“We know with complete certainty that the motivation for her vile assassination was her struggle against the exploitation of nature’s common wealth and the defense of the Lenca people. Her murder is an attempt to put an end to the struggle of the Lenca people against all forms of exploitation and expulsion. It is an attempt to halt the construction of a new world. Berta’s struggle was not only for the environment, it was for system change, in opposition to capitalism, racism and patriarchy.”
– Berta’s Mother and children
REPORT BY LINDA PERRY & MITCHEL COHEN FOR WBAI RADIO’S EVENING NEWS, MARCH 21, 2016
REPORT BY AMY GOODMAN FOR DEMOCRACY NOW! BEFORE HER ASSASSINATION, BERTA CACERES SINGLED OUT HILLARY CLINTON FOR BACKING HONDURAN COUP
⇒See April 2 UPDATE below …..
Gustavo Castro Witnessed the Murder of Berta Cáceres. That Means His Life Is in Danger.
In the face of silence from Washington, the Clinton-backed coup government in Honduras is mopping up activists for democracy and indigenous rights.
The sole eyewitness to Honduran social movement leader Berta Cáceres’ assassination on March 3, 2016 has gone from being wounded victim to, effectively, political prisoner.
Now Gustavo Castro Soto may also be framed as the murderer of his long-time friend.
Mexico’s ambassador to Honduras, Dolores Jiménez, and Castro himself are worried that the Mexican national will be charged by the government for the killing, they told the National Commission of Human Rights of Honduras on March 16.
“No matter where one is or with whom one works, activists are not safe in Honduras.”
A writer and organizer for environmental and economic justice, Castro has been forbidden by local authorities from leaving the country to return to his native Mexico until April 6, at least. Since being released from several days in Honduran government custody, he has been forced to take refuge in the Mexican embassy in Tegucigalpa. The protection of the Mexican Embassy “does not mean that my life is no longer in danger,” Castro wrote to some friends and colleagues on March 4. As long as he is on Honduran soil, he remains in peril. Ambassador Jiménez called the risk he is running “an objective fact.”
Castro — who, as the lone witness to the murder, is able to identify Cáceres’ killer — is an impediment to the plan that the Honduran government is clearly advancing, which is to pin the murder on members of the group which Cáceres founded and ran: the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations, or COPINH. So the fraudulently elected Honduran regime may dispense with Castro by charging and arresting him.
The government may also charge COPINH members with the killing of their leader, in the hopes of eliminating them from the body politic. Authorities tried to incriminate three of them just after the murder.
Prominent COPINH organizer Aureliano Molina was imprisoned for two days on suspicion of a “crime of passion,” though he was two hours away from La Esperanza, the location of the killing, on the night of March 3. Two other COPINH leaders, Tomas Gómez and Sotero Echeverria, were interrogated for days, during which time the government denied their request for accompaniment by their lawyers. On March 15, Echeverria was threatened with arrest.
The Real Assassins
Cáceres was a tireless organizer for accountable government, participatory democracy, indigenous peoples and their territories, human rights, and women’s and LGBTQ rights. For many years, she was subject to threats, attempted violent attacks, legal prosecution for being a “continual danger to the nation,” and other persecution.
During the three-month period prior to Cáceres’ murder, human rights accompaniers tracked 11 threats and attempted assaults by national and local government officials, police, soldiers, employees of the Agua Zarca dam project (which Cáceres and others were fighting), and unidentified men. And within 10 days of Cáceres’ death, Agua Zarca released incendiary public email announcements blasting the alleged “falsehoods of Berta Cáceres” and COPINH.
Those who have witnessed the price Cáceres has paid for her decades of advocacy have no doubt who is culpable in her murder. Her four grown children and mother stated publicly on March 5, “We hold DESA” — the company behind the dam — and “the international financial organizations backing the project responsible” for the “constant death threats against Berta, us, and COPINH. We hold the Honduran state responsible for obstructing Berta’s protection and for contributing to her persecution, criminalization, and murder.”
Many elements of the government’s so-called collection of evidence from Castro have been irregular at best, and illegal at worst.
Beyond being inconvenient for knowing too much, the eyewitness falls into the repressive government’s category of public enemy. Like Cáceres, Castro has been a vocal opponent of dam construction on indigenous rivers, as well as of the broad powers given to transnational corporations and the local elite to undermine democracy and plunder the riches of nature.
Castro is coordinator of the group Otros Mundos/Friends of the Earth Mexico. He cofounded — and sits on the governing bodies of — many anti-mining and anti-damming networks, as well as the U.S.-based organization Other Worlds. In his interrogation, the public prosecutor asked Castro about his environmental organizing and history of activism.
Following the killing in Cáceres’ home in the town of La Esperanza, Castro was detained for days in the local public prosecutor’s office for interrogation. On March 5, having been told the questioning was complete, he was transported by the Mexican ambassador and consul to the airport in Tegucigalpa so that he could return to his homeland. As he approached the migration checkpoint, Castro was set upon by multiple Honduran police, who attempted to grab him. The Mexican ambassador stopped them.
The government has since forbidden Castro from leaving Honduras for 30 days, or until April 6. When Castro appealed the order, the judge in the case ruled against it, even while admitting that there is no legal provision for a 30-day restraint for witnesses or victims.
The judge also suspended the license of Castro’s lawyer, Ivania Galeano, for 15 days. The stated reason was that Galeano had requested a copy of Castro’s file — which, according to Honduran law, was her right.
Even in the Mexican embassy, almost three weeks after the killing, Castro continues to be interrogated by the Honduran prosecutor.
⇒April 2 UPDATE ….
Gustavo Castro Goes Home as People Power Trumps Honduran Government
‘The power of collective action has trumped the fools, killers, and thieves in the Honduran government.’
Beloved environmentalist Gustavo Castro, the only witness to his colleague Berta Cáceres‘ murder on March 3, is back in Mexico with his family on Friday, after a Honduran judge decided to lift the measure prohibiting him from leaving the country, in place since March 7.
Friends and allies celebrated his release, which they had demanded citing safety concerns.
“The power of collective action has trumped the fools, killers, and thieves in the Honduran government,” wrote Beverly Bell of the social justice group Other Worlds in response to the news.
“The Honduran government could not stand up to the international pressure from the U.S. Congress, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Vatican, and many other sources of pressure and denunciation,” Bell declared. “More than anything, the power of the fraudulently elected regime could not trump that of citizens around the world, who held rallies, sent well over a hundred thousand letters, and committed themselves to continue organizing until Gustavo was freed.”
Castro, director of Otros Mundos/Friends of the Earth Mexico and a longtime advocate for social, economic, and Indigenous justice, was wounded in the March 2 attack that killed Cáceres in her home. Members of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), which Cáceres helped to found, have said she was targeted for her work organizing Indigenous communities against environmental destruction and exploitation, specifically her efforts to stop the construction of the Agua Zarca megadam.
Following Cáceres’ assassination, Castro was forbidden from leaving Honduras for 30 days and was forced to take refuge in the Mexican embassy in Tegucigalpa.
Still, even though Castro’s been allowed to go home to Mexico, the struggle is far from over. As Otros Mundos in Chiapas said Friday: “What still remains is guaranteeing security for his family and the team.”
What’s more, said Friends of the Earth in a press statement, “Our position remains the same: We demand an impartial investigation of the facts until the murder of Berta Cáceres, and the assassination attempt against Gustavo Castro, are fully clarified and those truly responsible are held to account.”
As Bell told supporters on Friday, “We hope you will remain with us, mobilizing the power of people united, until Gustavo; members of COPINH…and all Hondurans have security and democracy.”
* * * * * *
Hearing No Protest from the U.S., Honduran Government Ramps Up Repression
The U.S. State Department put out a brief, generic statement of condolence the day after Cáceres was assassinated. At the same time, according to email communications, the State Department confirmed that it is cooperating with the Honduran government in the investigation, with various U.S. agencies actively participating in it.
The Obama administration has failed to raise questions about the Honduran government’s role in the murder, despite its persistent, well-documented targeting of Cáceres over the years, and its transparent attempts at a cover-up by fingering Cáceres’ close colleagues. U.S. military assistance to the illegitimate Honduran coup government continues to flow.
On March 17, 62 U.S. congressional representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry calling for an independent investigation of the assassination and urging the secretary to immediately stop U.S. security funding pending a review. Representative Hank Johnson, co-sponsor of the letter along with Representative Keith Ellison, said, “It’s time for our government to leverage security assistance and multilateral loans so as to put real and lasting pressure on the Honduran government to protect its activists and pursue those responsible for these hideous crimes.”
Meanwhile, the silence from the administration has given the Honduran government a green light for repression.
That repression was aggressively escalated on March 15. On that single day, Honduran soldiers and police coordinated assaults against 10 activists from four geographic regions and three separate organizations. Nelson García, a COPINH leader, was assassinated during a violent government eviction of the community of Rio Chiquito. In the capital, three hit men shot and wounded Christian Mauricio Alegría, who works with the global peasant movement La Via Campesina. His uncle, Rafael Alegría, is a deputy in the national parliament from the opposition Libre Party, and is former secretary general of La Via Campesina. José Flores, head of the United Movement of the Peasants of the Aguan (MUCA), was temporarily arrested along with family members in the town of Tocoa.
The message was clear to all. No matter where one is or with whom one works, activists are not safe in Honduras.
From the Mexican embassy on March 15, Castro sent out a note of condolence and support to the Honduran people. He closed the missive this way: “Soon there will be justice.”
REPRINTED FROM COUNTERPUNCH.ORG
I began writing a eulogy for Berta Isabel Cáceres Flores years ago, though she died only last week. Berta was assassinated by Honduran government-backed death squads on March 3. Like many who knew and worked with her, I was aware that this fighter for indigenous peoples’ power; for control over their own territories; for women’s and LGBTQ rights; for authentic democracy; for the well-being of Pachamama; for an end to tyranny by transnational capital; and for an end to US empire, was not destined to die of old age. She spoke too much truth to too much power.
Berta cut her teeth on revolution. She was strongly marked by the broadcasts from Cuba and Sandinista-led Nicaragua that her family listened to clandestinely, gathered around a radio with the volume turned very low; those stations were outlawed in Honduras. Always a committed Leftist, Berta’s mother raised her many children to believe in justice. Doña Bertha – the mother made her youngest child her namesake – was mayor and governor of her town and state back when women were neither, in addition to being a midwife. She was Berta’s life-long inspiration. As a young adult, like so many others from the region who shared her convictions, Berta went on to support the Salvadoran revolution.
In 1993, Berta – a Lenca Native – cofounded the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). At that time in the country, there was little pride and even less power in being indigenous. Berta created COPINH to build the political strength of Lencas, campesinos, and other grassroots sectors to transform one of the most corrupt, anti-democratic, and unequal societies in the hemisphere.
A POLITICAL FORCE: COPINH UNDER BERTA’S LEADERSHIP
Berta loved to say, “They fear us because we’re fearless.” The fearlessness paid off over the years. COPINH has successfully reclaimed ancestral lands, winning unheard-of communal land titles. They have stalled or stopped dams, logging operations, and mining exploration – not to mention free-trade agreements. They have prevented many precious and sacred places from being plundered and destroyed.
In addition to Berta’s remarkable leadership, COPINH’s victories have come through their size, strength, unity, and fierce commitment. Communities have participated in hundreds of protests, from their local mayors’ office to the steps of the national congress. They have occupied public spaces, including several of the six US military bases in their country, and refused to leave. They have shut down the road to Tegucigalpa, strategically blocking goods from moving to the city. They have declared a boycott of all international financial institutions on their lands. They have helped coordinate 150 local referendums to raise the stakes on democracy.
Here is one of many tales that Berta told of strategies and actions. The backstory is that Honduran farmers – which most COPINH members are – wear thick work boots made of unventilated rubber. Over their course of containing sweaty feet, they come to smell horrendously, so bad that campesinos/as refer to them as bombas, bombs. Early in COPINH’s history, a team went from La Esperanza to Tegucigalpa to negotiate with the government on a land titling law. The discussions went on for days. Berta told that, during lunchtime, the government received lavish, catered meals; the COPINH members had no money, and so their side of the table stayed empty. Far less connected in those days, the group had nowhere to sleep or shower, and spent the nights in the streets. At one point, the negotiations were tense and the members of COPINH’s team were shaky on their strategy. They asked for a recess, but the government refused. So someone on the COPINH side gave a discrete signal, and altogether the farmer-activists pulled off their bombas. The smell was so toxic that the government officials fled the room. COPINH was able to regroup and develop a stunning strategy. The indigenous radicals won the law.
The most recent campaign and partial victory are also the proximate causes of Berta’s death: stopping the Agua Zarca dam project on a sacred Lenca river. The COPINH community of Rio Blanco – everyone: elders, toddlers, nursing mothers – formed a human barricade and blocked construction of the dam. Meanwhile, Berta, other members of COPINH, and national and international friends pressured the World Bank and the largest dam company in the world, Chinese state-owned Sinohydro, to pull out. Rio Blanco did not blockade the construction for an hour or for a day, or for a week. They did it for more than a year. They did it until they won. They got the most powerful financial interests in the world to abandon the project. Tragically, because other financial interests are always waiting in the wings to plunder for profit, the dam is still under construction. Forty-eight more are either planned or underway on their lands.
Berta’s belief in participatory democracy extended profoundly to her everyday practice. As the unparalleled leader of COPINH, and with a large gap between her level of education and political experience and that of all but a few in the group, it would have been easy for her to act on her own. Yet she always made herself accountable to the communities she worked for.
I saw the degree of this commitment in action one night when Berta called in to Utopia, COPINH’s rural community meeting center, and asked to speak to everyone. Fifteen or so people quickly gathered around the cell phone on the shaky wooden table next to the only light, that of a candle. Berta explained a fairly pro forma request that had come to her from a government office, and proposed a response. When she was finished, she asked the almost exclusively illiterate, campesino/na group, “¿Cheque sí, o cheque no?” All raised their thumbs toward the little cell phone and called out, “Sí!” No joint decision had been required, and yet she had sought consensus.
THE WOMAN BEHIND THE MYTH
Berta was unflappable. She was calm in the face of chaos and strategic in the face of disaster. She got right in the face of soldiers and goons when they aggressed her or others, and told them what was what.
Berta was indefatigable, working around the clock with no complaint. When not traveling around Honduras or the world to raise support for the struggle, she would wake early and go straight to her desk to receive updates, often on the most recent attacks on COPINH members, and in those cases to write condemnations – all even before a cup of coffee. She would then jump into her yellow beater truck to pick up other members of COPINH and head off to wherever action or investigation was needed.
I was amazed that Berta drove that noteworthy truck everywhere without protection, and that she lived in a house secured by only a small bolt and a couple of friendly dogs. Then I realized that it made no difference how much security she had. The government and the companies she opposed almost always knew where she was (Berta also spent periods in deep hiding), and how to get her when they were ready to kill her.
Berta took two small breaks in her life. The first was a two-week vacation with a friend in a neighboring country, the second a three-month semi-repose at my house in Albuquerque – though even then she spent most of her days building a continent-wide boycott of the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank.
Even as she served her community, Berta rose in the past decade to become an international people’s diplomat. She was a heroine to many global movements, a critical player in many struggles, a keynote speaker at many venues. She was someone consulted by government officials, by international networks, and even, a few months ago, by Pope Francis.
As we watched Berta’s rise as a global leader, our close friend and colleague Gustavo Castro commented to me, “I hope she never loses her humility.” She never did.
I once asked Berta how to say “integrity” in Spanish. She translated it “coherencia,” coherence between one’s stated principles and actions, coherence amongst all parts of one’s life. Berta had coherence.
She was highly critical of US Americans for our lack of that coherence. She once led an anti-oppression training for an organization I was running, in which she asked us to examine whether we were Caesars or artisans. She meant whether our practice – not just our statements – aligned us with the oppressors or with the oppressed, and whether we were promoting the grassroots or ourselves as leaders. For a long time after, the refrigerator that Berta and I shared held her line drawing of a thonged Roman sandal. She also commented to me once that the problem with US Americans is our attachment to comfort.
Berta herself eschewed comfort. She lived in the modest house in which she was raised, where she cared for her elderly mother. She slept in a bare cement room, more than half of which had been converted to her office, housing her desk with its mountain range of documents and small computer table. Her trademark style – regardless of with whom she was meeting – was jeans, sneakers, and a cotton shirt. She did not shop, go to fancy restaurants, take a plane when a bus was available.
Besides COPINH and the struggle for justice, Berta had another profound commitment: to her mother and her four children. I recall watching the deep pride on Berta’s face when one of her daughters, then only 7 or so, recited a poem “Las Margaritas” (The Daisies) for a group of foreign visitors; it was a very different expression than I had ever seen. She grew prouder as her three daughters and son grew older, all of them holding the flame for justice.
Following Berta’s murder, her children and mother issued a statement in which they said, “We know with complete certainty that the motivation for her vile assassination was her struggle against the exploitation of nature’s common wealth and the defense of the Lenca people. Her murder is an attempt to put an end to the struggle of the Lenca people against all forms of exploitation and expulsion. It is an attempt to halt the construction of a new world.
“Berta’s struggle was not only for the environment, it was for system change, in opposition to capitalism, racism and patriarchy.”
After the Honduran government dropped sedition charges against Berta – one of its countless attempts to silence her – in 2013, someone asked her mother if she were scared for her daughter. Laughing, Berta quoted her mother’s response: “Absolutely not. She’s doing exactly what she should be doing.”
Berta’s humor was legendary. A joke from her, and her soft up-and-down-the-scales laugh, punctuated the most tense of moments and kept many of us going, even as she never strayed from the gravity of the situation. One of her jokes was recirculated this week by radical Honduran Jesuit priest Ismael “Melo” Moreno. He once accompanied her to Rio Blanco, where someone snapped a photo of them together. As she peered at the picture, Berta laughed and said to Melo, “Let’s see which of the two of us goes first.”
When Berta saw a performance of the Raging Grannies, a group of elder women who dress up in outrageous skirts and joyously sing protest songs at rallies and events in Albuquerque, she told me, “I never wanted to live to be an old woman. Now I do.” That chance was just taken from her.
REPRESSION IN THE WAKE OF BERTA’S DEATH
One person witnessed the assassination: Gustavo Castro Soto, coordinator of Otros Mundos Chiapas/Friends of the Earth Mexico, coordinator of the Mesoamerican Movement against the Extractive Mining Model (M4), and co-founder and board member of Other Worlds. A close friend and ally of Berta, Gustavo slept in her house on the last night of her life to provide accompaniment in the hope of deterring violence, something dozens of us have had to do for her over the years. Gustavo was shot twice and feigned death. Berta died in his arms.
Gustavo was immediately detained in physically and psychologically inhumane conditions by the Honduran government, and held for several days for “questioning.” The subsequent days have resembled a bad spy movie, with Gustavo finally given permission to leave the country, only to be seized at the migration checkpoint at the airport by Honduran authorities, then placed into protective custody in the Mexican Embassy, only to be handed back to Hondurans, who took him back to the town of La Esperanza again for “questioning.” The Honduran government has just said that Gustavo must stay in Honduras for 30 days. He is being “protected” by the Tigers, vicious US-funded and -trained “special forces.”
Chillingly, according to the State Department, the US is cooperating with the Honduran investigators. A note from a close colleague, from outside Gustavo’s place of detention yesterday, said that a team of US “FBI types” are actually in the interrogation room. The role of the US government in the attempted destruction of social movements in Honduras is vast. One can also draw a straight line from Washington to Berta’s death. But that is the topic of another article.
Gustavo continues to be in terrible danger in Honduran custody, as what he witnessed is an impediment to the government’s attempts to pin Berta’s murder on COPINH itself. In a note to some friends on March 6, Gustavo wrote, “The death squads know that they did not kill me, and I am certain that they want to accomplish their task.”
The Honduran government also imprisoned COPINH leader Aureliano “Lito” Molina Villanueva for two days just after Berta’s murder, on “suspicion in a crime of passion.” It is interrogating COPINH leaders Tomas Gomez and Sotero Chaverria, while denying them lawyers. This is part of an effort to criminalize COPINH members. Now, COPINH needs more than ever to be protected, to be supported, and to carry on the legacy that Berta helped to build.
Berta touched everyone she met, and even countless ones she didn’t. My young daughter is one of those. The morning of Berta’s death, she wrote this: “Bev tells me that her close friend Berta died last night. I was shocked, because how can somebody kill someone who was only trying to do what’s right? Then I remembered they killed Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. If I die for doing the right thing, that would let me know that I did my part in this world. Just like Berta.”
When Berta received the 2015 Goldman Prize, the most prestigious environmental award in the world, she dedicated the prize to rebellion, to her mother, to the Lenca people, to Rio Blanco, to COPINH – and “to the martyrs who gave their lives in defense of the riches of nature.”
Now Berta is one of these martyrs.
Berta, Gustavo, and I were co-founders in 1999, and have remained active members of, the grassroots network Convergence of Movements of the Peoples of the Americas (COMPA). Early on the horrific morning of March 3, a COMPA listserv note blasted the news of Berta’s assassination. Reading that message, I spotted the posting just prior, dated February 24. It was from Berta. It read simply, “Aqui!” I am here!
She is here. Long may Berta live, in the hearts, minds, passions, and actions of all of us. May all women and men commit themselves to realizing the vision of transformation, dignity, and justice for which Berta lived, and for which she died.
¡Berta Cáceres, presente!
[Many thanks to Jeff Conant and Simone Adler for help writing and posting this article. Thanks, also, to Kate Brown, Lucinda Ellison, Lyle Aufdermeyer, Jeff Conant, Neil Tangri, and Moira Birss for help with this week.]