Environmental activism

The pointless death of Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres

A year on from the activist’s murder, dam project she was battling against is still set to go ahead

Twelve months ago Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres died after being shot three times in the stomach when armed men broke into her modest home in the city of La Esperanza. The murder of the woman who had won the Goldman Environmental Prize – considered the “green Nobel” – shocked the world.

A demonstration in Tegucigalpa in remembrance of Berta Cáceres.
A demonstration in Tegucigalpa in remembrance of Berta Cáceres.REUTERS

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The United States, the United Nations, the Vatican and Venezuela all demanded that her killing be properly investigated, and Cáceres has since become a symbol for environmentalists everywhere.

But a year after her death, the anger and the sadness have borne little fruit. The Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project – opposition to which cost Cáceres her life – remains in the hands of Honduran company Desarrollos Energético SA (DESA), and plans that will see the draining of the River Gualcarque – a sacred site for the indigenous Lenca people – are still set to go ahead.

Honduras remains the world’s most dangerous country for environmentalists – 123 activists have been killed in the last six years – while those responsible for the murder of Cáceres remain free despite eight arrests.

The economic elites of Honduras are behind Berta’s death Gustavo Castro, friend of Cáceres

At the same time, the activist’s killing has revealed the deep links between a handful of Honduran families, the army and the ruling party when it comes to several large hydroelectric dam projects. DESA itself is owned by the powerful Atala family and headed by Roberto David Castillo Mejía, a former military intelligence officer and employee of the state energy company of Honduras.

The project is going ahead despite indications from within the Cáceres murder investigation that company director Sergio Ramón Rodríguez Orellana, also a former military man, ordered the activist’s death.

But the murder by military experts did not come off as planned. When assassins entered Cáceres’ home on March 2, 2016 they discovered she was not alone; a friend, Gustavo Castro was staying with her. He was shot at point-blank range but the bullet only grazed his ear. However, he began to bleed profusely and was left for dead.

Gustavo Castro is the only witness to the murder of Berta Cáceres.
Gustavo Castro is the only witness to the murder of Berta Cáceres.SAÚL RUIZ

“Behind Berta’s death are the economic elites of Honduras; they are the ones with the most to gain from pushing ahead with these projects that threaten indigenous communities,” Castro told EL PAÍS from Barcelona. As the only witness to the killing, he has received death threats and is keeping out of the spotlight.

“As the links with the army have become apparent, the investigation has become more opaque,” he adds.

According to investigators, the DESA director asked one of his security chiefs, retired lieutenant Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, to organize the killing.

Cáceres had publicly stated she had received deaths threats from Bustillo.

“They have only arrested the middlemen while those guilty of ordering the killing my mother are still free. They haven’t investigated the factors that led to her death,” the daughter of Cáceres, 25-year-old Berta, told EL PAÍS.

“The message is clear: if you are involved with human rights and you annoy people in power, they will kill you,” says Erika Guevara­ Rosas, Director for the Americas at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International.

The organization Global Witness has called on the Honduran government to arrest those responsible for ordering the death of Cáceres and to set up mechanisms ensuring the security of environmentalists.

English version by George Mills.

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