Who Ordered Killing of Honduran Activist? Evidence of Broad Plot Is Found

MEXICO CITY — It was just before midnight when two men kicked in the door to Berta Cáceres’s house in the small Honduran mountain town of La Esperanza. Moving past the kitchen, one of them opened the door to her bedroom and fired six shots. She died moments later.

In a country where the fight to protect land rights provokes violent retaliation, the murder in March 2016 of another environmental defender might simply have receded into a grim tally of regrettable losses.

But Ms. Cáceres, 44, had won international acclaim for leading her indigenous Lenca community against a dam planned on their land. Her prominence transformed her killing into an emblematic crime — and turned the investigation that followed into a challenge to the entrenched impunity of the powerful in Honduras.

Now, 20 months after the killing, a team of five international lawyers has warned that the people who ordered it may never face justice.

The evidence, the lawyers said, points to a plot against Ms. Cáceres that was months in the making and reached up to senior executives of Desarrollos Energéticos, known as Desa, the Honduran company holding the dam concession.

“The existing proof is conclusive regarding the participation of numerous state agents, high-ranking executives and employees of Desa in the planning, execution and cover-up of the assassination,” the lawyers wrote.

Desa has repeatedly denied any involvement in Ms. Cáceres’ death or any connection to “acts of violence and intimidation.”

Eight suspects are in custody, including Sergio Rodríguez Orellana, the social and environment manager for the company, and Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, a retired Honduran Army lieutenant who was Desa’s director of security until mid-2015.

“What the public ministry has yet to do is indict the people who hired Bustillo to plan the operation,” said Miguel Ángel Urbina Martínez, one of the lawyers reviewing the case at the request of Ms. Cáceres’s family. The lawyers’ report, which The New York Times has obtained, will be released Tuesday.

The government’s investigation, by an elite unit in the Honduran attorney general’s office, remains open, although the lawyers’ group said there was no sign that it had progressed beyond the eight suspects.

Two American advisers, a retired homicide detective and a former federal prosecutor, have been working with Honduran authorities since the first days of the inquiry, part of an effort by the United States Embassy to pushthe government of President Juan Orlando Hernández to solve high-profile criminal cases.

Many of those cases involve powerful groups that critics say operate beyond the law. “The great challenge for Honduras is to dismantle these parallel forces,” said Mr. Urbina, a criminal justice expert from Guatemala and an adviser on judicial reform.

To prepare the report, Mr. Urbina’s group examined some 40,000 pages of text messages, which were retrieved by Honduran government investigators from three cellphones, one seized at Desa’s offices and two used by Mr. Rodríguez and Mr. Bustillo.

The messages, according to the report, show that the two men remained in frequent contact with three high-ranking Desa executives as they tracked the movements of Ms. Cáceres and other members of her organization, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, known as Copinh.

The conversations reveal, the lawyers said, that the orders to threaten Copinh and sabotage its protests came from Desa executives who were exercising control over security forces in the area, issuing instructions and paying for police units’ food, lodging and radio equipment.

“There was this criminal structure comprised of company executives and employees, state agents and criminal gangs that used violence, threats and intimidation,” said Roxanna Altholz, the associate director of the Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the lawyers’ group.

The other members of the legal team are a former war crimes prosecutor, Dan Saxon, and two Colombian prosecutors who have tried human rights cases, Jorge E. Molano Rodríguez and Liliana María Uribe Tirado. They have been working on the case for a year, traveling to Honduras to conduct interviews and review case material.

Reaction Of Senator Patrick Leahy To The Report Of The Independent Team Of Experts Investigating The Assassination Of Berta Caceres In Honduras

“This damning report corroborates what many have suspected — that the investigation of Berta Caceres’ murder has been plagued by incompetence, attempts to stonewall and deflect blame to protect those who conceived of and paid for this plot, and a glaring lack of political will.  The Public Ministry needs to fully disclose, without further delay, all testimony and electronic and ballistics evidence to the Caceres family’s legal representatives and defendants’ lawyers, as required by law.  The Ministry also needs to ensure that every piece of evidence is properly safeguarded, and to follow the evidence wherever it leads to arrest those responsible.

“It is shameful that despite intense domestic and international pressure, this horrific case has languished, while those responsible have sought to derail it.  And there are hundreds of other Honduran social activists and journalists who have been similarly threatened and killed, whose cases have not even prompted investigations.

“Any hope that the Honduran Government may have of continued U.S. assistance under the Alliance for Prosperity Plan will hinge, in part, on the outcome of the Caceres case, acceptance of the legitimate role of civil society and the independent press, and top-to-bottom reform of the judicial system.”

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Honduras, the Deadliest Country in the World for Environmental Defenders, Is About to Get Deadlier

Activists in Honduras could soon face up to 20 years in prison for simply marching in the streets after Congress passed an article of the new Criminal Code last week that opposition lawmakers claim criminalizes social protest as a form of “terrorism.”

Opposition lawmaker Rasel Tomé of the left-wing Libre party told AFP that the move marked an assault on civic and political freedoms. “A mobilization for the defense of Indigenous people, labor, political and environmental rights cannot be characterized as crimes of terrorism,” he argued. “That’s why we voted against (the article).”

Human rights defenders have raised alarm over the proposed reform, arguing that the sweeping definition of “terrorism” in the bill leaves activists and social leaders vulnerable to harsh criminalization and violence at the hands of military and police forces.

“This project seeks to anticipate – to suffocate at times and above all anticipate – possible popular overflows.”

Article 590 of the new Criminal Code defines “terrorist associations” as groups with the aim of “gravely subverting the constitutional order or provoking a state of terror in the population or part of it.” Critics were particularly concerned by the section of the article that states that a group can be considered terrorist association “even if its established purpose is a lawful one” and the fact that judges will have discretion to determine what fits the definition of terrorism.

The article, passed with 42 votes in favor, 33 against, and one abstention, goes on to establish “prison sentences of 15 to 20 years” and a fine as punishment for the “managers, promoters or financiers” of such “terrorist” organizations.

Social movements suffer brutal legacy of U.S.-backed coup

Eugenio Sosa, sociologist and professor at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, characterized Article 590 as a continuation of a trajectory beginning with the 2009 U.S.-backed coup that has escalated toward more violent means of clamping down on civil society.

“After the experience of the (post-coup) resistance movement, citizens of different sectors in Honduras have been permanently mobilized for multiple issues linked to human rights, natural resources, land, (and) university students’ rights,” Sosa, author of the book “Dinámica de la protesta social en Honduras,” told Upside Down World in a phone interview. “This project seeks to anticipate – to suffocate at times and above all anticipate – possible popular overflows … in the face of a general public that is very jaded by impunity, corruption, and very severe social inequality.”

Amid the immediate shock and confusion of the June 28, 2009, ouster of former Liberal Party President Manuel Zelaya, social movements consolidated a broad-based resistance movement in the streets to in an attempt to rollback the coup and halt the grave human rights abuses accompanying the military takeover. The unprecedented National Front of Popular Resistance also demanded deeper transformation of the country’s young and fragile democracy through a National Constituent Assembly to rewrite the 1982 Constitution.

But the crackdown on the popular uprising was bloody, and according to a December 2009 report from the Inter-American Commission for Human rights, included deaths, declaring martial law, criminalizing dissent, arbitrary detention, militarization, and a host of other grave violations of human and political rights.

The human rights situation continued to deteriorate after the coup with targeted assassinations, forced disappearances, and torture as state terror rained down on human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, LGBTI activists, Indigenous and campesino leaders, and others. According to Global Witness, Honduras is the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders, with more than 120 killed since 2010, while the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights documented murders of 28 journalists between 2010 and 2015.

And this was all before protesters could be legally classified as terrorists.

Institutionalizing criminalization of dissent

Leader of the grassroots movement Ofraneh, representing the country’s Afro-Indigenous Garifuna communities, Miriam Miranda – who has suffered threats, attacks, violent arbitrary detention, and other harassment as a result of her outspoken criticism of neoliberal privatization and land grabbing in Honduras – told Upside Down World that Article 590 is the latest in a series of “legislative blows” to freedom of expression and the right to protest that have reached new heights this year with the Criminal Code reforms.

“The current government administration has done everything possible to restrict dissent as part of the re-election strategy laid out by the Juan Orlando Hernández regime,” she said, referring the president’s bid for a second term in office, a move that many have condemned as unconstitutional. She also noted that mainstream media has played a role in downplaying the extent of public outcry and protest in the country.

Miranda added that the “recomposition of political forces” since 2009 has paved the way for the “approval of countless neoliberal and undemocratic laws,” while systematic disappearance and assassinations of government detractors has been largely overshadowed by high levels of everyday violence, fueled by the generalized lawlessness brought on by the coup.

The murder of iconic resistance leader and Indigenous environmental activist Berta Cáceres in March 2016 – after she had suffered numerous assassination attempts, harassment, and threats of physical and sexual violence as a top target on a military hit list – is one emblematic case in an unchecked human rights and impunity crisis.

Many fear the assault on dissident voices in the deadliest country in the world for environmental defenders and one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists will only get worse with Article 590.

An earlier version of Article 590 targeted social protest as terrorism even more explicitly, including in the definition of terrorist associations those that “seriously alter the public peace.” After facing widespread opposition, the controversial clause was scrapped in the final version of Article 590 that was just approved, but critics are highly concerned that the inclusion of groups with both legal and illegal aims in the definition of terrorism leaves the potential for interpretation dangerously broad.

The article, together with the other reforms in the new Criminal Code, are expected to take effect next year. But not without a fight.

Libre’s Tomé told Upside Down World he has put forward a motion to reconsider the article, calling for removal of the clause that drags organizations with established “lawful” purposes into the definition of terrorist groups. He said he hopes Liberal lawmakers will back the effort, but claimed that the party’s position on the issue has been “volatile.”

Tomé and his colleagues already successfully removed from the new Criminal Code a controversial reform that had been approved earlier this year. Article 335-B, also referred to as the “Gag Law,” targeted journalists with four to eight years in jail for the crime of “apology, exaltation or justification” of terrorism. The reform drew criticism from the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights and United Nations human rights office, which argued that the ambiguity of the article threatened to restrict freedom of expression, while Honduras’ public prosecutor’s office symbolically declared the reform unconstitutional.

Congress voted earlier this month to repeal Article 335-B, though it will remain in force until the new Criminal Code takes effect. But whether Libre will be successful in winning an overhaul of Article 590 will depend on its ability to organize a unified opposition within Congress.

Tenuous opposition fumbles in Congress

An article in Honduran media outlet El Pulso the day after the vote on Article 590 argued that despite being critical of the move to criminalize social protest and blaming lawmakers of President Juan Orlando Hernández’s National Party for pushing through the reform, members of the opposition in Congress enabled it to go through by showing up to allow Congress to reach quorum without staying to vote against the controversial reform.

El Pulso’s Oscar Estrada noted that the session began with 107 of 129 members of Congress present, but many Libre and Liberal Party members later abandoned the room, “leaving the National Party to approve the polemical article by a simple majority.”

“Honduras faces a dispute between neoliberal and authoritarian projects and the search for more popular projects from the citizens, social movements, and some opposition politicians.”

The votes in favor overwhelmingly came from President Juan Orlando Hernández’ ranks, with just two Liberal Party lawmakers siding with 40 National Party lawmakers to approve the article. On the opposing side, 11 Libre lawmakers were joined by 16 Liberal Party members and six other lawmakers in rejecting the measure. Libre’s 28 seats together with the Liberal Party’s 31 seats outnumber the National Party’s 52 members of Congress.

“If the opposition lawmakers had stayed in the session to which they gave quorum, the article wouldn’t have passed,” wrote Estrada.

But Sosa argued that the framing in recent years of the Liberal Party, historically part of the country’s ruling elite, as an opposition force in the post-coup era is uncomfortable at best, and could create unrealistic expectations for how lawmakers may vote in Congress.

“I don’t know what to expect from a more than 100-year-old ruling party in Honduras, responsible for everything that is happening, above all the coup,” he said, arguing that even though the numbers add up for Libre and the Liberal Party to join forces as an opposition bloc, it is largely “self-damaging to see the opposition in this way” since the Liberal Party is “part of the same oligarchic group” as the National Party.

Factions of the Liberal Party – together with the Supreme Court, Congress, and the military – conspired to carry out the coup against Zelaya, a wealthy rancher, after he made modest progressive reforms during his term in office, most controversially calling for a non-binding poll on whether to hold a referendum in the 2009 election on convening a Constituent Assembly to rewrite the Constitution.

When asked by Upside Down World about the opposition’s attendance at the session, Libre’s Tomé did not clarify why so many members of Congress were not present for the vote. “Each lawmaker answers for his or her actions,” he said. “I cannot assume the reasons of other members of Congress (for not being present), it is their responsibility to explain their reasons.”

Election looms

With Libre positioning itself as the legitimate opposition force in Congress by leading the effort to block repressive reforms to the Criminal Code, the upcoming Nov. 26 elections are a key opportunity. Gaining political power could mean preventing a further rollback of rights and finally fighting for the deeper political transformation that was at stake when elites and the military, backed by the U.S. State Department, executed the 2009 coup.

As Sosa put it, “Honduras faces a dispute between neoliberal and authoritarian projects and the search for more popular projects from the citizens, social movements, and some opposition politicians.”

Activists hold a vigil in memory of slain Honduran Indigenous leader Berta Cáceres at the doors of the Organization of American States. Source: Creative Commons / Flickr–CIDH Daniel Cima

But eight years after constitutional crisis, the road to rebuilding the country’s fragile democracy is still fraught with challenges.

President Juan Orlando Hernández, who beat Libre’s candidate Xiomara Castro in the 2013 election amid widespread cries of electoral fraud, is running for a second term – a move that critics have slammed as unconstitutional and that has become the hallmark of right-wing hypocrisy and political amnesia in the country less than a decade after coup-perpetrators justified Zelaya’s ouster by falsely claiming he was attempting to seek re-election.

And two months ahead of the election, an opposition coalition between Libre, the Anti-Corruption Party, and the Innovation Party and United Social Democracy alliance (PINU-SD) – united under the banner “Opposition alliance against the dictatorship” and represented by candidate Salvador Nasralla – has warned of a concerted government fraud plot to rig the election and promise a more thoroughly-planned and technologically-supported repeat of the contested 2013 race. Criminalizing protesters as terrorists in the new Criminal Code could help shield Hernández from a popular uprising in case of fraud.

But the land activists, human rights defenders, environmental warriors, and other dissident voices putting their bodies on the line to defend their rights and resources have already lost too many to the struggle since the last election. Social movements are increasingly in the crosshairs, and they can’t afford another opposition loss.

Source: UpsideDownWorld.org


Sierra Club Magazine-Under the Gun: An Investigation Into the Murder of Berta Cáceres

GUSTAVO CASTRO WAS IN BED, working on his laptop, when he heard a loud noise. It sounded like someone was breaking open the locked kitchen door. From the bedroom across the hall, his friend Berta Cáceres screamed, “Who’s out there?” Before Castro had time to react, a man kicked down his bedroom door and pointed a gun at his face. It was 11:40 P.M. on March 2, 2016.

Castro, a Mexican activist who had spent his life involved in a range of social justice campaigns, was in La Esperanza, Honduras, to coordinate a three-day workshop on creating local alternatives to capitalism. Cáceres—one of the most revered environmental, indigenous, and women’s rights leaders in Honduras—had invited Castro to conduct the workshop for members of her organization, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, known by its Spanish acronym, COPINH. When he accepted the invitation to travel to Honduras, Castro knew that it could be dangerous, though he had no idea exactly how grave it would turn out to be.

Berta Caceres Zuniga (daughter of Berta Caceres) stands next to the Gualcarque River, which her mother died protecting. BERTA CÁCERES ZÚÑIGA (DAUGHTER OF BERTA CÁCERES) STANDS NEXT TO THE GUALCARQUE RIVER, WHICH HER MOTHER DIED PROTECTING. 

In recent years, Honduras had become a global leader on lists having to do with violence: the highest number of homicides per capita, the world’s second-most-murderous city (San Pedro Sula), and the most dangerous place on the planet to be an environmental advocate. As the most prominent spokesperson for a fierce indigenous campaign to stop the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River, Cáceres was no stranger to threats. The struggle over the proposed Agua Zarca dam had become a major political controversy. On one side were the indigenous Lenca people of COPINH, who had staged road blockades, sabotaged construction equipment, and appealed to international lenders to halt financing for the project. On the other were some of Honduras’s wealthiest families, many of them with close ties to the military. Cáceres’s leadership against the dam had earned her much attention, both positive and negative. In 2015, she received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize—and leading up to it, she also had received beatings from security forces and some 30 death threats, and spent a night in jail on fabricated charges.

Castro and Cáceres had been friends for more than 15 years and had collaborated on opposing the Free Trade Area of the Americas, open-pit mining, water privatization, and militarization. Castro’s workshop in La Esperanza was focused on developing strategies for moving beyond protest-centered social movements, and Cáceres had been energized by the sessions. That day she left repeated WhatsApp messages for her daughter, Berta Cáceres Zúñiga, who had just left Honduras to resume her graduate studies in Mexico. “She was really happy,” Cáceres Zúñiga said.

After the first day’s workshop, Cáceres had invited Castro to spend the night at her home so that he could have a quiet place to work. They arrived sometime around 10:30 P.M. after driving a mile and a half down a lonely dirt road from the center of La Esperanza. Castro remembers commenting on how isolated the property was. “How is it that you live here alone?” he asked Cáceres as they pulled up to the house.

The old friends spent some time talking on the front porch, and then each went to their own room. It was nearing midnight when the gunmen forced their way into the house and he heard Cáceres’s screams. “That’s when I realized we were dead,” Castro said.

Berta Caceres's sister and motherBERTA CÁCERES’S SISTER AND MOTHER 

In the instant before a shot was fired at him, Castro looked past the gun barrel and into the gunman’s eyes. “When I saw in his eyes the decision to kill me, I instinctively moved my hand and head,” Castro told me, showing me the scar on the back of his hand and lifting up his hair to reveal where a bullet had removed the top of his ear. “The killer experienced an optical illusion that he had shot me in the head. Because in the instant that he fired, I was still. But a millionth of a second before, I moved my hand and head. If I had moved a millionth of a second later, we wouldn’t be sitting here.”

Castro threw himself to the ground and lay still, pretending he was dead. He was bleeding from his ear, which was covered by his thick, curly hair. The gunman turned and walked out of the house.

“A few seconds later,” Castro said, “Berta screamed, ‘Gustavo! Gustavo!’ And I went to her room to help her. But it wasn’t more than a minute before Berta died. I said goodbye to her, grabbed the phone, and went back to my room to start calling people so that someone could come and rescue me. It didn’t take more than 30 seconds, a minute, from the time the killers entered to when they left. Everything happened so quickly. They were there to kill her. It was a well-planned assassination. The only thing they hadn’t anticipated is that I would be there.”

It was two days before Cáceres’s birthday. She would have turned 45.

Contact your members of Congress and urge them to support the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act.

IN 2010, THE RESIDENTS OF RÍO BLANCO, a Lenca community on the banks of the Gualcarque River, noticed workers with heavy machinery. They were “making roads where they had no business making roads,” said Rosalina Domínguez, a community leader there. The Lenca wasted no time in making their opposition known. “We confiscated one of their tractors,” Domínguez recalled. “We didn’t let them get much work done.”

A few months later, a group of men arrived in Río Blanco to show promotional videos for the hydroelectric dam they wanted to build, and to tell the community about the studies they had already done on the proposed project. People were unimpressed by the gesture. “Who gave you permission to conduct those studies?” they asked. An engineer said that the dam would provide the community with jobs, schools, and scholarships for their children. “We told him that it sounded like a bunch of promises that they would never follow through on,” Domínguez said. “So the community told him that we wouldn’t accept the project and that if someday they decided to try and build it anyway, the community would stand up and fight.”

In 2012, the company behind the proposed Agua Zarca dam, Desarrollos Energéticos (or DESA), sought to buy the land along the riverbanks. According to Dominguez, out of some 800 community members, only seven wanted to sell. A year later, the company moved ahead with construction anyway. In March 2013, a number of indigenous farmers walked out to their corn and bean fields to find they were no longer there. “We decided to fight when we saw how they destroyed the cultivated fields without so much as talking to the owners,” Domínguez said. “They plowed straight through the ears of corn and the beanstalks. That is when we blocked the road.”

Indigenous environmentalist Berta Caceres's house, outside La Esperanza, HondurasBERTA CÁCERES’S HOME, OUTSIDE LA ESPERANZA, HONDURAS 

Two days after the Lenca community set up its road blockade, Berta Cáceres arrived. Domínguez and Cáceres had met in 2009, when Cáceres went to Río Blanco to give a talk about the international laws protecting indigenous communities’ rights and to make a case for the importance of protecting the river. When Cáceres returned in April 2013 at the start of the road blockade, “she joined the struggle unequivocally,” Domínguez said. “She stayed with us day and night.”

United in its determination to halt the dam, the community of Río Blanco possessed a clear moral and legal stature: International law states that indigenous communities must give prior consent for projects like Agua Zarca, consent that the dam builders had not received. Cáceres brought to the conflict a strategic savvy honed during 20 years of social-change organizing. Her life to that point had prepared her for this very struggle.

Berta Flores Cáceres was born in La Esperanza in 1971 to a politically active family. Her mother, Austra Bertha Flores López, worked for decades as a midwife, assisting thousands of natural births in the Honduran countryside. She was also—while working full-time and raising 12 children, of whom Berta was the youngest—three times the mayor of La Esperanza, once the governor of the department of Intibucá, and later a member of Honduras’s congress.

Berta took to politics early. At age 12, she ran for student council and began participating in street demonstrations. During political meetings at the family home, she met Salvador Zúñiga  the man with whom she would eventually have four children and share more than 20 years of grassroots struggle. When she was 17, the couple had their first child, a daughter, shortly before crossing the border into El Salvador to join the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrilla army during that country’s brutal civil war. Her mother speaks of this with pride: “She went to fight, rifle in hand.”

After the war ended, in 1992, Zúñiga and Cáceres returned to Honduras, had their second daughter, Berta, and made a pact to never go to war again. “We understood that war was repugnant,” Zúñiga said. “It was the worst thing that could happen to people.” They committed themselves to “active nonviolence” and together founded COPINH.

In the subsequent years, Cáceres, Zúñiga, and COPINH would lead major indigenous marches to Tegucigalpa, the capital, and establish two autonomous indigenous municipalities—the first in Honduran history. Using grassroots organizing and lawsuits, they were able to halt the voracious logging in Intibuca. They also founded a women’s health center and five indigenous radio stations and established a social-movement training and retreat center on 10 acres of land in La Esperanza. “The whole world admired her,” her mother said. “She traveled abroad to help, to give trainings, to give talks, and to carry the message of what was happening here. She had this immense ability to defeat, a little bit, the huge power of the businesses and the big landowners that were her enemy.”

When Cáceres arrived in Río Blanco in the spring of 2013 to help stop the proposed Agua Zarca dam, she brought with her not only the skills of a seasoned organizer but also a national profile that was essential to elevating the struggle. As the blockade continued, DESA engineers and security personnel repeatedly threatened Río Blanco community members, though Cáceres soon became the focal point for threats and intimidation. DESA charged that the Lenca people—though they were living in their communities and farming their ancestral lands—were trespassing. On several occasions, the police dismantled the COPINH roadblocks, and each time the community put the blockade back in place. In mid-May, the Honduran government deployed the military. Soldiers from the Battalion of Engineers established a base camp inside DESA’s facilities.

The close cooperation between the dam builders and the military was part of a larger relationship. DESA’s executives and board of directors come from the Honduran military and banking elite. DESA’s secretary, Roberto Pacheco Reyes, is a former justice minister. The company president, Roberto David Castillo Mejia, is a former military intelligence officer accused of corruption by the Honduran government’s public auditor’s office. The vice president, Jacobo Nicolas Atala Zablah, is a bank owner and a member of one of Honduras’s wealthiest families.

Within days of the soldiers’ appearance at the site, someone planted a handgun in Cáceres’s car. She had already been searched at several police checkpoints when a subsequent military search suddenly revealed a firearm in her vehicle. Cáceres was arrested and taken to jail. She was able to post bail, and the gun charges were dropped, but then DESA filed a lawsuit against her for illegally occupying company land, and the Honduran federal prosecutors added sedition charges for good measure. Fearful of being arrested again, Cáceres went underground as her attorney fought the charges.

Under the Gun: An Investigation into the Murder of Berta Cáceres

“Everything against Berta shows that there is a connection between the military and the company,” said Brigitte Gynther, who has been working in Honduras with the School of the Americas Watch since 2012. “It was the military that had Berta arrested. The collusion between the military and DESA has been a constant since the beginning.”

Then the standoff turned deadly. On July 15, 2013, COPINH staged a peaceful protest at the dam company’s office. The demonstration had barely started when soldiers opened fire on the COPINH activists at close range, killing community leader Tomas Garcia and wounding his 17-year-old son, Alan.

The military’s attack on unarmed protesters marked a turning point. In August 2013, the giant Chinese dam-construction company Sinohydro pulled out of the project, citing the ongoing community resistance. The International Finance Corporation, a private-sector arm of the World Bank that had been considering investing in the dam, announced that it would not support the project. With funding in jeopardy, work on the dam limped along.

In the spring of 2015, Cáceres traveled to the United States to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize for her leadership in the dam struggle. Sometimes referred to as the Nobel Prize of the environmental movement, the award recognizes individuals who take great personal risks to protect the environment. In that sense, Cáceres was an ideal recipient. Since the dam conflict had begun, she had received many death threats. At one point, another activist had shown her a military hit list with her name at the top. (The Guardian later published an interview with a former Honduran special forces soldier who confirmed the existence of the hit list.)

Many of Cáceres’s friends and colleagues hoped the Goldman Prize would help protect her. “They gave her the Goldman, and I went with her [to the ceremony],” said Melissa Cardoza, a feminist organizer and writer who was a close friend of Cáceres’s. “And I thought, OK, she’s in the clear. This is going to back her up. Because for a long time she told me, ‘They are going to kill me because they won’t be able to put up with our winning this struggle.'”

GUSTAVO CASTRO WAS STILL bleeding from his wound when the cellphone of his dead friend rang. It was Karen Spring, a Canadian activist with the Honduras Solidarity Network. Spring was lying in bed around 1 A.M. on March 3, 2016, when she received a voicemail from a friend who said that Cáceres had been murdered and a Mexican activist was stuck in her house, wounded. When Spring called Cáceres’s number, Castro answered. “I asked him how badly he was injured,” Spring remembered. “He said that he was bleeding from the ear, that there was a lot of blood, but that he was OK.” Castro was terrified that the killers would return and was desperate to get out of the house. He asked Spring if he should call the police, and Spring said she would first try to get COPINH members to rescue him. “You can’t call the police,” Spring told me. “It’s like calling the mafia to the crime scene.”

From the beginning of the investigation, the police tried to blame the murder on someone from COPINH. They repeatedly interrogated Tomás Gómez Membreño, a veteran COPINH member who was among the first to arrive at the murder scene and help Castro. For two days, they detained Cáceres’s onetime boyfriend Aureliano Molina, even though he had not been in La Esperanza on the night of the murder. As detectives interrogated Gustavo Castro to draw a portrait of the man who had shot him, they ignored Castro’s descriptions and kept trying to draw a portrait of Molina. “I realized this days later,” Castro said, “when I saw his picture in the newspapers and I said to myself, ‘That’s the man they were trying to draw.'”

The police initially attempted to involve Castro in the murder. They kept him for days without medical attention, interrogating him at the crime scene over and over. After they told him that he was free to return to Mexico, he was nearly arrested at the airport. Fortunately for him, the Mexican ambassador was accompanying him, and she literally wrapped her arms around Castro and declared, “Consular protection,” allowing him to leave the airport, though not the country. After yet more interrogation, Castro was finally able to return to Mexico and reunite with his family almost a month later.

Two months after Cáceres’s murder, amid massive national and international outcry, Honduran officials began to make arrests. Analyzing phone records, prosecutors sketched an alleged web of complicity involving eight people: an active military officer, Major Mariano Díaz; two DESA employees, an Agua Zarca manager named Sergio Ramón Rodríguez and Douglas Geovanni Bustillo, an ex-military man who was DESA’s chief of security between 2013 and 2015; two former soldiers, Edilson Atilio Duarte Meza and Henry Javier Hernández Rodríguez; and three civilians with no known connections to DESA or the army, Emerson Eusebio Duarte Meza (Edilson’s brother), Óscar Aroldo Torres Velásquez, and Elvin Heriberto Rápalo Orellana. (According to the Guardian, both Díaz and Geovanni Bustillo received military training in the United States.) Honduran officials charged all eight with murder and attempted murder; all but one of the suspects have denied any involvement with the murder.

The arrests immediately cast a shadow on the Agua Zarca dam. Even after Cáceres’s murder, DESA had kept working on the dam. When federal police arrested two DESA employees in connection with the murder, the company halted work. The project remains suspended today. (DESA did not respond to interview requests via email and phone. In statements to the press, the company has repeatedly denied any connection to Cáceres’s murder.)

The Cáceres family and members of COPINH pointed out that investigators had failed to apprehend, or investigate, any possible high-level intellectual authors of the murder. “The public prosecutor accused her of being an instigator and of stealing from a company [DESA]. And now that same institution and the same individuals are the ones investigating her murder,” said Victor Fernández, COPINH’s attorney. “According to the prosecutor’s hypothesis, they have arrested the material authors and the intermediaries. But not the main perpetrators.”

COPINH and the Cáceres family also complained that the investigation had been compromised by political espionage that appears to have accompanied the police inquiry. The entire case file, for example, was supposedly stolen from the trunk of a judge’s car. Cáceres’s house was sealed and guarded by police and soldiers for five months after the murder, as the federal prosecutor’s office conducted its investigation. But when federal officials finally allowed Cáceres’s family back into the property, they realized the house had been broken into while under federal control. Police seals on the home and on Cáceres’s possessions inside were broken, and her two computers, three cellphones, and numerous external hard drives and flash drives were missing. “They stole all the information about COPINH that was in the house,” Cáceres Zúñiga said, referring to government officials.

The Cáceres family’s suspicions about the official investigation are inseparable from the broader atmosphere of distrust that has gripped Honduras since the country’s president, Manuel Zelaya, was overthrown in a 2009 military coup. Zelaya had raised the national minimum wage, proposed turning the massive U.S. military base in Honduras into a national airport, and made promises to indigenous and farmer organizations that he would grant their land claims. Such a program ran counter to the interests of Honduras’s entrenched elite, which deposed him in the middle of the night and put him on a plane in his pajamas. “The right wing didn’t just carry out a coup d’etat; they safeguarded their economic project,” Fernández said. “That is, they used the coup to produce a series of legislative reforms and institutional restructuring that gave them control over key areas and the whole process of remilitarizing the country.”

Soon after the coup, in 2010, a single act of congress granted 41 concessions for hydroelectric dams on rivers across the country. In April of that year, the Honduran government held an international investment convention called “Honduras Is Open for Business.” The country’s mining regulations were relaxed, and a moratorium on new mines was repealed. According to human rights groups, illegal logging increased in the wake of the coup. At the same time, threats against, and murders of, activists began to climb.

“Everything that is happening now stems from the coup,” Cáceres Zúñiga said. “It was the opening of everything that Honduras is going through now. All the violence, corruption, territorial invasions—that is the coup.”

Cáceres was a national leader of the resistance movement against the coup. She took to the streets and to the airwaves. She traveled to El Salvador to participate in a protest outside the building where the Organization of American States was meeting to discuss whether to allow Honduras back into the organization. By the time she took the helm of the struggle against the Agua Zarca dam, the coup government had identified her as an adversary. It was in this context that she became the target of a vicious smear campaign apparently orchestrated by DESA and Honduran officials. “There was this constant defamation campaign, especially for her as a woman. She was painted as this vicious, horrible person,” said Gynther, of the School of the Americas Watch.

Of the eight people currently under arrest and awaiting trial, only one, Hernández Rodríguez, has given detailed testimony that is admissible in court. Hernández Rodríguez was arrested in January 2017 while working at a barbershop in Reynosa, Mexico, and extradited to Honduras. He had been a Honduran special forces sniper with the rank of sergeant stationed in the Lower Aguán Valley and had served directly under Major Díaz. After he left the military, he went to work as a private security supervisor for a palm oil corporation, Dinant, also in the Lower Aguán (see “No One Investigates Anything Here”).

I was able to gain access to an audio recording of Hernández Rodríguez’s testimony. His description of the mechanics of the murder coincides with the physical evidence in Cáceres’s house and with Castro’s eyewitness testimony. While Hernández Rodríguez says that he cooperated with the assassination only under duress and that he didn’t carry a gun the night of the murder, his confession offers some new details. According to Hernández Rodríguez, the murder was planned well in advance: He and Geovanni Bustillo visited La Esperanza in late January and early February. Hernández Rodríguez admits to experience in this kind of political violence: Police have cellphone recordings of him bragging about committing a previous murder and discussing with 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.

Yet all of the physical evidence and testimony still do not answer the question of who, exactly, ordered the assassination. When asked this question by investigators, Hernández Rodriguez responded, “They only said that it was a job that had begun and that it had to be finished. That’s all they said.”

The long-running campaign against Cáceres—plus the alleged involvement of active and former military officers and DESA employees in the coordination and carrying out of the murder—has fueled suspicions that her murder was ordered by people highly placed in the Honduran government, military, and economic elite. (Honduran officials have denied any state connection to the murder.) But, according to COPINH members and Cáceres’s family, police have not sought to establish who was behind the assassination.

The question facing Honduran social movements and the Honduran government is, Will those responsible get away with murder?

A YEAR AFTER HER ASSASSINATION, I went to Cáceres’s home with her daughter. The small green house is surrounded by empty fields and a few other new houses and has beautiful views of the nearby mountains. Cáceres had only recently finished making payments on the home, with funds from the Goldman Prize, when she was killed. At the spot where her mother died, Cáceres Zúñiga maintains a thick circle of cypress and guava leaves from her grandmother’s backyard, arranged around a candle on the floor.

As Cáceres Zúñiga walked me through the property, explaining her understanding of what happened the night of the murder, she expressed frustration at how her mother has been remembered since the assassination. Too often, she scoffed, Berta Cáceres is reduced to being just an “environmentalist” or “Goldman Prize winner,” when in fact she was much more than that. I heard similar complaints from everyone who knew and loved Cáceres.

“It really hurts me when they only call her an environmentalist,” Miriam Miranda told me. “Berta was a feminist, indigenous woman of struggle who definitely fought for natural resources, but she was profoundly feminist.” Miranda is the leader of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras, and over the course of 25 years of shared struggle, she and Cáceres developed a deep friendship. She has survived beatings and assassination attempts and, since Cáceres’s murder, has become probably the highest-profile social-movement leader in Honduras. “They ripped out a part of my life,” Miranda said. “[Berta] was always there with me in the hardest moments of my life.”

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!” In the wake of political murder, one task of survivors is to refuse the logic of killing: the fear, hopelessness, and paralysis. To honor the fallen and what they offered, one must not only continue the struggle but fight harder and become one of the millions in whom those like Cáceres live on.

“Her life’s work was insurrection,” said Melissa Cardoza, the feminist organizer and writer. “One day I was with her when she was being arrested. The police were taking down her information, and I was with her. And the cop asked her, ‘What is your profession?’ And she said, ‘I’m a professional agitator.’ The cop said, ‘I can’t put that down.’ And she asked why not? ‘Because it doesn’t exist,’ the cop said. And so she turns to me and says, ‘You tell them. I’m a professional agitator.’ And so I told the cop, ‘Well, it’s true. That’s what she does.’

“That was our Bertita.”

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Honduras: Justicia en la cuerda floja

En Honduras, la justicia pasa de parecer lejana a volverse completamente inasible.

El 23 de mayo, por tercera vez consecutiva, el Juzgado de Letras de la ciudad de Tegucigalpa aplazó la audiencia preliminar en el caso del asesinato de la defensora de derechos humanos y líder lenca, Berta Cáceres.

El Juzgado aceptó la petición de los abogados de la familia y del defensor Gustavo Castro, único sobreviviente del ataque en el que Berta Cáceres fue asesinada el 2 de marzo de 2016, de aplazar la audiencia preliminar de cuatro de lasocho personas acusadas de haber participado en el crimen para el 7 de Junio.

¿La razón? El Ministerio Público entregó la información probatoria que desde hace meses habían solicitado tanto los abogados de la familia y del defensor mexicano, como la defensa de los acusados, apenas el viernes 19 de mayo. Dicho tiempo es a todas luces insuficiente para revisar la información y para permitir que los abogados pudieran prepararse adecuadamente para la diligencia que iba a ser realizada el 24 de mayo.

Ya el 19 de abril, la audiencia había sido suspendida apetición de los abogados de los acusados y de la representación legal de la familia de Berta, debido a que el Ministerio Público hondureño no había entregado la información probatoria completa en la que basa su acusación. El 28 de Abril fue suspendida otra vez porque la información todavía no se hallaba disponible.

Los aplazamientos reiterados de esta audiencia con la que se dará inicio formal al proceso, derivados de la omisión reiterada del Ministerio Público de entregar las pruebas, primero, y hacerlo a tiempo, después, generan muchos interrogantes sobre la auténtica voluntad de las autoridades hondureñas de investigar cabalmente y de manera independiente el crimen de Berta Cáceres.

Foto: Cuartoscuro

A más de un año del asesinato, la justicia se desdibuja como una esperanza vana frente al crimen que marcó un antes y un después para quienes defienden los derechos humanos en Honduras.

Pero nada de esto es una novedad.

Honduras es uno de los países donde la impunidad es la norma en casos de ataques contra personas que defienden los derechos humanos.Esta impunidad alienta que sigan muriendo más personas que son vistas como blanco legítimo de ataques porque cuando atreven a defender el medio ambiente son clasificadas como una “enemigas del progreso”.

En una muestra más de que el Ministerio Público no se preocupa por rendir cuentas en su lucha contra la impunidad, no se presentó a participar en una reunión con la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos para revisar el cumplimiento de las medidas cautelares otorgadas a la familia de Berta Cáceres y al COPINH. No sobra señalar que Berta Cáceres fue asesinada a pesar de que ella misma había sido cobijada por medidas de este tipo y de que las autoridades hondureñas tenían el deber de protegerla.

Así, el riesgo es que nunca se haga justicia y que el nombre de Berta Cáceres engrose la larga lista de personas que fueron asesinadas por el solo hecho de proteger los recursos naturales de los que todos dependemos para sobrevivir.

Desde hace años, las autoridades Hondureñas hacen oídos sordos a las innumerables voces que en cada rincón del planeta cuestionan la realidad que viven quienes allí dedican su vida a la defensa de los derechos humanos.

Liliana María Uribe Tirado, miembro delGrupo Asesor Internacional de Personas Expertas (GAIPE), quienes están realizando una investigación independiente sobre el asesinato de Berta, es una de esas voces.

“Nos preocupa mucho la naturaleza secreta del proceso y la falta de atención a las varias posibles líneas de investigación. Las autoridades deberían prestar atención a la sistematicidad de las agresiones contra el COPINH. El crimen contra Berta se tiene que explicar en ese contexto. Hay más de 12 personas asesinadas del COPINH entonces el nivel de agresión contra la organización es muy fuerte. Todo eso debería ser parte de la investigación,” dijo.

A más de 13 meses del asesinato de Berta Cáceres, las preguntas se acumulan y las respuestas se evaporan.

Una sola cosa es clara: la justicia está en la cuerda floja y las y los hondureños son y seguirán siendo la principal víctima.

Ariadna Tovar es investigadora sobre defensores de derechos humanos en las Américas para Amnistía Internacional.


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Statement from the family of Berta Cáceres on Honduran government deception

It has been 15 months since the assassination of our beloved Berta and the Honduran government continues to obfuscate, delay and impede justice. Our family and our legal team have repeatedly requested documents pertaining to the case that we – by law as a private prosecutor — have a right to have. Yet, the Attorney General and Pubic Ministry have refused to hand over relevant information, violating a court decision.

An example of the hubris with which they operate is that the hearing that began on April 19, 2017 was forced to suspension because the Public Ministry had not provided the family’s legal team with the necessary information.  The court stated the information would be provided on April 28, 2017, however this has yet to happen.   Our legal team went so far as to offer to pay for photocopies, and yet they still will not provide the information.  The legal team has also asked why the government did not seize certain relevant documents during raids conducted at DESA’s offices and is asking why they have not shared the information they did seize.

The government’s machinations illustrate exactly why there is a need for an independent international investigation as we — and the international community — have demanded since Berta’s assassination in early March of 2016.

We demand that the government stop covering up for the assassins and the yet-to-be captured intellectual authors. Is the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez afraid of where a legitimate, unobstructed investigation might lead? Who are they protecting?

We demand justice for Berta.

The Family of Berta Cáceres

Rep. Norma Torres Refuses Family of Berta Cáceres’ Call to Support Berta Cáceres Act

(Rep. Norma Torres D-CA with Honduran Pres. Juan Orlando Hernandez)

First, I would like to offer my heartfelt and sincere condolences for your loss. To lose a loved one in such a violent manner is a tragedy that none of us should have to face. To be forced to wait so long to see justice done is simply unacceptable.

Like many people across the world, I was shocked and outraged when Berta Caceres was killed on March 3, 2016. It was clear to me then, and it remains clear to me now, that her murder was not only an unspeakable act against a brave individual, but also an attack against the right of all Hondurans to speak out in defense of human rights, indigenous rights, and the environment. I have joined my colleagues in calling for justice, and in particular for calling on Honduras to invite the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to ensure a thorough and transparent investigation. I have also sent letters about these concerns to the Secretary of State and to the United States Ambassador in Honduras, and my colleagues and I have raised the case of Berta Caceres with representatives of the Honduran government, including the President of Honduras.

Human rights are at the core of the United States’ relationship with Central America. We will continue to hold our partners in the region accountable, and I have supported strong conditions on our assistance to Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. Furthermore, I believe that improving protections for human rights defenders and improving the capacity of justice systems to investigate and prosecute violent crimes must be top priorities for our assistance in Honduras. However, as you note in your letter, I have not cosponsored the Berta Caceres Act. While I share many of the goals of that legislation, I do not believe that suspending all civilian security assistance to Honduras is the best way to achieve those goals.

Please know that I will continue to advocate for truth and justice in the case of Berta Caceres’ murder. Furthermore, I will work with my colleagues in Congress to ensure that we hold our partners in Central America accountable for making progress on human rights issues.


NORMA J. TORRES Member of Congress

Letter to Rep. Norma Torres Asking for Berta Cáceres Law Support

Family of Berta Cáceres XXXX Xth Ave.
Oakland, California XXXXX

March 2, 2017

3200 Inland Empire Blvd. Suite 200B
Ontario, CA 91764

Dear Rep. Norma Torres,

We, the family of assassinated Honduran environmental and indigenous rights leader Berta Cáceres, write to you today to appeal for your support for the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, which was introduced this week in the U.S. House of Representatives

As the first Central American to serve in Congress and as a leader of the Central American Caucus in the House of Representatives, your knowledge and leadership on issues involving Latin America is crucial. We believe that your support for the Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act will further strengthen your standing as an advocate for Central Americans and human rights, both in the U.S. and in Honduras.

The Cáceres Act calls for the suspension of “…United States security assistance with Honduras until such time as human rights violations by Honduran security forces cease and their perpetrators are brought to justice,” for wide-ranging human rights abuses, such as the murders of dozens of activists including 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize winner, Berta Cáceres.

A government that fails to protect its citizens and whose security forces are implicated in attacks and killings of activists should not be receiving security funding and training from the U.S. government.

In Berta’s case, after dozens of death threats and attempts to jail her on trumped up charges by state and non-state affiliated security forces, she was finally silenced. Three state security agents – one active and two former – are among those implicated in her killing so far. A former member of the military police, now in hiding, reported that Berta’s name was at the top of a “hit list” that his U.S.-trained unit received. The former soldier told the Guardian that he was “100% certain that Berta Cáceres was killed by the army.”

With Berta’s assassination, Honduran girls and boys lost a heroine, someone they could look up to proudly and who they wanted to emulate. The subsequent investigation into her assassination has made a mockery of proper law enforcement procedures. The incompetence ranges from a trampled crime scene to the inexplicable disappearance of one of Berta’s computers from her house, to the burglary of her case files from a magistrate’s car and the arbitrary detention and torture of the key witness to the killing.

For many Hondurans and friends of Honduras, the killing of Berta – one of the country’s most beloved and high profile activists – was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Since 2009, hundreds of social leaders have been murdered in Honduras, often with the alleged complicity of state security forces. The vast majority of these killings are never investigated, and those responsible are never brought to justice.

As the original Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act states in its findings, “Impunity remains a serious problem, with prosecution in cases of military and police officials charged with human rights violations moving too slowly or remaining inconclusive.” It adds: “[T]he Department of State in its 2015 Human Rights Report for Honduras reports “corruption, intimidation, and institutional weakness of the justice system leading to widespread impunity.”.

This is why we ask for your help in supporting the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act. It is increasingly clear that the government of Juan Orlando Hernández is unwilling to act decisively to stop the killings of social activists in Honduras and to conduct honest and thorough investigations of killings and attacks. In addition the government has consistently failed to respect basic indigenous land rights as it is required to do under its international treaty obligations.

We ask you to stand with us, with Honduras, with Berta and our family.

The Family of Berta Cáceres