Four men have been arrested in connection with the murder of Honduran indigenous activist Berta Cáceres Flores, who was gunned down in her home in La Esperanza two months ago.
Two of those detained are linked to Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA), the Honduran company that is building the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam that Cáceres so vehemently opposed for a decade.
Cáceres was the coordinator and co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH), and won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize (South and Central America) last year. She was a key opponent of plans to build the Agua Zarca dam on indigenous community land in Río Blanco.
The NGO Global Witness welcomed the arrests as a positive step, but said that only an independent investigation would deliver justice.
Cáceres’ family continues to demand that her murder should be investigated by an international, independent commission of experts.
“The people who ordered Berta Cáceres’ murder must be held to account, not just the triggermen,” said Global Witness campaigner Billy Kyte.
“So far the Honduran-led investigation has been a tragedy of errors – with false accusations, suspected cover-ups, and a brazen conflict of interest at the public prosecutor’s office.
“The Honduran authorities are too compromised to be trusted to put the intellectual authors of her killing behind bars. What’s needed is an independent investigation led by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.”
One of those arrested is the manager for social and environmental issues at Hydroelectric Agua Zarca, Sergio Ramon Rodriguez Orellana. Another is Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, who headed a security team hired for the dam project.
Cáceres is reported to have told the Honduran authorities that both men had made threats against her life.
The other two suspects are Mariano Díaz Chávez and Edison Atilio Duarte Meza. Díaz Chávez is reported to be an active infantry major and Duarte Meza a retired infantry captain.
Hydroelectric Agua Zarca said in a statement that it was surprised that Rodriguez had been arrested and that it was “under no circumstances responsible, nor did it have any material or intellectual links to Cáceres’ murder”.
Thousands gathered for Cáceres’ funeral.
Cáceres’ relatives say they regret that the investigations conducted by the Honduran attorney- general have moved forward without their participation and that their voices have not been heard.
“Today, two months since the assassination of our dear Berta, we continue being victimised, having to learn of any news through the media rather than the official channels afforded to us by law,” they said in a statement.
The statement was made by Cáceres’ three daughters Olivia, Berta, and Laura; her son, Salvador Zúniga Cáceres; her mother Austra Bertha Flores; and COPINH.
They said they were surprised by the announcement about the arrests that was made by attorney-general and the Criminal Investigation Agency.
“The family and COPINH, as well as all Honduran society and the international community demand justice and truth regarding the assassination of our Berta,” the statement said.
The family and COPINH added: “Because we have been denied our right under Honduran law to participate in the investigative process from the beginning, we have no way of knowing if these arrests are the product of an exhaustive and diligent investigation, nor do we know if they include those who ordered the assassination.
“The news of the alleged participation of active and retired members of the military linked to DESA in the assassination should be investigated further and indicates involvement by state agents, which is enough reason for the immediate suspension of and a definitive end to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project.”
The family and COPINH said their ongoing lack of confidence in the attorney-general’s office had been fomented by its actions, which, they said, lacked transparency and ignored the victims.
“If the State has truly conducted an exhaustive, diligent investigation based on scientific proof that looks into both the plotters and perpetrators of this crime, then today they should accept the participation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights so that a group of independent experts can analyse the actions carried out thus far and establish whether they are consistent with the highest international standards of due diligence.
“If the attorney-general’s office and its agency have carried out their work correctly, there should be no fear of having the commission that the IACHR has already made available begin its investigation immediately.”
Amnesty International said the arrests raised several questions about how the investigation into Cáceres’ murder is being handled.
“The blatant lack of transparency in the investigation into Berta Cáceres’ tragic murder, including the fact that her family has been systematically kept in the dark regarding any developments, and the refusal to question high-ranking officials, is putting the whole investigation in jeopardy,” said Amnesty’s Americas director Erika Guevara-Rosas.
“The authorities must urgently inform Berta’s relatives of the steps they are taking to find those responsible and ensure no stone is left unturned in this quest for justice. Anything less will send the message that human rights defenders can be killed and nothing will be done about it.”
Global Witness points to a glaring conflict of interest revealed by Cáceres’ family. An official involved in the investigation into Cáceres’ assassination – the Honduran director of public attorneys, Jose Arturo Duarte – previously represented DESA against Cáceres and COPINH.
According to Cáceres’ family, Duarte is one of the officials who has denied them basic information about the case.
“It was only after Cáceres’ family’s lawyers revealed this conflict of interest very recently that the public prosecutor stepped down from the case,” Global Witness said.
Police initially said they thought that Cáceres had been killed in a botched robbery attempt. Shortly afterwards, her friends and colleagues at COPINH were brought in for questioning without any evidence linking them to the crime.
It reportedly took investigators 11 days to visit the DESA offices.
The sole witness to the shooting, Mexican activist Gustavo Castro (pictured left), who was himself wounded in the attack, was prevented from leaving Honduras for a month after Cáceres’ assassination and says he was treated more as a suspect than a victim.
At a congressional hearing in the United States, Zúñiga Cáceres said Castro, who is the coordinator of Otros Mundos Chiapas (Friends of the Earth Mexico), was subjected to psychological torture “because they left him in the same bloody clothes for 24 hours”.
She told the hearing: “They didn’t let him sleep; they haven’t let him return to his country or see anybody, including us. He hasn’t received psychological attention. They even made him travel long distances from my town to the capital several times.”
Castro alleges that the murder scene was tampered with, and Cáceres’ family say their lawyers were denied access to a complete autopsy report.
Cáceres is said to have reported 33 death threats linked to her campaign against the Agua Zarca dam.
Last year, the IACHR raised concerns about Cáceres’ safety with the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, and called again on the Honduran government to apply “precautionary measures” to ensure her protection. Cáceres said the government was not fully complying with the IACHR request.
Second murder prompted banks to suspend activities in Honduras
Less than two weeks after Cáceres was assassinated, another member of COPINH, Nelson García, was also killed.
Garcia is reported to have been shot four times in the face at Rio Chiquito after military police removed local people from land they were occupying.
Cáceres told Changing Times last October that ten members of COPINH had been assassinated, four of them for defending the Gualcarque river.
After Garcia’s murder, the Dutch development bank, FMO, which is the main European funder of the Agua Zarca project, suspended all its activities in Honduras.
FMO said in a statement that it was shocked by the news of García’s murder.
“After the recent violent death of Berta Cáceres, we have called upon the Honduran government to do anything in their power to stop the ongoing violence and killings in their country.
“The right of speech for those who speak up for their rights and the livelihoods of people are of very high value to FMO. Every individual should be safe when defending their position. FMO rejects and condemns any violence against those individuals or groups.”
FMO said that, “given the current situation, with ongoing violence”, it had decided to suspend all its activities in Honduras, with immediate effect.
“This means that we will not engage in new projects or commitments and that no disbursements will be made, including the Agua Zarca project.”
The Finnish aid-financed investment fund Finnfund told the journal Development Today that it was also suspending disbursements to the Agua Zarca dam.
The dam is being constructed on the Gualcarque River, which is sacred to the Lenca people.
There has been an international outcry over Cáceres’ murder. Environmental activists, politicians, and public figures raised their voices in shock and outrage at the murder of a woman who touched hearts and minds far beyond her home country.
There were demonstrations not only in Honduras, but in other countries, including Colombia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and South Korea.
Demonstration in Seoul, South Korea, on March 7.
US senator Patrick Leahy said in a statement read at Cáceres’ funeral: “Berta was a champion of the rights of indigenous people and of the natural environment. She risked her life for those causes, braving the threats and the fear, knowing that any day could be her last.
“For her courage and commitment she was admired around the world, including in the Congress of the United States, and she will be forever remembered for it.”
Cáceres’ assassination has highlighted the dangers faced by environmental activists in Honduras and other countries, particularly in Central America.
According to Global Witness, Honduras has become the deadliest country in the world for environmentalists. New statistics show that, between 2010 and 2015, at least 109 people were killed there for taking a stand against destructive dam, mining, logging, and agriculture projects.
Of the eight victims whose cases were publicly reported in 2015, six were from indigenous groups.
“This is likely just the tip of the iceberg,” Global Witness stated. “It is safe to assume that some deaths are not being publicly reported.”
In its report How Many More, published in April last year, Global Witness states that, in 2014, at least 116 environmental activists were murdered. Forty percent of the victims were indigenous people, “with most people dying amid disputes over hydropower, mining and agri-business”. Nearly three-quarters of the deaths were in Central and South America.
“Globally, it’s likely that the true death toll is higher. Many of the murders we know about occurred in remote villages or deep within the jungle, where communities lack access to communications and the media. It’s likely many more killings are escaping public records.”
Outside of South and Central America, three of the countries where environmental activists are in particular danger are the Philippines, Thailand, and Cambodia.
Billy Kyte said Cáceres’ murder was one incident in a systematic assault on Honduran communities who dared to take a stand against the industrialisation of their land.
“Activists are being shot dead in broad daylight; attacked or threatened for asserting their rights to their land and a healthy environment. Urgent action is needed to protect those in the firing line, and bring the perpetrators to justice.”
Photos courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Foundation.
Article updated on May 4 to include comments by Amnesty International.
Update May 10. FMO said on May 9 that there was a need for the company “to seek a responsible and legal exit” from the Agua Zarca project.
The organisation Justice for Berta says that, regardless of whether there is a link between the dam developer and murder, FMO and any other investors should not become involved in projects that “kill, intimidate, or forcibly remove indigenous people from their lands”.
Full FMO statement:
“Recently, several people were arrested in Honduras as part of the investigation into the murder of Berta Cáceres, a well-respected human rights activist.
Following the murder, FMO called upon the Honduran authorities for a thorough investigation and to hold those responsible to account. In addition, FMO temporarily suspended its activities in Honduras.
FMO is deeply concerned by the fact that charges have been brought against an employee of the Honduran company DESA (the developer of the Agua Zarca project). FMO will withdraw from the project if a credible connection between one of our clients and an act of murder were to be established. FMO stands for respect for human rights and condemns all kinds of violence and does not tolerate illegal conduct.
FMO is seeking official confirmation and additional information from the Honduran authorities about the arrests and the course of judicial proceedings. We have confirmed to our client DESA that this implies that the suspension of disbursements will continue and, while keeping in mind that charges are not convictions, there is a need for FMO to seek a responsible and legal exit from the project.
We are preparing a mission of independent experts to travel to Honduras to make a thorough assessment of the situation and draw lessons learned for FMO. The mission will consider the interests of the local communities and analyze how an exit could take place responsibly.”