Indigenous Activist Berta Cáceres Slain Amid Honduras' Rising Political Violence

Posted March 9, 2016

MP3 Interview with Dana Frank, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, conducted by Scott Harris


The Central American nation of Honduras is well known for having one of the highest murder rates in the world that includes violence attributed to narco-trafficking, gang conflicts and street crime. But Honduras is also the most dangerous country for environmentalists, where 116 eco-activists were killed in 2014, many of them defending indigenous communities and lands. The March 3 murder of Berta Cáceres, winner of the 2015 Goldman environmental prize, is the latest tragic news from Honduras. Cáceres, who was shot by two unknown assailants who broke into her home, led the Council of Popular and Indigenous People's Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH, that actively opposed the construction of a proposed dam on the Gualcarque river, an area considered sacred by the Lenca people. She had previously reported receiving numerous death threats from police, soldiers and local landowners because of her work.

The escalating violence in the country is linked by many observers to the 2009 coup that ousted the democratically-elected president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya. The government which came to power after Zelaya’s overthrow – with U.S. support, has since pushed to build a controversial network of dams and mining projects on indigenous land.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Dana Frank, professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who talks about the environmental conflicts in Honduras that likely led to the assassination of Berta Cáceres and the U.S. role in the 2009 Honduras coup which likely occurred when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.

DANA FRANK: This is the single most important political assassination since the coup, and the fact that they've killed Berta Cáceres is a sign that that now anyone could be killed. They have not gone for the top leadership of the social movements up till now. Berta was this amazing activist, one of the most alive and loving and fun people I've ever met in my life. And there's been this long, long struggle to try to stop this dam, which is going forward even though the rights of indigenous people to be consulted have been violated. There's been tremendous protests against the dam, peaceful protest and tremendous repression of the Lenca people and other activists who are trying to stop it, and Berta has been in the forefront of that. She was threatened for many years; there's been security forces that have threatened and repressed the Lenca people, another Lenca activist, Tomas Garcia, was shot dead by the military in the summer of 2013 and his son, also shot. And Berta had been receiving death threats and threats for years but especially in the last two weeks. On Feb. 20, there was a peaceful march to the site of the dam, and there was repression including by U.S.-funded special forces Tigres, very close to the U.S. embassy, and people were forced to walk back in the dark seven hours to get to their bus. Very, very dangerous situation.

But the Honduran government itself attacks Berta verbally and her activism for many years. So we all knew was going to happen. She knew it was going to happen, and this is a message to the social movements of the indigenous people and environmental movement, of the opposition. Berta is what I think of as one of the seven or eight "goddesses" of the Honduran resistance, who were so important to the resistance to the 2009 military coup that deposed democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Dana Frank, do we know who is responsible for Berta's murder?

DANA FRANK: Well, there's "who actually shot the gun" vs. "who's responsible for it" at the broad level. We don't know who the two gunmen were. There is an eyewitness who was also shot and wounded, Gustavo Castro Soto, who is being held against his will by the Honduran government. He was also shot. He was held and is still being detained within the country and he was held without food and water even though he was covered by his bloody clothes and had been wounded.

And he has already testified to outsiders through a letter that he saw evidence being destroyed. So, first of all, you have to understand that to even find out what happened, there's already a cover-up and destruction of evidence going on. So we don't know who actually fired the shots, we do know that the Honduran government wasn't providing adequate protection as mandated by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. We know that this is a government that ignored threats. We know that the U.S. embassy didn't stop or do things that they should have to stop the threats. We know that this is a government that has repeatedly attacked her and COPINH, that this is a government that's now trying to criminalize the members of COPINH, her organization, and act like they committed the crime. They have a cover-up all ready and are even saying things like it was a crime of passion, which is of course preposterous in this context.

So who's responsible? How about the top of the Honduran government which has been attacking these folks, been attacking them with state security forces; and the U.S. government for funding those security forces over and over again and increasing it in recent years, despite all this documented evidence. So who's responsible? It goes way back and it goes way high.

BETWEEN THE LINES: As many of our listeners are aware, there was a military coup in Honduras in 2009 in the first year of the Obama administration. Hillary Clinton was secretary of state of the time. And Dana, I would ask you to tell our listeners what's important for Americans to know about the role of the United States in our policies towards Honduras during the time of the coup and after the coup?

DANA FRANK: Well, first of all, I think people need to know that the U.S. – while we don't have the smoking gun showing that they prompted the coup –  immediately treated the post-coup, de facto dictator President Roberto Micheletti as a legitimate president. They equated him with the deposed president and established negotiations where they treated them as equals. They never denounced the spectacular post-coup repression of the huge opposition that rose up. Now Hillary Clinton was the secretary of state during that period and you can read her emails, you can see her statements on the public record of how she treated Zelaya like a bad child for trying to return his own country, of which he was the democratically-elected president.

And so, I think people need to know this about Hillary Clinton, and they also need to understand that it was Obama who allowed her to do that. And it's Obama who's in charge right now, whose budget request for 2016, which much of it was passed was hundreds of millions of dollars for the Honduran government, including its "state security forces" and is now just out putting his budget request for 2017 increasing that even more, despite the spectacular corruption of the police and military. And you know, we're not hearing demands to suspend aid, although there have been letters from up to 90 members of Congress in the last few years saying that all police and military aid should be suspended, which is what we should be asking for right now.

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