Jus­tice for Cáceres – but the blood­shed con­tin­ues

The en­vi­ron­men­tal­ist’s killers may have been found guilty – but ques­tions re­main over cover-ups and cor­rup­tion

The Guardian Weekly - - Inside - By Nina Lakhani TEGUCIGALPA

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

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