Death of an activist: Berta Caceres' killing keeps Honduras in the shadows

Protesters hold pictures of Caceres at an International Women's Day demo in Tegucigalpa on March 8.

Story highlights

  • Indigenous environmental activist Berta Caceres was shot dead inside her home
  • She opposed a 2009 coup in Honduras orchestrated by the business elite
  • Investment projects such as the Agua Zarca dam, which she fought, had little oversight

The nephew of Honduran environmental activist Berta Caceres, Silvio Carrillo is a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker. His parents left Honduras after taking part in protests against the military there. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)The last time I spoke to my aunt Berta Caceres I was on my phone in a dingy conference room in the newsroom of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. She was in Washington D.C. attending the Goldman Environmental Prize event.

She was as sweet, wry and tenacious as ever. It was good to hear her voice.
    In the early hours of March 3, Berta was assassinated by unknown assailants who entered her house in La Esperanza, Honduras. The assassin(s) and the intellectual authors of this murder are still at large. And, in a country like Honduras, with rampant corruption and a government that notoriously operates with impunity, there is little hope of solving this case.
    As a child, I would visit La Esperanza, staying for a week, a month at a time. Each morning, I would awaken to the sound of my grandmother -- "Bertita's" mother -- tending to patients. She was a midwife and the only source of medical attention for many of the indigenous Lenca people who lived in the area. However, sometimes the arduous trip from a village deep in the mountains was in vain. Days of suffering with diarrhea would take a child's life and Bertita and I would light candles in the room where the small, malnourished body lay as his mother, wrapped in dirty, colorful Lenca clothing, stood speechless, exhausted, staring at the body.
    Bertita saw this kind of thing each day of her life. This made her who she was.
    After the 2009 coup -- orchestrated by the business elite, sanctioned by the Supreme Court and carried out by the military -- removed democratically-elected Manuel Zelaya from office, she rose to prominence as a leader against it.
    I was sent there as a journalist to cover the coup and produced a profile on her.
    "I am here because I firmly believe that, we as Hondurans, have the right the right to have a country with equality with transparency, with liberty, and we have to build it today or never," she said as we sat in a safe-house in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa.
    The threats grew worse, and the politics go murkier.
    Thousands attended her funeral in La Esperanza on March 5.

    Threat to stability

    Zelaya was seen as a threat to stability and maintaining access to military assets in Honduras. Hillary Clinton says as much in her book, "Hard Choices."
    The business-friendly governments that ensued proclaimed "Honduras is Open for Business." This was good progress for the U.S. State Department and many on Capitol Hill who have since fully supported these governments.
    Subsequently, opening up Honduras meant the creation of investment projects for foreign investment with little oversight, such as a relatively small project known as the Agua Zarca Dam. Though a relatively small project, the dam would have a major impact on the lives and livelihoods of the indigenous Rio Blanco community, which was never properly consulted as required under international law.
    The fight against this dam -- one of more than 40 such projects proposed or in different stages of planning and construction -- is what got her to this point. It's why many feel she was assassinated.
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    But I believe she was destined for bigger things, and the intellectual authors of her assassination knew that.
    Aside from being a strong leader, Bertita, was approachable, genuine, and trustworthy -- unlike any leader Honduras (or for that matter, any country in Central America) has ever had. She traveled the globe for conferences on human rights and the environment, spoke with world leaders, and met the Pope.
    Despite all of her notoriety, Bertita never changed, she was still sweet, wry and tenacious as ever.

    Loss to the world

    Her assassination is an enormous loss, not just to her children and my family but also to the world. The Honduran government has an opportunity to improve their image by demonstrating their earnestness and agree to an independent international investigation supported by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
    Secondly, they should immediately allow independent forensics experts chosen by Bertita's family to monitor the ongoing investigation.
    Next, they should ensure the genuine protection for my family members, members of COPINH (Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) and for the one material witness, Gustavo Soto, who was there in the house when she was killed.
    If the Honduran government does not do this, and actually conducts a through investigation, no one will ever believe it. And why would we? They were the ones who were supposed to protect her in the first place as ordered to by the Inter-American Commission.
    So, to the Honduran government, the business and media elite, the Atala family who fund the Agua Zarca Dam project, the military, even the Archbishop of Honduras (who oddly has not made a statement about Bertita's killing), this assassination does not solve your problem. It only creates a multitude more -- the voice of a thousand Bertita's shouting for the right to be heard and take Honduras back from you.