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Blood River: Episode 1

A Dam, an Activist and a Killing That Rocked a Nation

“Calling the police in Honduras is like calling the mafia to a crime scene.”

A Dam, an Activist and a Killing That Rocked a Nation

“Calling the police in Honduras is like calling the mafia to a crime scene.”

Members of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) hold posters with an image of slain indigenous leader and environmental activist Berta Cáceres at a demonstration in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Oct. 10, 2019.

Members of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) hold posters with an image of slain indigenous leader and environmental activist Berta Cáceres at a demonstration in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Oct. 10, 2019.

Photographer: Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images
Members of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) hold posters with an image of slain indigenous leader and environmental activist Berta Cáceres at a demonstration in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Oct. 10, 2019.
Photographer: Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images

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It’s the night of March 2, 2016, and Berta Cáceres is chatting with a friend at her home in La Esperanza, a town in western Honduras. Several months before, she had won the Goldman Prize—an international award given to environmental activists—for her fight against a proposed hydroelectric dam. She used some of the $175,000 in prize money to buy this place: a frame house in a subdivision on the edge of town.

Gustavo Castro, a Mexican activist, had recently arrived for a workshop Berta had organized, and was staying with her for a few days. Sitting outside on the patio, Berta tells Gustavo that she’s been getting threats. Strange vehicles have been following her. She’s gotten anonymous calls from people hinting that her life is in danger.

Berta seems to brush off the warnings, speaking of them as if they’re just part of her job: In Honduras, more than 100 activists have been reported killed in the past five years. She tells Gustavo he shouldn’t worry about her.

“She was very tired, and she said, ‘OK, let’s get some rest, I’ll show you your room,’” Gustavo recalls. “And so we went in for the night. I did a little work in my room on the computer…”

That’s when he begins hearing noises. A clatter from the kitchen. A loud bang. Before he could step into the hall to investigate, gunshots ring out and his door flies open. A man is pointing a gun at him. “I threw myself to the side of the bed in my room, to protect myself,” he says. “And the gunman shot me in the head.”

MEXICO-HONDURAS-ENVIRONMENT-CRIME-CASTRO
Gustavo Castro
Photographer: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP via Getty Images

Gustavo survived. But Berta did not. Her murder would rock Honduras, sparking protests and a four-year government probe.

But in the moments after Berta’s killing, Gustavo is frantic. He’s alone with the body of his friend, worried the killers might return to finish him off. He uses Berta’s phone to call friends, colleagues—anyone who might be able to help. Finally, he gets hold of Karen Spring, a Canadian human rights activist who lives in Honduras.

“I said, ‘Don’t call the police,’” Spring recalls. “Because calling the police in Honduras is like calling the mafia to a crime scene. You can’t trust them.”

After Berta’s friends and colleagues shepherd Gustavo out of the house and to safety, the police investigation begins. As they all recount the threats Berta had reported, the police don’t seem interested. Instead, the investigators are much more interested in them.