Prominent indigenous activist Berta Caceres was killed in rural Honduras early Thursday, marking a new low point for a country already ranked as the world's most dangerous for environmental activism.
Caceres, a winner of the prestigious 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, was killed in her home about 1 a.m. by unknown assailants who forced their way inside, then fled, Honduran security officials said. Fellow rights activists said she was shot by two attackers.
The watchdog group Global Witness ranked Honduras, which has one of the world's highest homicide rates, as the most deadly for environmental activism last year. Caceres had held a news conference last week to denounce the killing of four fellow activists who, like her, opposed the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project.
In awarding her the $175,000 Goldman prize — the award is given to activists from six regions — the organization cited her efforts to rally the indigenous Lenca people of Honduras and wage "a grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world's largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam."
China's state-owned firm Sinohydro, the world’s largest dam developer, had partnered with the Honduran company to carry out the project, but fierce protests led by Caceres blocked it.
"Let us come together and remain hopeful as we defend and care for the blood of this Earth and its spirits," she said last year during her Goldman Prize acceptance speech. She continued her activism as an indigenous leader and was a fierce critic of the right-wing government of President Juan Orlando Hernández.
Caceres received frequent death threats and was assigned police protection, Honduran officials said. Security Minister Julian Pacheco said Caceres had recently moved to a different residence and had not notified local authorities.
A security guard assigned to her home has been taken into custody, Pacheco added, speaking at a news conference in the capital, Tegucigalpa.
Photographs in Honduran media showed Caceres's body shrouded in plastic and loaded onto the back of a pickup truck this morning en route to a morgue.
Caceres, 45, had four children, said her nephew, Silvio Carrillo, a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. “We are devastated by the loss of our fearless Bertita," he said in a statement on behalf of the family.
"We ask the international community and human rights organizations around the world to put pressure on their leaders to bring about justice," the statement said. "Her murder is an act of cowardice that will only amplify Bertita’s message to bring about change in Honduras and make this a better, more humane world.”
Carrillo, 43, said he was raised in Washington because his mother — Caceres's sister — and his father, a lawyer, were forced to flee Honduras in the 1970s in the face of death threats.
"This kind of violence is the reason they had to leave," Carrillo said. "Nothing's changed."
Plagued by drug violence, gang warfare and extreme economic inequality, Honduras is also one of the world's most dangerous countries for journalists, LGBT activists and practically anyone who challenges powerful interests.