Berta Cáceres: seven men convicted of murdering Honduran environmentalist
Sat 1 Dec 2018
Berta Cáceres spent the final hours of her life being tailed by contract killers.
On 2 March 2016, at least four men were following the Honduran activist in the town of La Esperanza.
They shadowed her as she went the training centre where her organization – the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh) – was hosting an alternative energy workshop; they followed her to her mother’s house, to her favourite restaurant – and finally to her home at around 9.30 that night.
Cáceres was scared, and asked Gustavo Castro, a Mexican environmentalist and old friend, to stay with her. They sat talking on the porch for a while, before heading inside to rest.
Just after 11.30pm, at least two men broke into the house.
“Who’s there?” shouted Cáceres, before Elvin Rapalo shot her three times with a .38 revolver. He stamped on her torso to stop her fighting back.
A second gunman, Oscar Torres, shot at Castro, and blood gushed from his left ear. Castro played dead, and heard what sounded like a walkie talkie, probably in the hands of Henry Hernandez, a former special forces sergeant who led the team of killers.
The gunmen fled to a waiting getaway car driven by Edilson Duarte Meza.
When they had gone, Cáceres called out to her friend, who cradled her in his arms as she lay dying. “Don’t go, Berta,” he begged.
It was just before a quarter to midnight when the former Goldman Prize winner took her last breath.
On Thursday, a court in Tegucigalpa convicted the four men of murdering Cáceres, and the attempted murder of Castro, but many questions over her death remain unanswered.
Douglas Bustillo, top left, and Mariano Diaz Chavez, top right, Oscar Aroldo Torres Velazquez, bottom left, and Henry Javier Hernandez Rodriguez, bottom right, were found guilty of murdering Berta Cáceres. Photograph: Fernando Antonio/AP
The trial was mired by allegations of negligence and cover-ups, but the verdict was clear: the killers were paid to shoot Cáceres, and the order came from executives at Desa, a company building an internationally backed hydroelectric project on a river considered sacred by the indigenous Lenca people.
Cáceres had led opposition to the Agua Zarca dam and the protests were causing costly delays, so an elaborate plan was drawn up to kill her.
Surveillance, planning and logistics were handled by three men: Sergio Ramón Rodríguez, Desa’s communities and environment manager, who managed a network of paid informants; Douglas Bustillo, the company’s former security chief and a US-trained ex-army lieutenant; and Mariano Díaz, a decorated US trained special forces major who at the time of the murder was under investigation for drug trafficking and kidnap.
Even though they were not there at Cáceres’s death, they were found guilty of her murder. They were cleared of Castro’s attempted murder.
An eighth man, Emerson Duarte Meza was found not guilty on all counts.
The killing prompted outrage around the world, coming when Honduras was already the most dangerous place in the world to defend land and environmental rights.
That inglorious ranking was rooted in the 2009 coup that ushered in a pro-business government who sanctioned scores of renewable energy projects, mines, and biofuel plantations, in rural communities without consultation.
At least 49 mega-projects were destined for Lenca territories, and Cáceres led multiple campaigns to stop land-grabs. But it was opposition to Agua Zarca on the river Gualcarque which triggered the worst repression.
Over the course of 2013, the surrounding area was militarized, Berta and other Copinh leaders were offered money to support the dam, and a local leader was shot dead by a soldier. Work was suspended and protests died down – but then Desa launched a modified plan, work resumed in late 2015 – and so did the protests.
That was when the order to kill her was made. Cáceres was closely monitored, and the information shared on WhatsApp groups including company shareholders, managers and security personnel.
Company president David Castillo, a former intelligence officer, is accused of masterminding the murder and faces trial separately. He and Desa have denied any wrongdoing.
Phone messages extracted from Cáceres’ phone by Desa’s international legal team suggest she had developed a friendly relationship with Castillo during the construction lull. In those friendly chats, he obtained details of her personal plans he then shared with colleagues.
Desa’s international lawyer dismissed the verdict as a “politically motivated farce”.
And despite Thursday’s guilty verdicts, many questions remain unanswered.
• The court was shown a WhatsApp message sent by Desa’s financial manager Daniel Atala regarding criminal charges against Cáceres and two other COPINH leaders. “I’ve spent a lot of money and political capital to get those three arrest warrants,” he wrote. Which politicians made that happen?
• The court also heard that after the murder, Atala messaged Rodríguez, saying: “Relax… don’t panic… Pedro [Atala, his uncle and shareholder] spoke the security minister who said it was a crime of passion… We just need to keep working as normal.” Why did a minister give such reassurances? Neither Daniel nor Pedro Atela has commented publicly on the case, and both declined an interview request.
• Why did the court deny a request by Cáceres family lawyers to call Atala, Desa shareholders, and senior police officers as witnesses?
• In June 2016, the Guardian revealed that Cáceres was on a military hitlist, which included several activists who had already been murdered. Four of the men charged with the murder have military links, so why was any wider role played by the armed forces never been investigated?
• The court ruled that as a member of the armed forces, Díaz had a legal obligation to stop the planned crime. Why was the .38 revolver found at his house not sent for ballistics tests?
Thursday’s verdict brought a measure of justice, but despite the international indignation over Cáceres’s murder, the bloodshed has continued in Honduras.
On Thursday, Reynaldo Reyes Moreno, a community leader battling against an internationally financed solar project in southern Honduras was killed.
Ending such murders, means ending impunity for those behind the crimes, said Laura Zúñiga, Cáceres’ youngest daughter. “Our battle for dignity, truth, and justice does not end here. We will keep fighting – just like Berta Cáceresdid.”