Environmental leader Berta Cáceres was in her modest house in La Esperanza, Honduras, with fellow activist and Mexican national Gustavo Castro Soto on March 2, 2016. Cáceres had purchased the home with award money from the Goldman Environmental Prize, which she won in 2015 for rallying her indigenous Lenca community against a proposed dam. It was the first house she had ever owned, and it was meant to provide sanctuary from the intensity and danger of her work. Shortly before midnight, gunmen kicked in the door and fired six shots into her bedroom, hitting Cáceres three times. Castro, who was also shot, rushed to her side, and cradled her as she died.
During her funeral procession a few days later, a crowd of thousands wound down the street with a mix of grief and defiance, chanting what would become a rallying cry, “¡Berta vive, la luche sigue!” or “Long live Berta, the struggle continues.” Cáceres’s four children vowed to channel their anguish into pursuing justice for their mother’s killers and carrying on her work. Daughter Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres has stepped up to fill the void, taking over leadership of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), the organization her mother co-founded decades ago. It wasn’t long before she too was attacked, barely escaping the assailants.
Born to an activist mother, Cáceres’s expansive and radical worldview inspired grassroots mobilization, fostered intersectional solidarity, and resonated around the world. She denounced the forces that conspired to immiserate her people: Local elites and transnational business interests that ravage the land, the architecture of international rules and institutions that uphold those practices, and the security forces that inflict a lethal toll on transgressors. At the award ceremony for the Goldman Prize, Cáceres exhorted listeners to “shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism, and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction,” and called for the world to wake up to the environmental devastation that endangers the planet.
The assassination of Cáceres ignited a global groundswell of outrage. Now an independent investigation has confirmed that powerful interests are trying to suppress the truth of the sprawling murder plot. In the report, titled “Dam Violence: The Plan That Killed Berta Cáceres,” five international human-rights experts reveal evidence that state agents, high-ranking executives, and employees of the company whose dam she resisted had participated in planning, executing, and covering up her murder. The report slams the Honduran government’s poor job of investigating and prosecuting those involved.
Several of the experts were in Washington on November 2 to present their findings to the media and sound an alarm: If Honduran authorities don’t preserve evidence and pursue unexplored lines of inquiry soon, the case will be permanently stalled, enshrining impunity for the crime’s masterminds and emboldening the corrupted Honduran institutions that protect them. That outcome would further imperil other vulnerable human-rights defenders.