Machista violence killed Berta Cáceres
The murder of Berta Cáceres was a political femicide.
a crime intrinsic to the machismo so firmly embedded
in the Honduran State’s political, legal and economic
power structures and even the country’s religious power.
that it’s why impunity shields its intellectual authors today.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
At daybreak on March 3, 2016, environmental activist Berta Cáceres was murdered in her home, an event that shocked Honduras and many people around the world.
Several of those responsible for carrying out the plan to kill her, including those who directly shot her, are now facing a legal process that will lead to an eventual conviction, but the masterminds behind the crime remain shielded by impunity.
Those who ordered the crime are very powerful and they are men, which explains the armor that protects them. The decision taken by these powerful men, the plan they followed until she was dead, has the same rationale as any other femicide. Berta Cáceres was killed because she was a woman—an extraordinary woman—one whom machista power, machista violence, was never able to control. She was killed by machismo.
A huge company of very powerful men
Desarrollos Energéticos Sociedad Anónima (DESA) is the powerful company linked to Berta Cáceres’ murder. It’s a legally constituted company working in the extractivist industry and the construction of hydroelectric projects. DESA belongs to a huge business consortium associated with the influential Ficohsa Group, headed by the extremely powerful Atala family.
Like many other large Honduran companies, DESA protects its interests with a criminal structure made up of hundreds of private security staff led by retired military or police officers who train them to jealously guard the company’s property. None of them would hesitate for a moment to shoot to kill or to organize an operation to remove anyone who in any way threatens DESA’s corporate interests.
According to independent research, it was the DESA executive leadership that made the decision to kill Berta Cáceres. The plan got underway in November 2015 and ended with the deadly shooting only a few months later. DESA, together with those who conducted the official investigations, decided that the only ones responsible were those who did the shooting, thus saving the company from intellectual responsibility for the death. But even though these seemingly intelligent men planned it, it apparently didn’t occur to them that it would bring them so many problems. After all, she was just a woman.
The shielding of the intellectual authors
The measures to shield the intellectual authors and save DESA’s prestige have intensified since the murder.
Because Maritza Martínez, who heads the Honduran Center for Women’s Studies, a feminist organization, dared to charge DESA with the intellectual responsibility for Berta’s death in a press interview, DESA launched the entire Honduran justice system against her. Today she’s threatened with a long prison sentence and an absurdly juge fine for defamation.
DESA’s men are not only themselves very powerful but are backed by a lot more power in high places. Camilo Atala, one of its top executives and also CEO of the Ficohsa financial group, was elected this year as president of the Latin American Business Council. DESA has recently increased its already generous aid to various churches in the country.
A woman who broke paradigms
These local business elites, allies of the extractive and financial transnationals and buoys of Honduran political power, killed Berta for being an exceptional and audacious woman who repeatedly broke with the paradigms of the patriarchal, macho culture that rules our country. She got in their faces. But they also did it because she was a woman, and they saw no reason why they couldn’t.
Obviously, there are women in Honduras with a lot of power and social recognition but none of them has broken paradigms. They carefully and capably administer the power men delegate to them without ever challenging its hierarchical essence. That’s why these women’s power isn’t uncomfortable; isn’t questioned. It’s admired by all of society, particularly by men.
With a femicidal rationale
Berta was different. She infuriated these powerful men. How were they supposed to tolerate a woman who outwitted and defeated them?
They decided to kill her with the rationale of men who commit femicide, woman-killers. They collectively shared the warped logic of a man who considers himself within his right to end a woman’s life because she refuses to bow down to him, to always do what he wants, because he can’t control what she thinks, says and does. That independence humiliates him and in his need to reassert his machista feeling of power and dominion this man physically attacks her.
He comes to hate her, lashes out at her and in a moment of uncontrolled power, kills her. These are the feelings the patriarchal system in which we were raised “teaches” us. They are the ones that motivated the men who killed Berta. They couldn’t control her. She had power, not delegated by men but built by her along with other women and men, and it challenged the power of those men enough that they perceived their profits to be in danger.
They had to kill “that woman”
They had to kill her, this woman who was defeating them, winning the battle. But it wasn’t just about the threat to their economic empire; it would surely have withstood the loss of the environmentally damaging extractive project she was battling. Far worse was that Berta was humiliating them in front of their business colleagues, other investors, other financiers. To the question, “Why aren’t the projects moving forward?” they had to reply, “because of that woman.” So much humiliation blunted these men’s minds and blinded them; they lost sight of what Berta meant in the country and for many people around the world, if in fact they had ever seen it. They only saw “that woman,” and had to get even. Driven by humiliated power they planned her death, oblivious to the fact that by then Berta was an internationally renowned national leader.
But killing her opened their eyes. They had gunned down the voice of Honduran women and that of Honduran men struggling to let women free themselves. And they discovered they had also killed the voice of the Central American and Latin American peoples struggling for the life of their forests and rivers.
Only after killing her did they realize they had made a serious political mistake with grave consequences. Their eyes were opened just like happens to so many men who, after killing their wife, realize they’ve taken the life of their children’s mother, the woman they were once in love with, and seeing what they’ve done shoot themselves right there because they can’t continue living.
What they said afterwards
In Berta’s case it wasn’t like that because nobody shot himself, no one took his own life. Probably none of them even felt human remorse. But they did realize their political mistake and from then on set about to erase it with power and lies.
The rumors spread quickly. “That woman was killed for being a whore,” said one police officer when Berta’s body was still warm in a pool of blood. It’s the same rumor that comes from the mouths of neighbors and the media when a man kills his wife: “He probably found her with someone else.” The first and usual premise about the motive for the murder was: “a crime of passion,” “sentimental reasons.”
The men who killed her added yet another rumor, feeding it to the media almost immediately: her own comrades killed Berta because of mistrust around money issues; she kept all the money from the Goldman Prize she had received shortly before; she had caused power conflicts within the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH)…
Something like that happens in all femicides: if the passion argument doesn’t work, they move on to money or power struggles. “Women are very ambitious, when they have money and power they always want more.” To justify men’s murders of women they always mix jealousy and passion with money and ambition. She’s never the victim of machista violence; she’s the cause of her own loss of life.
Berta twisted the armsof some very powerful men
Femicide is the final statement in a long process of machista violence. Berta’s murder, too, was preceded by a lengthy trail of threats and harassment.
Let’s go back in history. In 2006, when the northern communities of the department of Intibucá in the Río Blanco area saw some newly-arrived machinery begin to interfere in the legendary River Gualcarque’s riverbed, they sought support from the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). It was soon discovered that the goal was to build the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project. DESA had contracted the Chinese company Sinohydro, which has the most experience in the world for this kind of megaproject, to do the construction.
Berta, who was COPINH’s co-founder and coordinator, began to support these Lenca indigenous communities and bring even more communities on board. She dedicated years of work to denouncing the environmental and social disaster this project would cause in Honduras. She organized dozens and dozens of grassroots informative assemblies and developed and encouraged collective acts of resistance in this remote corner of the country.
In 2013, the angry and empowered Lenca people of the area prevented the company from continuing its work there. At the end of that year Sinohydro terminated its contract with DESA, reporting that it was pulling out of Honduras because of ongoing community resistance. Berta had twisted the arms of powerful men.
She’s a “lesbian”
That was a crucial year in her life. In late February and early March Berta led a grassroots march from northern Honduras to Tegucigalpa with several demands: freedom for “Chabelo” Morales, a peasant unjustly condemned for defending the land and his community, and repeal of the Mining Law and the Model Cities Law.
She had also fallen in love with one of COPINH’s young leaders, which aroused the fury of her former long-time partner, father of their three daughters and a son. Because she had co-founded COPINH with him, their conflict spread to the organization and also its community base. Some Lenca communities decided to split from COPINH and go with Berta’s former husband to form a new indigenous organization.
Then in September of that same year she was accused of carrying weapons. In a society such as Honduras’, where carrying guns is a man’s thing, this was an attempt to undermine Berta’s female leadership. Accusing her and taking her to court stigmatized both her and her struggle. It was said that she not only used weapons but also caused disturbances disrespecting the laws and the authorities. All this devalued her in the eyes of this typically patriarchal society, because women are supposed to be obedient and submissive to men and to social norms. At this time another rumor spread, even though it was obviously belied by her sexual history: Berta acted like this because she was a “dyke.”
The international prize was the last straw
Berta’s persistence and determination was enormously successful in saving the River Gualcarque from the hydroelectric project. By then her name was known in Honduras and the success achieved on Honduran soil was decisive in her being awarded the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize.
When she received it in San Francisco, California, Berta Cáceres gave a brief speech about her organization that demonstrated its political, environmental, social and feminist awareness: “In our worldviews we are beings who come from the earth, water and maize. We, the Lenca people, are the ancestral custodians of the rivers, also safeguarded by the spirits of the girls who teach us that giving our life in multiple ways in defense of the rivers is giving our life for the good of humanity and this planet. COPINH, by accompanying other peoples for their emancipation, is ratifying our own commitment to continue defending the water, the rivers and our common goods and those of Nature as well as our rights as peoples. Wake up, humanity! Wake up! There’s no time left. Our consciousness will be shaken if we do no more than contemplate the self-destruction based on capitalist, racist and patriarchal predation. The Río Gualcarque has called us, as have others that are seriously threatened. We must go. Mother Earth—militarized, fenced in and poisoned, where basic rights are systematically violated—demands that we act. Let’s therefore build societies capable of coexisting in a fair, dignified and life-affirming manner. Let’s join together and go forward with hope, defending and caring for the blood and spirits of the earth. I dedicate this prize to all the rebellions, to my mother, to the Lenca people, to Río Blanco and to the martyrs for the defense of nature’s assets.”
The Goldman Prize was the last straw for the men in power. Everyone everywhere was talking about “that woman.” DESA’s top men were hooked by their resentment. They had to kill her.
First stifle, then harass
There’s a particular pattern to a crime like this one, overlaid on the one found in all femicides. This criminal pattern has phases to which power in Honduras subjects all those who oppose the economic oligarchy and the political elite representing it. It has five phases and Berta’s case fully met them all.
Step one: silence the adversary.
For a long time Berta was ignored when she acted, spoke, struggled and denounced. Nobody interviewed her; they discounted her, trying to render her invisible, as if she didn’t exist. But her words and her actions, the transcendence of her struggle, made it impossible for them not to see her and hear her. Berta overcame the social and media stifling.
Step two: harass the adversary. Once Berta had achieved a name, a voice, social weight, they tried to bribe her, to seduce her, so her voice wouldn’t be respected. Douglas Bustillo, a retired army officer who worked in DESA’s security company, was in charge of harassing her, including sexually. Machismo always says, “All women can be conquered, you just have to find the way to do it.” In 2013, with the same resolve with which she made all her public denouncements, Berta Cáceres charged Douglas Bustillo with sexual harassment.
Step three: discredit the adversary.
When her struggles and leadership could no longer be silenced or cowed, Berta had to be discredited, stigmatized. The media reported what she did, but called her a troublemaker, opposed to development, violent, a social misfit, a terrorist, a lesbian, a man-hater. When they accused her of illegally carrying weapons, she spent a few hours in jail. When they accused her of sedition for instigating violence in the indigenous communities, a warrant was issued for her arrest and she had to go into hiding until the courts dismissed the charges.
They also wanted to bribe her with money for herself or COPINH. At that time she was also confronted by two mayors of municipalities in the region where DESA and Sinohydro were working. The mayor of San Francisco de Orejuela was a close ally of DESA’s security company while the mayor of Intibucá was annoyed about Berta’s support for market stallholders threatened with eviction.
Many fronts opened up to challenge Berta’s threat, all seeking to undermine her credibility and authority and neutralize COPINH’s work. Such stigmatization did its job, causing unsophisticated, misinformed and uneducated people to identify Berta as an enemy and a threat, but she overcame it through persistence. She didn’t back down.
Finally her voice and her struggle transcended Honduran borders. When she was called the “enemy of development” in Honduras, she was awarded the Goldman Prize in the United States. And when she was discredited in her country for supposedly opposing the Church, Catholics around the world proved they didn’t agree. She was awarded the Oscar Romero Award in recognition of her outstanding activism and leadership, also in the United States the same year as the Goldman Prize, and the following year Pope Francis received her in the Vatican with a hug. She had already received the Shalom Award by the Society for Justice and Peace at the Catholic University of Eichstätt Ingolstadtand in 2012 and was a finalist for Ireland’s Front Line Defenders Prize in 2014.
Step four: criminalize the adversary.
To help destroy Berta for opposing, denouncing and protesting, she was criminalized, tried in court and sent to jail. They thought that with her out of the way they could weaken the indigenous and grassroots struggles led by COPINH. They also wanted to sow fear in those who saw Berta as an example.
Step five, if all else fails: physically eliminate the adversary. Because they couldn’t ignore her or bribe her and the stigmatization campaigns didn’t destroy her or manage to break down the legitimacy of her struggle, Berta stood one step away from physical death. After failing to kill her morally through slandering her, threatening her, discrediting her; after nothing broke her, they had to eliminate her.
They couldn’t allow a woman of that magnitude to go on living. Men’s honor was at stake. Letting her live would mean accepting the humiliation she had inflicted on those men of power.
“Now we all have to be Bertas”
The men who participated in shooting Berta Cáceres were identified: some hit men, a couple of soldiers, a security chief, an average DESA employee. But the crime’s intellectual authors are protected from punishment. Most of them have tourist visas to the United States; many head political structures or have senior positions in prestigious companies or in the bank. They are actively involved in philanthropic and charitable work and assiduously attend church, where they are recognized as benefactors.
All are part of patriarchal power, historically accustomed to criminal practices without negative consequences. Today, these patriarchal structures are feeling threatened by many kinds of social pressure, especially by the women’s anti-patriarchal struggle.
“Berta opened the way for us,” says a female colleague in the feminist struggle, “She marked the path. She isn’t easy to follow, but she left us her footprints and her spirit. Today we all have to be Bertas, because only being like her can we put an end to the patriarchal structures and doing so save the lives of women threatened by men as machista as those who killed Berta.”
How to confront the machismo embedded in the country
How can women who, like Berta, challenge machista power and confront the patriarchy’s structures be protected? It isn’t easy, not only because those structures are still intact but because those who are part of them are well aware of the threat these women represent.
The path opened and marked by Berta gives the rest of us clues to help protect the women who, like her, are struggling today against the patriarchy. Their first protection is their own conviction that they can, that they have power within themselves, the ability to analyze their environment, to develop skills, to establish solidarity alliances among themselves and among their organizations and to give a political dimension to all they do.
They—and the rest of us—can and must break with the dominant paradigm that tells us all, but particularly women, that solutions only come from above and outside.
They—and we—can and must continue broadcasting through all means that Berta Cáceres was killed by the machismo embedded in Honduran structures, thus narrowing the gap between this denunciation and the identification of her murder’s intellectual authors, who are hiding in DESA. As long as they have impunity, as long as they remain unmasked and unprosecuted, the defense of many other women will stumble over obstacles.
They—and we—can and must learn how to build new paradigms based on horizontal, non-hierarchical relationships,
a power understood as the search for changes in gender relationships, and also within feminist organizations themselves.
They—and we—can’t and mustn’t stop denouncing the powerful men who conceal their machismo in a rhetoric of defending human rights while in reality they only seek to perpetuate the all-embracing right of patriarchy.
Women can and will learn to analyze the local context: actors, settings, allies, reins of power, tendencies and opportunities to be taken advantage of. And they can and will learn how to situate that local context within the national, Mesoamerican and international contexts, all of which are always shifting and dynamic. Any organization of women and of men with gender awareness who join it must be constantly interpreting the context, knowing that facts are never isolated, that all are linked and that the main victims are always women, for being historically at a disadvantage regarding the power men have always controlled.
They—and we—can and must learn how to identify the positive energies within our organizations as well as the negative energies that promote skepticism, divisions, mistrust and the culture of dominant leaders, thus strengthening them against the patriarchy’s threats. And after that identification, they can and must make alliances with other organizations because we all need each other; we all contribute, we all learn and we all teach. No alliance arises from competition and mistrust. Everyone loses when an organization thinks it’s better than the rest and seeks to impose its interpretations and interests, when it always wants to be the one that takes the initiative and rejects the initiatives of the others.
They—and we—can and must make alliances with social sectors that don’t share common areas or similar commitments but do agree on the need to build a new, inclusive and democratic society.
This unsettles the patriarchy
And finally, women—and the rest of us—can and must learn how to promote joy in the organizations in which we all work. Furrowed brows, anger, sadness and bitterness suit the patriarchy. Parties and joy in the midst of struggle and resistance unsettle it.
I believe that’s the path that was opened and marked by that great woman who lives on in all of us, Berta Cáceres.
Ismael Moreno, sj, director of Radio Progreso and of the Jesuit Reflection, Research and Communication Team (ERIC), is the envoicorrespondent in Honduras.