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Award-Winning Honduran Environmentalist Berta Cáceres Has Been Shot Dead

Cárceres, who won the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2015 and has headed numerous struggles against mega projects threatening indigenous rights, was shot dead in her home.

by Andalusia Knoll
Mar 3 2016, 10:25pm

Imagen vía Ocote Films

Berta Cáceres, an internationally recognized indigenous environmental activist, was assassinated in her home in Honduras in the early hours of Thursday.

Cáceres co-founded the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras, known as the COPINH, and spent the last two decades fighting against dams, mines, and other mega projects that threatened the rights of indigenous communities.

The activist won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015. 

"We mourn the loss of an inspirational leader, and will honor her life's work by continuing to highlight the courageous work of Goldman Prize winners like Berta," the organizers of the prize said in a statement. "She built an incredible community of grassroots activists in Honduras, who will carry on the campaign she fought and died for."

Gunmen entered the activist's home in the town of La Esperanza, in the department of Intibucá in western Honduras, at approximately 1am and shot her dead.

Reports vary on how many people participated in the attack. Mexican environmental activist, Gustavo Castro Soto, was also injured during the attack according to the Honduran newspaper, El Heraldo.

A 2015 report by the London-based group Global Witness said there are about two environmental or indigenous activists killed every week in the world. The report identified Honduras as the most dangerous country with 101 such deaths between 2010 and 2014.

Related: Over One Hundred Environmentalists Around the World Were Murdered in 2014, According to a New Report

Just last week, Cáceres publicly denounced that she and other members of COPINH had been harassed while protesting against the massive Agua Zarca hydroelectric project in the Gualcarque river basin. She accused members of the army, police, and employees of the dam.

"We are demanding that the Honduran government guarantees our right to mobilize and hold peaceful protest," she told a press conference. "It is a human right of all communities."

COPINH's fight against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project has successfully blocked construction in various areas and several investors have pulled out in response to the ongoing protests.

The Global Witness report highlighted the struggle of COPINH in its fight against the Agua Zarca project and the many ways the group in general, and Cáceres in particular, had been targeted over the years.

Tomás García, a COPINH activist and resident of the Lenca indigenous community of Río Blanco in northwestern Honduras, was assassinated by the military on July 15, 2013, during a protest near the construction site for the hydroelectric project.

That same year the Honduran government issued an arrest warrant for Cáceres accusing her of illegally carrying a weapon and causing damage to private property.

Related: La batalla de Río Blanco

Cáceres went into hiding until the charges were dropped.

"There is a high level of risk [in activism]," Cáceres told VICE.com while in hiding. "The vulnerability in which we find ourselves, the intensity of the death threats, and the danger to our physical and emotional integrity is severe."

The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights had recommended precautionary measures for Cáceres due to the many death threats that she had received. She was supposed to be under police protection at the time of her murder.

Related: Honduras Is Combating Its Homicide Epidemic With Militarization

The Honduran government admitted that no police were present, but blamed Cáceres for this.

"We protected her in her prior residence in Villa El Calvario," local police commissioner, Sergio Paz Bueso, told La Prensa. "This home, however, had not been reported by her."

Paz Bueso also said that the activist's murder was most likely the result of a robbery, though this was dismissed by those close to her.

"We all know she was killed because of her social struggle," Cáceres' mother, who has the same name, told TV Globo.

International human rights groups immediately raised the alarm about a potential cover up.

"The government's statements claiming that it is a robbery are concerning, and this crime must be investigated" said Sara Rafsky of Amnesty International. She stressed that the murder underlined how far the government still has to go despite some recent advances on human rights.

"This is clearly a terrifying message to human rights defenders in Honduras, in Guatemala, and environmental and indigenous activists across the region," she added. "It is now time for the government and authorities to commit to a counter message."

Human rights defenders in Honduras, meanwhile, were reeling from the news of Cáceres' murder.

"If they did this to Berta, what is going to happen to us," Jessica Trinidad, Coordinator for the Network of Female Human Rights Defenders in Honduras told VICE News. "Berta was a public figure, she wasn't just your average person. If the government dared to assassinate her the situation for us as human rights defenders just got a whole lot more complicated."

Related: US Indictment of Powerful Honduran Family for Money Laundering a 'Game Changer'

Follow Andalusia Knoll on Twitter: @andalalucha