Washington, DC—Yesterday, a Honduran court announced a verdict in the country’s most high-profile human rights case in recent years: the 2016 murder of environmental activist and indigenous leader Berta Cáceres. On trial were eight suspects charged with carrying out the killing, including an active duty military intelligence officer and two former military officers. The court found seven of the eight defendants guilty of carrying out Berta’s murder, and four of the accused guilty of attempted murder of Gustavo Castro, a Mexican environmentalist. An eighth defendant was cleared. The intellectual authors of the crime have not yet been identified by Honduran authorities, as the Cáceres family pointed out in a press release. Furthermore, the investigation and five-week trial has been characterized by allegations of irregularities and lack of transparency. While yesterday’s outcome is a welcomed first step, the Honduran authorities must fully guarantee truth and justice and identify all those responsible for planning and ordering the murder, according to research and advocacy group the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
“While the outcome is positive and the case advanced much further than the majority of murder cases in Honduras, justice for the family of Berta Cáceres is far from achieved,” said WOLA Director for Citizen Security Adriana Beltrán. “The Honduran justice system must demonstrate its commitment to truth and justice by going after the masterminds and ensure that the truth is not buried,” said Beltrán.
In its ruling, the court recognized that Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA) former President David Castillo, a U.S. -trained former military intelligence officer, had coordinated with the accused to carry out Berta’s murder. He is currently facing a separate trial. As an internationally recognized environmentalist and human rights defender, Cáceres led an important campaign against an internationally financed hydroelectric dam project on a river sacred to the indigenous Lenca people. The Agua Zarca dam project was licensed to DESA without the consent of the Lenca community.
Furthermore, the trial was plagued by allegations of negligence and lack of transparency. The authorities refused to share crucial evidence with the family’s legal team, and in one instance, excluded them from the proceedings and assigned state prosecutors to represent Berta’s family instead. Multiple irregularities meant that the trial faced various delays after its official start date on September 17.
The outrage over Berta’s murder and its clear connection to her important work attracted substantial international attention. The convictions from yesterday’s trial are a result of immense domestic and international pressure to seek justice for Berta and to reveal the truth behind her death. However, Honduras continues to be one of the most dangerous places to be a human rights defender, and the vast majority of crimes against these defenders go unpunished.
“Berta’s murder and the investigation that followed reflect how far the Honduran government has to go to ensure that human rights and land defenders can do their important work without suffering the ultimate consequence,” said Beltrán.