Nephew of murdered Honduran activist Cáceres: 'The atmosphere is terrifying'

Silvio Carrillo grew up alongside Berta Cáceres, a leading campaigner for human rights. After the deaths of hundreds of campaigners in Honduras in the span of a few years, he believes his aunt was targeted for her efforts

Silvio Carrillo holds a creased black and white photo of a three-year-old girl, frowning at the camera and clutching a doll, and fights back the tears. The girl grew up to be his aunt, Berta Cáceres, a fearless human rights activist and heroine to indigenous people in Honduras. Last week, she was shot dead in her home, a day shy of her 45th birthday.

Cáceres had long complained of death threats from police, the army and landowners’ groups over her opposition to one of Central America’s biggest hydropower projects. She won the 2015 Goldman environmental prize, regarded as the world’s top award for grassroots environmental activism.

Carrillo, 43, told the Guardian he believed she had been targeted for her work. “She pissed a lot of people off … She was a major threat to the establishment.

“She was a moral leader. She was put on this grand stage and that multiplied when she won the Goldman prize. If you heard her speak, she was powerful. She was near becoming impossible to take down,” he said.

Cáceres earned admiration – and enemies – leading a decade-long fight against a project to build a dam along the Gualcarque river, which is sacred to the Lenca people and could flood large areas of ancestral lands and cut off water supplies to hundreds. A week before her death, she had spoken out against the murder of four indigenous leaders in the Lenca community.

The co-founder of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (Copinh) was shot four times by gunmen at her home in La Esperanza at around 1am on Thursday. Gustavo Castro Soto, a Mexican human rights activist, survived by playing dead after bullets grazed his cheek and left hand. The attack was internationally condemned.

Carrillo, a US citizen who lives in Oakland, California, learned the news in a dawn phone conversation with his weeping mother, who was Cáceres’ eldest sister. He said the investigation had been mishandled from the start, with officials and the media circulating wild rumours of two perpetrators, 11 perpetrators, a crime of passion, a random robbery (nothing was stolen) or a power struggle within Copinh.

“A lot of the information coming out is very sketchy,” he said. “We don’t believe the authorities are helping the situation. They seem to be destroying the integrity of the crime scene. Local policemen have come in there and trampled all over the place, let people come in and out, and they haven’t treated the body with respect. We requested an independent forensic expert be present at the autopsy and the police denied that outright.”

berta caceres
Berta Cáceres as a child. Photograph: Handout

Carrillo also raised concerns over the treatment of Soto, who is being held as a crucial witness. He alleged that the Mexican activist was not allowed to sleep or change out of his bloodied clothes and was shown police photos of protest marches in an attempt to confuse his memory: “It’s tantamount to torture.”

A freelance journalist whose parents fled Honduras after taking part in protests against the military, Carrillo was close in age to his aunt and visited her often during his childhood. He recalled her as having “a beautiful smile” and “wry sense of humour”.

He added: “She was always there. There were two other cousins and we would play football together, play hide and seek and go for walks and hikes and all the things you do growing up.”

Then, in 2009, he found himself interviewing her for the news broadcaster Al Jazeera. “It was very difficult,” he recalled, his voice breaking with grief. “As I was interviewing, I was thinking: ‘I wish I was half the person you are.’”

Cáceres, a divorced mother of four, won praise from international non-government organisations for taking on powerful landowners, a US-funded police force and a mercenary army of private security guards in the most murderous country in the world for environmental activists.

Carrillo observed first hand his aunt’s lifelong dedication to defending the underdog. “Her impetus for her involvement is that she grew up around this,” he reflected during an interview in Washington, where he held meetings on Capitol Hill on Monday. “I would visit her frequently growing up and there were constant streams of indigenous people coming down from the mountains to see my grandmother, who was a midwife, and she was the only medical help they had anywhere nearby.

“Berta and I would see these children who would come in to get shots or any kind of medical attention and we would also, a lot of times, see children die of things like diarrhoea. Berta grew up with this around her every day, so she knew she had to do something about it. It wasn’t like a lightbulb that went off. It was just something she did and knew through and through.”

Cáceres said she had received warnings that she would be raped or murdered if she continued her campaigns. But she had her family’s backing, Carrillo insisted. “No one was saying to Berta, ‘You need to stop,’ because we all believed in her work and we supported it wholeheartedly and we’re incredibly proud of her.

“I think she would have rather died while in a protest but these cowards took her unawares. She knew this was going to happen. She had prepared for it. She had prepared documents. All that was set aside.”

Some 101 campaigners were killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2014, a higher death toll relative to population than anywhere else, according to the study How Many More? by NGO Global Witness. Many were from indigenous communities who resisted development projects or the encroachment of farms on their territory.

Silvio Carrillo looks at a picture of his aunt as a child.
Silvio Carrillo looks at a picture of his aunt, Berta Cáceres, as a child. Photograph: Handout

“The atmosphere is terrifying,” Carrillo said. “I’m not scared to go there now because they’ve already killed the most important person in the country.”

Yet the US, determined to stop the flow of illegal immigrants from Central America, has been pouring money into Honduras’s security apparatus. The country suffered a coup in 2009 and has a dismal human rights record. “Ever since then, it’s been complete chaos in Honduras, so why do we continue to give them money in varying ways?

“The US needs to suspend military and police aid. The State Department is in the middle of giving them more tools to improve their judicial system and policing, but what’s happened over the last couple of years is the Honduran military has been getting more money and militarising more and more. It’s very difficult to see how this government will come up with the answer on their own.”

Human rights groups and the secretary-general of the Organisation of American States have called for an independent international investigation into her death. Carrillo said: “What we would like to see happen is that the intellectual authors of this assassination be brought to justice. We don’t think the Honduran government is capable of doing this, mostly because they are probably involved.”

Cáceres was laid to rest last Saturday before thousands of people. Many carrying her coffin on their shoulders through the streets of La Esperanza were Lenca people for whose rights she had fought. Drummers beat Afro-Honduran rhythms as mourners chanted “The struggle goes on and on” and “Berta Cáceres is present, today and forever”.

Carrillo vowed: “We’re going to make it so not only do they not ever forget but there’s change to how things are done in Honduras, so that women can be part of the discussion, women can have rights, there can be other Bertas come along so that you can not be afraid of going to Honduras, not be afraid to go out into the street to speak your mind.”


David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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