The human rights defender and environmental activist went up against many powerful interests in Honduras, from the big energy companies to the military. For her years of work with the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), Berta, an indigenous Lenca woman, had been awarded the international Goldman Environmental Prize just last year.
Most recently, she had led the fight to stop major dam projects on the Río Gualcarque, a river that is a source of water, food, medicine, and spiritual identity for the Lenca people. But in the country, which has one of the highest murder rates per capita in the world, such work made her a target for violence. She was careful to warn her children about that, too, repeating that message to them right up until the day before she was murdered in her home.
"The last thing my mom said to me was: 'Look, mamita, if something were to happen to me, don't be afraid. You know that in this country, they can do anything to you. But you shouldn't be afraid,'" Laura Zuñiga Cáceres, the activist's youngest daughter, recently told Refinery29. "Those words were her last words to me. Now they're like my banner to continue the fight for justice that she deserves."
On March 3, after she organized a major conference of indigenous and environmental activists, gunmen stormed into Berta Cáceres' home in La Esperanza, Honduras. She was hit by at least four bullets, The Guardian reported. And although five people were arrested in her murder, Cáceres' family and colleagues are still fighting to hold accountable the powerful people they believe ordered her to be killed.
Which is why, Cáceres said, she needed to fight for justice for her mother far beyond the borders of Honduras. She joined other activists on the It Takes Roots People's Caravan last month, speaking outside of the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention. Cáceres shared her story with Refinery29 in Philadelphia.
This is a violent country; it has been shaken by violence, and it has the highest levels of femicides, the highest levels of poverty... The only strong institutions in Honduras are the structures of repression.
"It’s really hard. I believe that for everyone, but especially for me — who had a mom who was so strong, so enormous for me, such a big person in my life — we think that people are forever, that they’re never going to die. We think that moms are never going to pass away. Even if you think about death or the idea of death, you don’t really believe it is true.
"Even though we grew up knowing that my mom was threatened because of her work, even though we knew that after the coup the threats increased, and even though we live the country for that reason — we still didn’t believe it would be possible. So, first of all, it’s really hard surviving this.
"On the other hand, having such a strong mother who symbolizes every fighter in Honduras, every fighter in the world that has been murdered, every woman who has been killed, makes us feel that we have a commitment to fighting for justice. So from our place as the daughters of Berta Cáceres, we support the movements in Honduras and also the movements that are in a similar situation to my mom’s group, COPINH, or groups in other fights. It’s a mix of pain and energy."
"My mom was fighting against different mega-projects and against the massive concession of rivers in the Lenca indigenous territory.
"She was fighting and started to be threatened at her workplace, which didn’t stop her. Besides that, the company also started threatening the community, poisoning the crops, and there were hit men working for the company terrorizing people. Meanwhile, my mom kept fighting against this. She was threatened and eventually jailed. My mom kept working even in jail...because she had been doing it for years, my mom's work had some international resonance. So they weren't able to keep her in jail because international organizations had issued cautionary measures that forced the government to protect her.
"After that fight, even though she had international support, my mom was murdered on March 3 when hit men came into her home in La Esperanza. My mom’s fight was not only against these mega-projects, but she was also looking to create alternatives. The morning of March 3, before she was killed in the evening, a forum on alternative energies she had been planning finally came together. [She wanted people] to start thinking about energy and its development from the indigenous communities. So many people had come together for that. And I believe that’s pretty symbolic. The day that various communities came together to think [about this issue] was the day she was murdered."
The last thing my mom said to me was: 'Look, mamita, if something were to happen to me, don't be afraid. You know that in this country, they can do anything to you. But you shouldn't be afraid.'
"No, there’s no justice for many reasons. First, we think about justice in a complete way. Justice means judging and putting in prison those people who planned and executed the murder.
"Today, five men have been captured for their involvement in the murder. This happened due to national and international pressure, because at first they tried to blame my mom’s organization for her murder. But after international pressure, we were able to push so that they would investigate beyond my mom’s organization... So these five people are in jail, but we still have to go to trial. The main defendant trained the military police in Honduras. There’s also an ex-military man and two other people related to the army. We’re worried that they’re related to the military itself.
What is the current situation in Honduras when it comes to human rights?
"We’re sort of living in a state of emergency when it comes to human rights. We have on the one hand an institution — the government of Honduras — that is constantly violating these rights, [our] basic rights. And on the other hand, we have a lot of companies that do the same to a sector of the population that’s suffering through a really hard socioeconomic crisis.
"This is a violent country. It has been shaken by violence, and it has the highest levels of femicides, the highest levels of poverty, and really strong military structures. The only strong institutions in Honduras are the structures of repression."
You’re here in Philadelphia at the same time as Hillary Clinton, who was the U.S. Secretary of State when the coup d’état happened [in 2009]. What’s your message for her about your mom’s death and the fight for human rights in Honduras?
"I think the support of the United States, of the Secretary of State, during the 2009 coup d’état in Honduras was very important. We’re talking about one of the most powerful countries of the world supporting these type of things. [That support] was important for the coup to be carried out. So I believe there’s some serious responsibility, because thanks to that coup, we’re living in a violent situation in Honduras, a situation where the military apparatus prepares hit men and killers to murder people. Not only those in social movements but others, too.
"It also has to do with the current situation of violence. I believe that it’s necessary — after so much violence, so many deaths — to at least cut off U.S. financing of the military, cut down on that help that has led to so much violence since 2009.
"Now we have an opportunity to cut those funds [the military gets] through the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, which is currently before Congress. As long as my mother’s murder is not investigated, and the murders of over 100 people in the north of Honduras related to the military [are not investigated], the U.S. will cut the funding. That’s normal and logical, and the American people must know this — that their money is going directly to Honduras, helping the militarization and the violation of human rights. "
We think that moms are never going to pass away. Even if you think about death or the idea of death, you don’t really believe it is true.
"Yes, not only for her but for anyone who governs in the United States. There has to be accountability, serious accountability for how the United States’ policies affect countries such as Honduras. Even thinking that this violence, this militarization, this repression only leads to a future where everything is violence, where there’s no other answer, which leads to forced migration. Many people don’t want to leave their country, but they’re forced to, like I did. [Ed. note: Laura now lives in Argentina.] That’s also why I came to both conventions. To hold accountable whoever becomes the next president."
What do you want other young women to know about the young women fighting for human rights in Honduras?
"I think it’s necessary to know that any woman in Honduras, especially who is a woman and an activist, is at risk. We’re not only trying to protect ourselves or our communities, we’re trying to protect life in general through our defense of the environment, of the earth, of our bodies.
"We think that it’s necessary to create examples of solidarity and hope as well. Despite death, despite pain, despite violence, we don’t stop dreaming of a better world. And that’s one of the biggest legacies my mom left us: In everything, be joyful. Feel joy in living and taking charge of our lives. And that’s why we’re going through the world and betting on freedom."
We’re not only trying to protect ourselves or our communities, we’re trying to protect life in general through our defense of the environment, of the earth, of our bodies.
"I always tell others that my mom always encouraged people to do things, even if they were scared. I remember once she asked me to help her with a report. And I told her, 'Mom, but I can’t do a report. I don’t know how to do it and I’m studying to be a midwife and I don’t know if I can write it properly.' She just looked at me and told me, 'There’s people who can barely read or write or barely went to school and can write a report. You are in college, and you can do it.' She made me write it. And that challenge — that’s who she was, saying: Just do it.
"My mom was like that with everyone. She looked at your potential and said: Bam!, knowing that you could do it....so you were always on your feet, trying to do things well."
What is your advice for other young women?
"I think it's something that my mom told me: We can’t be apathetic to society, to reality. That will make us into stronger women. We need hope, dreams, and the desire to change the world, to give birth to a new world."
Editor's note: This interview has been translated from Spanish and edited for length and clarity. Refinery29 wishes to thank Andrea González-Ramírez for her help in translating this interview.