Oakland, Calif. — It was always a relief to see my aunt Berta, whom we affectionately called Bertita. Not just because of the constant threats to her life, but because she was a “rayo de luna” — a ray of moonlight — in any situation.
On March 3, shortly after midnight, unidentified gunmen stormed into the house where she was staying in La Esperanza, Honduras, and killed her. Berta Cáceres was a human rights and environmental activist who was playing a leading role in opposing a dam project that would force an indigenous community to abandon its ancestral homes and their livelihoods.
She was just one more victim in the continuing war against activists in Honduras.
The London-based human rights organization Global Witness has reported that at least 109 environmental activists were killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2015. Scores of journalists, human rights defenders, union leaders, L.G.B.T. rights activists, legal professionals and political activists have also been murdered over the last few years. A vast majority of these killings remain unsolved.
For a decade, Bertita and the organization she co-founded, the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, had been fighting against construction of the Agua Zarca Dam across the Gualcarque River. It sits on land considered sacred by the Lenca, an indigenous people, to which Bertita belonged through her father. The Lenca said the project, for which the Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. received a concession and which has been financed by the Dutch development bank FMO, has proceeded even though the Lenca were not consulted, as required by international law.
Rather than provide protection to council members, the Honduran security forces and judicial authorities have been part and parcel of the campaign of attacks and intimidation against the organization. Since 2013, according to Global Witness, three other members of the group have been killed, including one shot by a soldier as he peacefully protested the project. Bertita received frequent death threats, was detained by the police and faced trumped-up charges in court.
The attacks and threats only strengthened her resolve.
But Bertita was also a daughter, sister, aunt, mother and grandmother — she leaves behind four adult children and a grandson. As her children grew, she found it necessary to send three of them abroad for their secondary and college educations, so they could feel safe from the threats she faced.
During my frequent visits as a child to Honduras and our large extended family, Bertita and I — she was only two years my elder — would chase each other and our cousins around the garden playing hide-and-seek, or play soccer in the dirt patches, always being careful not to crush my grandmother’s red roses.
In July 2009, I went to Honduras as a producer for an international news network. It was the day after a coup by the Honduran military, business elites and right-wing political opposition removed the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya, from office. Army troops whisked him away to Costa Rica in his pajamas.
Bertita had been working with indigenous groups on education and rights issues with Mr. Zelaya’s support. She was already well known throughout the countryside and by international rights organizations in the region. Her opposition to the coup catapulted her into global recognition.
On our first night in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, I decided to profile her, but she warned me: “We need to go to a safe house. Come with us and we’ll talk there.” We set out in a taxi. One of her cellphones rang. After a quick conversation with another organizer, she said, “We need to switch taxis and someone will pick us up.”
This had become her life in Honduras; there were no roses to worry about now.
At our destination, we ducked between houses and walked down a corridor to the back of one. We were welcomed by “compañeros en la lucha” — companions in the struggle. They cooked us a meal while we sat down and began filming.
Over the next few days I saw Bertita at rallies and leading protest marches. She spoke with vigor, clarity and force. She didn’t mince words. It was a side of her I had not seen.
“La lucha” was in Bertita’s blood. There was no other calling for her. We would never have tried to stop her because we all believed in what she was doing. Still, we knew that someday it would come at a cost.
Her work brought her the Goldman Environmental Prize, many other awards, and international recognition, all of which should have shielded her from harm. Perhaps they did for a while. But they also made her an even greater threat to the business and media elite, the military and the corrupt politicians of one of the world’s most dangerous places in which to be an activist.
And so, she was silenced.
Now the Honduran police and government have begun a campaign of information obfuscation. They first claimed the attack on her was a botched robbery, then a “crime of passion.” Then, a lawyer for our family in Honduras told me, they detained a friend of Berta’s who saw the murder as a material witness, and have asked to question leaders of the council, while making an outrageous claim that there might have been a power struggle in the group. The most obvious suspects — the public and private agents who attacked and harassed Berta and the council for years — don’t seem to be on the investigators’ radar.
But this could, at long last, become a turning point for one of Latin America’s poorest and most violent nations. Berta Cáceres touched countless lives, and the outrage in Honduras and around the world is palpable.
Much more international pressure can and should be leveled at the Honduran government — for an independent international investigation to uncover not just the triggermen, but also the highest-ranking authors of this attack and so many other killings of activists.
Silvio Carrillo is a freelance film and news producer based in California whose work has included coverage abroad for CNN, Al Jazeera English and The South China Morning Post.