Seven men were sentenced to between 30 to 50 years for the murder of Honduran indigenous environmentalist Berta Cáceres. In November 2018, a Honduran court ruled that her murder was ordered by executives of DESA, the company constructing the Agua Zarca dam. They found that this action was motivated by the delays and financial losses linked to protests. Cáceres was a strong opponent of the construction of this hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River.
More than a year after the guilty verdict, four hitmen – Elvin Rapalo, Edilson Duarte Meza, Óscar Torres, and Henry Javier Hernández – were given 34 years in prison each. They also each received 16 years and four months for the attempted murder of Mexican environmentalist Gustavo Castro. He survived the same attack which killed Cáceres by playing dead. DESA’s communities and environment manager Sergio Ramón Rodríguez, and former DESA security chief Douglas Geovanny Bustillo were given sentences of 30 years and six months for their role in the murder. Mariano Díaz Chávez was found guilty by omission and given a 30-year sentence. The seven men have been given 20 days to appeal their sentences.
Former DESA executive president David Roberto Castillo was indicted on allegations of having coordinated with the killers, and provided funding to them. Castillo has also been indicted on various corruption charges connected to the licensing of the Agua Zarca dam.
Berta Cáceres, a member of the Lenca Indigenous community, was the co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. This organization fought for the rights of Indigenous people and tried to emphasize the dangers associated with illegal logging and mining operations. In 2015, she was rewarded the Goldman environmental prize for her role in stopping the construction of the Agua Zarca dam. The dam was very dangerous for the Lenca community, as it would have flooded a large area and cut off supply access for hundreds of Lenca people. On 3 March 2016, masked men went into her home and shot the 42-year-old environmentalist dead.
Olivia Zúniga, daughter of Berta Cáceres, said “This is a day of pain because the intellectual authors of my mother’s murder are still enjoying impunity. We are not going to believe that there’s true justice until these people are in jail.” She has accused prominent Honduran business group, Atala-Zablah, along with major DESA shareholders, as the parties behind her mother’s murder.
Environmentalists and land defenders face significant threats and risks globally. Honduras remains a very dangerous place in general, including for environmentalists. According to a 2017 study by NGO Global Witness, more than 120 people in Honduras have been killed while standing up for environmental concerns since 2010. While the assassins were arrested in this case, which in itself is not a common occurrence, the financiers of these acts remain evasive.
The prospect for justice in this case is an important step. It has not been delivered instantly, with the process taking over three years since the murder of Berta Cáceres. The lack of consistent justice in the aftermath of the high rates of violence that activists in Honduras face perpetuates a violent and hostile atmosphere. Delving deeper into the financial networks that place orders for violence against activists is essential to systematically dismantling the interests that strive to destroy any opposition blocking their objectives, including resource extraction projects. By addressing the factors that propagate dangers against environmentalists, there is the opportunity for stronger advocacy by marginalized groups against business interests that disregard their concerns and threaten their quality of life.