The Washington Post

Where Berta fell, ‘Bertita’ will pick up her environmen­tal crusade

Daughter of a murdered Honduran activist suspends grad school

- BY DARRYL FEARS darryl.fears@washpost.com

The wispy young woman with raven-black hair and expressive brown eyes was introduced to the small crowd as Bertha Zúniga Cáceres, but hardly anyone in her tight circle calls her that. She is known by the Spanish diminutive “Bertita,” an homage to her internatio­nally famous mother, environmen­tal activist Berta Cáceres Flores.

On a windy afternoon in Washington this week, the 26-year-old Zúniga boldly continued the work that many think led to her mother’s recent slaying by gunmen in Honduras. Zúniga faced the gathering at the red-brick entrance of the Organizati­on of American States, lifted a bullhorn and denounced her government for creating a climate that makes Honduras one of the deadliest countries in the world for people trying to protect forests, rivers and other resources.

At least 100 activists were murdered between 2010, a year after an elected president was ousted by a coup, and 2014, according to the internatio­nal watchdog group Global Network. Cáceres, a winner of the Goldman Environmen­tal Prize who fought the government’s removal of indigenous people from river communitie­s to pave the way for a massive hydroelect­ric dam project, was shot March 3 after years of receiving death threats.

Though still in mourning, her daughter flew to Washington to testify before the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights about deadly abuse in Honduras. She also joined the Center for Justice and Internatio­nal Law and other groups in asking the OAS to appoint a panel of independen­t experts to investigat­e the murder of her mother and other activists. There have been few arrests in the cases.

“What we want to find out is who were these assassins,” Zúniga said, her voice booming across two city blocks. “Not the trigger men. We want to know who the intellectu­al assassins are” — meaning the others, possibly including government and military officials, who had a role in the planning.

That call to action is reminiscen­t of her mother’s fierce activism, and some worry that Bertita, who is suspending graduate studies to carry on her mother’s work, might also suffer her fate.

“We’re all very concerned for her safety, especially since the same security measures are in place for the rest of the family that were there for Berta,” said her cousin, Silvio Carrillo. Zúniga is the second of four children, “and all of them are speaking out. They’re fearless, just like their mother.”

Zúniga hand-delivered a request to OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, asking him to convene an expert panel to investigat­e the murders. A similar panel probed the disappeara­nce of protesters three years ago in Mexico and produced a stinging report that thoroughly contradict­ed the government’s account of how the busload of students vanished. It also implicated police and military officials who were not mentioned in the original account.

Zúniga’s appearance at the OAS did not have the result she had hoped for. Neither did activists’ push for the U.S. State Department to pressure the Honduran government for an independen­t investigat­ion by a panel of legal experts from other parts of the world.

Almagro opted to assist a Honduran prosecutor in probing possible government corruption. The OAS plans to deploy internatio­nal judges and technical experts as part of its newly created Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras.

“The purpose of the mission is to investigat­e corruption and put people in jail,” said Sergio Jellinek, a spokesman for the secretary general. “If there is an angle related to Berta’s case, they will tackle it.”

Mark Toner, deputy spokesman for the State Department, said the agency has strongly condemned Cáceres’s murder and extended condolence­s to the family and people “who have lost a dedicated defender of the environmen­t and human rights.” But, he said, department officials cannot tell the Honduran government how to proceed.

“The U.S. government has no jurisdicti­on to investigat­e a homicide in Honduras,” Toner said in a statement Friday. “Several U.S. advisors with extensive experience in criminal investigat­ions and prosecutio­ns are providing technical assistance to the Honduran investigat­ors and prosecutor­s. We are not aware of any internatio­nal organizati­on that has the legal authority and technical capacity to conduct an independen­t homicide investigat­ion in Honduras.”

The Honduran Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment, but sources at the OAS, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because discussion­s with Honduras are sensitive, said that the government there favored review by the new mission rather than any involvemen­t by the human rights commission.

Speaking through an interprete­r, Zúniga called the responses by the OAS and State Department disappoint­ing. That sentiment was echoed by family members and several activists groups that say they have little confidence in the Honduran prosecutor­s or the mission, which obviously has no investigat­ive track record.

Honduran officials vowed to protect Cáceres, they said, but failed to keep her safe. Now the same government is promising to protect her elderly mother and four children while undertakin­g an investigat­ion into a homicide that so far has yielded no arrests.

Carrillo, a U.S. citizen who accompanie­d his cousin during her time in Washington, said the organizati­on that Cáceres led at the time of her death, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizati­ons of Honduras (COPINH), has stepped in “to fill in the security gaps. The police? Why should we trust them?”

Cáceres won the Goldman Prize for the role she played in getting a Chinese company to abandon the dam in 2013, but a Costa Rican firm took over, and the work continues. A Dutch bank suspended its financing because of the recent violence, but that has not stopped constructi­on, either. A completion date has not been set.

Late in the week, Zúniga boarded a red-eye flight back to Honduras and a future, at least for now, as an activist. She said she knows violence often comes with the job.

“We’re not going to deny that we are afraid,” Zúniga said. “But one of the biggest lessons my mom had was not to stop. My biggest fear was that they would kill her, and that has happened. This is an attack against everyone who stands against these actions. We feel a need to make this a calling.”

 ?? PHOTOS BY JAHI CHIKWENDIU/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Bertha Zúniga Cáceres, center, also known as “Bertita,” is greeted by her aunt, Neery Carrillo, after testifying at the Organizati­on of American States in honor of her late mother, environmen­talist Berta Cáceres Flores, who was murdered inMarch in...
PHOTOS BY JAHI CHIKWENDIU/THE WASHINGTON POST Bertha Zúniga Cáceres, center, also known as “Bertita,” is greeted by her aunt, Neery Carrillo, after testifying at the Organizati­on of American States in honor of her late mother, environmen­talist Berta Cáceres Flores, who was murdered inMarch in...
 ??  ?? Near poignant graffiti, environmen­tal activists concerned about the violence in Honduras gather outside theWorld Bank.
Near poignant graffiti, environmen­tal activists concerned about the violence in Honduras gather outside theWorld Bank.

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