On March 2, in the dark of the night, armed assailants broke into the Honduran home of Berta Cáceres and shot her four times, killing her. The assailants also wounded a Mexican colleague, Gustavo Castro, who survived only by playing dead.
Cáceres was in Washington just last year to receive the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, the environmental equivalent of the Nobel Prizes. She was a leader of the indigenous Lenca people in Honduras and had incited the wrath of the Honduran government, which seized power in a 2009 coup, with her leadership against a massive dam project that would have destroyed communities and the environment in areas near the Gualcarque River.
Castro is the coordinator of Friends of the Earth-Mexico and coordinator of a Central America-wide network against environmentally destructive dams. Despite being wounded and traumatized, he is not being allowed to leave Honduras.
So who killed Berta Cáceres?
At the eulogy for a slain civil rights worker in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked rhetorically “Who killed James Reeb?” In his remarks, Dr. King concluded that “we must be concerned not merely about who murdered him, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murder.”
We may never know the names of the people who pulled the trigger, killing Cáceres. As in the case of Reeb, a culture of impunity is to blame. For far too long, governmental institutions have failed to protect the rule of law, to defend the defenders of human rights, to investigate corruption and the abuse of power, and to prosecute those who plunder the country’s wealth. Also culpable is the long tragic history of misguided U.S. policy that has pursued expediency above principle, and, when convenient, was seemingly always prepared to sacrifice democratic ideals for short-term accommodation. The result has been a confusing blend of mixed signals that have conveyed a message that the United States is an unreliable defender of democracy and human rights.
Clearly, much of the blame rests on the unwillingness or incapacity of Honduras’ political elites to reform their institutions of justice and governance, relying instead on force to keep a restive population at bay. The current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, militarized the police and pushed through a measure to deploy security forces to “keep order” on the streets. There has been little accountability for the jaw-dropping theft of over $300 million that was pilfered from National Social Medical Assistance Fund, some of which wound up in the coffers of the governing National Party. The current government also instituted a measure that would enable the president to pursue an unprecedented second term and, in collusion with the two major political parties, pack the Supreme Court with cronies who politicize the judicial system. In addition, the government, despite multiple threats against Cáceres, ignored a protective order from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Responding to pressure, the Honduran government had made some progress in addressing the challenge of drug traffickers and gang violence. But these encouraging developments have been completely overshadowed by the murder of Cáceres.
Intrinsic to the system that killed Cáceres is also the high-handed treatment of Honduras by the United States. A defining moment took place in June 2009 when Manuel Zelaya, the democratically elected president of Honduras, was seized at the crack of dawn and taken in his pajamas and placed on a flight to Costa Rica, where he was unceremoniously dumped. Zelaya had offended sensibilities within the U.S. government and Honduran elite by espousing a reformist and populist agenda. Initial U.S. government opposition to the coup was replaced by ambivalence and soon thereafter by acceptance. The de facto regime of Roberto Micheletti, placed in power by the coup conspirators, organized presidential elections six months later. Decried as illegitimate by many both within Honduras as well as globally, the Micheletti government was ultimately validated by the Obama administration, hence endorsing a flawed electoral process. This was an unmistakable signal to the power elites in Honduras that democratic principles are malleable. A wave of protests followed that were ruthlessly suppressed and Honduras slid into shocking levels of violence and chaos.
Given this history, it should come as no surprise that Global Witness concluded in a 2015 report that Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists. The death toll thus far is over 100, with Cáceres only the latest victim.
What should the United States government do?
Human rights, indigenous and environmental organizations in Honduras and around the world are holding vigils and marches while calling for justice. They are deeply concerned for Castro’s safety and want him to be free to return to Mexico. They are demanding that the investigation involve a team of trusted, independent, international experts selected in coordination with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They are properly insisting that the Honduran government stop the harassment and legal persecution of Cáceres’s organization, the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (COPINH), and that their autonomy and right to free prior and informed consent be respected.
The Obama administration, which shamefully capitulated to the Honduran coup, now has an opportunity to stand decisively against chronic impunity in Honduras. Members of Congress and Secretary of State John Kerry (to whom over 200 organizations have written) have a moral and political obligation to speak forcefully and insist on an unflinching inquiry into the murder of Cáceres and the safe and prompt return of Castro to his home country. All U.S. assistance to the military and security forces — except for investigative and forensic support — should be halted until the perpetrators are found and prosecuted, and until the shameful legacy of impunity can be effectively addressed.
Until there is justice for Berta Cáceres, there can be no justice for the long-suffering people of Honduras. Washington is poised to play a key role in making that happen.