Continuing the battle: Berta Cáceres’ daughter to return to Honduras
Berta Zúniga, Berta Caceres' daughter, speaks during a vigil in honor of her mother on April 5, 2016 outside of the World Bank and the Organization of American States (OAS). | Daniel Cima / IACHR

WASHINGTON — Continuing the battle against the Honduran elite, including the family-held corporation which is building the Agua Zarca dam her murdered mother opposed, Berta Isabel Cáceres’ daughter, Berta Zúniga Cáceres, plans to return to Honduras.

“I’m a little bit afraid. But what can we do?” she asked, speaking through a translator in a brief exclusive interview after the November 2 release of the preliminary report on her mother’s murder over a year and a half ago.

“We have to fight,” Berta Zúniga Cáceres added, “else others will slay people with impunity.”

“And we try to be the most responsible we can be” to the indigenous people of Honduras, whom her mother, an internationally known human rights activist, championed.

Accompanied by three of the five members of the independent investigatory panel on her mother’s murder, Berta Zúniga Cáceres traveled to Washington to present report on the killing to congressional staffers interested and involved in human rights issues and discuss its findings.

The report concludes the murder was not an isolated incident and said the murder plot actually was hatched in late 2015. A murder attempt, a month before the killing, was stopped by lack of resources.

In addition, the privately-held Honduran corporation, DESA, the dam’s sponsor, “implemented different strategies” to push the project through over opposition from the indigenous Lenca people whose land and villages would be inundated. That’s despite prior Honduran government promises of consultations.

DESA’s strategies, carried out with the help of the private security firm it hired to “protect” the dam, included “smear campaigns, infiltrations, surveillance, sabotage of communications,” convincing the Honduran police to turn over security in the area to the private firm and, eventually, the murder.

What the report lacks, due to problems with the evidence the panel and Berta Isabel Cáceres’ family received from the government, is identification of “the intellectual authors” of the murder.

Berta Zúniga Cáceres is not the only member of her family who must be wary. In an informal interview, Berta Isabel Cáceres’ sister, now a naturalized U.S. citizen living here with her two children, said unknown drivers ran their car off the road several months ago when they returned to Honduras for a visit. And several years before the murder, Berta Isabel Cáceres was briefly kidnapped, she added.

Members of the group Berta Isabel Cáceres led, COPINH, have also been threatened. One, Mexican environmentalist Gustavo Castro Soto, was wounded in the same attack that killed her. And Nelson Garcia, another COPINH leader, was murdered later the same month.

It was this pattern, culminating in Berta Isabel Cáceres’ murder on March 2, 2016, that led her family to eventually work with a 5-member panel of international attorneys and experts on human rights to investigate the murder and publicize the results. Given the clout of the wealthy family that owns DESA, and its ability to manipulate the Honduran judicial system, the family does not trust the government’s probe, they said in the congressional briefing.

“There are many cases” of impunity for higher-ups “that involve other human rights defenders,” in Latin America, said panelist Daniel Saxon, a University of Leiden law professor and former legal advisor for the human rights office of the Catholic archbishop of neighboring Guatemala.

The family’s participation was important to the probe of the murder, which has become an international cause célèbre and a case study in how—once again—powerful interests in developing nations run rampant over the rights and interests of other citizens. Only the Cáceres family could legally request documents and records relating to the murder, three of the commissioners told a Capitol Hill briefing.

Even then, it was a struggle, as the family and the panelists, aided by human rights groups, spent more than a year first having to pry documents and cell phone records out of the Honduran government about Berta Cáceres’ murder, and then analyzing them for details. And the records are incomplete.

Still, “we were really shocked by the treasure trove of information” about the murder, said panelist Roxanna Altholz, as assistant clinical professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley. Much “was neglected” and other sections are “full of irregularities” that do not jibe with official conclusions.

The U.S. Embassy was of no help, Altholz added. That’s even though the U.S. provided millions of dollars to train Honduran police. The police were supposed to protect Berta Isabel Cáceres. They failed. The ambassador “assured us this was ‘a prize-winning investigation,’” by the Honduran government.

The panel’s report, Dam Violence: The Plan That Killed Berta Cáceres, is, as a result, incomplete itself, the panelists admitted. Particularly missing are the names of the higher-ups, whether in DESA or the Honduran government, who ordered the murder or who were complicit in failing to prevent it.

“This is responsibility by omission,” Berta Zúniga Cáceres told the congressional staffers.

Eight people have been indicted for the murder, the report by the International Expert Advisory Panel (GAIPE in Spanish), says. One was the chief of the private security firm DESA hired to keep indigenous people and other dam foes away and repress protests. A second is DESA’s social relations manager. A third is an active member of the Honduran military. The others are low-level operatives.

Data the family and the panel got shows DESA “functioned like a criminal network” in its campaign to override the indigenous people and get the dam built, Altholz said. Saxon added DESA sometimes worked with actual criminal networks.

“The public ministry has had no formal accusations yet,” against the eight. “It hasn’t turned in all the evidence it collected,” nor has it turned over all evidence to lawyers involved in the case, as Honduran law requires, Saxon noted. That includes the lawyers for the eight defendants.

“Berta’s case cannot violate the rights of the accused,” Saxon explained.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners. El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People's World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).