Berta Cáceres supporters: Additional evidence forces Honduran officials to act
Berta Cáceres, left, takes a moment to remember friends and colleagues killed in the struggle against the Agua Zarca Dam in 2015. She would eventually be murdered herself. | Goldman Environmental Prize

WASHINGTON — The public revelation of additional evidence of higher-up involvement in the 2016 murder of Honduran human rights activist Berta Cáceres has forced Honduran officials to reopen their investigation of the crime, her daughters and their supporters say.

But they still aren’t sure the criminal justice system in the Latin American country will bring those high-level perpetrators to book.

Cáceres’s two daughters, Laura Zúñiga Cáceres and Berta Zúñiga Cáceres, plus other supporters, updated the Cáceres case for a small group of people committed to human rights in Latin America at a session at the Center for International Environmental Law in D.C. That Dec. 6 meeting followed the delegation’s closed-door testimony earlier in the day to an Inter-American human rights commission.

In both sessions, they discussed the trial of eight men for the March 2016 murder of their mother, Berta Cáceres. She led a campaign to prevent construction of a large hydroelectric dam—sponsored by a conglomerate with national and international financial ties—on the Gualcarque River, inundating land which indigenous people there consider sacred. The campaign, with other leaders, continues.

The Gualcarque River dam fits into a long pattern of multinational exploitation of Latin America, speakers at the session said. That exploitation includes not just poverty wages for workers, but also letting firms profit hugely by arbitrary takeovers of water rights, mining rights, drilling rights, and other privileges, shortchanging the indigenous peoples of the affected areas.

And the environmental crimes—and local resistance against exploitation—have spread to a struggle against unregulated extensive extractive projects in neighboring Guatemala, another speaker added.

In the Cáceres case, seven of the eight men indicted for murder were convicted in November, and evidence, including evidence produced by the Cáceres family and their allies, led the Honduran court to acquit the eighth.

“The seven were convicted, and we believe they are the ones responsible” for the actual murder, said

Victor Fernandez, the attorney for the Cáceres family, speaking, like the others, through a translator.

“But we learned that evidence was excluded from this case, as well as how to proceed against the others,” higher-ups both at the firm sponsoring the dam and in the Honduran government, he added.

The higher officials were responsible for dam construction, security in the area, and financing the project. The Honduran government was also responsible for not protecting Berta Cáceres after she received legitimate death threats. Cáceres was murdered two days before her 45th birthday.

That’s made Cáceres’s daughters, Fernandez, human rights supporters in the U.S. and abroad, and the organization Cáceres led, COPINH, all leery of the commitment of Honduran authorities.

So Cáceres’s survivors forced the government’s hand by calling a post-trial meeting at a leading university, Fernandez said. They unveiled the other evidence their investigation found—evidence that never came up in court. It’s now in the hands of the public prosecutor, too.

That evidence includes “protection of the general manager” of the hydroelectric firm and the role of “state functionaries involved in the murder,” he added. The prosecutor has been forced to follow up.

Because of that public disclosure, prompted by the trial of the eight and the investigation that preceded and followed it, “we are comfortable with the result,” Fernandez said, despite “the irregularities” of the Honduran legal system. Meanwhile, the dam Berta Cáceres fought against still faces popular resistance, financing problems, and construction difficulties.

“While the hydroelectric project still exists, the will to stop it still exists,” he said.

Indigenous people there also launched a new tactic to stop the dam and other exploitation, speakers said: With land titles still often unclear, they’re raising funds to buy land communally, thus taking title -— and stopping the projects. Otherwise, by dividing indigenous peoples’ communal lands, the firms can divide communities, too.

As the resistance to exploitation continues in Honduras, it’s also spreading in neighboring Guatemala, said human rights attorney Jovita Tzul.

“In Guatemala, there are now 900 mining licenses and 130 hydroelectric licenses. We’re protesting their legality. They are given without the consent of the indigenous people,” as Guatemalan law requires, she said. Some 920 people, including 400 women, have been arrested “for defending their territory against these extractive projects.”

“There’s no part of Guatemala that’s been unaffected,” by exploitation, she said in answer to a question.

But the Guatemalans, like the Hondurans, face governmental corruption prompted by the companies involved. “In Guatemala, the secretaries of the environment and of security have been bought off and their strategy is to mobilize and ensure the justice system works against the indigenous,” Tzul declared in her answer.

“But the resistance has also been constant,” she said.

The group appealed for U.S. support as well as from human rights groups, such as the commission they met with earlier in the day. That panel had ordered the Honduran government to protect Berta Cáceres after the death threats, but authorities failed to do so.

U.S. support, Cáceres’ daughters said, could come through Congress: Several lawmakers have introduced the Berta Cáceres Act, to ban U.S. military aid to the Honduran government until it investigated “the crimes of the security forces” in letting Cáceres be murdered, one of Cáceres’s daughters said. The act went nowhere in the GOP-run 115th Congress.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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