Long before gunmen burst into Berta Cáceres Flores’s house in rural Honduras, Beverly Bell gave up any hope that her friend would live to an old age. “This was a marked woman,” said Bell, who kept a long list of the death threats. “Everyone knew it.”
The March 3 slaying of the internationally known environmentalist was condemned from the State Department to the Vatican. But for activists who work in Latin America, Cáceres’s murder was tragically familiar.
Two-thirds of environmentalists who died violently around the world since 2002 lost their lives in that region. For the five years ending in 2014, more than 450 were killed, according to an international watchdog group. More than half were in Honduras and Brazil.
Among the more recent deaths: A young worker who protected sea turtles in Costa Rica was kidnapped and brutally beaten. A farmer in Peru was shot 12 times for protesting a hydroelectric dam. A Guatemalan activist who linked a massive fish kill to pesticides sprayed by a palm oil company was gunned down near a courthouse in broad daylight. A Brazilian activist who fought logging in the rain forest was ambushed and fatally stabbed while returning home with his wife.
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The common thread in virtually every case is the fight by communities to stop government-approved corporate development of remote lands. Slain environmentalists frequently have attempted to halt such projects as dams and logging involving hundreds of millions of dollars, which stand to enrich local providers of labor and materials.
Those locals have an interest in eliminating whomever gets in the way, according to John Knox, a United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and the environment and a professor of international law at Wake Forest University.
Most victims are indigenous people “who are oppressed, largely marginalized and are considered almost expendable by the powers that be,” he said.
The risks they face also reflect a legacy of U.S. intervention throughout the 20th century, noted Dana Frank, a history professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
“The United States famously nurtured and funded dictatorships, corrupt governments and military rule throughout most of Latin America,” Frank said.
“The post-coup regime in Honduras continues that tradition,” adding that the same is true in Guatemala, Colombia and other countries.
[Suspicions mount in slaying of noted Honduran environmentalist]
The 2013 murders of three members of the Honduran Locomapa tribe demonstrate how lethal the region’s activism can be — without consequences for the killers.
María Enriqueta Matute, Armando Fúnez Medina and Ricardo Soto Fúnez were part of a peaceful sit-in and road blockade to protest mining and logging on their land when two gunmen opened fire.
Fúnez and Soto were killed immediately. Matute fled to her nearby home, where she was tracked and shot. Reports say that although there were about 150 witnesses — other protesters at the sit-in as well as onlookers — there has been no investigation and no arrests, according to activists. Two brothers were the alleged attackers.
In mid-March, a man who worked for the organization that Cáceres co-founded, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), became the latest fatality. Nelson García, 38, was shot in the face as he returned home in northwest Honduras after being rounded up and held by state police.
In response, a Dutch bank that was a prime backer of the huge dam project that COPINH was fighting declared itself “shocked” by the violence and immediately suspended all activities and funding.
“Latin America is the hardest-hit region,” said Billy Kyte, a campaigner for Global Witness, who wrote its latest report on killings of environmentalists. From 2010-2014, he said, three-quarters of those deaths occurred there. The network organization is still gathering 2015 statistics, but Kyte expects that it was the deadliest year ever.
The embassies of Peru, Honduras and Brazil did not respond to email or phone requests for comment.
[Why are Brazil’s environmentalists being murdered?]
Whether the statistics are skewed by inadequate data elsewhere, making the region seem even more dangerous for activists, is of some debate. Knox said he thinks countries in the Americas have better reporting of deaths by governments and media, compared with countries in other parts of the world, such as Africa.
Yet he and others agree that government authorities often do not pursue cases aggressively.
“They’re just not doing what we think police should do,” said Grahame Russell, director of Rights Action, a nonprofit group that funds community development and human rights workers in Guatemala and Honduras. “The state is playing a very specific and direct role in empowering various economic sectors” and looking the other way to move projects along when killings occur, he said.
The problem is so widespread that it often is part of the narratives of recipients of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, said David Gordon, the organization’s executive director.
In 2011, prize winner Francisco Pineda of El Salvador, who led a movement that stopped a gold mine, recounted how three colleagues “were assassinated” and a close companion killed while under police protection. After the body of a fourth activist was found in a well and the pregnant wife of another movement member was killed, Pineda got 24-hour police protection.
The next year, Sofia Gatica of Argentina told the prize committee about the intimidation she faced during her campaign to stop the spraying of toxic agrochemicals. “An individual entered Gatica’s house and demanded that she give up the campaign while pointing a revolver at her,” Gordon wrote in an email.
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But the 45-year-old Cáceres stands out as the only Goldman award recipient to have been killed.
After starting COPINH, she waged a decade-long fight against the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam on the Gualcarque River. The project was targeted because the government allowed the privatization of large sections of the river and the forced removal of communities.
Her indigenous people, the Lenca, were to be uprooted by the dam. The plan would also cut their access to the river, which they viewed as sacred. Death threats tied to Cáceres’s efforts to stop the project were constant.
Gordon said a Goldman prize video crew that traveled to Honduras were “blockaded from this one road” by dam proponents. who demanded that Cáceres get out of the car. The crew’s leader, Ryan Mack, placed frantic calls to the organization’s San Francisco headquarters and to the U.S. Embassy for help.
“We can’t get out,” Gordon recalled Mack saying. Only after Gordon called the State Department in Washington to say that U.S. citizens were at risk was the group allowed through.
That’s when he and the organization took the unusual step of awarding Cáceres an additional grant for security. “She thought she would never make it to San Francisco to accept the award,” he said.
Her killers remain at large. According to Kyte of Global Witness, 90 percent of killings of activists generally in Honduras are never solved.
“A lot of people wanted her dead,” said Bell, whose own social-justice organization, Other Worlds, works with COPINH.
Four years ago, after hearing Cáceres talk about the threats and physical attacks “in almost every conversation,” Bell began drafting a eulogy for her friend.
“Writing it felt like an inevitable exercise,” Bell said. “Because her assassination felt like an inevitable fate.”