Bertha Cáceres was a world-renowned defender of the Earth and its people. She frequently took the struggles of her Indigenous Lenca people to global stages, from the Quebec People’s Summit in April 2001 to the Vatican in October 2014.
She was shot to death in the pre-dawn hours of Thursday morning, March 3, in her home in La Esperanza, department of Intibuca, about 180 km west of Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
Bertha—and yes, according to her friend, the journalist Sandra Cuffe, her name has that most un-Spanish ‘h’ in it—was the coordinator of the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).
Bertha’s work was supported by people in various networks in which I am involved either personally or institutionally (Common Frontiers, Agricultural Missions and Mining Watch Canada). She is one of those people who is a “partner of our partners,” so Joel Suarez of the Martin Luther King Centre in Havana knew her through the World Social Forum, and Antonio Pacheco and Vidalina Morales of the Santa Marta Association for Economic and Social Development (ADES, in Cabañas, northern El Salvador) knew her through the Central American networks of communities affected by mining.
Bertha and I were both victims of teargasing during protests against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, but if I met her there, it was among a cast of thousands. But I did meet her ex-husband, Salvador Zúniga (still a collaborator in COPINH) during a visit to ADES in 2013.
COPINH, like ADES, is involved in trinational (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) conversations about the 18,000-km2 Río Lempa river basin that is threatened by mining and hydro-electric developments.
Thirty per cent of Honduran territory is now subject to mineral exploration. At the time we spoke, permits had been issued in all but two of the 18 departments. Canada’s free trade deal with Honduras seemed likely to give Canadian capital an advantage ahead others.
By 2013, there were 70 gold-mining concessions, and four projects underway. Honduras, governed since a 2009 military coup by business-oriented elites, is creating special development regions (REDs) and “charter cities” that essentially suspend Honduran sovereignty for the sake of private investment. Mining royalties, for example would go to the RED, not to the national government.
These were the issues that Bertha and her colleagues talked about wherever they could.
And those issues connected her too with allies in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, and so it was that an acquaintance from my years of work in Mexico, Gustavo Castro Soto, was wounded in the same attack that took Bertha’s life.
I met Gustavo several times in the mid and late 90s when I was doing what I could to promote comprehension of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas and of the struggles of Indigenous peoples in Mexico. I saw him as one of the young geniuses who worked with Bishop Samuel Ruiz in the mediation commission that resulted in a comprehensive agreement on Indigenous rights in 1996. (The accord was named for the place where the talks took place, San Andrés Larrainzar, and was later tragically undermined by the government of President Ernesto Zedillo).
Now 52, Gustavo is coordinator of Otros Mundos Chiapas, an ecological defence group linked to Friends of the Earth. He was in La Esperanza with Bertha to train Indigenous ecological defenders. They were also planning a meeting of the Mesoamerican Movement Against the Extractive Mining Model (called the M4).
Subsequent days have been a blur of urgent calls for action to protect Gustavo. He is an eyewitness to the assassination—but in a country that is manifestly unable to protect witnesses, human rights defenders or just about anyone else. As efforts continued Monday to get him out of the country, judicial authorities required him to return to La Esperanza, again provoking serious concern for his safety, despite accompaniment by officials of the Mexican embassy in Tegucigalpa.
This photo makes everything look quite normal. That’s me with my old-fashioned notebook in the midst of a group of women who are telling my colleagues and I about the work they do to improve their lives and those of their families.
Their work is supported in part by the Council of Evangelical Churches of Guatemala (CIEDEG), whose gender equity program is in turn supported by The United Church of Canada. The local work is carried forward by the Ixil Development Coordination (CODI), which serves the Maya Ixil population in and around Nebaj in the Guatemalan department of El Quiché.
Our conversations this past weekend carried reminders of what had happened here during the years of repression and resistance in the 1980s and early 90s.
In 1984, I wrote for Catholic New Times about the Iglesia Guatemalteca en Exilio—the Guatemalan Church in Exile—a group from El Quiché that I met in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. Repression in the department had become so fierce that the Catholic diocese of Santa Cruz del Quiché had closed its churches and withdrawn its personnel. Tens of thousands of people fled into the mountains, to other parts of Guatemala, to southern Mexico, and as far away as Nicaragua and Canada. In the same period, some Protestant pastors banded together to form CIEDEG in 1987 as a way to defend human rights, expose violence and seek support from the global ecumenical community.
The Nebaj area was a particular target of U.S-backed military operations in 1982-83, when Otto Pérez Molina (known then as “Major Tito”) was the local military commander. He later served as Guatemala’s president from 2011-15, and is now in jail and facing corruption charges. The military dictator at the time, then-Gen. Efrain Rios Montt, is accused of 1,771 specific murders in the area. For more on the role of Pérez Molina, see the Democracy Watch interview and documentary: “Allan Nairn Exposes Role of U.S. and New Guatemalan President in Indigenous Massacres.”
Some 200,000 people were killed in the civil war, 93 per cent of them at the hands of the government’s armed forces, according to the United Nations. The report found that 83 per cent of victims were Mayans and nearly half of the human rights abuses were committed in the department of Quiché.
These days in Guatemala, conversations about peace and on-going violence tend to spin out between extremes. On the one hand, popular protests pressed forward a series of corruption investigations that saw the president—the same Otto Pérez Molina—and vice-president imprisoned since last year. Then in January, 18 senior military officials (12 of them trained in the infamous U.S. School of the Americas) were arrested and face charges related to their roles in forced disappearances in the 1980s.
On the other hand, criminal violence continues to spiral out of control—as it does in neighbouring Honduras and El Salvador. In Honduras, this escalation has many factors, some of them related to the 2009 U.S.-sponsored coup and others to drug-trafficking. In El Salvador, it has to do with ongoing violence between various “maras” (gangs) that compete for control of neighbourhoods, drug routes, protection payments from businesses, and public transit.
In Guatemala, you might say that all of those factors—it was the coup way back in 1954 that undid all potential for democratic reform in these ensuing decades—have to do with violence here.
At one point, I said to a friend that it seemed to me that the violence in these three Central American countries had to do with the failure of the peace accords that ended the civil wars, and the failure to provide some sort of authentic development in the sub-region. But my friend replied, “No, in fact, it has all worked out exactly the way that the elites and the business-owners wanted: people are fighting with each other, too afraid to raise their voices, and they are afraid of their neighbours.”
Perhaps both things are true. As in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, the rich countries made promises as the wars came to an end (El Salvador’s peace accord was signed in 1992 and Guatemala’s in 1996) that were either unfulfilled or twisted so as to fill the coffers of those who already had money and power. The consequences of failure to transform the lives of the impoverished majorities in the wake of the civil wars are incredibly high rates of violence and unconstrained migration toward Mexico and the United States.
I often think that churches, even those that seem to worship the golden calf of globalized capitalism, do one thing very well. They bring people out of their isolation and into community.
Over time, if not suborned to keep their prosperity-fueled, “Jesus-and-me” rhetoric on a vertical axis only, some of them—perhaps even most—will start reflecting on the horizontal nature of community and on the Gospel call to be makers of peace and seekers of justice.
That is going on today in El Salvador (as I have described in previous posts), and some religious leaders in Guatemala and Honduras are watching closely.
(The three additional photos on this page are detail from a mural beside the Catholic Church in Nebaj.)
The people of Mexico have lost one of their best young leaders. Gisela Mota was shot to death Saturday morning, Jan. 2, just 15 hours after being sworn in as mayor of Temixco, the suburban city on the southern edge of Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico.
I didn’t know Gisela personally, but for six years in the 1990s, when I worked with the Cuernavaca Centre for Intercultural Dialogue on Development (CCIDD), I was part of some of the same church, human rights and political circles. News of her death reached me just hours after my return to Toronto after a three-week visit to various parts of Mexico that included several days in Morelos.
Her funeral mass was celebrated Sunday by Cuernavaca’s present bishop, Ramón Castro. His remarks reflected the sense of the people in a way that was reminiscent of Mendes Arceo. Their “indignation,” he said, had “acquired an air of rebellion and stabbing pain.” This murder, he added, could be understood as a warning to other political leaders and was a sign of the “failed system of public security in Morelos.” (You can see photos and video of the funeral and subsequent march here.) The funeral included parts of Nicaragua’s Misa Campesina:
I believe in you, compañero, Christ human, Christ worker, victor over death.
With your great sacrifice you made new people for liberation.
You are risen in every arm outstretched to defend the people against the exploitation of rulers;
you are alive and present in the hut, in the factory, in the school.
I believe in your ceaseless struggle, I believe in your resurrection.
Just 33 years old, Gisela Mota had already served a term in the national congress. She was a member of the centre-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), but of a faction distinct from that of Morelos state governor Graco Ramírez and those who took the party into a sad alliance with those who promote and continue Mexico’s ill-conceived “war on drugs.”
The writer Javier Sicilia, whose own son was murdered in Temixco in 2011, said the murder was a sign that the state’s security system was failing. He and others said that a new “single command” police system adopted by the state does not work.
“Far from developing security strategies that advance human rights standards, in which citizens have participation, the authorities (from all three levels of government) opt to strengthen military and police bodies,” said José Martínez (an old friend of mine) of the Morelos Independent Human Rights Commission.
More than 100 mayors have been murdered over the past 10 years, most as a consequence of Mexico’s drug war that has killed more than 100,000 people.
The killing of Gisela Mota is directly connected to recent waves of violence in Morelos and Guerrero, including the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa education students in nearby Iguala, Guerrero, in September 2014.
In Cuernavaca in December 2009, federal government forces killed Arturo Beltrán Leyva, who with three of his brothers, had led a cartel that dominated drug trafficking routes between Mexico City and Acapulco in Morelos and Guerrero. Since then, various factions including two known respectively as Los Rojos and the Guerreros Unidos have fought for control of the zone.
It seems to me that governments need to rethink their strategies with regard to illegal drugs, and recognize that the violence associated with illegal trafficking may be worse than the damage caused by drug abuse and addictions.
In 2009, three former Latin American presidents—Fernando Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, César Gaviria of Colombia, and Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico—evaluated the impact of “war on drugs” policies and framed recommendations for safer, more efficient and humane policies.
Indeed, as argued by the Washington Office on Latin America, the John Howard Society, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, and others, drug abuse and addiction are public health problems that should be addressed as such.
May Gisela’s death at least draw us more deeply into debate on the question.