Food and a movie with her mom. That’s how Laura Zuñiga Cáceres spent her last day of college vacation. When her mother dropped her off at the Honduran airport on March 2, she said something that the 23-year-old will never forget: “If you hear that something’s happened to me, don’t be scared.” The very next day, her mom was assassinated in La Esperanza, Honduras.
Laura’s mom was Berta Cáceres, a prominent Indigenous environmental activist and the founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH),
Berta and other people in their Lenca pueblo in La Esperanza had been protesting a number of illegal concessions that the Honduran government had made to multinational corporations that compromised the ecosystem and their livelihood. The biggest point of contention was the construction of the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River. The Lenca use the river water for drinking, bathing and for spiritual reasons, and they argue that the dam will jeopardize their access to it. Laura had heard that her mother had been receiving threats from state and corporate agents, but that didn’t prepare her for this. Nothing could.
“I grew up knowing that death existed, but I kept living as if my mom were immortal,” Laura says in Spanish. We’re sitting at a brewery in West Philadelphia, away from members of the It Takes Roots to Change the System People’s Caravan that brought her to the city for the Democratic National Convention. “It’s something that no one believes until it happens to them. Even today, it’s still hard to believe—because she’s my mamá.”
Laura and COPINH members believe the Honduran government orchestrated her mother’s assassination. So far, four suspects connected to the Honduran military have been arrested for the March 3 murder, but not the people who set up the killing, reported teleSUR. COPINH says the U.S. is complicit in the Cáceres murder because it has given the Honduran government up to $98.3 million in assistance this year "to improve border security, combat corruption, counter organized crime, and address human rights concerns."
The United States has meddled in Honduran affairs since the early 1900s when it supported government coups to protect its commercial interests in the poor banana-producing country. In the ’80s, Contra guerrillas backed by President Ronald Reagan used Honduras as a base to attack Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. In 2009, the U.S. fueled a coup that removed the country’s democratically elected president. America also has military bases in Honduras, and Honduras has exported nearly $2 billion worth of goods to the U.S. this year.
Laura has been speaking and marching for the last eight days, first at the Republican National Convention and today at the DNC. It’s her first time in Philadelphia and she doesn’t speak English, but that doesn’t stop her because she believes that our presidential election will directly affect her people. The United States, she says, has the power to address the Honduran government’s alleged human rights abuses—for good or for bad.
During her trip here Laura has been promoting a bill that would suspend U.S. funding for Honduran police and military operations until the Honduran government “investigates credible reports indicating the police and military are violating human rights.” She and another COPINH member testified about Berta’s assassination before Congress in April. That led to the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act (H.R. 5474), which Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) introduced to the House on June 14 with 31 cosponsors. The bill is unlikely to move out of the House before the year ends, but Johnson says he will file it again next session if he has to.
"We’ll continue to advance the legislation in this Congress, as well as in future sessions of Congress," Johnson said in an interview with Colorlines. "In doing so, we send a message to the Honduran government that their aid from the U.S. is at risk, so they need to govern themselves accordingly."
Johnson also co-wrote a letter with Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) to Secretary of State John Kerry that called for an independent investigation into Berta’s murder. The letter secured more than 60 Congressional signatures.
Even if the bill passes, environmental organizers in Honduras will continue to live in fear. And for good reason: At least 109 have been killed between 2010 and 2015. The country has the highest murder rate for environmental activists in the world, according to British NGO Global Witness. Just two weeks after Berta died, her fellow organizer Nelson García was also murdered. In July, another colleague was killed.
Laura says that her time with the People’s Caravan made her realize that she and her compañeros in La Esperanza are not alone. “A lot of people in the U.S. are also in risky and violent situations, like the people battling refineries and Black communities working against police abuse,” Laura says. “This helps us understand our fight.”
As we reported earlier this week, the People’s Caravan includes Indigenous, Latino, Asian, Black and working class White people from various movements—climate justice, immigrant rights, Black Lives Matter and gender equality. “I feel like we’re living in a particular moment where the stakes are higher than ever,” says Cindy Wiesner, national coordinating director for Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, the group that organized the caravan.
Laura returns to her pueblito tomorrow (July 28) to continue her local work with COPINH. She says that she’s leaving the U.S. without a sense of security, but this reality doesn’t fill every facet of her life. Laura is a passionate college student with bright, wide eyes and a contagious smile. She’s a rebel, and an adventurer down to munch on some Chinese food or squeeze four people into a three-person cab. She’s the kind of daughter who beams when speaking of her gone-too-soon mother—not the kind who cries. Because she knows that Berta is never far away. “When they killed my mom,” she says, “she returned as an ancestor watching over us.”
That’s what keeps Laura going.