An Investigation into the Murder of Berta Cáceres

The 2016 assassination of Honduran indigenous environmentalist Berta Cáceres shocked the world. In Honduras today, murder is politics-as-usual.

| Winter 2017

  • A march in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, on the anniversary of Berta Cáceres’ assassination.
    Photo by The Sierra
  • Berta Cáceres Zúñiga stands next to the Gualcarque River, which her mother died protecting.
    Photo by The Sierra
  • Berta Cáceres sister and mother.
    Photo by The Sierra
  • Cáceres' home outside La Esperanza. “How is it that you live here alone?” Gustavo Castro asked on the night of the murder.
    Photo by Sierra

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.

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’ 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’ screams. “That’s when I realized we were dead,” Castro said.

me2
1/6/2018 9:19:23 PM

So many have been murdered worldwide fighting to protect natural resources and inherent rights of ordinary people and lands. The truth behind each murder needs to be documented and I understand an organization is now doing just that - tracking each and every incidence so the abusers and murderers can be brought to justice.