Justice for Cáceres – but the bloodshed continues
The environmentalist’s killers may have been found guilty – but questions remain over cover-ups and corruption
Berta Cáceres spent the final hours of her life being tailed by contract killers. On 2 March 2016, at least four men were following the Honduran activist in the town of La Esperanza.
They shadowed her as she went the training centre where her organisation – the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (Copinh) – was hosting an alternative energy workshop; they followed her to her mother’s house, to her favourite restaurant – and finally to her home at around 9.30 that night.
Cáceres was frightened, and asked Gustavo Castro, a Mexican environmentalist and old friend, to stay with her, as she was scared of being alone. They sat talking on the porch for a while, before heading inside to rest. Just after 11.30pm, at least two men broke into the house.
“Who’s there?” shouted Cáceres, before Elvin Rapalo shot her three times with a 38mm revolver. He stamped on her torso to stop her fighting back.
A second gunman, Oscar Torres, shot at Castro, and blood gushed from his left ear. Castro played dead, and heard what sounded like a walkie talkie, probably in the hands of Henry Hernandez, a former special forces sergeant who led the team of killers.
The gunmen fled to a getaway car driven by Edilson Duarte Meza.
When they had gone, Cáceres called out to her friend, who cradled her in his arms as she lay dying. “Don’t go, Berta,” he begged.
It was just before a quarter to midnight when the former Goldman Environmental prize winner took her last breath.
Last week, a court in Tegucigalpa convicted the four men of murdering Cáceres, and the attempted murder of Castro, but many questions over her death remain unanswered.
The trial was mired by allegations of negligence and cover-ups, but the verdict was clear: the killers were paid to shoot Cáceres, and the order came from executives at Desa, a company building an internationally backed hydroelectric project on a river considered sacred by the indigenous Lenca people.
Cáceres had led opposition to the Agua Zarca dam and the protests were causing delays and financial losses to the project, so an elaborate plan was drawn up to kill her.
Surveillance, planning and logistics were handled by three men: Sergio Ramón Rodríguez, Desa’s communities and environment manager, who managed a network of paid informants; Douglas Bustillo, the company’s former security chief and a US-trained ex-army lieutenant; and Mariano Díaz, a decorated US trained special forces major who at the time of the murder was under investigation for drug trafficking and kidnap.
Even though they were not there at Cáceres’s death, they were found guilty of her murder. They were
‘Our battle for dignity, truth and justice does not end here. We will keep fighting’
cleared of Castro’s attempted murder. Another man, Emerson Duarte Meza, was found not guilty on all counts.
The killing prompted outrage around the world, coming when Honduras was already the most dangerous place in the world to defend land and environmental rights, with impunity rates for murder topping 90%.
That inglorious ranking was rooted in the 2009 coup that ushered in a probusiness government who sanctioned scores of renewable energy projects, mines, and biofuel plantations, in rural communities without consultation.
At least 49 mega-projects were destined for Lenca territories, and Cáceres led multiple campaigns to stop land-grabs. But it was opposition to Agua Zarca on the river Gualcarque that triggered the worst repression.
Over the course of 2013, the surrounding area was militarised, Cáceres and other Copinh leaders were offered money to support the dam, and a local leader was shot dead by a soldier. Work was suspended and protests died down – but then Desa launched a modified plan, work resumed in late 2015 – and so did the protests, led by Cáceres.
That was when the order to kill her was made. Cáceres was closely monitored, and the information shared on WhatsApp groups including company shareholders, managers and security personnel.
Company president David Castillo, a former intelligence officer, is accused of masterminding the murder and faces trial separately. He and Desa have denied any wrongdoing.
Desa’s international lawyer dismissed the verdict as a “politically motivated farce”.
The court’s decision last Thursday brought a measure of justice, but despite the international indignation over Cáceres’s murder, the bloodshed has continued in Honduras.
On the same day, Reynaldo Reyes Moreno, a community leader battling against an internationally financed solar project in southern Honduras was killed.
Ending such murders means ending impunity for those behind the crimes, said Laura Zúñiga, Cáceres’s youngest daughter. “Our battle for dignity, truth, and justice does not end here. We will keep fighting – just like Berta Cáceres did.” NINA LAKHANI REPORTS ON CENTRAL AMERICA AND MEXICO
Demonstrators during the trial in Tegucigalpa, Honduras