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The Continued Targeting of Environmental Activists

The murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres leaves many demanding answers.
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Posters of slain Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres are carried during a demonstration in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (Photo: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images)

Posters of slain Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres are carried during a demonstration in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. (Photo: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images)

Since the murder of Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres on March 3, regular demonstrations have been held across the globe demanding justice for her killers. For decades, Cáceres stood at the front lines in the struggle to protect native land in Honduras from being turned into dam and mining projects by local and foreign developers. Her death is now added to the long tally of murdered activists in Latin America, and, like the ones before her, it's unlikely that her killers will ever be held accountable.

Cáceres grew up witness to the ever-expanding socioeconomic disparity that plagued Honduras during the 1970s and '80s. In 1993, as a university student, she co-funded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), where she collaborated with communities to prevent the industrialized takeover of the natural land. Over the course of a decade, Cáceres spearheaded a highly publicized campaign against the Agua Zarca Dam, a hydroelectric dam intended to be built in the Río Blanco. Construction was planned to take place on the Gualcarque River, a sacred water source for indigenous people in the area. The building process had begun without any consent from locals.

Cáceres' fight to stop the Agua Zarca received international recognition when she brought the case to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and filed appeals against the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank. When her appeals went ignored, COPINH organized a road blockade in front of the dam construction site. The blockade stood for over a year while protestors endured routine violent attacks from militarized forces. Ultimately, COPINH's resilience deterred dam construction and awarded Cáceres the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015.

Cáceres also organized dozens of campaigns against construction plans for mines and worked to save land from 40 other hydroelectric dams.

In Honduras, 110 environmental activists have been killed since 2010.

In 2013, during the height of her battle against Agua Zarca, Cáceres, her mother, and her four children received countless death threats. Her friends even started writing her eulogy. So while many were heartbroken after an alleged group of gunmen barged into Cáceres' home last week and killed her, they weren't necessarily surprised. Her supporters and family believe the Honduran government was behind the murder.

Gustavo Castro Soto, a friend of Cáceres and coordinator of the Friends of the Earth Mexico, was the sole witness to her murder. Castro, who was shot twice, reportedly survived by playing dead. On Sunday, he tried to return to his native Mexico, but was detained by Honduran authorities and brought back for questioning to the same town where Cáceres was killed. According to activists, the Honduran attorney general has issued immigration alert against Castro, preventing him from leaving the country for 30 days.

While Cáceres is the most high-profile activist to be killed, she's not the first. In 2013, Tomás García, another COPINH activist, was killed by a military officer during a peaceful protest of Agua Zarca. That same year, Maria Enriqueta Matute, Armando Fúnex Medina, and Ricardo Soto Fúnez—all members of the Locomapa tribe—were killed for participating in the Agua Zarca blockade. But in Honduras, a country where mass violence is an intrinsic facet of its past and present, the persecution against environmental activists often goes unnoticed.

It's also likely that many killings of environmental activists go unreported, according to Global Witness—and reported or not, the vast majority are concentrated in Central and South America. Out of the 116 environmental activists who were killed worldwide in 2014, 40 percent were indigenous people. In Honduras alone, 110 environmental activists have been killed since 2010.

"The hitmen who killed Berta and tried to kill me still remain unpunished, while the government seeks to undermine the memory of Berta and the honor and magnificent struggle COPINH has led for so many years," Castro wrote in an open letter read at Cáceres' funeral last week. He also claimed that Cáceres' home was "modified and altered" by authorities. Yet, as the Honduran government continues to show negligence toward Cáceres' murder, it's unlikely anyone will be indicted. If they are, it will be a serious turning point for grassroots activists worldwide, who have seldom received justice for crimes committed against them.