The killing of renowned Honduran Indigenous leader Berta Caceres is just one egregious attack in a longstanding and ongoing campaign by the private hydroelectric company she protested to intimidate land rights activists and eliminate resistance to corporate projects.
In the months leading up to her murder on March 3, Caceres reported suffering repeated death threats, constant surveillance, and other harassment, allegedly at the hands of state and private agents. The threats were a result of her resistance against the unwanted Agua Zarca hydroelectric project on Lenca territory by the private Honduran energy corporation Desarrollos Energeticos SA, better known as DESA.
All the while, Caceres was reportedly at the top of a military hit list of over a dozen prominent Honduran human rights defenders. Family members have pointed to DESA and the Honduran government as the ultimate authorities responsible for her death.
Now, unpublished 2014 court documents acquired by Global Witness and seen by teleSUR show that DESA attempted to criminalize and discredit Caceres and two fellow leaders of her Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Movements of Honduras, or COPINH, as part of a bid to wipe out community resistance.
Judges ruled in favor of Caceres and codefendants Tomas Gomez and Aureliano Molina in January 2014 and suspended a case that sought charges against the activists for land usurpation, coercion, and over US$3 million in alleged damages. In their appeal of the decision, DESA’s lawyers continued to smear COPINH — co-founded by Caceres over two decades ago to defend Lenca land — as a violent “anarchist group.”
Recalling the case, Gomez told teleSUR that DESA’s defamation of the movement and the three leaders during the case epitomized the hostile treatment of big business in Honduras toward vulnerable communities battling transnational capital and displacement, like the Lenca people.
“For years, we’ve seen that they have very strong campaigns to destabilize COPINH and label it a violent organization through the national corporate media. The other objective is the destruction and disappearance of COPINH once and for all,” Gomez said, adding that the company has clearly sought to criminalize activists as part of a bid to crush the movement.
The Indigenous leader added that for activists in their movement, the message of Caceres’ murder was clear: those who resist and propose alternatives that threaten corporate profits will face serious and fatal consequences.
According to Global Witness Senior Campaigner Billy Kyte, DESA’s highly inflammatory language in the case was far from standard legal practice and showed “a level of personal vitriol” against the defendants that is typically “unheard of” in such cases.
“DESA is trying to paint COPINH as an enemy of the state and imply that everything must be done to stop their actions,” Kyte argued.
Under international law, Indigenous peoples have the right to free, prior, and informed consent for all development projects on their land. The Lenca people in Rio Blanco did not give consent to the Agua Zarca dam.
“These court documents go beyond just showing the contempt the dam company holds towards Berta Caceres and her organization,” Kyte said. “It’s evidence of a company ready to do whatever it takes to ‘neutralize’ opposition to its business.”
Kyte added that the “legal harassment” and other threats suffered by Caceres and other activists offer “a stark reminder of the huge risks faced by Honduran activists.”
The case and the broader repression it represents recalls the Cold War-era counterinsurgency strategy of indiscriminately labelling all dissidents to the status quo as communist threats to be targeted and eliminated. In Central America, scores of land rights defenders and other activists were murdered and forcibly disappeared, particularly in the 1980s, under the brutal U.S.-backed doctrine.
According to Annie Bird, director of Rights and Ecology and longtime human rights advocate, state and corporate attempts to characterize activists as violent is a typical strategy in Honduras that helps protect elite interests.
“Right now there is essentially counterinsurgency, but there is no insurgency,” Bird told teleSUR. “They want to characterize the communities that are in the way of economic interests as terrorists or as violent, when actually what is happening is that the companies and businessmen are the ones that are using violence to murder and displace communities.”
Similar counterinsurgency-like tactics have already started to see a resurgence in the region under the guise of the so-called war on drugs, which also paves the way for the expansion of corporate projects through increased militarization and criminalization.
DESA declined teleSUR’s request for an interview on the 2014 case and accusations that the company is implicated in Caceres’ murder.
“It is not our place to comment or give statements regarding matters under investigation by Honduran judicial powers,” DESA’s communication department told teleSUR in a statement by email. “Additionally, our company operates completely in line with the law and the strictest business values.”
On May 2, Honduran authorities arrested four suspects for the crime, including two men with links to DESA who both testified as witnesses in the 2014 case against Caceres, Gomez, and Molina. The other two are an active and retired high-ranking active military official. A fifth suspect was later detained.
But the Honduran justice system, notorious for perpetuating corruption and impunity, has given Caceres’ supporters little reason to trust in the process.
“There is still not justice for Berta,” Gomez said. “The approach of COPINH, the Lenca people, and Berta’s family is first of all that the material and intellectual authors be punished.”
After the arrests, DESA issued a statement denying having any “material or intellectual link” to Caceres’ assassination. The company confirmed that the suspect Sergio Rodriguez was a DESA employee, but did not mention the second DESA-linked suspect Douglas Bustillo, who elsewhere has been identified as the firm’s head of security.
The arrests came two months after Caceres’ murder. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, authorities attempted to label the killing a crime of passion. Aureliano Molina, a fellow COPINH member and codefendant in the 2014 case, was the only person arrested. Gustavo Castro, the sole witness to the murder who was also shot in the attack, was barred from leaving Honduras for a month despite the fact that his life was in danger.
Family members have repeatedly decried being excluded from the investigation and denied access to information. Although their calls have so far fallen on deaf ears, they continue to demand an independent, internationally-led investigation.
Meanwhile, COPINH has continued to suffer threats and attacks: COPINH member Nelson Garcia was murdered less than two weeks after Caceres was gunned down; other activists have received death threats; and peaceful protesters were attacked.
“Since Berta’s murder, the repression and intimidation against our comrades has increased even more,” Gomez explained, adding that psychological harassment was the first form they suffered as authorities appeared to attempt to pin the blame on COPINH for their own leader’s murder.
Caceres’ family and supporters fear that without the involvement of independent experts, it will be impossible to get to the bottom of the crime.
As Rights and Ecology's Bird argued, those who allegedly carried out the assassination had little personal motivation to do so, calling attention to the need to dig deeper.
“The narrative that the DESA employee hired a rogue officer takes the responsibility for the killing out of the chain of command,” she said. “It makes it a bad apple when it may well be a state-sponsored killing.”
Bird added that the human rights crisis will only stop if Honduras puts an end to the business-as-usual that allows powerful actors to get away with murder to protect their economic interests. But those corporate interests, aided by the U.S.-backed 2009 coup, are heavily supported by the Honduran government with the help of ongoing U.S. funding.
What’s more, as Global Witness' Kyte argued, DESA’s connections to the Honduran government and military intelligence “have seriously compromised the investigation.”
So while the arrests of five suspects may be a positive step, COPINH continues to demand justice for Caceres. In addition to calling for an independent investigation, they also demand the permanent cancellation of the Agua Zarca dam, an end to militarization of Indigenous territory, and the withdrawal of more than 50 concessions for mining, hydroelectric projects, and other resource extraction on Lenca land.
“We want to get to the root of Berta’s murder,” Gomez said. “That goes as far as the Attorney General of the Republic who approved this illegitimate concession for the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam without the free prior and informed consent of the Indigenous Lenca community of Rio Blanco, Intibuca.”
Since the 2009 U.S.-backed coup, which then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played a diplomatic role in securing, the human rights situation in Honduras has deteriorated drastically with the help of rampant impunity. Last year, Global Witness declared Honduras the most dangerous country in the world for land and environmental activists.
According to human rights organizations, repression and assassinations of progressive political leaders, journalists, and social activists are commonplace in Honduras, epitomized perhaps most clearly by Caceres’ assassination.
COPINH has called for an international day of action at Honduran embassies around the world on June 15 to demand justice for Caceres and cancellation of the Agua Zarca project to “put a stop to death, impunity, and injustice” in Honduras.