Berta Caceres was my aunt. She was two years older than me.
She was the girl I chased around my grandmother’s garden, but never caught. She’s the one who would dive into the cold mountain stream in La Esperanza, Honduras, then egg me on to jump in too.
Berta was fearless her entire life—up until the day she was assassinated on March 3.
Now we're trying to make sense of a lost life that was so filled with clear purpose.
Berta was a indigenous rights leader whose murder continues to shake Honduras and an entire region that has suffered so much violence and impunity over the years.
On June 15 hundreds of people in at least 17 countries around the world participated in a tribute and protest for Berta. That same day Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) introduced a bill (H.R. 5474) in her name, “The Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act.”
The bill, which would suspend at least $18 million and international loans for security assistance to Honduras in 2016, is, sadly, a huge victory for human rights campaigners, environmental activists, and my family.
Berta’s power was that she never backed down and, as a Lenca woman herself, believed in the inherent connection between the Lenca people and their land. Her dedication to this cause, to the people of Honduras, could have catapulted her to bigger things, including even the presidency. But, the dark, monied forces that rule Honduras wouldn’t let it happen.
At age 20, Berta co-founded the Civil Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), an organization that advocates for the rights of the Lenca people. She realized that defending the human rights and land of indigenous people was directly linked to the preservation of the environment.
Berta had been leading a prolonged battle against the Agua Zarca Dam project when she was killed. The project, financed by international investors, would have displaced hundreds of Lenca people who lived along the river and the surrounding land. Berta and COPINH were determined to stop it, and she gained international fame for her protest when she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, the Nobel Prize for the environment.
But even international fame didn't protect her in a country that ranks as one of the most dangerous in the world to be an environmental activist. Global Witness reports that 109 environmental activists were killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2015.
So, why does all this matter now?
Because the U.S. government has given the Honduran government millions of dollars for military and security programs as part of its continued supported for the conservative regimes that have allowed corruption and impunity to flourish since the U.S.-supported coup in 2009 that removed a democratically elected president. In exchange, the conservative governments of Honduras promise loyalty in the fight against drugs, political alliance in a turbulent region, and access to their military assets.
The security programs, part of a U.S. aid package known as Alliance for Prosperity, are aimed at containing the mass exodus of people leaving the country due to skyrocketing crimes rate and rampant impunity following the 2009 coup.
The money allocated to the military pays for training. But, details of that training are unclear.
A recent report by The Guardian documents how a U.S.-trained unit in the Honduran army put my aunt on their hitlist and the whistleblower believes they are responsible for her assassination.
Yet, the U.S. denies any wrongdoing in Honduras.
“At this time, there’s no specific credible allegations of gross violations of human rights that exists in this or any other case involving the security forces that receive U.S. Government assistance,” said State Department spokesperson John Kirby, when asked about the report in The Guardian.
Apparently, the hundreds of dead bodies and reams of documentation by civil society and international NGOs isn’t evidence enough. Is this what Berta died for?
Berta was a ray of moonlight in dark corner of Latin America; she was going to change Honduras, for you, for me, for our parents, for our children, for her own four children.
Now, her daughters and son, are left to carry on her work while fighting for justice in a place where justice doesn’t exist.
In 2009, I produced a story about my aunt Berta and asked her why she did what she did, and wasn’t she scared? She said, of course she was, but what choice did she have?
This is a sick cycle, a game the U.S. seems to like to play over and over again. My parents came to the United States to escape U.S.-backed military dictatorships during the '70s in Guatemala and Honduras.
And, even though we moved here, we didn’t escape the violence. Forty-three years later we lost the little girl whom I used to chase in my grandmother’s garden.
Still, her killing has served to shine a bright light on corruption in Honduras and the inner workings of U.S. foreign policy. And her fight has inspired many people in the U.S. and all over the world.
On June 15, hundreds of those people came together and could be heard shouting around the world in one voice: “Berta no murió, se multiplico!” (Berta didn't die, she multiplied).
Silvio Carrillo is a Senior Producer for Fusion and documentary filmmaker based in Oakland, California