August 26, 2016 Climate

Press Release: Romero Institute Demands Justice for Berta Caceres

The Romero Institute signed on to an open letter organized by the Latin America Working Group, which implores United States Secretary of State John Kerry to take direct action ensuring the murderers of Indigenous and Environmental activist Berta Caceres are brought to justice.

“It is with sorrow and outrage that we urge the United States to bring full power and political pressure to bear in this flagrant violation of human rights and life itself,” said Daniel Sheehan, Chief Counsel of the Romero Institute.

“The United States government gave the Honduran government $45 million in foreign aid in 2014 and requested twice as much in the last appropriation cycle,” he said. “To give millions of American taxpayer dollars to an illegitimate regime that abets the murder of dissenters and countenances such grave miscarriages of justice is nothing short of reprehensible.”

Berta Caceres is an internationally respected Indigenous and environmental activist, founder of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), and winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. The award was given in recognition of her efforts to organize a grassroots campaign to oppose the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam, a hydroelectric project on the Gualcarque River to facilitate foreign mining operations.

The Gualcarque River is considered sacred to the Lenca People, a tribe endemic to southwestern Honduras and eastern El Salvador. Despite protocols that require the Honduran government to obtain consent from Indigenous populations before undertaking large scale projects that would adversely affect their Native environment, no attempt was made to obtain permission.

COPINH and other organizations believe Caceres was killed for her opposition to the dam project, as she had received multiple death threats and had shots fired at her car.

“Our dear Berta was assassinated by bullets of injustice; she was assassinated by the hate and racism that govern our country,” COPINH said in a March 3 release.

Honduras is rife with assassinations of dissenters, environmental activists, human rights champions and those who fight for the rights of the Indigenous people. Last year, Global Watch deemed the Central American country the most dangerous in the world for activists, with more than 109 environmental activists killed between 2010 and 2015.

Three years earlier, Berta Caceres’ colleague Tomas Garcia was shot and killed at close range by an officer in the Honduran Army, which is funded by the United States government to the tune of approximately $5 million annually.

“The claim by the Honduran government that this was a botched robbery is absurd on its face,” said Sara Nelson, Executive Director of the Romero Institute. “It does nothing but insult the intelligence of all of us around the world who stand with Berta, and forcefully demonstrates the utter lack of a Rule of Law in that country. The United States government must demand full accountability for this crime or risk being complicit in such blatant and heinous violations of human rights.”

The Romero Institute joins the LAWG in supporting an independent investigation led by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, due to the lack of confidence in the Honduran judicial system to be able to carry out its fundamental duties. We further enjoin the United States government to desist from providing further aid to the security forces of Honduras, who allegedly have participated in the murder of environmental and Indigenous activists.

“This is not solely about Honduras, but about how the United States asserts its values by the partnerships it decides to undertake,” said Daniel Sheehan. “This country has a checkered past when it comes to supporting oppressive regimes in Central America that purportedly align with its economic interests. However, these policies have come home to roost, in that the so-called immigration crisis comes as a direct result of our short-sighted and ethically vacuous positions. Similarly, supporting a murderous regime that kills dissenters and activists flies in the very face of this nation’s foundational values, and any association with such activities, no matter how tenuous, betrays the ideals of this nation.”

The Romero Institute has been particularly affected by the murder of Bertha Caceres because of the parallels with its namesake, Archbishop Oscar Romero. Like Caceres, Romero was assassinated as a direct result of his honest and inspirational opposition to a brutal autocratic regime bent on enhancing the profits of the few at the expense of the many, and to the detriment of the environment.

Inspired by Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si”, the Romero Institute is fighting on behalf of the Indigenous populations of the Americas, who are often on the front lines of the battle against natural resource extraction industries and the governments who shield them from accountability.

“Oscar Romero died fighting for the poor, the disenfranchised, the ones who were told they don’t matter,” said Chase Iron Eyes, board member for Romero Institute. “Berta Caceres embodies his legacy. She is a true warrior for the sacred rivers and for Indigenous peoples. And while those who perpetrated this murder recede into the shadows of anonymity, where they will lurk for eternity, Caceres is a light that will shine forever.”

The Romero Institute, successor of the Christic Institute, is a nonprofit law and public policy center that combines investigation with high-impact litigation, public education and grassroots organizing. Based in Santa Cruz, California, the Institute engages in nationwide legal consulting, litigation and public education. The Institute is led by Chief Counsel Daniel Sheehan and Executive Director Sara Nelson.