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4 Years Seeking Justice: Daughter of Slain Indigenous Environmental Leader Berta Cáceres Speaks Out

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In Honduras, a new report by the Violence Observatory at the Honduran National Autonomous University says that at least 15 women have been murdered in the first 14 days of this year. Violence against women, LGBTQ people, indigenous leaders and environmental activists has skyrocketed in Honduras under the U.S.-backed government of President Juan Orlando Hernández. The report comes nearly four years after the Honduran indigenous environmental activist Berta Cáceres was shot dead inside her home in La Esperanza, Honduras, by hired hitmen. Last month in the capital of Tegucigalpa, seven men were sentenced to up to 50 years in prison for her killing in March 2016. At the time of her assassination, Cáceres had been fighting the construction of a major hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River on sacred Lenca land in southwestern Honduras. In November 2018, a court ruled that Cáceres’s killing was ordered by executives of the Honduran company behind the Agua Zarca dam, known as DESA, who hired the convicted hitmen. Cáceres won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work protecting indigenous communities and for her environmental justice campaign against the massive dam in 2015. In December, we sat down with one of her daughters, Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, in Madrid, Spain, where she was receiving a human rights award. “This is a late conviction. It has been almost four years of seeking justice. It is the product of a rather difficult and painful process that has been putting us as victims in direct dispute with a murderous and aggressive state, and they produced the minimum consequences that the state could have given,” Zúñiga Cáceres says.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Honduras, where a new report by the Violence Observatory at the Honduran National Autonomous University says at least 15 women have been murdered in the first 14 days of this year. Violence against women, LGBTQ people, indigenous leaders, environmental activists has skyrocketed in Honduras under the U.S.-backed government of President Juan Orlando Hernández.

The report comes nearly four years since Honduran indigenous environmental activist Berta Cáceres was shot dead inside her home in La Esperanza, Honduras, by hired hitmen. Last month in the capital of Tegucigalpa, seven men were sentenced to up to 50 years in prison for her killing. At the time of her assassination, Cáceres had been fighting the construction of a major hydroelectric dam on sacred Lenca land in southwestern Honduras. Berta Cáceres was assassinated in March of 2016. In November of 2018, a court ruled her killing was ordered by executives of the Honduran company behind the Agua Zarca dam, known as DESA, who hired the convicted hitmen to carry out the killing. At least two of the men involved in the murder were trained by U.S. military forces. Berta Cáceres’s assassination came a year after she won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work protecting indigenous communities and for her environmental justice campaign against the massive dam. This is Berta Cáceres speaking in 2015.

BERTA CÁCERES: [translated] In our worldviews, we are beings who come from the earth, from the water and from corn. The Lenca people are ancestral guardians of the rivers, in turn protected by the spirits of young girls, who teach us that giving our lives in various ways for the protection of the rivers is giving our lives for the well-being of humanity and of this planet.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Berta Cáceres giving her acceptance speech at the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony.

Well, just a few weeks ago, I had a chance to sit down with one of Berta’s daughters, Laura Zúñiga Cáceres. I sat down with her in Madrid, Spain, where she was receiving a human rights award. I don’t usually get to see her. She lives in the same town where her mother was murdered, in La Esperanza. I began by asking Laura about whether she felt the recent sentencing of her mother’s assassins had served justice.

LAURA ZÚÑIGA CÁCERES: [translated] Well, first of all, this is a late conviction. It has been almost four years of seeking justice. It is the product of a rather difficult and painful process that has been putting us, as victims, in direct dispute with a murderous and aggressive state. And they produce the minimum consequences that the state could have given. We continue talking about my mom’s intellectual killers and that those who were captured and convicted were the weakest people within the criminal structure that attacked my mom.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us what happened and who you believe is responsible for her death, including the men who actually pulled the trigger, but right on up to who you believe ordered her murder?

LAURA ZÚÑIGA CÁCERES: [translated] My mom was a fighter defending the Lenca indigenous territory that is in southwestern Honduras. She was also defending the territory against the concession of our rivers. Specifically, there was a very important struggle in defense of the Gualcarque River, which is a sacred river for the Lenca people.

What this struggle involves is the plans to build a dam, the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, which is being built by a company called DESA, whose most important partner is the Atala Zablah family. And this company is the one that we have held responsible, and that there is even a tribunal that has said is responsible for the murder of my mother. So we understand that the partners of this company are those who participated in the murder of my mom. On top of that, after an investigation, we have collected evidence that connects this family with the murder of my mother. So, they are the ones that are still missing.

Today there are seven men who were convicted who are associated with the responsibility of the physical murder of my mother. Those are the people who were the gunmen, who participated by shooting my mother. Within those seven men who were convicted, there are two people closely linked to the DESA company. One of them is the company’s former security chief, and the other is the environmental manager. So we are worried, because there are military elements there, too. There is one more person who is being tried, who is the general manager of the company DESA, a person who is a military member who participated in the intelligence of the state and who applied that knowledge to persecute and assemble the murder of my mom and other defenders of the Gualcarque River.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the evidence you have that the family that owns the dam were directly involved? And was that evidence presented at trial?

LAURA ZÚÑIGA CÁCERES: [translated] Well, we have collected 33 previous threats that were made against my mother. Most of the threats were linked to DESA right before the murder of my mother. In addition to this, based on information that the Public Ministry provided to us, we managed to see chats and communication between members of the company with their employees, in which they talk about attacks against COPINH, as well as what my mother’s work and activism implied for them and the company. In addition to that, there is also a chat that directly links the general manager of DESA with the gunmen, in which my mother’s murder is coordinated. There are also chats showing how the general manager of DESA gives information to the Atala Zablah family members. I think that their involvement is very evident, and it illustrates a little how this network functions with military behaviors.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the U.S. connection here. Seven men were convicted and sentenced for your mother’s murder. Two of those men, one was a former Army lieutenant trained by the United States, the other a Special Forces major also trained by the United States. U.S.-trained military men, quote, “provided logistical support and a gun in the plot to kill Cáceres.” Can you talk about what you know about the U.S. connection?

LAURA ZÚÑIGA CÁCERES: [translated] I believe that what we have seen since the coup is how extractivism has massively entered into our country. And through that extractivism, we see how the military are able to gain control of these extractive companies. Since the coup, they became entrepreneurs. And we also witness how the government of the United States is complicit and allows the installation of this coup. Then we see how the United States government continues to support governments in Honduras which are highly repressive and violators of human rights. The United States supports these governments, particularly in the area of militarization.

And at the time of my mother’s murder, one of the things that caught our attention is that it was said that members of the FBI were investigating her killing, which the U.S. Embassy never clarified, even though it was not true, and the U.S. Embassy allowed the Honduran state to create that false narrative.

But the most obvious evidence about how soldiers are trained by the U.S. government to kill land and water defenders is the training that both Mariano Díaz Chávez and David Castillo received from the United States and that aided them in carrying out the murder of my mother. The United States government has also never cut funding for the government of Juan Orlando Hernández, which is a dictatorship that continues to kill and that continues to generate impunity on my mom’s case and other cases.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about the independent investigation that was done? Who was involved with it? And what do you think further needs to happen at this point?

LAURA ZÚÑIGA CÁCERES: [translated] Since the beginning, on the first day after my mom was murdered, we demanded for an international commission to investigate her killing, because we already knew the state had been complicit of this murder. An investigation team was offered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, but the state did not allow it.

Then we called on international jurists with experience in cases of genocide, disappearances and other state crimes, that could participate and do an independent investigation. People from Guatemala, Colombia, the United States and the Netherlands were involved in this commission. With the information provided by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the findings were systematized, and this report came out more than a year and a half ago. That was also when it became known that the Public Ministry of Honduras, the top prosecutors, already had evidence to prosecute more people involved in my mother’s murder but had not done so.

What is left for us to really have justice? I think there are at least two things. The first is the capture and prosecution and condemnation of the intellectual authors of my mother’s murder. And the second, which is very important, is the cancellation of the Gualcarque River concession, because to this day, even after the murder of my mother and after the murder of more than six people, the company DESA owns the river, meaning it has the power to do whatever it wants with that river. And it is outrageous. There is a blatant impunity in this case, and therefore ongoing persecution against a lot of land and water defenders in Honduras. But to start with the process of justice, I think it’s those two crucial points.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you put your mother’s murder into a larger context, what she was trying to accomplish in Honduras and what your family, what you as a member of COPINH, the environmental group in La Esperanza — you live where she lived — what you’re trying to do right now? What should people understand about the struggle?

LAURA ZÚÑIGA CÁCERES: [translated] Well, I believe that one of the things to understand about Honduras is that we are existing within a coup and a highly repressive and militarized dictatorship. In this context, COPINH has been fighting since 1992. My mom was the coordinator of this organization. And what they continue to seek is to protect the natural resources that the Lenca indigenous people have protected for more than 500 years. Their fight is also protecting the lives of the people who are there, on their land.

We, as COPINH, work with women, with children, with culture, from a plural vision that proposes other forms of life that have nothing to do with the destruction of this planet. I believe that strengthening the good things of the Lenca people, and being able to articulate with other communities the struggles for justice, is a little bit of the work my mother was doing and what many people have been doing here. COPINH is in the southwestern part of Honduras, and there are many other communities that are participating in this struggle, fighting to build a new vision for the world.

My mom’s proposal had to do with the refoundation of Honduras. It had to do with freedom of thought, with the right to be happy. For that, my mom was murdered. This murder also tried to end the organization, COPINH. We are made up of many, many people who continue to fight, putting our bodies in the frontlines. And what the murder of my mom marked was the need to really build a new society.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re here in Madrid. The president of Honduras is here in Madrid, Juan Orlando Hernández. He just tweeted, when he arrived, “We’re not going to Madrid to ask for anything. We are demanding what is just. Honduras is one of the three most affected countries in the world by climate change. Green funds are urgent to confront the emergency that is destroying our sources of water, forests, agriculture and existence.” What do you have to say to the president of Honduras?

LAURA ZÚÑIGA CÁCERES: [translated] I think it is very cynical of him to say that, especially when he has been complicit in the destruction of our country and subjecting our people to great violence. It is true that the Honduran people are experiencing great consequences for the destruction of the planet, but Juan Orlando Hernández has used state funds to invest in the militarization of our country, to invest in repression, in persecuting defenders of the Earth. And that is why we are seeing these murders, we are seeing people imprisoned. We are living in a situation in which life in Honduras is compromised. And for Juan Orlando Hernández to appropriate the rhetoric and discourse of those of us who are putting our bodies at risk, it generates a lot of indignation, especially since he has been one of the people who has ensured impunity in the murder of my mom.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the price that women pay, in particular, in the fight for climate justice?

LAURA ZÚÑIGA CÁCERES: [translated] Just like the land and our territory is violated and destroyed, so are our bodies. And that is something that is a constant in countries like Honduras. We know that we are at risk. We know that they kill us, that they rape us, that they attack our families.

I think it also has a lot to do with uprooting, with history, because it is women who safeguard history and the way of managing natural resources. And when we are displaced or violated against, that social fabric is also broken and lost. When these threats and murders happen, it is also the destruction of present and future life. I think it also changes the direction of how we are imagining our future, because we have to face and resist a very, very aggressive model destroying us.

But I also believe that it is women who are carrying out resistance, leadership. My mom’s leadership is just one story, but when we go to other communities, we find great women leaders. And that also has to do with generating alliances that allow us to strengthen ourselves.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how the climate crisis affects Honduras. The way people understand Honduras in the United States who aren’t Honduran is that it’s part of the Northern Triangle and that many of the refugees, the migrants that are coming, trying to come into the United States, are from your country. How does the climate affect their actions?

LAURA ZÚÑIGA CÁCERES: [translated] I believe that this is a crisis also caused by a model of dispossession and aggression towards the planet and towards our countries, which are destined to be areas that only extract our goods. Then we see that this system of dispossession, which is an extractive system, creates the dispossession of the land, which is the place where many people manage to survive, manage to weave their life, their culture. And this is one of the first steps toward fleeing, towards migration.

But we also see, for example, how the destruction of our territories, of our rivers, is also causing the lands to dry, that the rain patterns are changing. So this causes the crops to dry out. We also saw, the year before, in our Lenca community, how corn could not be harvested because it did not rain. So there were no opportunities. In the southern part of Honduras, we are also seeing droughts. In the capital, there was a water crisis. There was no water, and that generates instability. It is generating the need to flee.

But I believe that the central thing is this model of dispossession that takes away our territories, our natural resources, our goods, destroys them and pushes us out of the places where we grew up and that had fostered our survival.

AMY GOODMAN: Your mother was an incredibly brave woman. You are following in her footsteps. What gives you the courage, and what gives you hope?

LAURA ZÚÑIGA CÁCERES: [translated] I think the will to fight first comes from the indignation over the assassination of my mother, and thinking, “What would my mother do?” Because I believe that one of the things that I seek, and a lot of other people seek, is the power to honor her through our lives and through what gives me hope.

I believe that it is the Lenca people, which is a rebel community. It is a community that is joyful, even in times when it seems that there is no hope. There is laughter. There is a lot of creativity to face the violent situations we live through. I think that encourages me a lot. In spite of everything, I stay in Honduras because it is the place that gives me energy to continue.

AMY GOODMAN: Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, one of the daughters of the slain Honduran indigenous environmental leader Berta Cáceres. Laura was speaking to us in Madrid, Spain, outside the U.N. climate summit.

When we come back, the translation crisis at the border. Stay with us.

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