People’s struggle wins conviction of Berta Cáceres’s murderers

A vigil is held for Berta Cáceres. (April 5, 2016)
Following a hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights regarding the human rights situation in Bajo Aguán, a vigil is held for Berta Cáceres. (April 5, 2016) | Photo: Daniel Cima/CIDH

By Chris Fry

Just after 11:30 p.m. on March 2, 2016, a group of armed men broke into the home of renowned Native Lenca and environmental Honduran activist Berta Cáceres. One of the gunmen, Elvin Rapalo, stomped his foot on Cáceres’s back so that she could not fight back and shot her three times. Another gunman, Oscar Torres, shot and wounded Cáceres’s friend, Gustavo Castro. The men then fled in a car driven by Edilson Duarte Meza. The death squad was led by Henry Hernandez, a former special forces sergeant.

Castro cradled Berta Cáceres in his arms as she died. “Don’t go, Berta,” he begged, but at 11:45 p.m., she took her last breath.

The Cáceres family, as well as many Honduran organizations and individual activists along with progressive organizations around the globe, launched a militant campaign for justice for Berta Cáceres. On November 28, their struggle culminated in a victory: seven men were convicted for the murder of Berta Cáceres, including the four named above, plus Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) corporate executive Sergio Rodríguez, DESA security chief and U.S.-trained army lieutenant Douglas Bustillo, and U.S.-trained special forces major Mariano Chávez.

Testimony also showed that DESA president David Castillo, a U.S.-trained special forces former military intelligence officer, coordinated with assassin Bustillo both before and after the murder. Castillo faces a separate trial for his role in the Cáceres assassination.

“Today there’s no satisfaction, or happiness, but we are glad to see jailed the killers who murdered my mother simply for defending natural resources at a moment when she was defenseless. We don’t want revenge because we are not killers like them, but we demand that the masterminds behind the murder be brought to justice,” said Olivia Zuniga, Cáceres’s eldest daughter.

A life of struggle

Berta Cáceres, an indigenous Lenca woman, co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) in 1993 to address the growing threats posed to Lenca communities by illegal logging, fight for their territorial rights and improve their livelihoods.

In the aftermath of the U.S.-favored military coup in 2009 that ousted the reformist President Zelaya, huge corporate megaprojects were spawned in resource-rich Honduras, covering 30 percent of the country. Imperialist-financed DESA, without the consent of the Lenca people, began the giant Agua Zarca Dam project across the sacred Gualcarque River. Cáceres led a popular campaign against the dam.

“In April 2013, Cáceres organized a road blockade to prevent DESA’s access to the dam site. Using a carefully organized system of alerts to keep everyone in the loop, the Lenca people maintained a heavy but peaceful presence, rotating out friends and family members for weeks at a time. For well over a year, the blockade withstood multiple eviction attempts and violent attacks from militarized security contractors and the Honduran armed forces… To date, construction on the project has effectively come to a halt.” In 2015, Berta Cáceres was awarded the Goldman Prize for her environmental and pro-people activism.

Honduran regime’s reign of terror

Berta Cáceres is not the only victim of the military regime and their imperialist corporate partners in Honduras. Since the military coup in 2009, more than 123 environmental activists have been murdered trying to stop the mining, agribusiness, tourism and energy projects threatening the environment and native peoples’ land in the country. “This has made Honduras the most dangerous country in the world for environmental and land rights defenders.”

The Guardian reported that “[violence] against the LGBT community has also escalated since the coup. Since 2009, 229 LGBT people have been murdered – an average of 30 every year, according to the NGO Cattrachas. This compares to an average of two murders a year between 1994 and 2008.”

Meanwhile, government funding for schools and health care has collapsed for the Honduran people, while death squad and drug murders and rapes have spiked. Corrupt government officials and police have been closely tied to these drug gangs.

In 2017, when right-wing Juan Hernández appeared to lose to former journalist Salvador Nasralla in a national election, the government shut down vote counting for several days, then announced that somehow Hernández won the election after all. Protest demonstrations over this fraud were met with harsh repression, including at least 31 police killings.

No wonder hundreds of thousands of Honduran families have been forced to leave their country to seek refuge and work and often to rejoin family members in the U.S., only to be met by Trump’s militarized border, tear gas and gruesome family separations, all of which violate U.S. and international law.

Clinton favors migration “curbs”

On November 22, Hillary Clinton, who has recently hinted that she will run again in 2020, was joined by two other “liberal” politicians for a newspaper interview: Tony Blair from England and Matteo Renzi from Italy.

Echoing the sentiments of racist Donald Trump, she told a reporter: “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message – ‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’ – because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”

This comes from a person who led the U.S. campaigns for regime change in countries around the world, from Syria to Iraq, from Afghanistan to Ukraine, from Haiti to to Libya to Honduras, which has cost the lives of many thousands and displaced many millions from their homes.

When the military coup ousted Honduran President Zelaya in 2009, the Obama administration, with Clinton at the helm of the State Department, officially proclaimed its opposition. But they soon showed their real hand. Even the plane used to transfer to Costa Rica made a refueling stop at a U.S. military base at Soto Cano, Honduras, where 600 U.S. troops are stationed.

The U.S. turned back attempts by the Organization of American States to restore Zelaya to his rightful position. Mass protests against the coup were met with brutal repression, including water cannons, tear gas, beatings and “disappearances” by the U.S.-funded Honduran military and police.

In Clinton’s memoir, titled Hard Choices, she wrote, “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 and give the Honduran people a chance to choose their own future.” This passage confirms that the U.S. policy at the time was meant to clear the path for the Honduran military and business elites, and to thwart attempts to restore Zelaya to his position. Interestingly, this information was removed from the paperback edition of the book as she prepared to run for president.

Clinton said the legislature and judiciary “actually followed the law in removing President Zelaya. Now I didn’t like the way it looked or the way they did it, but they had a strong argument that they had followed the constitution and the legal precedents.” That is a lie worthy of Donald Trump.

Bertita Zúñiga, who is Berta Cáceres’ daughter, told a reporter that the U.S. policies ignored the Honduran public following the coup. This effectively legitimized an illegal takeover within the government. She said, “Since then, we’ve lived with the militarization of our society, serious violence and the criminalization of social protest. My mum wanted to build a better Honduras, but that hope died with the coup.”

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