Women religious join those bringing attention to Day of Justice for murdered Honduran activist

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Editor's note: This story was updated June 15 at 3:20 p.m. following the Justice4Berta event in New York City.

Women religious in the United States, Honduras and across the world have long worked to resolve issues of violence, environmental injustice and indigenous rights — themes all converging in the commemoration June 15 of a prominent Honduran environmental activist assassinated earlier this year in Honduras.

The death of Berta Cáceres, a Lenca indigenous leader who was killed March 2, is seen by Catholic sisters, environmental activists and others as a poignant example of martyrdom for her spirited and visible work in opposing the controversial Agua Zarca Dam, a massive construction project that activists oppose because of its possible damage to the Gualcarque River, a body of water held sacred by indigenous groups.

In New York City, about two dozen people congregated outside of the Honduran Consulate in Midtown Manhattan as part of events to mark Global Day of Action Demanding Justice for Berta June 15. Many of them represented various environmental and human rights groups. Zelene Pineda Suchilt, a community organizer with the organization We Act for Environmental Justice, helped lead the peaceful hour-long, noon-time demonstration. "Since her [Cáceres's] death, the repression against human rights defenders [in Honduras] has only increased," said Suchilt, who led chants in English and Spanish calling for justice in the case.

Activists want the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to lead an independent investigation of the killing, which followed years of death threats against Cáceres and other activists for their work in opposing the project, and are calling for a suspension of U.S. military aid to Honduras until the matter is resolved. Some members of the U.S. House of Representatives introduced legislation to that effect today.

One of those attending the New York event knew Cáceres. Angela Martinez, a senior program officer with the New York-based humanitarian organization American Jewish World Service, said her organization has long worked with, and supported, COPINH. Martinez, originally from Mexico, said she met Cáceres numerous times, and described the fallen leader as a "powerful force. She had a deep commitment to the indigenous people in Honduras."

"She was intrepid," Martinez said in an interview. "She was very strong, very stubborn, she would never stop struggling, no matter how many challenges she faced." And Cáceres persisted, Martinez said, knowing she was a potential target for harassment — or worse.

Fellow environmental activist Tomás Gómez Membreño is seeking U.S. congressional support for an independent investigation into Cáceres's death. He met June 14 with the House Progressive Caucus and June 15 with members of the Foreign Relations committee staffs of the House and Senate.

In an earlier interview with Global Sisters Report Gómez said that it is important that not only those who carried out the murder be brought to justice but also those who were the "intellectual authors" of the killing and those who paid for it.

Gómez succeeded Cáceres as the general coordinator of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, known by the Spanish-language acronym COPINH. He said he and other activists believe the current investigation, being conducted by the Honduran government, cannot be trusted. They argue that government officials may be either complicit in Cáceres's murder or are too close to those who may have ordered Cáceres's assassination.

Honduran police initially called the murder, which occurred March 3 at Cáceres's home in La Esperanza, Honduras, an isolated incident — even suggesting it was a possible "crime of passion." Since then, five people have been arrested in the case, including a current and former employee of the firm trying to construct the dam. In addition, one of the five is an active duty member of the military, and two are former military personnel.

One of those charged is linked to DESA, the firm overseeing the project, and was a manager for social and environmental matters for Agua Zarca, CNN reported. Company officials said Agua Zarca was "under no circumstances responsible or has [a] material and intellectual link" with Cáceres's killing, CNN said.

Among those taking a special interest in the case is the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas congregation, whose members have worked alongside Cáceres and others involved with COPINH in defending indigenous rights in Honduras.

Jean Stokan, director of the congregation's Institute Justice Team, knew Cáceres personally. She described Cáceres as "very charismatic, a fighter for justice." Stokan and members of the Mercy congregation plan to participate in June 15 events.

"Her death has left a very, very big hole," Stokan told GSR in an interview. Yet an oft-heard characterization of activism now in Honduras, Stokan said, is that "Berta didn't die, she multiplied."

While Cáceres's case has galvanized fellow activists to continue and expand their work, they are also worried. Last April, Cáceres won the prestigious Goldman Prize, an international environmental award, with the Sisters of Mercy co-hosting a visit by Cáceres to Washington, D.C., following the award's presentation in San Francisco.

As a result of that honor, Cáceres — already well-known in Honduras and elsewhere in Central America — became better known internationally. "If someone like Berta can be killed, then anyone can be killed," Stokan said, noting that that her death has been as profound for many Hondurans as the assassination, in 1989, of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador, their housekeeper and her daughter was for Salvadorans.

Caceres was one of dozens of activists murdered in recent years over environmental issues in Honduras — there were 101 murders of environmental activists between 2010 and 2014 in Honduras, according to the British non-governmental organization Global Witness.

Activists say that indigenous communities are being adversely, and disproportionally, affected by dam projects and extraction, or mining, work and so-called land grabs. Another COPINH activist, Nelson Garcia was killed March 15 in the midst of assisting poor families in a struggle over land rights in Rio Lindo, Honduras.

Like the wars in El Salvador and other parts of the region in the 1970s and 1980s, the case comes against the backdrop of U.S. security aid, which activists say is fueling repression in Honduras.

A March report following a visit to Honduras in December by a joint delegation of U.S. Sisters of Mercy and the Nicaragua-United States Friendship Office of the Americas said that the United States "has had an enhanced military presence in Honduras over many decades, and U.S. support for the growing militarization of Honduran society is viewed by many with great alarm."

Concerns over drug trafficking from Honduras to the United States and gang issues within Honduras "are being used as a pretext for a stronger U.S. military presence when, in fact, such a presence is unnecessary, given that Honduras has no external enemies with which to contend," the report said. "The influx of military equipment is a major problem; some of these weapons end up in the hands of the police and even the gangs. As is the case in so many other parts of the world, deep-seated social, political and economic problems cannot be solved through military means."

Also worrisome to activists like Gomez and others is that a 2009 coup against then-President José Manuel Zelaya had de facto support from the United States and that the government now in power has felt emboldened to act in repressive ways. Before her death, Cáceres spoke publicly about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton legitimizing the 2009 coup. Protests about the U.S. role in the coup have greeted Clinton during her presidential campaign.

The situation in Honduras has become perilous, activists believe, that if "the doors were open, everyone would leave, it's so violent," Stokan said. "Massive inequality, deepening poverty, violence and impunity — next to no police investigations, nor judicial systems — are daily realities in Honduras."

The actions and vigils this week over Cáceres' death are not the only international focus on Honduras. The country's human rights record, Stokan said, is the subject of a review underway in Geneva at the United Nations' Human Rights Council. Non-governmental organizations are presenting an alternative report to the Honduran government's presentation, and will include what Stokan said are descriptions of "the extreme living conditions" and repeated human rights violations of indigenous people in Honduras.

Gómez, speaking to GSR by phone during a series of speaking engagements in the Midwest prior to his planned appearance this week on Capitol Hill, said the focus on the Cáceres' case is to ask, "Who were the forces behind this?"

Honduras' national institutions do not have the capacity for an independent investigation of the murder, he argued. "The incentive to put forth a robust investigation just isn't there," he said, adding that the Honduran government has pursued a "neo-liberal" economic agenda that favors large-scale projects for outside firms at the expense of environmental justice and the rights of indigenous peoples.

Gómez said by bringing the matter before the U.S Congress, he and other activists hope light can be shed both on the case of Cáceres and larger issues of U.S. aid in Honduras and how that assistance is being used by the Honduran government and its security forces.

Other disturbing questions have also emerged in the case, he said, including that there are forces "who will do away" with those who seek change and try to end injustices. "It's like Jesus being killed for denouncing injustice," he said. "It's a repeating pattern."

Sr. Rose Marie Tresp and Sr. Deborah Kern, two Mercy Sisters from the U.S. who visited Honduras in December as members of the joint delegation, said in an interview that this and other historic patterns do indeed keep repeating themselves.

One is the ongoing "lack of respect" for indigenous communities by powerful forces that have connections to Western power and money, Tresp told GSR. "Indigenous people want to live the lives they have lived. Why can't indigenous groups be empowered to make the decisions that affect their communities?"

Another repeating pattern is the way people respond to injustice. "God rises up, in every age, to protect the poor, and that is why people say that 'Berta lives,'" Kern said. "Evil cannot conquer what God will do for people — it rises up again and again, and that's the hope of the people."

Noting the role of Honduran sisters of her congregation on behalf of those living with economic poverty and other injustices, Kern said her Honduran colleagues, "are standing at the foot of the cross of the crucified Christ." That, she said, is "the bedrock of what we, women religious do. That is what animates us."

[Chris Herlinger is GSR's international correspondent. His email address is cherlinger@ncronline.org.]

Click to find out what Day of Justice events are planned in Honduras and in the United States June 15.