Arrests made in connection with the murder of Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres are a positive step, but only an independent investigation will deliver justice, says Global Witness.
Four men have been arrested over Cáceres’ killing, two months after she was shot dead in her home. Cáceres was awarded the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her decade-long opposition to the ruinous impacts of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on her community’s land.
“The people who ordered Berta Cáceres’ murder must be held to account, not just the triggermen,” said Billy Kyte, campaigner at Global Witness. “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.”
Two of the detainees are linked to the Honduran company building the dam, Desarrollos Energéticos SA, or DESA - Ramón Rodriguez, an engineer, and Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, the company’s former head of security. Cáceres reportedly told the authorities that both men had made threats against her life. (1) The other two suspects, Mariano Díaz Chávez and Edison Atilio Duarte Meza, both have ties to the Honduran armed forces.
The Honduran government is coming under mounting pressure to allow an independent international investigation into Cáceres’ murder, amid widespread claims of domestic political interference.
Cáceres’ family revealed a glaring conflict of interest in that an official involved in the investigation had previously represented DESA against Cáceres and her indigenous organisation COPINH. (2)
Police initially said they thought that Cáceres had been killed in a botched robbery attempt. Shortly afterwards, friends and colleagues at COPINH were brought in for questioning without any evidence linking them to the crime. Mexican activist Gustavo Castro - the sole witness to the shooting – claimed that the murder scene was tampered with, (3) and Cáceres’ family say their lawyers were denied access to a complete autopsy report. (4)
The activist had reported 33 death threats linked to her campaign (5). The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) had requested emergency protection measures, which Cáceres’ said the Honduran state never provided.
As the activist’s youngest daughter, Laura Cáceres, told the Guardian, “The Honduran state is too closely linked to the murder of my mother to carry out an independent investigation. It is the government who awarded the dam commission and the government who sent military and police to work with Desa’s private security guards, who threatened my mother.” (6)
Cáceres helped expose the acute vulnerability of environmental activists in Honduras, the world’s most dangerous country per capita to be one. According to Global Witness research at least 109 were killed in the country between 2010 and 2015, linked to a surge in destructive dam, mining and agribusiness projects. (7)
“Berta Cáceres’ murder was not an isolated incident – it was just one of a systematic assault on Honduran communities who dare to take a stand against the industrialisation of their land,” said Billy Kyte. “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 perpetrators to justice.”
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(2) According to her family one of those responsible for denying basic information around Cáceres’ case is Honduras’ Director of Public Attorneys, Jose Arturo Duarte, who represented the dam company DESA in past legal actions against Cáceres’ organisation COPINH. It was only after Cáceres’ family’s lawyers revealed this conflict of interest very recently that the public prosecutor stepped down from the case.
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