Born into grinding poverty near the ancient Mayan city of Copán, Honduras, Margarita Murillo grew up into a lifetime of activism on behalf of campesino farmers, women, and the poor. She managed a brief period of schooling in between work and taking care of little sisters. By the age of 12 or 13, she had become an activist in the Catholic Church’s Caritas organization.
“We had a communal garden. We also set up an infants’ milk centre – every day one of the group prepared food for the smaller children. … It was not much, but that is the kind of thing we used to do.
“At the end of the year, the chance came to go on a course about organisation in the local town of San Nicolas de Copan. So the other women persuaded my mother to allow me to go. The course was long and ended with the election for that area of Caritas. I finished up being elected as a member of the women’s area management group of Caritas which served the six women’s groups around my village. I was 13.
“The same year the Radio Schools began in my village. People began to encourage me to give classes for them. I began to work as a monitor on the Radio schools when I was nearly 14 with about twenty students. We taught from five till six in the evening, listening to Radio Progreso, the station that broadcast the lessons.” [Woman of Maize: the story of Margarita Murillo, ©Margarita Murillo 1991]
Margarita Murillo was assassinated on August 26, shot down by heavily armed, masked men as she worked in a field near her home. She was still organizing, continuing the work she began in the 1970s. La Prensa (San Pedro Sula) reports that she had organized protests against the 2009 Honduran coup, and was the president of the Asociativa Campesinos de Producción de Las Ventanas, a group of about 23 campesinos trying to establish their title to the land they farmed.
Murillo’s 25-year-old son Samuel had been kidnapped by soldiers in July, and his whereabouts are still unknown, according to Honduras Weekly.
Murillo had been receiving death threats, but she was not easily intimidated. In the 1980s, she was a founder of the Campesino National Unity Front (FENACAMH) and the General Confederation of Rural Workers (CNTC). She was arrested and tortured twice. Five days of brutal torture in 1987 left her so badly injured that she required two surgeries and months of rehabilitation and never fully recovered. Only the intervention of lawyers armed with a habeas corpus petition, and a judge who dismissed the charges against her as completely unfounded, saved her life at that time. She left the country for medical treatment and then lived in hiding for years. At that time, she wrote:
“I am determined to continue giving my life to the movement for the liberation of our people. Since my childhood I have taken part in the life of my people. I cannot just drop out. I could never abandon my people.”
Margarita Murillo’s assassination went largely unnoticed outside Honduras. One more activist shot, one more organizer gone, one more killing in the nation with the world’s highest murder rate.
In farm cooperative meetings and base Christian communities in Central America, I have heard people call the names those who have died, those who have been leaders, those who have been martyred. After each name, the group answers “¡Presente!” The person is still present, still in the community, still alive in their memory and hearts.
Some four hundred years ago, John Donne wrote “any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.” Margarita Murillo lived a life involved in and dedicated to humankind. Though her death diminishes all of us, our memory keeps her present in the struggle.