Shot activist’s family condemn ‘cover-up’ as Honduras trial starts
Court has been ‘grossly negligent,’ says daughter of Berta Cáceres before murder trial of eight men
The trial of eight men accused of the murder of the environmental activist Berta Cáceres will begin in Honduras tomorrow amid accusations of a political cover-up.
Cáceres was shot dead just before midnight on 2 March 2016 at her home in La Esperanza in western Honduras, after a long battle against a hydroelectric dam project on territory considered sacred to the indigenous Lenca people. Her death sparked international condemnation and confirmed the Central American country’s status as the most dangerous in the world for environmental and land-rights defenders.
Gustavo Castro, a Mexican environmentalist, was shot in the same attack but survived by pretending to be dead. The eight defendants are also accused of his attempted murder. All deny the charges.
Cáceres, who was coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (Copinh), led opposition to the internationally financed Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque river, which triggered a wave of repression, including violent evictions, surveillance, sexual harassment, false criminal charges and multiple death threats. The dam was licensed to the company Desarrollos Energéticos SA (Desa).
Cáceres’s family have urged the authorities to conduct a broad investigation into the campaign of terror, rather than focusing on her murder as an isolated attack.
An investigation published by an international group of lawyers last year suggested a pattern of infiltration, surveillance, criminal conspiracy, illicit association and corruption targeting Cáceres and Copinh. The report concluded that a network of Honduran state agents and senior Desa executives had been involved in the events leading to Cáceres’s death. Desa denies any wrongdoing and rejects the report as biased.
At pre-trial public hearings in Tegucigalpa last week, the court rejected petitions by the family’s lawyers to allow expert witness testimony about the roles, responsibilities and connections between the accused as part of an alleged criminal structure. The court also rejected requests to call Desa’s financial manager, Daniel Atala Midence, and members of the board as witnesses.
Bertita Zúñiga Cáceres, the murdered leader’s daughter and current Copinh coordinator, condemned the court’s actions as “grossly negligent” and said the decision was part of a wider effort to conceal the truth.
Last month, the attorney general was forced to admit that investigators had failed to review mobile phones, tablets, computers, hard drives, USB drives and documents confiscated during the arrests and raids more than two years earlier. The admission came after 35 requests by the family’s lawyers for access to evidence had been stonewalled. Analysis is under way, but “it is a race against time with no guarantee it will be ready or admitted by the judges”, said a person with close knowledge of the case.
Cáceres, who was killed two days before her 45th birthday, was awarded the prestigious Goldman prize in 2015 for leading the campaign to stop construction of the dam. Her death was the most high-profile since the 2009 military-backed coup in Honduras, which unleashed a wave of violence against community leaders, lawyers, journalists and human rights defenders.
Two of the defendants are directly linked to Desa: Sergio Rodríguez Orellana, the firm’s communities and environmental manager, and the US-trained former army lieutenant Douglas Bustillo, the company security chief between 2013 and 2015. Cáceres accused both men of threatening her and Copinh colleagues, which they deny.
Two others have military links. Mariano Díaz Chávez is an active US-trained special forces major who had served in Iraq with coalition forces and as a UN peacekeeper. Díaz had served as the special forces intelligence chief. He trained with Bustillo, and the pair remained close.
Henry Javier Hernández Rodríguez, a former special forces soldier who worked under the command of Díaz, is the only suspect who admits to being at Cáceres’s house on the night of the murder. Hernández, who was arrested in Mexico, denies killing Cáceres. The former soldier was working in private security with Bustillo at the time of the murder.
In March, Desa’s executive president, David Castillo Mejía, was detained and will face trial separately. Castillo, a US-trained former intelligence officer, has been charged with being the “intellectual author” of the crime. Testifying after his arrest, Castillo strongly denied any link to the murder and said that he and Cáceres were in fact friends.
Desa insists the company has been wrongly targeted by prosecutors due to pressure from human rights groups, the media and Copinh.
“There’s been a fraudulent campaign to link innocent people to a capital crime with absolutely no evidence … This is an economic attack against entrepreneurs trying to bring jobs to Central America,” said Desa’s lawyer Robert Amsterdam. “The failure of the government to share information should ring alarm bells with anyone who cares about justice.”
At the time of her death, Cáceres was involved in numerous political and social struggles.
A spokesman for the public prosecutor’s office said that disclosure rules had been followed. “We are confident about the evidence against the nine men charged as a result of our multidisciplinary team investigation supported by American investigators. The investigation to find the remaining intellectual authors [masterminds] continues but the case is practically resolved.”
The trial is expected to run until 19 October.
One report said her group was targeted through infiltration and surveillance by a network that included state agents
Berta Cáceres led a campaign against a hydroelectric dam. She was shot dead in 2016.