to their mother since 2009 after the coup in Honduras that she was opposed to, takes over the investigation. They expressed that they do not trust the actions taken by the government.

“The truth regarding the crime that ended her life cannot be distorted. We know with clear certainty that the motives for her despicable murder were her resistance to and her fight against the exploitation of the common goods of nature and in defense of the Lenca people. Her murder is an attempt to bring to an end the fight of the Lenca people that is waged against all forms of exploitation and plundering. It is an attempt to stop the construction of a new world,” said Olivia, Berta, Laura and Salvador Zúniga Cáceres in a statement before her mother’s funeral.

Also, they placed responsibility on the government and DESA for any attempt against their lives and the lives of their family. They also warned that the communities are left unprotected and exposed to the murder of their leaders at any moment.

Preventive measures
For its part, the Platform of Social and Popular Movements of Honduras (PMSPH) and the Coalition Against Impunity (CI) expressed their concern in a statement, that in the first 24 hours of the murder of Cáceres, the main emphasis of the investigation carried out by different units of the government gave priority to hypotheses not related to the threats that she was being subjected to, as COPINH and Cáceres herself had denounced on a number of occasions.

“The government and the State of Honduras, prior to presenting any findings regarding the cause and authors of the crime against Berta Cáceres, have the duty to answer if the company Desarrollos Energéticos Sociedad Anónima (DESA), who is the contractor of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, the various banking institutions financing these projects, the various Municipal Corporations of Lenca municipalities, specially the one in San Francisco de Ojuera, police members, military personnel and various other companies who had made threats to end the life of Berta and that of other leaders in the area, participated in this despicable crime,” the statement reads.

The IACHR condemned the murder of Cáceres, who was awarded precautionary measures and who in repeated occasions “denounced the situation of great risk and harassment in which she found herself.” Also, reprimanded the Honduran government for failing to implement the precautionary measures in her favor.

“The Honduran State has the obligation to investigate this deplorable murder in a serious, prompt and efficient manner, and to include lines of investigation which consider her work as a human rights defender as the motive of the crime.” said the IACHR. “In addition to unveiling the truth, the investigation must establish responsibility and sanction the material and intellectual authors of this heinous crime. This murder must not go unpunished.”

Likewise, the IACHR granted precautionary measures in favor of the relatives of Cáceres, the members of COPINH and to Gustavo Castro, a Mexican environmentalist and sole witness to the crime, who was wounded during the attack and is banned from leaving the country. Castro has been catalogued as a protected witness by the Attorney General’s Office.

The IACHR requested Honduras “to adopt the necessary measures to guaranteeing the life and personal integrity of the members of COPINH, Berta Cáceres’ relatives and Gustavo Castro.”

The IACHR considered necessary that the State “takes the necessary measures to ensure Castro’s well-being during the process to prepare and ultimately leave the country; to adopt all the necessary measures to ensure members of COPINH their ability to carry out activities as human rights defenders without being subjected to acts of violence, threats and harassments; to agree upon measures to be adopted with the beneficiaries and their representatives; and to provide information on the actions taken to investigate the alleged facts that resulted on the adoption of precautionary measures to avoid repetition.” —Latinamerica Press.


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Thousands of people demanded that the murder of Berta Cáceres not go unpunished. / Jennifer Ávila
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