Berta Cáceres, indigenous environmentalist and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, was shot dead on March 2nd, 2016, days before she was to turn 45. On November 29th, 2018, seven men were found guilty of her murder, while an eighth defendant was cleared of charges. The seven men accused will be sentenced on January 10th, 2019. The court found that her murder was ordered by executives of Desa, the company behind the Agua Zarca dam. Desa was concerned about the delays and financial losses caused by Cáceres-led protests and the murder was carried out by paid hitmen. Mexican environmentalist Gustavo Castro was also shot but survived by playing dead. Four of the seven defendants were also found guilty of attempted murder. However, despite Cáceres’ family and colleagues welcoming the verdict, they also demanded justice be delivered against those behind Cáceres’ death. The mastermind of the murder was revealed to be Desa president David Castillo, a U.S.-trained former military intelligence officer.
Cáceres as coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) was widely known for her work defending indigenous territory and natural resources. She was also a political analyst, defender of women’s rights and an anti-capitalist campaigner. On March 2nd, 2016, in the town of La Esperanza, at least four men followed Cáceres to her house. Cáceres, being fearful, asked Castro to stay with her. Just after 11:30 pm, her house was broken into. One of the assassins shot her three times and another shot Castro, who played dead. The assailants fled in a getaway car, leaving Castro with the dying Cáceres.
The news of her assassination drew significant international outrage, extensive even for the country known as the most dangerous for defenders of land and the environment. The 2009 coup established a pro-business government that promoted starting large energy projects in rural communities without consultation with local stakeholders. The opposition to the Agua Zarca dam led to the most serious governmental backlash. The area was militarized and a local leader was shot dead in 2013. After a suspension, the construction resumed in late 2015, as did the large numbers of protests.
One of the issues emerging from the trial is the military links of four of the men charged. This was not investigated further. It was revealed by the Guardian, in June 2016, that Cáceres was on a military hit list that included activists already murdered. Violence against activists continues to be common in the Honduras. Reynaldo Reyes Moreno, a community leader fighting against a solar project was killed on November 29th, 2018. Ultimately, the coordinated violence that environmentalists face in the Honduras and in other countries is an alarming issue. The repression and subjugation of strong voices representing systematically oppressed peoples and environmental stewardship is something that must be collectively combated, in the pursuit of a fairer and more humane world.
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