Remembering Berta Cáceres

‘Why Did She Not Get Out?’

By Tortilla Con Sal

For Honduras, the question is how long this dark nightmare of violence and repression will continue.

Today we learned of the savage murder of Berta Caceres, the outstanding Indigenous people’s leader from western Honduras. The first words I heard in response to the news were from another revolutionary woman here in Nicaragua “Esa mujer….por qué no salió de allí?” Why did she not get out of there?

Well, the answer to that is clear.

Berta Caceres would never run away from a just struggle, whatever the risks. For us then, trying to digest this dreadful news, we remembered the words of another beloved revolutionary woman leader of the Honduran popular movement, Margarita Murillo, murdered in August 2014. Margarita told us, “If Juan Orlando Hernandez becomes president he will wipe out all the revolutionary leaders in Honduras.”

Prophetic words.

The radical Honduran “Los Necios” news briefing reported that a representative of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH communicated Berta’s murder in the town of La Esperanza, in the Honduran department of Intibucá at 1.00am this morning. The COPINH spokesperson reported that Berta had received repeated death threats as well as constant judicial and administrative harassment ever since the 2009 military coup in Honduras. Berta was an internationally recognized leader of the regional drive for Indigenous people’s rights and human rights in general, as well as a key leader in the complex and volatile Honduran popular movement.

Here in Nicaragua we got to know Berta in the months following the 2009 U.S.-backed military coup. There is no doubt at all that the Honduran authorities are the ultimate authors of Berta’s murder. The government of Juan Orlando Hernandez has acted consistently to destroy any semblance of State legitimacy, placing the country’s security forces and its judicial and administrative authorities firmly at the service of the country’s national business interests and international corporate interests.

Berta Caceres fought against that local and international corporate tyranny to the last.

We first got to know Berta in July 2009 at the time when President Manuel Zelaya was trying to re-enter Honduras from Nicaragua at the Las Manos frontier crossing. With her COPINH comrades Berta had trekked across the hill country of the southern Honduran department of El Paraíso to reach Las Manos, braving attempts at repression by the Honduran police and army, including snipers posted along the border area who murdered several Honduran citizens at that time. As part of the solidarity effort organized by the Nicaraguan government and local people around the Northern town of Ocotal in those days we were able to help Berta and her COPINH comrades with food and accommodation.

What was so striking about Berta was that despite all the tremendous difficulties she was always highly resourceful in finding ways around otherwise apparently intractable problems. Another thing that was so impressive about her was the great affection and respect with which she was held both by her comrades in COPINH and all the other people we met in the days and weeks following the 2009 coup. Subsequent to the events in Las Manos that year, we hosted Berta on one of her visits to Nicaragua when COPINH and other organizations were trying to coordinate solidarity work in the region to help the radical Honduran resistance sustain its positions within the complex situation developing in Honduras. We were short of food around then and could only offer Berta a 5.00am breakfast of porridge oats and black coffee, which she and her comrades graciously accepted despite our embarrassment. People like that, people who don’t stand on ceremony and drive directly to what needs to be done, people like that are truly exceptional, truly revolutionary.

So today people in Honduras wake up to a tremendous loss, but Berta herself would say not an irreplaceable loss, a terribly bitter loss indeed, but above all an inspirational loss, despite everything. Margarita Murillo used to quote the Bible from James 5, 1.4.6, “Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.”

Nothing could be more true than in the case of Berta Caceres who, like Margarita Murillo, never ceased to demand justice for victims of injustice both in Honduras and elsewhere.

For Honduras, the question is how long this dark nightmare of repression, of wholesale murder of vulnerable people claiming basic rights, and the deliberately targeted campaign of selective murder of revolutionary leaders will go on. More especially, how long will this war on women leaders devoted to promoting true democracy in Central America continue. Berta Caceres and Margarita Murillo were courageous women who devoted their whole lives to advancing the cause of rural workers and their families, indigenous peoples and all people ground down by the odious, murderous Honduran oligarchy supported by the government of the United States and its European Union allies. But more especially they advocated the true democracy that can only come with the genuine emancipation of women from all forms of cultural, social, economic and political repression. North American and European governments regularly spew out declarations in favor of the rights of women, the rights of Indigenous peoples and democracy and freedom in general. What foul, cynical hypocrites they are can never be emphasized or repeated enough. Yet, the U.S. government and the European Union governments support coup regimes in Latin America and the Caribbean. They consistently attack democratically elected governments in Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela.They will certainly emit ceremonious condemnations of the murder of Berta Caceres. But what their governments do betrays what their mealy mouthed spokespersons say. In the end only the rural and urban working families of the region organized in their respective popular movements will achieve their real liberation because only they are really going to defend their true interests.

All praise and honor to Berta Caceres and Margarita Murillo, true and steadfast women liberators of Latin America and the Caribbean!

Berta Cáceres, ¡Presente!

SOA Watch

When Berta Cáceres Flores was assassinated in a political murder on March 2, she was in the midst of an intense struggle in defense of the Gualcarque River, a sacred river for the Lenca people. She and the Lenca people of Rio Blanco had already blocked the Agua Zarca Dam from being built on the Gualcarque River one time, in 2014, and now DESA was making a second attempt. During the 2014 struggle against the Agua Zarca Dam, Indigenous leader Tomas Garcia was murdered by the Honduran military, other Lenca leaders were attacked, Berta received numerous death threats, and the military detained Berta on trumped up charges. Soon a second set of charges followed, and Berta was ordered to jail. She went underground, and after months international outcry, the charges were eventually dismissed. However, DESA, the company trying to build the dam, appealed and requested the charges against Berta and two other COPINH leaders be reinstated.About six or seven months ago, DESA began attempting a second time to build the Agua Zarca Dam, this time accessing the Gualcarque River from the opposite side of the river in San Francisco de Ojuera. Berta and many Lenca people again mobilized to defend the Gualcarque River and their ancestral territory.  As they organized to stop the dam, the situation again began to intensify. On November 4, 2015, when Berta was not home, an unknown man took a laptop with significant COPINH information from her home. On the night of November 6, 2015, three shots were fired towards Berta as she was driving to Rio Blanco. On November 24, 2015, Tomas Gomez, another COPINH leader, received a phone call from a man known to be a supported of the dam company, who informed Tomas that they were going to fix things with Berta Cáceres “a buenas o a malas.”

On November 30, 2015, Berta Cáceres and other COPINH leaders were traveling to request a meeting with the Mayor of San Francisco de Ojuera, who had authorized the dam, when the Honduran police detained their vehicles. While they were detained, machinery dug huge holes across the public roads to prevent COPINH from passing. After Berta and the rest of the COPINH members finally reached San Francisco de Ojuera, municipal employees began to throw rocks at them and threaten them, including a threat that Berta was the one “who had to be killed.” One of the armed men came close to Berta and almost cut her chest with a machete. All of this occurred as the Honduran police and military watched and did nothing, despite Berta requesting their protection. Finally, Berta called the Minister of Security, Julian Pacheco, and requested he relay orders for the police present to provide protection. Still, the police and military did not respond and the harassment continued.

Then in late December 2015, the Honduran police detained two men for illegal possession of weapons near the spot where DESA has begun to divert the water from the Gualcarque River for the dam. One of them is reported to have explained he was there contracted by DESA because “the COPINH people were f**ing things up a lot.” This man was previously involved in an attack on a COPINH member who opposed the dam, and his police files indicate he was involved in a murder. Berta received information that Jorge Avila – the head of security of DESA and former police official – moved money around to secure the release of those detained for illegal possession of weapons despite the murder in police file. Shortly after his release, this man was identified by Rio Blanco residents working with DESA’s security team without a uniform. In February 2016, Berta wrote a communique publicly denouncing the money provided for this man’s release and stated that there were known paramilitary guards working for DESA who made threats against COPINH members.

On February 16, Berta and other COPINH leaders were pursued by armed men as they left Rio Blanco, after visiting with the Lenca people in resistance to the Agua Zarca Dam on the Rio Gualcarque. The armed men pursued Berta’s vehicle on the isolated road until Berta reached a town and stopped.

Then on February 20, 2016, as Berta and COPINH members traveled to San Francisco de Ojuera to protest the dam, employees of DESA and the Mayor’s office threatened, detained, and harassed them as well as vandalized the vehicles and buses as the police and military looked on. COPINH members report that the Vice Mayor of San Francisco de Ojuera threatened Berta, telling her she would never come back there and that she could be killed.

On February 25, as the police and military evicted about 50 COPINH families from their homes in Jarcia, Guinse, Intibuca, a member of the DGIC harassed Berta and told her the security forces would not respond if something happened to her.

On February 26, at 1:45pm, a new, double-cabin truck with polarized windows drove up the road leading to the COPINH office, stopping before reaching the office. A tall man with a military-style haircut got out and went outside the COPIN office and asked for Berta, while another man stayed in the running vehicle. When informed she was not there, he wanted to know where she was and her phone number. When asked to identify himself, he refused and left.

Despite all of this, and many additional threats, Berta and COPINH continued forward in the struggle to defend the Gualcarque River and all Lenca territory. Berta repeatedly denounced the concession of the Gualcarque River by the Honduran government to DESA in violation of the Lenca people’s right to free, prior, and informed consultation. She also spoke against the violence, militarization, hitmen, and repression that DESA and the Honduran state were using to impose the dam. Berta denounced the Dutch Bank FMO and the Finnish Bank Finnfund, majority owned by the Dutch and Finnish governments respectively, for financing DESA for the Agua Zarca Dam project despite having been informed of the human rights violations around the dam. Berta was in the process of planning a trip to Holland and Finland in which she and Rio Blanco Lenca leaders would protest the financing of the dam and request Dutch and Finnish government leaders take action to stop the funding.

On March 2, 2016, DESA’s head of security was spotted in a vehicle with a group of men who had threatened Berta and other COPINH members at the turn off from Honduras’ main highway to La Esperanza, where Berta lives.  The men were speaking about Berta.  The vehicle headed toward La Esperanza.

That night, two men forced their way into Berta’s home and Berta was assassinated.

Berta was a voice not only for the self-determination of the Lenca people but for all Hondurans. She was a very outspoken leader against the 2009 military coup and the resulting repressive regimes. She led COPINH in supporting numerous Lenca communities struggling against displacement, dams, privatization of their resources, and megaprojects imposed on their territory against their will. She was a national leader in the struggle against the ultra-neoliberal plan being imposed on Honduras, which entails the privatization and exploitation of almost everything possible, and the brutal repression against those who resist. Berta spoke out against the US backed Alliance for Prosperity plan being put in place in Central America, clearly explaining that its militarization and economic privatization and exploitation projects will only bring more destruction and death to Honduras. She was a leader in the Platform of Popular and Social Movements of Honduras, pushing for national articulation of the social movements. She loudly criticized the current regime for its repression of Honduran society, and refused to be silent. No matter how many death threats she received, no matter how many times she was followed, pursued, or threatened, Berta would not be silenced.

And she must not be silenced today. Berta’s voice and struggle must continue to be heard. I can hear her right now, asking us to go to Rio Blanco to accompany the Lenca people as they are criminalized and repressed for resisting the dam. I can hear her asking us to organize to pressure FMO and Finnfund to cut their funding to the dam and to demand that the Honduran military and US-backed TIGRES leave Lenca territory. And I can hear her loudly and clearly telling US Congresspeople, just as she did in meetings barely a year ago, to stop supporting the Honduran regime, to cut all Honduran military funding, to end the Alliance for Prosperity. I can hear her voice denouncing international banks and multinational corporations who together with the current Honduran regime and the support of the US plunder the Honduran territory and its people. I can hear her calling for an end to the criminalization of COPINH and for respect for the self-determination of the Lenca people.

More than anything, I can clearly hear Berta saying that the female spirits of the Lenca people live in the Gualcarque River, where she surely is now, continuing to defend it.

 Statement and Call to Action in Response to the Assassination of Berta Cáceres