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Honduras: eight years after Berta Cáceres’ murder is there new hope for justice?

Almost exactly 11 years ago Berta Cáceres led a group of local activists to block a road, halting trucks carrying building materials for the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam in Río Blanco. It marked the start of a fierce fightback by the Indigenous Lenca people against the energy company Desarrollos Energéticos (Desa) in Honduras.

More than a decade later, only rusty razor wire and rotting fences remain on the former construction site. A shipping container that served as Desa’s central office is now used by farmers to store corn. After international funding was pulled, the company was forced to halt operations indefinitely in 2018.

But the activists’ victory left a bitter taste. In La Esperanza and the capital, Tegucigalpa, people plan to gather on 1 April to mark the anniversary of their struggle, and in memory of Cáceres, murdered in 2016 aged 44. The demonstration will honour all the victims of brutality committed against environmentalists in Honduras, the most dangerous country for nature defenders in the world.

Since Cáceres’ murder, for which three Desa employees – including its former president, Roberto David Castillo – have been convicted, 70 environmental activists have been killed. According to Global Witness, proportionally Honduras has had the world’s highest number of killings of environmental defenders for the past five years. “Impunity is rife in Honduras, which suffers major institutional weaknesses due to a range of factors which together prevent the fair operation of the justice system,” says Toby Hill, a Global Witness investigator.

Cáceres’ daughter, Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, 33, has experienced violence first-hand. As coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (Copinh), she has faced threats and been subjected to campaigns designed to delegitimise the movement.

“My life consists of many different precautions. I still have to protect myself everywhere I go and drive around in an armoured car,” Zúñiga says.

With an estimated 90% of violent incidents towards human rights defender in Honduras going unpunished, stories of threats and harassment are commonplace among the Lenca people.

María Santos Domínguez, 48, a community leader, has been attacked. “On my way back home alone one day, a group of people surrounded me, hit me with a machete and cut off my finger to intimidate me and stop me from participating in the protests,” she says.

Lucio Sánchez, 78, a council leader, says the Lenca community of Río Blanco, in the south-western part of Intibucá, was once relatively peaceful. Families worked together to grow crops and tend cattle. Since 2013, things have changed, he says. While the cancelling of the Agua Zarca project was considered a victory by many, others believed it would bring much-needed development – electricity, roads and jobs.

“The company might have left, but our biggest challenge is the community’s extreme division. We will need a long time to heal from what has happened here,” Sánchez says. “Families have been split during this dispute and no longer speak to each other.”

Amos Sánchez, 20, witnessed these disputes while growing up. He and his younger cousins are determined to see off any resurgence of the Agua Zarca project.

With his father, Santos Sánchez, 60, he harvests corn from a field that once belonged to the company. “We have learned to stand our ground and fight. When our parents are too old, we will continue,” he says. “We reclaimed what is ours and are prepared, should they come and try to take it away again.”

Despite all the threats still hanging over the community, Cáceres’ case did bring some justice to the Lenca. Honduran prosecutors say they have evidence showing harassment; cars with tinted windows and no number plate following people; and paid informants.

According to an independent investigation by the International Advisory Group of Experts (GAIPE), Cáceres’ assassination would have been planned and endorsed by the Desa leadership. WhatsApp conversations and phone tracking have made it possible to follow the movements of this group to Cáceres’ house the night she was brutally murdered and Gustavo Castro, a fellow activist, was wounded.

The investigation found a stream of messages and phones pinged off a cell tower close to Cáceres’ house shortly before the shooting that pointed to the involvement of former Desa’s chief financial officer, Daniel Atala Midence, a member of the powerful Atala Zablah family – many of whom are on the company’s board, although there is no suggestion from prosecutors that they were involved in the assassination.

The Atala family is considered to be one of the most powerful families in Honduras, owning two of the three largest banks in the country, the Motagua football club and a huge chunk of the national import-export market through various businesses.

Atala Midence is accused of funnelling the development money for the dam – provided by the Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation (FinnFund) and FMO, a Dutch entrepreneurial development bank – through an account belonging to a nonexistent shell company to contract a hit team.

Camilo Bermúdez, Copinh

Atala Midence is on the run after authorities issued a warrant for his arrest in December 2023, most likely to evade the sort of jail term handed to Castillo. In 2022, Castillo was found guilty of orchestrating the assassination and sentenced to 22 years in prison.

Until Atala Midence is found, the case cannot proceed. However, the warrant for his arrest is already a step forward for Honduras.

“This is the first case we have a lot of evidence for, which the state judiciary system cannot ignore,” says Camilo Bermúdez, a spokesperson for Copinh. “We have now started the official legal process against Daniel Atala. We think he is somewhere in El Salvador hiding from the authorities.”

Raúl Zepeda Gil, a lecturer in development studies at the University of Oxford, believes the consistent violence surrounding these land disputes results from a lack of state capacity.

“The national government should have a leading role, but they usually take sides. So companies with contested development projects seek informal methods of domination in an attempt to de-escalate the disputes,” says Zepeda. “If the national government does not step up, we will only see a continuation of these violent clashes.”

Fighting for justice for her mother, Zúñiga now faces attacks on a new front, with waves of digital harassment. “Online, some people would, for example, claim that I have benefited from my mother’s death or that I am just aiming to extort the Atala family for financial gain,” she says. “I still constantly receive threats.”

 The headline of this article was amended on 1 April 2024 because an earlier version referred to “11 years after Berta Cáceres’ murder”. This has been changed to eight years.