Sierra Club Magazine-Under the Gun: An Investigation Into the Murder of Berta Cáceres

GUSTAVO CASTRO WAS IN BED, working on his laptop, when he heard a loud noise. It sounded like someone was breaking open the locked kitchen door. From the bedroom across the hall, his friend Berta Cáceres screamed, “Who’s out there?” Before Castro had time to react, a man kicked down his bedroom door and pointed a gun at his face. It was 11:40 P.M. on March 2, 2016.

Castro, a Mexican activist who had spent his life involved in a range of social justice campaigns, was in La Esperanza, Honduras, to coordinate a three-day workshop on creating local alternatives to capitalism. Cáceres—one of the most revered environmental, indigenous, and women’s rights leaders in Honduras—had invited Castro to conduct the workshop for members of her organization, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, known by its Spanish acronym, COPINH. When he accepted the invitation to travel to Honduras, Castro knew that it could be dangerous, though he had no idea exactly how grave it would turn out to be.

Berta Caceres Zuniga (daughter of Berta Caceres) stands next to the Gualcarque River, which her mother died protecting. BERTA CÁCERES ZÚÑIGA (DAUGHTER OF BERTA CÁCERES) STANDS NEXT TO THE GUALCARQUE RIVER, WHICH HER MOTHER DIED PROTECTING. 

In recent years, Honduras had become a global leader on lists having to do with violence: the highest number of homicides per capita, the world’s second-most-murderous city (San Pedro Sula), and the most dangerous place on the planet to be an environmental advocate. As the most prominent spokesperson for a fierce indigenous campaign to stop the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River, Cáceres was no stranger to threats. The struggle over the proposed Agua Zarca dam had become a major political controversy. On one side were the indigenous Lenca people of COPINH, who had staged road blockades, sabotaged construction equipment, and appealed to international lenders to halt financing for the project. On the other were some of Honduras’s wealthiest families, many of them with close ties to the military. Cáceres’s leadership against the dam had earned her much attention, both positive and negative. In 2015, she received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize—and leading up to it, she also had received beatings from security forces and some 30 death threats, and spent a night in jail on fabricated charges.

Castro and Cáceres had been friends for more than 15 years and had collaborated on opposing the Free Trade Area of the Americas, open-pit mining, water privatization, and militarization. Castro’s workshop in La Esperanza was focused on developing strategies for moving beyond protest-centered social movements, and Cáceres had been energized by the sessions. That day she left repeated WhatsApp messages for her daughter, Berta Cáceres Zúñiga, who had just left Honduras to resume her graduate studies in Mexico. “She was really happy,” Cáceres Zúñiga said.

After the first day’s workshop, Cáceres had invited Castro to spend the night at her home so that he could have a quiet place to work. They arrived sometime around 10:30 P.M. after driving a mile and a half down a lonely dirt road from the center of La Esperanza. Castro remembers commenting on how isolated the property was. “How is it that you live here alone?” he asked Cáceres as they pulled up to the house.

The old friends spent some time talking on the front porch, and then each went to their own room. It was nearing midnight when the gunmen forced their way into the house and he heard Cáceres’s screams. “That’s when I realized we were dead,” Castro said.

Berta Caceres's sister and motherBERTA CÁCERES’S SISTER AND MOTHER 

In the instant before a shot was fired at him, Castro looked past the gun barrel and into the gunman’s eyes. “When I saw in his eyes the decision to kill me, I instinctively moved my hand and head,” Castro told me, showing me the scar on the back of his hand and lifting up his hair to reveal where a bullet had removed the top of his ear. “The killer experienced an optical illusion that he had shot me in the head. Because in the instant that he fired, I was still. But a millionth of a second before, I moved my hand and head. If I had moved a millionth of a second later, we wouldn’t be sitting here.”

Castro threw himself to the ground and lay still, pretending he was dead. He was bleeding from his ear, which was covered by his thick, curly hair. The gunman turned and walked out of the house.

“A few seconds later,” Castro said, “Berta screamed, ‘Gustavo! Gustavo!’ And I went to her room to help her. But it wasn’t more than a minute before Berta died. I said goodbye to her, grabbed the phone, and went back to my room to start calling people so that someone could come and rescue me. It didn’t take more than 30 seconds, a minute, from the time the killers entered to when they left. Everything happened so quickly. They were there to kill her. It was a well-planned assassination. The only thing they hadn’t anticipated is that I would be there.”

It was two days before Cáceres’s birthday. She would have turned 45.

Contact your members of Congress and urge them to support the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act.

IN 2010, THE RESIDENTS OF RÍO BLANCO, a Lenca community on the banks of the Gualcarque River, noticed workers with heavy machinery. They were “making roads where they had no business making roads,” said Rosalina Domínguez, a community leader there. The Lenca wasted no time in making their opposition known. “We confiscated one of their tractors,” Domínguez recalled. “We didn’t let them get much work done.”

A few months later, a group of men arrived in Río Blanco to show promotional videos for the hydroelectric dam they wanted to build, and to tell the community about the studies they had already done on the proposed project. People were unimpressed by the gesture. “Who gave you permission to conduct those studies?” they asked. An engineer said that the dam would provide the community with jobs, schools, and scholarships for their children. “We told him that it sounded like a bunch of promises that they would never follow through on,” Domínguez said. “So the community told him that we wouldn’t accept the project and that if someday they decided to try and build it anyway, the community would stand up and fight.”

In 2012, the company behind the proposed Agua Zarca dam, Desarrollos Energéticos (or DESA), sought to buy the land along the riverbanks. According to Dominguez, out of some 800 community members, only seven wanted to sell. A year later, the company moved ahead with construction anyway. In March 2013, a number of indigenous farmers walked out to their corn and bean fields to find they were no longer there. “We decided to fight when we saw how they destroyed the cultivated fields without so much as talking to the owners,” Domínguez said. “They plowed straight through the ears of corn and the beanstalks. That is when we blocked the road.”

Indigenous environmentalist Berta Caceres's house, outside La Esperanza, HondurasBERTA CÁCERES’S HOME, OUTSIDE LA ESPERANZA, HONDURAS 

Two days after the Lenca community set up its road blockade, Berta Cáceres arrived. Domínguez and Cáceres had met in 2009, when Cáceres went to Río Blanco to give a talk about the international laws protecting indigenous communities’ rights and to make a case for the importance of protecting the river. When Cáceres returned in April 2013 at the start of the road blockade, “she joined the struggle unequivocally,” Domínguez said. “She stayed with us day and night.”

United in its determination to halt the dam, the community of Río Blanco possessed a clear moral and legal stature: International law states that indigenous communities must give prior consent for projects like Agua Zarca, consent that the dam builders had not received. Cáceres brought to the conflict a strategic savvy honed during 20 years of social-change organizing. Her life to that point had prepared her for this very struggle.

Berta Flores Cáceres was born in La Esperanza in 1971 to a politically active family. Her mother, Austra Bertha Flores López, worked for decades as a midwife, assisting thousands of natural births in the Honduran countryside. She was also—while working full-time and raising 12 children, of whom Berta was the youngest—three times the mayor of La Esperanza, once the governor of the department of Intibucá, and later a member of Honduras’s congress.

Berta took to politics early. At age 12, she ran for student council and began participating in street demonstrations. During political meetings at the family home, she met Salvador Zúñiga  the man with whom she would eventually have four children and share more than 20 years of grassroots struggle. When she was 17, the couple had their first child, a daughter, shortly before crossing the border into El Salvador to join the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrilla army during that country’s brutal civil war. Her mother speaks of this with pride: “She went to fight, rifle in hand.”

After the war ended, in 1992, Zúñiga and Cáceres returned to Honduras, had their second daughter, Berta, and made a pact to never go to war again. “We understood that war was repugnant,” Zúñiga said. “It was the worst thing that could happen to people.” They committed themselves to “active nonviolence” and together founded COPINH.

In the subsequent years, Cáceres, Zúñiga, and COPINH would lead major indigenous marches to Tegucigalpa, the capital, and establish two autonomous indigenous municipalities—the first in Honduran history. Using grassroots organizing and lawsuits, they were able to halt the voracious logging in Intibuca. They also founded a women’s health center and five indigenous radio stations and established a social-movement training and retreat center on 10 acres of land in La Esperanza. “The whole world admired her,” her mother said. “She traveled abroad to help, to give trainings, to give talks, and to carry the message of what was happening here. She had this immense ability to defeat, a little bit, the huge power of the businesses and the big landowners that were her enemy.”

When Cáceres arrived in Río Blanco in the spring of 2013 to help stop the proposed Agua Zarca dam, she brought with her not only the skills of a seasoned organizer but also a national profile that was essential to elevating the struggle. As the blockade continued, DESA engineers and security personnel repeatedly threatened Río Blanco community members, though Cáceres soon became the focal point for threats and intimidation. DESA charged that the Lenca people—though they were living in their communities and farming their ancestral lands—were trespassing. On several occasions, the police dismantled the COPINH roadblocks, and each time the community put the blockade back in place. In mid-May, the Honduran government deployed the military. Soldiers from the Battalion of Engineers established a base camp inside DESA’s facilities.

The close cooperation between the dam builders and the military was part of a larger relationship. DESA’s executives and board of directors come from the Honduran military and banking elite. DESA’s secretary, Roberto Pacheco Reyes, is a former justice minister. The company president, Roberto David Castillo Mejia, is a former military intelligence officer accused of corruption by the Honduran government’s public auditor’s office. The vice president, Jacobo Nicolas Atala Zablah, is a bank owner and a member of one of Honduras’s wealthiest families.

Within days of the soldiers’ appearance at the site, someone planted a handgun in Cáceres’s car. She had already been searched at several police checkpoints when a subsequent military search suddenly revealed a firearm in her vehicle. Cáceres was arrested and taken to jail. She was able to post bail, and the gun charges were dropped, but then DESA filed a lawsuit against her for illegally occupying company land, and the Honduran federal prosecutors added sedition charges for good measure. Fearful of being arrested again, Cáceres went underground as her attorney fought the charges.

Under the Gun: An Investigation into the Murder of Berta Cáceres

“Everything against Berta shows that there is a connection between the military and the company,” said Brigitte Gynther, who has been working in Honduras with the School of the Americas Watch since 2012. “It was the military that had Berta arrested. The collusion between the military and DESA has been a constant since the beginning.”

Then the standoff turned deadly. On July 15, 2013, COPINH staged a peaceful protest at the dam company’s office. The demonstration had barely started when soldiers opened fire on the COPINH activists at close range, killing community leader Tomas Garcia and wounding his 17-year-old son, Alan.

The military’s attack on unarmed protesters marked a turning point. In August 2013, the giant Chinese dam-construction company Sinohydro pulled out of the project, citing the ongoing community resistance. The International Finance Corporation, a private-sector arm of the World Bank that had been considering investing in the dam, announced that it would not support the project. With funding in jeopardy, work on the dam limped along.

In the spring of 2015, Cáceres traveled to the United States to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize for her leadership in the dam struggle. Sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize of the environmental movement, the award recognizes individuals who take great personal risks to protect the environment. In that sense, Cáceres was an ideal recipient. Since the dam conflict had begun, she had received many death threats. At one point, another activist had shown her a military hit list with her name at the top. (The Guardian later published an interview with a former Honduran special forces soldier who confirmed the existence of the hit list.)

Many of Cáceres’s friends and colleagues hoped the Goldman Prize would help protect her. “They gave her the Goldman, and I went with her [to the ceremony],” said Melissa Cardoza, a feminist organizer and writer who was a close friend of Cáceres’s. “And I thought, OK, she’s in the clear. This is going to back her up. Because for a long time she told me, ‘They are going to kill me because they won’t be able to put up with our winning this struggle.'”

GUSTAVO CASTRO WAS STILL bleeding from his wound when the cellphone of his dead friend rang. It was Karen Spring, a Canadian activist with the Honduras Solidarity Network. Spring was lying in bed around 1 A.M. on March 3, 2016, when she received a voicemail from a friend who said that Cáceres had been murdered and a Mexican activist was stuck in her house, wounded. When Spring called Cáceres’s number, Castro answered. “I asked him how badly he was injured,” Spring remembered. “He said that he was bleeding from the ear, that there was a lot of blood, but that he was OK.” Castro was terrified that the killers would return and was desperate to get out of the house. He asked Spring if he should call the police, and Spring said she would first try to get COPINH members to rescue him. “You can’t call the police,” Spring told me. “It’s like calling the mafia to the crime scene.”

From the beginning of the investigation, the police tried to blame the murder on someone from COPINH. They repeatedly interrogated Tomás Gómez Membreño, a veteran COPINH member who was among the first to arrive at the murder scene and help Castro. For two days, they detained Cáceres’s onetime boyfriend Aureliano Molina, even though he had not been in La Esperanza on the night of the murder. As detectives interrogated Gustavo Castro to draw a portrait of the man who had shot him, they ignored Castro’s descriptions and kept trying to draw a portrait of Molina. “I realized this days later,” Castro said, “when I saw his picture in the newspapers and I said to myself, ‘That’s the man they were trying to draw.'”

The police initially attempted to involve Castro in the murder. They kept him for days without medical attention, interrogating him at the crime scene over and over. After they told him that he was free to return to Mexico, he was nearly arrested at the airport. Fortunately for him, the Mexican ambassador was accompanying him, and she literally wrapped her arms around Castro and declared, “Consular protection,” allowing him to leave the airport, though not the country. After yet more interrogation, Castro was finally able to return to Mexico and reunite with his family almost a month later.

Two months after Cáceres’s murder, amid massive national and international outcry, Honduran officials began to make arrests. Analyzing phone records, prosecutors sketched an alleged web of complicity involving eight people: an active military officer, Major Mariano Díaz; two DESA employees, an Agua Zarca manager named Sergio Ramón Rodríguez and Douglas Geovanni Bustillo, an ex-military man who was DESA’s chief of security between 2013 and 2015; two former soldiers, Edilson Atilio Duarte Meza and Henry Javier Hernández Rodríguez; and three civilians with no known connections to DESA or the army, Emerson Eusebio Duarte Meza (Edilson’s brother), Óscar Aroldo Torres Velásquez, and Elvin Heriberto Rápalo Orellana. (According to the Guardian, both Díaz and Geovanni Bustillo received military training in the United States.) Honduran officials charged all eight with murder and attempted murder; all but one of the suspects have denied any involvement with the murder.

The arrests immediately cast a shadow on the Agua Zarca dam. Even after Cáceres’s murder, DESA had kept working on the dam. When federal police arrested two DESA employees in connection with the murder, the company halted work. The project remains suspended today. (DESA did not respond to interview requests via email and phone. In statements to the press, the company has repeatedly denied any connection to Cáceres’s murder.)

The Cáceres family and members of COPINH pointed out that investigators had failed to apprehend, or investigate, any possible high-level intellectual authors of the murder. “The public prosecutor accused her of being an instigator and of stealing from a company [DESA]. And now that same institution and the same individuals are the ones investigating her murder,” said Victor Fernández, COPINH’s attorney. “According to the prosecutor’s hypothesis, they have arrested the material authors and the intermediaries. But not the main perpetrators.”

COPINH and the Cáceres family also complained that the investigation had been compromised by political espionage that appears to have accompanied the police inquiry. The entire case file, for example, was supposedly stolen from the trunk of a judge’s car. Cáceres’s house was sealed and guarded by police and soldiers for five months after the murder, as the federal prosecutor’s office conducted its investigation. But when federal officials finally allowed Cáceres’s family back into the property, they realized the house had been broken into while under federal control. Police seals on the home and on Cáceres’s possessions inside were broken, and her two computers, three cellphones, and numerous external hard drives and flash drives were missing. “They stole all the information about COPINH that was in the house,” Cáceres Zúñiga said, referring to government officials.

The Cáceres family’s suspicions about the official investigation are inseparable from the broader atmosphere of distrust that has gripped Honduras since the country’s president, Manuel Zelaya, was overthrown in a 2009 military coup. Zelaya had raised the national minimum wage, proposed turning the massive U.S. military base in Honduras into a national airport, and made promises to indigenous and farmer organizations that he would grant their land claims. Such a program ran counter to the interests of Honduras’s entrenched elite, which deposed him in the middle of the night and put him on a plane in his pajamas. “The right wing didn’t just carry out a coup d’etat; they safeguarded their economic project,” Fernández said. “That is, they used the coup to produce a series of legislative reforms and institutional restructuring that gave them control over key areas and the whole process of remilitarizing the country.”

Soon after the coup, in 2010, a single act of congress granted 41 concessions for hydroelectric dams on rivers across the country. In April of that year, the Honduran government held an international investment convention called “Honduras Is Open for Business.” The country’s mining regulations were relaxed, and a moratorium on new mines was repealed. According to human rights groups, illegal logging increased in the wake of the coup. At the same time, threats against, and murders of, activists began to climb.

“Everything that is happening now stems from the coup,” Cáceres Zúñiga said. “It was the opening of everything that Honduras is going through now. All the violence, corruption, territorial invasions—that is the coup.”

Cáceres was a national leader of the resistance movement against the coup. She took to the streets and to the airwaves. She traveled to El Salvador to participate in a protest outside the building where the Organization of American States was meeting to discuss whether to allow Honduras back into the organization. By the time she took the helm of the struggle against the Agua Zarca dam, the coup government had identified her as an adversary. It was in this context that she became the target of a vicious smear campaign apparently orchestrated by DESA and Honduran officials. “There was this constant defamation campaign, especially for her as a woman. She was painted as this vicious, horrible person,” said Gynther, of the School of the Americas Watch.

Of the eight people currently under arrest and awaiting trial, only one, Hernández Rodríguez, has given detailed testimony that is admissible in court. Hernández Rodríguez was arrested in January 2017 while working at a barbershop in Reynosa, Mexico, and extradited to Honduras. He had been a Honduran special forces sniper with the rank of sergeant stationed in the Lower Aguán Valley and had served directly under Major Díaz. After he left the military, he went to work as a private security supervisor for a palm oil corporation, Dinant, also in the Lower Aguán (see “No One Investigates Anything Here”).

I was able to gain access to an audio recording of Hernández Rodríguez’s testimony. His description of the mechanics of the murder coincides with the physical evidence in Cáceres’s house and with Castro’s eyewitness testimony. While Hernández Rodríguez says that he cooperated with the assassination only under duress and that he didn’t carry a gun the night of the murder, his confession offers some new details. According to Hernández Rodríguez, the murder was planned well in advance: He and Geovanni Bustillo visited La Esperanza in late January and early February. Hernández Rodríguez admits to experience in this kind of political violence: Police have cellphone recordings of him bragging about committing a previous murder and discussing with Díaz what appear to be the logistics for the assassination of Cáceres. And he confirms, using their nicknames, the identities of the men who entered Cáceres’s house and shot Berta and Gustavo: Rápalo Orellana and Torres Velásquez.

Yet all of the physical evidence and testimony still do not answer the question of who, exactly, ordered the assassination. When asked this question by investigators, Hernández Rodriguez responded, “They only said that it was a job that had begun and that it had to be finished. That’s all they said.”

The long-running campaign against Cáceres—plus the alleged involvement of active and former military officers and DESA employees in the coordination and carrying out of the murder—has fueled suspicions that her murder was ordered by people highly placed in the Honduran government, military, and economic elite. (Honduran officials have denied any state connection to the murder.) But, according to COPINH members and Cáceres’s family, police have not sought to establish who was behind the assassination.

The question facing Honduran social movements and the Honduran government is, Will those responsible get away with murder?

A YEAR AFTER HER ASSASSINATION, I went to Cáceres’s home with her daughter. The small green house is surrounded by empty fields and a few other new houses and has beautiful views of the nearby mountains. Cáceres had only recently finished making payments on the home, with funds from the Goldman Prize, when she was killed. At the spot where her mother died, Cáceres Zúñiga maintains a thick circle of cypress and guava leaves from her grandmother’s backyard, arranged around a candle on the floor.

As Cáceres Zúñiga walked me through the property, explaining her understanding of what happened the night of the murder, she expressed frustration at how her mother has been remembered since the assassination. Too often, she scoffed, Berta Cáceres is reduced to being just an “environmentalist” or “Goldman Prize winner,” when in fact she was much more than that. I heard similar complaints from everyone who knew and loved Cáceres.

“It really hurts me when they only call her an environmentalist,” Miriam Miranda told me. “Berta was a feminist, indigenous woman of struggle who definitely fought for natural resources, but she was profoundly feminist.” Miranda is the leader of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, and over the course of 25 years of shared struggle, she and Cáceres developed a deep friendship. She has survived beatings and assassination attempts and, since Cáceres’s murder, has become probably the highest-profile social-movement leader in Honduras. “They ripped out a part of my life,” Miranda said. “[Berta] was always there with me in the hardest moments of my life.”

During the demonstrations and vigils marking the first anniversary of her murder, I heard the following chant over and over: “Berta did not die. She became millions!” In the wake of political murder, one task of survivors is to refuse the logic of killing: the fear, hopelessness, and paralysis. To honor the fallen and what they offered, one must not only continue the struggle but fight harder and become one of the millions in whom those like Cáceres live on.

“Her life’s work was insurrection,” said Melissa Cardoza, the feminist organizer and writer. “One day I was with her when she was being arrested. The police were taking down her information, and I was with her. And the cop asked her, ‘What is your profession?’ And she said, ‘I’m a professional agitator.’ The cop said, ‘I can’t put that down.’ And she asked why not? ‘Because it doesn’t exist,’ the cop said. And so she turns to me and says, ‘You tell them. I’m a professional agitator.’ And so I told the cop, ‘Well, it’s true. That’s what she does.’

“That was our Bertita.”

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Honduras: Justicia en la cuerda floja

En Honduras, la justicia pasa de parecer lejana a volverse completamente inasible.

El 23 de mayo, por tercera vez consecutiva, el Juzgado de Letras de la ciudad de Tegucigalpa aplazó la audiencia preliminar en el caso del asesinato de la defensora de derechos humanos y líder lenca, Berta Cáceres.

El Juzgado aceptó la petición de los abogados de la familia y del defensor Gustavo Castro, único sobreviviente del ataque en el que Berta Cáceres fue asesinada el 2 de marzo de 2016, de aplazar la audiencia preliminar de cuatro de lasocho personas acusadas de haber participado en el crimen para el 7 de Junio.

¿La razón? El Ministerio Público entregó la información probatoria que desde hace meses habían solicitado tanto los abogados de la familia y del defensor mexicano, como la defensa de los acusados, apenas el viernes 19 de mayo. Dicho tiempo es a todas luces insuficiente para revisar la información y para permitir que los abogados pudieran prepararse adecuadamente para la diligencia que iba a ser realizada el 24 de mayo.

Ya el 19 de abril, la audiencia había sido suspendida apetición de los abogados de los acusados y de la representación legal de la familia de Berta, debido a que el Ministerio Público hondureño no había entregado la información probatoria completa en la que basa su acusación. El 28 de Abril fue suspendida otra vez porque la información todavía no se hallaba disponible.

Los aplazamientos reiterados de esta audiencia con la que se dará inicio formal al proceso, derivados de la omisión reiterada del Ministerio Público de entregar las pruebas, primero, y hacerlo a tiempo, después, generan muchos interrogantes sobre la auténtica voluntad de las autoridades hondureñas de investigar cabalmente y de manera independiente el crimen de Berta Cáceres.

Foto: Cuartoscuro

A más de un año del asesinato, la justicia se desdibuja como una esperanza vana frente al crimen que marcó un antes y un después para quienes defienden los derechos humanos en Honduras.

Pero nada de esto es una novedad.

Honduras es uno de los países donde la impunidad es la norma en casos de ataques contra personas que defienden los derechos humanos.Esta impunidad alienta que sigan muriendo más personas que son vistas como blanco legítimo de ataques porque cuando atreven a defender el medio ambiente son clasificadas como una “enemigas del progreso”.

En una muestra más de que el Ministerio Público no se preocupa por rendir cuentas en su lucha contra la impunidad, no se presentó a participar en una reunión con la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos para revisar el cumplimiento de las medidas cautelares otorgadas a la familia de Berta Cáceres y al COPINH. No sobra señalar que Berta Cáceres fue asesinada a pesar de que ella misma había sido cobijada por medidas de este tipo y de que las autoridades hondureñas tenían el deber de protegerla.

Así, el riesgo es que nunca se haga justicia y que el nombre de Berta Cáceres engrose la larga lista de personas que fueron asesinadas por el solo hecho de proteger los recursos naturales de los que todos dependemos para sobrevivir.

Desde hace años, las autoridades Hondureñas hacen oídos sordos a las innumerables voces que en cada rincón del planeta cuestionan la realidad que viven quienes allí dedican su vida a la defensa de los derechos humanos.

Liliana María Uribe Tirado, miembro delGrupo Asesor Internacional de Personas Expertas (GAIPE), quienes están realizando una investigación independiente sobre el asesinato de Berta, es una de esas voces.

“Nos preocupa mucho la naturaleza secreta del proceso y la falta de atención a las varias posibles líneas de investigación. Las autoridades deberían prestar atención a la sistematicidad de las agresiones contra el COPINH. El crimen contra Berta se tiene que explicar en ese contexto. Hay más de 12 personas asesinadas del COPINH entonces el nivel de agresión contra la organización es muy fuerte. Todo eso debería ser parte de la investigación,” dijo.

A más de 13 meses del asesinato de Berta Cáceres, las preguntas se acumulan y las respuestas se evaporan.

Una sola cosa es clara: la justicia está en la cuerda floja y las y los hondureños son y seguirán siendo la principal víctima.

Ariadna Tovar es investigadora sobre defensores de derechos humanos en las Américas para Amnistía Internacional.


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Statement from the family of Berta Cáceres on Honduran government deception

It has been 15 months since the assassination of our beloved Berta and the Honduran government continues to obfuscate, delay and impede justice. Our family and our legal team have repeatedly requested documents pertaining to the case that we – by law as a private prosecutor — have a right to have. Yet, the Attorney General and Pubic Ministry have refused to hand over relevant information, violating a court decision.

An example of the hubris with which they operate is that the hearing that began on April 19, 2017 was forced to suspension because the Public Ministry had not provided the family’s legal team with the necessary information.  The court stated the information would be provided on April 28, 2017, however this has yet to happen.   Our legal team went so far as to offer to pay for photocopies, and yet they still will not provide the information.  The legal team has also asked why the government did not seize certain relevant documents during raids conducted at DESA’s offices and is asking why they have not shared the information they did seize.

The government’s machinations illustrate exactly why there is a need for an independent international investigation as we — and the international community — have demanded since Berta’s assassination in early March of 2016.

We demand that the government stop covering up for the assassins and the yet-to-be captured intellectual authors. Is the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez afraid of where a legitimate, unobstructed investigation might lead? Who are they protecting?

We demand justice for Berta.

The Family of Berta Cáceres

Rep. Norma Torres Refuses Family of Berta Cáceres’ Call to Support Berta Cáceres Act

(Rep. Norma Torres D-CA with Honduran Pres. Juan Orlando Hernandez)

First, I would like to offer my heartfelt and sincere condolences for your loss. To lose a loved one in such a violent manner is a tragedy that none of us should have to face. To be forced to wait so long to see justice done is simply unacceptable.

Like many people across the world, I was shocked and outraged when Berta Caceres was killed on March 3, 2016. It was clear to me then, and it remains clear to me now, that her murder was not only an unspeakable act against a brave individual, but also an attack against the right of all Hondurans to speak out in defense of human rights, indigenous rights, and the environment. I have joined my colleagues in calling for justice, and in particular for calling on Honduras to invite the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to ensure a thorough and transparent investigation. I have also sent letters about these concerns to the Secretary of State and to the United States Ambassador in Honduras, and my colleagues and I have raised the case of Berta Caceres with representatives of the Honduran government, including the President of Honduras.

Human rights are at the core of the United States’ relationship with Central America. We will continue to hold our partners in the region accountable, and I have supported strong conditions on our assistance to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Furthermore, I believe that improving protections for human rights defenders and improving the capacity of justice systems to investigate and prosecute violent crimes must be top priorities for our assistance in Honduras. However, as you note in your letter, I have not cosponsored the Berta Caceres Act. While I share many of the goals of that legislation, I do not believe that suspending all civilian security assistance to Honduras is the best way to achieve those goals.

Please know that I will continue to advocate for truth and justice in the case of Berta Caceres’ murder. Furthermore, I will work with my colleagues in Congress to ensure that we hold our partners in Central America accountable for making progress on human rights issues.


NORMA J. TORRES Member of Congress

Letter to Rep. Norma Torres Asking for Berta Cáceres Law Support

Family of Berta Cáceres XXXX Xth Ave.
Oakland, California XXXXX

March 2, 2017

3200 Inland Empire Blvd. Suite 200B
Ontario, CA 91764

Dear Rep. Norma Torres,

We, the family of assassinated Honduran environmental and indigenous rights leader Berta Cáceres, write to you today to appeal for your support for the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, which was introduced this week in the U.S. House of Representatives

As the first Central American to serve in Congress and as a leader of the Central American Caucus in the House of Representatives, your knowledge and leadership on issues involving Latin America is crucial. We believe that your support for the Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act will further strengthen your standing as an advocate for Central Americans and human rights, both in the U.S. and in Honduras.

The Cáceres Act calls for the suspension of “…United States security assistance with Honduras until such time as human rights violations by Honduran security forces cease and their perpetrators are brought to justice,” for wide-ranging human rights abuses, such as the murders of dozens of activists including 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize winner, Berta Cáceres.

A government that fails to protect its citizens and whose security forces are implicated in attacks and killings of activists should not be receiving security funding and training from the U.S. government.

In Berta’s case, after dozens of death threats and attempts to jail her on trumped up charges by state and non-state affiliated security forces, she was finally silenced. Three state security agents – one active and two former – are among those implicated in her killing so far. A former member of the military police, now in hiding, reported that Berta’s name was at the top of a “hit list” that his U.S.-trained unit received. The former soldier told the Guardian that he was “100% certain that Berta Cáceres was killed by the army.”

With Berta’s assassination, Honduran girls and boys lost a heroine, someone they could look up to proudly and who they wanted to emulate. The subsequent investigation into her assassination has made a mockery of proper law enforcement procedures. The incompetence ranges from a trampled crime scene to the inexplicable disappearance of one of Berta’s computers from her house, to the burglary of her case files from a magistrate’s car and the arbitrary detention and torture of the key witness to the killing.

For many Hondurans and friends of Honduras, the killing of Berta – one of the country’s most beloved and high profile activists – was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Since 2009, hundreds of social leaders have been murdered in Honduras, often with the alleged complicity of state security forces. The vast majority of these killings are never investigated, and those responsible are never brought to justice.

As the original Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act states in its findings, “Impunity remains a serious problem, with prosecution in cases of military and police officials charged with human rights violations moving too slowly or remaining inconclusive.” It adds: “[T]he Department of State in its 2015 Human Rights Report for Honduras reports “corruption, intimidation, and institutional weakness of the justice system leading to widespread impunity.”.

This is why we ask for your help in supporting the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act. It is increasingly clear that the government of Juan Orlando Hernández is unwilling to act decisively to stop the killings of social activists in Honduras and to conduct honest and thorough investigations of killings and attacks. In addition the government has consistently failed to respect basic indigenous land rights as it is required to do under its international treaty obligations.

We ask you to stand with us, with Honduras, with Berta and our family.

The Family of Berta Cáceres

Activists Family Asks Congresswoman to Support Act to Stop Honduran State Repression

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Human rights activists argue that Washington has blood on its hands for its complicity in abuses carried out by Honduran state forces.

One year after the assassination of Honduran Indigenous leader Berta Caceres, human rights organizations and Indigenous communities continue to demand justice in the case, while the international branch of the struggle pressures to an end of U.S. funding for police and military forces accused of human rights abuses in the Central American country.

Caceres’ family sent a letter Thursday to U.S. Representative Norma Torres to ask for her support for the Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, which was reintroduced the same day to the House of Representatives after stalling without adequate support since last year. The bill seeks the suspension of Washington’s security aid to Honduras until the country fulfills more rigorous human rights conditions — including an end to abuses by the police and military and justice in cases like Berta Caceres’ murder.

“It is increasingly clear that the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez is unwilling to act decisively to stop the killings of social activists in Honduras and to conduct honest and thorough investigations of killings and attacks,” Caceres’ family members state in the letter to Torres, urging her to “stand with” them and with Honduras. “In addition, the government has consistently failed to respect basic indigenous land rights, as it is required to do under its international treaty obligations.”

The original U.S. bill inspired by Caceres’ murder paints a grim picture of Honduras’ grave human rights situation, including the lack of justice in cases like Caceres’ murder. “Impunity remains a serious problem, with prosecution in cases of military and police officials charged with human rights violations moving too slowly or remaining inconclusive,” it states, adding that the U.S. State Department itself reported in 2015 problems of “corruption, intimidation, and institutional weakness of the justice system” in Honduras.

Caceres’ family addressed the letter to Torres to ramp up individual pressure for support of the bill. Torres, the first and only Central American in Congress and the founder of the bipartisan Central American Caucus, has faced criticism for aligning herself with the Honduran government, backing Washington’s controversial Alliance for Prosperity security aid package for Central America’s Northern Triangle and for refusing to support the Berta Caceres bill.

“We believe that your support for the Berta Caceres Human Rights Act will further strengthen your standing as an advocate for Central Americans and human rights, both in the U.S. and Honduras,” the family wrote in its letter to Torres, imploring her endorsement of the bill.

Caceres’ family also highlighted in the letter the involvement of active and former members of the military — including suspects trained at the infamous U.S. School of the Americas — in her murder, underlining the urgent need for more rigorous conditions on security aid to Honduran state forces. A former member of the military police in Honduras revealed to the Guardian that her name had been at the top of a “hit list” that a U.S.-trained unit received.

“A government that fails to protect its citizens and whose security forces are implicated in attacks and killings of activists should not be receiving security funding and training from the U.S. government,” the letter stressed, adding that Caceres’ murder is only one example among scores of assassinations, attacks and other forms of intimidation targeting activists in the country.

According to a recent report by the international rights organization Global Witness, 120 land and environmental defenders have been killed in Honduras since 2010 after an increase in state-sanctioned abuses in the wake of the 2009 U.S.-backed military coup.

Meanwhile, in Honduras, members of the organization that Caceres founded — the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras or COPINH — held a march Wednesday in the capital city Tegucigalpa demanding justice one year after her death.

They blasted Honduran authorities over the fact that, to this day, the motive for her assassination has not been identified and perpetrators in the killing not brought to justice. Demonstrators with banners shouted slogans demanding that authorities arrest the masterminds behind Caceres’ murder.

Caceres rose to international prominence for leading the Indigenous Lenca people in a struggle against a controversial hydroelectric dam project in the community of Rio Blanco that was put in motion without consent from local communities. She was also a key leader in the post-coup resistance movement that demanded a constituent assembly to rewrite the Honduran Constitution.

For her environmental and land defense work, she was awarded the prestigious 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, while at the same time suffering dozens of death threats and other forms of harassment. Berta Caceres was shot dead just before midnight March 2, 2016, when gunmen stormed her house and attacked her.

Caceres’ family claim that the Honduran company behind the hydroelectric project she fought against, Desarrollos Energeticos or DESA, and the Honduran government hired contract killers to murder her and other activists.

Her family and fellow activists insists that her legacy will continue to inspire a movement for rights and justice.

In a statement ahead of the anniversary of her murder, Caceres’ COPINH reiterated calls for justice and an end to unwanted corporate projects on Indigenous land and vowed to forge on in the struggle that Caceres championed in the name of a “just society where life is respected.”

“One year after Berta’s murder, she continues teaching us that ideas cannot be killed and the processes of the people cannot be stopped,” the organization said. “May she continue to be present and our task continue with her legacy of resistance and struggle against injustice.”

CNN: Berta Cáceres’ family seeks justice on anniversary of fearless activist’s death

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(CNN)In one of the most dangerous countries in the world, one woman paid the ultimate price for her cause.

One day before her 45th birthday on March 3, 2016, Berta Cáceres was shot dead in her home after years of threats to her life for her work as a fearless human rights activist.

The mother of four, herself a member of the indigenous Lenca group, was a hero to rural indigenous populations in Honduras, who have been under constant threat in recent years from groups wanting to build mega-projects such dams and mines and carry out logging on their land.

She was tireless in their defense.

Awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, Cáceres was regarded as one of the world’s leading grassroots environmental activists.

On the one-year anniversary of her death, we speak to her nephew and one of her close friends about her lifetime protecting human rights — and their fight for justice — in one of the world’s most corrupt nations, as ranked by Transparency International.

Strong female role model

Growing up in the 1980s, Cáceres was no stranger to the violence of Central America and civil wars in Honduras and neighboring El Salvador.

Her mother, Austra Bertha Flores López, was throughout her life a midwife, two-term mayor of their hometown of La Esperanza, a congresswoman and a governor.

She also helped many El Salvadoran refugees fleeing a bloody civil war which started in 1980.
Berta Cáceres, pictured as a toddler in Honduras. Her nephew says she learned from a young age to care about less fortunate people.

Berta Cáceres, pictured as a toddler in Honduras. Her nephew says she learned from a young age to care about less fortunate people.

“She was raised by a powerful woman,” Karen Spring tells CNN. Spring befriended Cáceres in 2009 while working as the coordinator for the Honduras Solidarity Network, a Canadian-U.S. group which supports social causes in the country.

“She (Cáceres’ mother) taught her about indigenous communities, the difficulties of indigenous women, and the racism they lived with. Berta was raised in that environment,” explains Spring.

Before this time, there was generally little tension with the Lencas because their lands had not been targeted for development projects, explains Caceres’ nephew Silvio Carrillo.

Carrillo says Cáceres’ mother (his grandmother), looked out for the underprivileged Lencas of the region, who often lacked access to education, and were subject to what he calls “pervasive racism.” This had a huge influence on Cáceres’ views.

“Every day my grandmother tended to tens of dozens of indigenous people that would come down from the mountain to get healthcare,” says Carrillo, a California-based journalist who is working to forward the investigation into his aunt’s murder.

“She helped give birth to over 5,000 children. Berta saw this every day of her life.

“Imagine what that did to her?”

Back to the beginning

To truly understand Cáceres, one must examine Honduras’ recent history, struggles and its increasingly dangerous atmosphere.

She was superwoman. In a place that doesn’t have heroes, she’s a true hero to so many.

Silvio Carrillo, nephew of Berta Caceres

In 1993, Cáceres co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) with her ex-husband Salvador Zúniga, who she met in her teens.

The organization helped fight for the Lenca people’s rights as they witnessed the destruction of their homeland and rivers.
Because of her upbringing, Cáceres had realized that despite indigenous rights being recognized by law, many indigenous groups lacked clear titles to their land and suffered land grabs by powerful business interests, said Carrillo.

This conflict over land is the main driver of violence against Honduran activists, says watchdog Global Witness.

COPINH grew to defend about 240 Lenca communities, who live in western Honduras and El Salvador, and campaigned against the privatization of their land, says Spring.

As the organization grew, so did Cáceres’ profile in Honduras.

“(Cáceres) had such an amazing political clarity and understanding of global issues,” recalls Spring.

She was invited all over the world to speak because of her ability to “connect the local to the global.”

Cáceres spoke in Europe, Asia, Latin American and at the United Nations about her work and the plight of indigenous groups everywhere.

Charisma, according to Spring, was her biggest weapon.

“She had the ability to go and talk to poor families, but could also walk into the Honduran Congress and relate to them, and talk on their level. She was a force to be reckoned with,” says Spring.

“It was really hard for any corporation to push forward any project without having to deal with her.”
Carrillo agrees.

“She was a threat. They (those in power) had a problem on their hands. She was clearly on the right side of the people and the law and there’s no impunity in Honduras,” he says.”There was no other way to stop her … she was an obvious problem.”

Troubled country

In 2009, a coup by the Honduran military removed President José Manuel Zelaya from office.
Since then Honduras has sunk to new levels of corruption and danger say both Carrillo and Spring, and reports from human rights groups support their claims.

In its 2016 annual report, Amnesty International describes “a general climate of violence that has forced thousands of Hondurans to flee the country. Women, migrants, internally displaced people, human rights defenders — especially… environmental and land activists — (are being) targeted with violence.”

It also asserts that “a weak criminal justice system (has) contributed to a climate of impunity.”
Graphic created by Sofia Ordonez

It’s in this environment that more than 120 environmental activists have been killed in Honduras since 2010, making it the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists, according to Global Witness.
The Honduras Secretary for Human Rights declined to reply to the accusations in Amnesty International’s report, when approached by CNN.

Amnesty International says Honduras has to protect human rights activists.

“Honduras has turned into a ‘no-go zone’ for anyone daring to campaign for the protection of the environment. How many more activists have to be brutally murdered before the authorities take effective action to protect them, or even be willing to talk about this crisis?” says Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.

The Honduran government has repeatedly said it works hard so those responsible for the crimes are brought to justice, and to ensure that the most vulnerable groups are not bothered or attacked.

When CNN reached out to the Honduran government it provided a press release urging the Prosecutor’s Office to continue its investigation into Cáceres’ case, and expressing their satisfaction with the course of the investigation so far.

Brave work

As Honduras was spiraling into poverty, Cáceres’ fame grew — at a time when she became increasingly critical of the government in an increasingly dangerous environment.

In 2010, she began working on what was to become her best-known — and most dangerous — project.

The Agua Zarca dam was to be built on the Gualcarque River, the spiritual home of many Lenca and a vital source of water and food to the communities that live on its banks.

Over a period of five years, Cáceres was instrumental in a campaign that eventually stopped the dam from being built.
But regular threats, which began in 2013, started to grow.

“She had at least 30 threats to her life via text, voicemail or in person,” said Carrillo.
Three years later came that fateful shot in the night.

“Berta’s assassination wasn’t about one project, it was a calculated assassination of a woman that had gained so much prominence, reputation and power, not through money or academic credentials, but of her lifelong work to defend human rights in the region,” says Spring.

“After the coup, she led the social movement to stop and denounce it. Because of this, she lost her life. She was killed.”

Dangerous place to be an activist

Today, COPINH continues the fight against similar projects.

And Spring points out that when she visits the Lenca communities there is still a lot of hope and happiness.

“Berta said, ‘Well, we always have happiness to help us keep moving forward. They can’t take that away’. That became her slogan,” says Spring.

Cáceres’ nephew continues fighting to keep her case on the government’s radar, and he says that although they have made arrests linked to her death, they must do more to bring justice for her and her family.

This week, the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, said that the executive power is available to provide support to the prosecutor’s office and added that the government of Honduras will do everything they can to get justice.

To date, eight people have been detained by the authorities in connection to Cáceres’ death, including the man who managed the Agua Zarca dam project for Desarrollos Energeticos.

The authorities, however, have said they are yet to capture the “intellectual authors” of this murder. But the family says that is not enough.

“We have to denounce who designed the crime, who planned it, who paid for it, and also the people inside the company who promoted the harassment, prosecution, criminalization that lead to her being murdered,” Cáceres’ daughter, Berta Zuniga Cáceres, told CNN en Español.

The company denies involvement in the killing or any wrongdoing.

“The family has been asking for an international independent investigation to find the masterminds because there is little confidence in a place as corrupt as Honduras that they will be found and tried,” says Carillo.

In a statement to mark the anniversary of Cáceres’ killing, Susan Gelman, president of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, described her death as an immeasurable loss to “grassroots activists around the world who stand at the frontlines of climate change and destructive development projects.”

She added: “We carry on with heavy hearts, filled not with sadness but with determination and what Berta called the best form of resistance: joy.”

Carrillo notes that there is a Honduran saying that Cáceres’ family and friends keep repeating: “Berta no murió, se multiplico.”

In English the meaning is just as poignant.
“Berta didn’t die, she multiplied.”

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On Berta Caceres on the One Year Anniversary of Her Killing

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Mr. President, I want to call the Senate’s attention to the fact that it has now been one year since the assassination of Berta Caceres, a renowned indigenous Honduran environmental activist who devoted her life – and ultimately lost her life – defending the land, water, and other natural resources of the Lenca people.

After an initial attempt by the Honduran police – and even some high ranking officials – to falsely portray the murder as a crime of passion, which is a not uncommon ploy to cover up official complicity in such cases, eight men have been arrested including one active duty and two retired military officers.

Although Honduran officials have denied any government involvement in Ms. Caceres’ murder and downplayed the arrest of Major Mariano Díaz who was promptly discharged from the army, there are reasons to be skeptical.

Díaz, a decorated Special Forces veteran, was appointed chief of army intelligence in 2015, and at the time of the murder he was reportedly on track for promotion to lieutenant colonel. Another suspect, Lieutenant Douglas Giovanny Bustillo, reportedly joined the military on the same day as Díaz. They served together and apparently remained in contact after Bustillo retired in 2008.

It is particularly noteworthy and troubling that, according to press reports, both Díaz and Bustillo may have received military training from the United States.

A third suspect, Sergeant Henry Javier Hernández, was a former Special Forces sniper who had worked under the command of Díaz. He may also have worked as an informant for military intelligence after leaving the army in 2013.

According to press reports, First Sergeant Rodrigo Cruz, a former army officer who deserted after Caceres’ death and remains in hiding, said the Honduran military high command gave a hit list with the names and photographs of activists to eliminate to the commander of the Xatruch multi-agency taskforce, to which Cruz’ unit belonged, and that Caceres’ name was on the list. It sounds a lot like the death squads in El Salvador in the 1980s.

Five civilians with no known military record have also been arrested. They include Sergio Rodríguez, a manager for the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam that Berta Cáceres had long opposed.

That project is being led by Desarrollos Energéticos SA, (Desa), with international financing and the strong backing of the Honduran government. According to press reports, the company’s president, Roberto David Castillo Mejía, is a former military intelligence officer, and its secretary, Roberto Pacheco Reyes, is a former justice minister. Desa employed former Lieutenant Bustillo as head of security between 2013 and 2015.

Ms. Cáceres had reported multiple death threats linked to her campaign against the dam, including several from Desa employees. The Honduran government largely ignored her requests for protection, and Desa continues to deny any involvement in the murder.

Mr. President, it is inconceivable to anyone who knows Honduras that this outrageous crime was carried out by these individuals without orders from above. The question is whether the investigation will identify the intellectual authors, which almost never happens in Honduras. In fact, as Global Witness, the U.S. Department of State, and others have documented there have been scores of killings of environmental activists in Honduras that have never been credibly investigated and for which no one has been punished.

I have no doubt that one of the reasons this case has progressed at all is because U.S. law enforcement experts, supported by the U.S. Embassy, have assisted in the investigation, and because of the efforts of Honduran Attorney General Oscar Fernando Chincilla.

However, as I have said before, in Honduras where impunity is the norm, a case of such domestic and international importance should also be the subject of a parallel independent investigation. The obvious entities to convene such an inquiry are the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH). Yet the Honduran government continues to reject such an inquiry.

The United States and Honduras have a troubled history, yet we and the Honduran people share many interests. We want to continue to help Honduras address the deeply rooted poverty, inequality, violence and impunity that have caused so much suffering and hardship and contributed to the migration of tens of thousands of Hondurans, including children, to the United States.

But for this Senator that requires solving the Berta Caceres case and undertaking credible investigations and prosecutions of the shocking number of assassinations of other social activists, journalists, and human rights defenders in recent years. It means Honduran officials publicly affirming and defending the legitimate role of such activists, who in the past have been ignored, threatened, and treated as legitimate targets. Only then will it be clear that the Honduran government is committed to justice, and that our assistance will achieve lasting results.

The Department of State needs to thoroughly and transparently investigate whether Major Diaz and Lieutenant Bustillo were in fact trained by the United States. If so, the Congress and the Honduran people deserve to know how they were selected, what training they received, and any steps taken to improve the process of screening potential trainees and to monitor the conduct of those who have received U.S. training.

Finally, as I have said before, as long as the Agua Zarca project and others like it continue over the objections of indigenous people whose livelihoods and cultures are intrinsically linked to the rivers that are impacted, the confrontations and violence will continue. The Honduran government, like other governments in that region, needs to change its way of doing business in areas where the rights and interests of indigenous people have long been violated and ignored.

Given the shameful history of the Agua Zarca project it should be cancelled. Other hydroelectric and extractive projects in indigenous territories should be reconsidered by the Honduran government, and allowed to proceed only after a transparent process based on the free, prior, informed consent of affected communities.