Honduran indigenous environmentalist leader killed by gunmen

Honduran indigenous leader Berta Caceres, who won the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her role in fighting a dam project, was shot dead Thursday by multiple gunmen who broke into her home, authorities said.

Caceres, a 40-year-old Lenca Indian activist, had previously complained of receiving death threats from police, soldiers and local landowners because of her work.

Tomas Membreno, a member of her group, the Indian Council of People’s Organizations of Honduras, said at least two assailants broke into a home and shot Caceres to death early Thursday in the town of La Esperanza.

“Honduras has lost a brave and committed social activist,” Membreno said in a statement.

The killing appeared to be targeted: A Mexican rights activist at the house was only slightly wounded in the attack, but Caceres’s body had four gunshot wounds. Police said they had detained a suspect, but did not identify the person.

Caceres, a mother of four, led opposition to a proposed dam on the Gualcarque river, considered sacred by the Lencas.

The watchdog group Global Witness ranked Honduras, which has one of the world’s highest homicide rates, as the most deadly for environmental activism last year. Caceres had held a news conference last week to denounce the killing of four fellow activists who, like her, opposed the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project.

Caceres, a mother of four, led opposition to a proposed dam on the Gualcarque river, considered sacred by the Lencas.

Many of the project’s backers have largely abandoned building plans.

President Juan Orlando Hernandez wrote in his Twitter account that “this act has caused mourning among all Hondurans.”

Security Minister Julian Pacheco said police arrested two people, a security guard at the complex where Caceres lived and another suspect who was wounded, but he did not give further details on the investigation.

He said police had measures in place to protect Caceres, who recently won a ruling by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granting her special security measures.

Police formerly provided her an around-the-clock guard, but switched to an occasional security detail at the activist’s own request, he added.

– ‘Deficient’ security –

But the Center for Justice and International Law, a rights group, denied Caceres had turned down bodyguards and accused the government of providing her “deficient” security.

The security minister said Caceres had spent the night away from the home that was registered with the authorities. Fellow activists said she had moved to a safe house fearing for her life.

Gustavo Castro, a Mexican environmental activist who was with Caceres at the time of the attack, was grazed with a bullet. He will be a witness in the investigation, activists said.

Labor leader Carlos Reyes joined Caceres’s mother in insisting that she was not just another victim of violent crime.

“The information from the police is that (attackers) broke into her home from the back and shot her twice, but we all know it’s a lie, that they killed her because of her struggle,” said Reyes.

“It’s a political crime by the government.”

Flores said her daughter had recently had a “very big altercation” with soldiers and representatives of a hydroelectric company during a visit to the Gualcarque river, where the company is at work on a dam project.

Caceres co-founded the Civic Council of Indigenous and People’s Organizations (Copinh) in 1993 with her then-husband Salvador Zuniga, gaining fame for her fearless fight against environmental destruction by hydroelectric and mining companies.

A diminutive woman with a round face, glowing eyes and bursts of curly black hair, she was active in a range of political and social causes.

But she was best known for her battle to save the Gualcarque river, which earned her the Goldman Prize last year — dubbed by some the “Green Nobel.”

On accepting the prize, Caceres linked her environmentalism to her indigenous roots.

“In our cosmic vision we are beings born of the Earth, the water and the maize plant. We are the ancestral custodians of the rivers,” she said.

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