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Impunity and the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | May 3, 2016

“The Honduran government lacks the veracity and political will to conduct a just, thorough and professional investigation.”

This was the reaction of Silvio Carrillo, a nephew of Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres, when asked to comment on the news that four men have been arrested by Honduran police in connection with the March 3 assassination of his aunt.

Berta Cáceres

Honduran activist Berta Cáceres (via Goldman Environmental Prize)

Cáceres, honored by the award of the Goldman Environmental Prize only the year before her death, was an iconic figure in Honduran activism for indigenous rights and environmental justice.

Her international visibility should have given her some protection from the violent suppression of activism that claimed the lives of more than 100 citizens fighting for the rights of the Honduran people in just the four years from 2010 to 2014. As reported in Britain’s newspaper The Guardian, “a disproportionately high number of them were from indigenous communities who resisted development projects or the encroachment of farms on their territory”.

Most such crimes are never solved in Honduras. Indeed, in the early days following Berta Cáceres’ death, the Honduran police showed their normal pattern of proposing highly unlikely scenarios, and seeking scapegoats, including holding and questioning Gustavo Castro, an activist from Mexico who was visiting Cáceres and was wounded in the fatal attack on her.

This is impunity, recognized as typical in Honduras by United Nations special rapporteur for indigenous rights Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, who was quoted in The Guardian as saying:

“This shows the high level of impunity in Honduras… there is a clear tendency for indigenous campaigners and human rights activists to be killed.”

As activist Annie Bird said in the wake of the night-time home invasion in which Berta Cáceres was shot to death, “If they can kill Berta in this way, they could kill anyone who’s working for the same causes that she was working for.”

But, who are “they”?

With the arrest of four men on suspicion of the crime, “they” have been identified as two retired military officers (a major and a general, according to the New York Times) and two employees of Desarrollos Energéticos S.A., the politically well-connected company that was trying to build a hydroelectric dam without the consent of the indigenous Lenca people.

mural remembering Berta Cáceres

A mural in Palma, Majorca (Chixoy via Wikimedia Commons)

These arrests sparked comments from the U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, James Nealon, apparently applauding the Honduran security forces:

“We welcome the announcement of arrests in the murder of Berta Cáceres.

“From the very beginning, we have called for a thorough investigation into Caceres’ murder – one that followed the evidence and that would lead to those who committed the crime, including the intellectual authors.

“We will continue to follow closely as the suspects arrested today enter the judicial process, as well as any future arrests, and will continue to support this investigation in any way we can.”

Yet for most of those close to Cáceres, and for long-term observers of Honduras, the security forces of Honduras are implicated in the normal exercise of impunity that has only been interrupted here due to the higher visibility that Cáceres achieved internationally. Indeed, international investigators confirmed that the crime scene had been altered, presumably by the Honduran police forces who at the time were spinning unlikely explanations of the crime.

The family and National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras in Honduras (COPINH) had called for an investigation under the authority of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In response to the announcement of arrests, they issued a statement saying:

“Because we have been excluded from the investigative process from the start, we have no way to judge whether the arrests are the result of an exhaustive investigation, nor do we know if they included the intellectual authorship at all its levels.”

The suspicion is that the “intellectual authorship” of this crime — the orders to go ahead and end the life of this powerful, effective, activist — goes higher than the four men arrested. The suspicion is that the intellectual authors of this crime include government officials like those who created false charges against Berta Cáceres in a bid to take away her international legitimacy before she was killed.

protest banner

A protest in Washington, D.C., following Berta Cáceres’ assassination

This suspicion, based on the prevalence of impunity at the highest levels of Honduran society, is expressed in the statement by COPINH and the family of Berta Cáceres, in a continuation omitted from the main English language reporting, perhaps because it seems inflammatory. Those comments, which I translate here from the Spanish reporting, followed the expression of concern about the intellectual authors of the crime being left unidentified:

“the presumed participation by active and retired military personnel with links to the company, DESA, would seem to demonstrate the involvement of state agents in the assassination, which should be examined in depth, and is sufficient reason to suspend the hydroelectric project Agua Zarca in an immediate and definitive manner.”

Because despite the death of this activist following threats from employees of DESA (including one now accused of her murder), the Honduran government has not acceded to the wishes of the Lenca people, and has not halted the project that Cáceres was opposing, for which opposition the arrests show she was killed.

In a statement in the same Spanish language press report, representatives of DESA were quoted as saying the project “in no way is responsible, nor does it have material or intellectual ties with the assassination of the indigenous leader, Berta Cáceres,” and expressed “surprise at the detention of Sergio Rodríguez, who works as manager of social and environmental issues” at DESA.

The DESA representative ended saying:

“Agua Zarca will bring to fruition in Honduras a renewable energy project that will be accomplished under strict environmental measures and that has the total support of all the communities in its zone of influence.”

That’s impunity in action: once all the opposition has been killed, you can say there is no opposition.

Other Honduran activists will work to ensure that the story of Berta Cáceres does not end there. No impunity.

Comments to “Impunity and the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres

  1. Since the 2009 coup, the degree of corruption in Honduras is totally insane; they feel so powerful and free of doing what they pleased without fearing punishment. The current president himself openly declared that he used stolen money from the IHSS (Social Security) for his political campaign. Everybody in Honduras knows that the Atala Family, the owners of DESA, are involved in the murder of Berta Caceres. That the police and military are involved in drugs, extortion and murder of civilians. Because the international pressure the government recently has been playing tough, we know it is a mockery.

    Sadly, Honduras is living its worse situation. There isn’t hope to a better future because there isn’t justice, and while U.S international policies keep supporting governments like this to keep Central America free of “communism,” my family, friends and every Honduran citizen will remain living this reign of terror.

  2. How people continue to organize and demand change — given the impunity in Honduras — is extraordinary. The violence is among the worse in the world. Yet, Hondurans insist and struggle for indigenous rights and that the protection of the environment must continue.

    Thank you, Rosemary Joyce, for this article about Berta Cáceres’ assassination.

  3. Prof. Joyce, Thanks for writing this and my full comment to the NY Times is below. Thank you.

    “We have not been given any information, in fact, when I called my grandmother this morning she was waiting by the radio for details, she was upset and her voice was breaking as if in tears, I’ve never heard her like that before. Last week someone from ATIC told them that there would be news soon. Then someone from the U.S. embassy showed up to invite my grandmother to the embassy on Tuesday. So I assume they know something was up too, but no one told us anything.

    It wasn’t until 11 days after the assassination of Bertita that Honduran authorities actually claim they went DESA to conduct a search, so whether it is actually the people who pulled to trigger or not is unclear. As we have stated since the assassination — and there is worldwide understanding of this — the Honduran government lacks the veracity and political will to conduct a just, thorough and professional investigation. To make matters worse, this investigation is being conducted by people that may have been complicit in the murder. This is why we emphatically continue to call for an independent international investigation conducted by an organization such as IACHR.”

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