Homo homini lupus is a Latin proverb used to illustrate the level of cruelty human beings can show to fellow members of their species. It means man is a wolf to other men, and I remembered it after reading John Gibler’s article in Sierra magazine about the murder of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, which caused worldwide shock in March of 2016.
Armed with courage and a hunger for justice, Gibler traveled to Honduras a year after the crime searching for answers in a country where close to 130 social and environmental activists have been murdered since 2010—with almost complete impunity. And his conclusions are unequivocal: “The Honduran state administers pilfering and death. It is a criminal enterprise that dispenses terror.”
That’s how he describes a government that began asserting its iron will over the people after a military coup in 2009, a government that steadfastly refuses to look into who ordered and paid for Berta’s assassination.
Cáceres, the most effective rights defender of her generation, was murdered in her home of La Esperanza by a group of hired killers after having received dozens of death threats and being on top of a hit list kept by the Honduran Armed Forces.
She paid with her life after having led a courageous resistance campaign against the construction of a dam on the Gualcarque River, on land owned by the Indigenous Lenca people. The murder triggered such international indignation and fury that the government felt forced to investigate it. Eight individuals—including executives of the construction company, army members and hired assassins—have been indicted for the crime. And as a world exclusive, Gibler gained access to the transcript of the confession of one of the alleged murderers, former Honduran Army Sgt. Javier Hernández Rodríguez.
“Police have cellphone recordings of [Hernández] bragging about committing a previous murder and discussing with [Major Mariano] Díaz what appear to be the logistics for the assassination of Cáceres. And he confirms, using their nicknames, the identities of the men who entered Cáceres’s house and shot Berta and Gustavo: Rápalo Orellana and Torres Velásquez,” writes Gibler in his exposé.
“The eight indicted individuals clearly represent the cooperation between the construction company, DESA, whose executives come almost exclusively from the country’s elite, the army, former soldiers and hired assassins,” Gibler says. “This is the total normalization of state-sponsored terrorism.”
But what impressed him the most during his visit to Honduras was “the unbreakable courage and determination” of the defenders of Honduran indigenous rights in their defiance of an enemy infinitely more powerful than them.
“These activists are on the front line defending themselves from the government’s thievery,” Gibler says. “These heroes impressed me with their energy, commitment, creativity, with the richness of the social organization that exists in Honduras and that redefines the concept of courage.”
It’s this courage that earned Cáceres the 2015 Goldman Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of ecology, which recognizes individuals who risk everything, even their lives, to protect the environment in which they live
However, Cáceres’s survivors—her daughter, her mother, her friends—refuse to identify her simply as an environmentalist. According to her best friend, fellow activist Miriam Miranda, Cáceres considered herself a “professional agitator” in a society where injustice and abuse rule.
Gibler writes that “during the demonstrations and vigils marking the first anniversary of her murder, I heard the following chant over and over: ‘Berta did not die. She became millions!’”
The wolves ended her life, but unwittingly they also immortalized her legacy of courage and sacrifice.
By Javier Sierra
Javier Sierra is a Sierra Club columnist. Follow him on Twitter @javier_SC.