Honduran women are paying for their rights with their lives — a toll that continues to climb in the wake of a violent and controversial federal election.
One by one, Indigenous land and water defenders placed candles at the foot of a flowered altar for slain environmentalist Berta Cáceres. It was an understated, but touching tribute, propped against a tree in the hills in Río Blanco, roughly four hours by road from the capital of Tegucigalpa.
After a prayer and a few short speeches, her daughter took the microphone.
“We do not forget, we do not forgive, we do not reconcile,” said 27-year-old Bertha Zúniga, the second-youngest of Cáceres’ four children. “We will be the people who rise up to demand justice for her and all Indigenous people around the world.”
As the ceremony came to a close, Zúniga and her allies shared rice and beans from a rusting communal pot on the forest floor.
A few days later, another group of women delved into issues of gender inequality, soaring rates of femicide and systemic corruption. But they did so in a polished Tegucigalpa hotel room over cheese, avocados and sausage. They were led by smartly dressed congresswomen.
Their stages may be disparate, but these two groups of women are champions of the same cause in Honduras. They fight for democracy and human rights in what analysts call a “captive state,” held hostage by organized crime, clandestine power groups and politicians easily swayed by both.
It’s a treacherous uphill battle in a country where a woman is killed every 16 hours and more than one environmental activist is murdered every month. But they will persist, said Zúniga, because the stakes are too high to stop.
Her mother’s murder, she explained, has catalyzed a social justice movement that cannot be undone, no matter where the country's renewed “dictatorship” takes them.
It was October 2017 at the time — just two months before post-election violence would leave more than 30 people dead on the streets, and launch the troubled Central American country into its worst political crisis in a decade.
“Berta did not die, she multiplied,” Zúniga declared, as the smell of sizzling rice wafted through their forest base. “We will not resign ourselves to death. We will not forget.”
The question is how many lives it will cost them.
In Honduras, beloved Indigenous activist Berta Cáceres is hailed as a “revolutionary” and martyr. A shocking investigation now reveals that the senior executives of a Honduran company may have been intricately involved in her murder.
Seated in a jostling bus on the winding road to Tegucigalpa, journalist Sandra Maribel Sanchez reflects on her dear friend Berta Cáceres. Her expression is hardened — showing a resolve that has overtaken her sadness.
As high school students in the 1980s, Sanchez and Cáceres would attend “underground” student activist meetings, sometimes in Cáceres’ hometown of rural La Esperanza. Trailblazers in their day, they would talk about feminism, Indigenous rights and state corruption at a time when Honduras, at the urging of the U.S. government, had adopted a national security regime that targeted internal subversion and dissent.
Sanchez, now 55, would go on to become the second female Parliamentary journalist in Honduran history, have her own talk show and direct a radio newsroom. Cáceres would co-found the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH), and lead a 20-year campaign against the Honduran state selling ancestral Indigenous lands to foreign companies.
Both women faced regular death threats. In the end, activism cost Cáceres her life.
“We learned from her that when you have a dream you have to go after it and work for it, regardless of the risks,” Sanchez told National Observer after a visit with Cáceres’ mother and daughter in La Esperanza.
“We also learned that you have to have an international forum to make this known. Before Berta got the Goldman Environmental Prize, the major media coverage would talk about troublemakers coming to block the highway and roads. However, there were colleagues who worked for international press… who had a better idea of what was germinating.”
Murdered in cold blood
The prestigious Goldman Prize is awarded to one grassroots environmental activist from each of the world’s six geographic regions annually, and its past recipients include Kenya’s Wangari Maathai, Baltimore’s Destiny Watford and Cambodia’s Leng Ouch.
Cáceres was gunned down in her home on March 3, 2016, after years of pushing back against the Agua Zarca Dam — a massive hydro project slated for construction along the sacred Gualcarque River in Río Blanco. The Lenca people, of whom she was a member, depend on the river for agriculture, and believe its waters are inhabited by the spirits of five young female river guardians.
The struggle earned Cáceres international acclaim and turned her into a symbol of hope and defiance in Honduras. Many activists young and old cite her as the source of their inspiration today. Her murder sparked protests across the country, along with international headlines.
In response to the tragedy, President Juan Orlando Hernández called the killing a “crime against Honduras.” His government, which supported construction of the Agua Zarca Dam, then falsely claimed — according to The New Yorker — that it was working with the F.B.I. to uncover the assassins. Then, it rejected calls for an independent investigation by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, as it launched its own process through the attorney general’s office.
Speaking in La Esperanza, Zúniga charged that the Hernández administration made “no effort” to bring justice to her mother’s killers. With help from the Center for Justice and International Law, her family chose five international lawyers to conduct their investigation, separate from the government’s task force. Their independent report was released in October 2017 — just days after Zúniga met Sanchez and other leaders in the Río Blanco forest base.
Orders to intimidate
Obtained by The New York Times, the report suggests that an elaborate plot to kill Cáceres was months in the making and tied to senior executives of Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (Desa), the private Honduran company behind the dam. Desa has two major shareholders — Potencia y Energia de Mesoamerica, a Panama-registered company, and Inversiones Las Jacaranda, which is owned by one of Honduras’ most powerful business families.
The New York Times reported that the lawyers’ group reviewed roughly 40,000 text messages retrieved by the Honduran government from cell phones belonging to Desa employees. Those messages reveal that orders to threaten the COPINH, the group co-founded by Cáceres, came from inside the company. Among eight suspects in custody now is a former Honduran Army lieutenant who directed the company’s security until mid-2015.
The case is still open today, although Desa has repeatedly denied its involvement.
In the wake of Cáceres’ murder, Hernández has faced increased pressure from the international community to curb the imprisonment and killing of activists in his country. Yet in the two years since her death, National Observer could not find evidence to suggest his government’s efforts have been successful.
Hernández was re-elected in November last year.
Inspired by their fallen hero and stung by horrific poverty, impunity and violence against women, a new generation of Honduran heroines is rising.
Suyapa Martínez is a renowned local feminist and co-director of the Center for Women’s Studies — Honduras. She says the country is ruled by a culture of “machismo.” The Spanish term, she explained, encompasses all the rules that govern a society made by men “who consider themselves to be the owners of women’s bodies.”
Martínez spoke at gathering of women human rights defenders in Tegucigalpa on Oct. 22, 2017. A cork board to her left displayed colourful tributes to Berta Cáceres and other murdered women activists — some of them children — giving weight to her sombre words. A slideshow behind her displayed horrific statistics on the murder rate for women in Honduras and the number of cases that go unpunished.
“What we’re talking about is a citizenship of fear,” said Martínez, who regularly checks the courthouse in Tegucigalpa if a warrant has been issued for her arrest as a result of her work.
“The state is obliged to provide security to women, but that is not the case. They leave that responsibility to the women themselves.”
Women sidelined by their government
According to Human Rights Watch, the Honduran president has actively contributed to the oppression of women and girls in Honduras. In its first term, his government re-criminalized abortion in all circumstances (including rape), passed new anti-terrorism legislation that could make peaceful protest illegal, and revised the criminal code to allow children as young as 12 to be prosecuted as adults.
A 2015 report on Honduras from the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women found that the administration has paid “minimal attention to” gender empowerment. It cited “ineffective measures” to address social reform and a lack of resources for implementing existing legislation for vulnerable groups as a root cause of the problem.
Hernández declined to meet with an international delegation of two Nobel Peace Prize laureates, civil society groups from Canada and the U.S., and journalists — including National Observer — who visited the country in October 2017. However, Norma Sabillón, his vice-minister of human rights and justice, agreed to an audience. She said gender equality is “critical” to the Honduran government, but has not received “due focus to date.”
“I believe institutionality must constantly be reviewed,” Sabillón explained, pointing to Hernández’s creation of a new human rights secretariat in September 2017 as an example of the government’s recent improvement.
“What we want is to prevent violations of human rights… We need to work with all vulnerable populations, and we want to reinforce in this new secretariat, the issue of gender.”
Call the hotline
Other efforts by the administration include new legislation that makes child marriage illegal and a new mechanism to protect journalists, human rights defenders and justice workers by offering them a suite of security measures, such as armed guards or family relocation. But that program, critics argue, has been inadequately staffed and resourced since it was launched in 2015.
According to government, 31 per cent of the people who have used the protection program are women. The mechanism, said its director, Nora Urbina, is a work in progress.
“When human rights defenders carry out their work, they know they’re particularly vulnerable, so that mechanism is 24 hours a day,” she explained, seated next to Sabillón.
“We have an emergency hotline, we move the person (at risk) from one region to another — we’ve done 10 relocations since last November… We have a budget to be able to work in those emergency situations… This is really a mechanism that is still being created, so I think the support of women is critical.”
In the conference room in Tegucigalpa, the women are skeptical of political parlance about their protection.
The statistics, said Honduras Civil Society Group director Jessica Sánchez, speak louder than the government’s actions so far. The Observatory on Violence at the National Autonomous University of Honduras reports that more than 5,000 women were murdered between 2003 and 2016. These numbers increased 263 per cent between 2005 and 2013, and 96 per cent of femicides reported are never solved.
In the first quarter of 2017 alone, 99 women were killed, the observatory reports. But there has been no budget increase to investigate these murders under Hernández, said Sánchez.
“In general we can say it’s backwards for women,” she told the conference. “Justice for women continues to be a verbal reality… but crimes committed against women continue to be secondary.”
Fraud accusations hurled at the feds
Hernández was re-elected on Nov. 26 despite a constitutional ban on presidents serving a second term. His narrow win, by a margin of about 50,000 votes, was made possible after he convinced a Supreme Court — padded by his own appointees — in 2015 that the ban on re-election was “inapplicable” to him.
The move to eliminate this ban was supported by Hernández’s ruling National Party, and the president of the national congress said that the legislature would not debate the court’s decision, reported the Latin American station, Telesur.
The U.S. government backed Hernández’s re-election, which was ratified by Honduras’ election tribunal. But international civil society groups, whose watch over Honduras has intensified since Cáceres’ murder, have supported calls for a recount amid claims of fraud. They have pushed the president to stop police violence against election protesters, which left more than 30 people dead, including a teenager, within weeks of the final results. The Canadian government condemned the violence on Dec. 10, and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland called on Honduras to reinstate “constitutional rights and guarantees without delay.”
Hernández refused to debate any opponents during the campaign, and while he promised to “do what (he) has to do” to ensure lasting peace, his security-focused, seven-point platform did not include any pledges for women or Indigenous people.
When farmland becomes a battlefield
The only silver lining, said Jazmín López of the Council for the Integral Development of the Peasant Woman, is that the government’s inaction — pushed into the spotlight by the Cáceres murder — has birthed a new generation of women leaders who will never be silenced again.
“From the time we’re little girls, we’re given the cultural task of taking care of others… while no one takes care of us,” she told the women in Tegucigalpa. “Our land, our cornfields have become a battlefield. The colony may have taken our history, but they did not take our roots.”
López, a farmer who has been fighting for the rights of rural women since she was 15, said more than 7,000 women in Honduras have been criminally charged for defending their rights. At least 1,700 of them were rural, she added, and 10 were young girls.
More than 70 women’s organizations have now developed a collaborative framework to hold the Hernández administration accountable for protecting women’s and Indigenous rights. Last September, they launched a feminist political agenda to help the public compare his actions with their policy demands on violence and femicide, poverty, non-sexist education, reproductive health, Indigenous rights, political participation and other issues.
While Zúniga, COPINH and its members hold the fort in the forest to protect Lenca land and water, women politicians in Honduras bring their plight to the bureaucratic theatre in Tegucigalpa.
More than 200 kilometres away from the rally in Río Blanco, congresswomen in Honduras use a different set of tools to push for gender-based legislative reform.
Seated on ribboned chairs over breakfast in the capital, they held a frank discussion about the state of affairs with National Observer, international civil society groups and visiting Nobel laureates on Oct. 23, 2017.
Over the years, they agreed, Honduras has improved on paper. By law, for example, 30 per cent of the seats in congress must be held by women, who must also represent 40 per cent of the political candidates in a national election.
But in practice they admitted, these quotas are seldom met. The national Congressional Gender Equality Commission reports that even when women politicians are able to put forward a bill in Congress, men often try to scuttle their efforts by altering it behind their backs or “bottlenecking” the vote.
“Honestly, in many ways we achieved power, but were deceived,” said Yadira Bendaña, president of the commission, naming femicide investigations as an example.
It took months of work, she said, to pass a proposal to create a special investigative unit for femicides after being basically “ambushed at the table” by their male counterparts. In the end, the unit was launched in 2016, but with a paltry budget of $1.5 million.
Bendaña did not seek re-election in November last year.
One step forward, two steps back
“Sometimes it feels like the song says, ‘One step forward and two steps back,’” she explained. “We don’t really have the resources to get this special unit going. In any case, we can say the glass is half full.”
The commission members acknowledged the “major effort” and groundwork done by rural women activists, who support their efforts for gender equity out on the streets through campaigns, rallies and protests. This is the first time in Honduran history, added Bendaña, that Honduran women have crossed party lines to work with each other on a feminist agenda.
“There’s like 800 things we need to deal with, but we don’t all agree on them,” she said. “What we have identified is that if we don’t have a critical agenda to get this, we can’t move forward at all.”
When it comes to motivating men at the table, the congresswomen said they rely heavily on the support of grassroots activists and civil society groups. They have to be careful about the timing of controversial proposals — access to emergency contraception, for example — or they risk losing their seats in an election.
But there’s a lot more at stake than seats. Bendaña said Congresswoman Ana Joselina Fortín, who also swam for Honduras in two summer Olympics, has endured “incredible” political aggression and attacks since she was elected for the Honduran Anti-Corruption Party. She opted to “spare” the women in the room the details of that harassment.
Fortín, who is also part of the gender equality commission, opened up about training her whole life as an athlete to “go places (women) have not been allowed before,” only to hit a brick bureaucratic wall after her election.
“The first days that I had as a congresswoman — honestly it was very difficult,” she admitted. “Lots of doors are closed and it’s very difficult to get them to open...I’ve trained to be at the level of men to be able to take those spaces which are mostly taken by men.”
Fortín was re-elected in November last year.
While femicide and domestic violence remains widespread in Honduras, women human rights defenders report that their efforts are beginning to bear fruit.
After Berta Cáceres was killed, the Lenca residents of Río Blanco say that her spirit joined the five young girls as a guardian of the sacred Gualcarque River.
At the ceremony held in her honour atop the hill in the forest, more than Lenca allies young and old placed candles at her altar. An elder prayed as incense smoke filled the air.
Then, as per tradition, the male leaders of about a dozen Indigenous communities that were impacted by the Agua Zarca Dam took the microphone. The women who knew Cáceres — including her daughter, Zúniga, had to wait for their turn to speak.
The dam project was never completed, and has been abandoned since Cáceres’ assassination, which led international investors to withdraw loans worth US$44 million.
Women still leading charge to protect land and water
Asked about the order of the day’s proceedings, Rosalina Dominguez Madrid smiled. Madrid is in charge of finances for COPINH — the Indigenous advocacy group co-founded by Cáceres — and knew Cáceres well. Change in Honduras is slow, she shrugged, clutching a three-month-old infant she jokingly described as her surprise “menopause baby.”
“We women have always experienced violence, sometimes physical, sometimes verbal. That machismo culture still exists,” she told National Observer.
While the men at the ceremony seemed supportive, she explained, echoing their wives' and daughters' cries of 'Long live women!', “they just like to shout that — it doesn’t mean they put it into practice.”
But Madrid noted some improvements. Increasingly, women are attending university, going to the police with cases of domestic violence, and ending dissatisfactory or abusive relationships.
“They say I’m in charge here,” she said. “My husband understands the role I play in the community. When I travelled initially to tell our story, he was very supportive.
“But from my own experience, we’re (the ones) out there struggling for land and water. We are very brave, strong women.”
One of Madrid’s 11 children, nine-year-old Alma Edith Sanchez Dominguez, approached with a bowl of rice. Asked what she thought about her mother’s activism, she responded:
“She’s a woman who struggled with Berta and I like it. It makes me want to be like her.”
'Thank God we don't get tired'
Since her mother’s murder two years ago, young Zúniga — affectionately known to friends as Bertita — has been all over the world: Finland, Holland, Kenya, Spain, Germany, Argentina, Brazil.
“Thank God we don’t get tired,” she said, a smile breaking through the warrior’s face she usually puts on when leading a protest. She sat next to her grandmother, Maria Flores, Cáceres’ mother, on a couch at a restaurant in La Esperanza.
Multiple attempts have been made on her life, but Zúniga, who has taken over from her mother as co-ordinator for COPINH, is undeterred. She will continue to press the U.S. government to stop providing military aid to Honduras until the country takes meaningful action to prevent activist killings, and to press the Honduran government to respect Indigenous and women’s land rights.
Her older sister, Olivia, ran for a seat in congress during the November federal election under the opposition Liberty and Refoundation Party.
“As her daughters and family, we have a responsibility to carry on through trouble,” Zúniga told National Observer. “We know we are not Berta. She was special, unique. But to fight for justice is to keep these ideas alive. It’s a huge responsibility to honour Berta.”
The two-year anniversary of Cáceres’ death is on Saturday.
Editor's Note: Elizabeth McSheffrey travelled with the Nobel Women's Initiative and Just Associates, who provided translation services for all interviews.