Case History: Berta Cáceres
On 2 March 2016, unidentified assailants broke into the home of Berta Cáceres and murdered her in her bedroom. In the previous days, Berta and other members of her organisation (COPINH) had been receiving threats. Two months later, on 2 May 2016, four men were arrested in connection with her murder. Two of the people arrested have ties with Desarrollos Energéticos SA (Desa), the Honduran company which was building the Agua Zarca dam, a project Berta and COPINH had strongly opposed and campaigned against.
On 30 November 2018, the Honduran National Criminal Court convicted seven men of the murder of woman human rights defender Berta Caceres. The Court found that the men had been hired by executives within Desa, a company constructing a dam in indigenous Lenca territory, to carry out her killing on 3 March 2016.
Berta Cáceres was a Lenca indigenous woman and human rights defender. For the last 20 years, she was on the front lines defending the territory and the rights of the indigenous Lenca people. She was the general co-ordinator of Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Indígenas Populares – COPINH (Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organisations). COPINH succesfully led a campaign for the defence of the Gualcarque river, which is the site of a proposed dam.
Berta Cáceres was one of the most prominent human rights defenders in Honduras and a Lenca indigenous woman who, for the past 20 years, had been defending the territory and rights of the Lenca people. In 1993, she co-founded the Consejo Civico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras – COPINH (Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras), which led campaigns against illegal logging and mega-projects because of their detrimental effects on the rights of indigenous peoples in the country. The human rights defender was a finalist for the 2014 Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk, and in 2015 she received the world’s leading environmental award, the 2015 Goldman Prize.
On 30 November 2018, the Honduran National Criminal Court found the following individuals guilty of the murder of Berta Caceres: former Desa security chief and former US trained army lieutenant Douglas Geovanny Bustillo; former special forces sergeant Henry Hernández; US-trained special forces major Mariano Díaz Chávez; Óscar Torres; Desa environment manager Sergio Ramón Rodríguez Orellana; Edwin Rapalo; and Edilson Duarte Meza. On 29 November 2018, Edilson Duarte Meza’s brother, Emerson Duarte Meza, was found innocent of the charges of trying to conceal the crime.
The National Criminal Court’s ruling was issued unanimously by three judges, who concluded that the convicted group acted as hitmen hired by Desa dam executives due to financial losses resulting from Berta Caceres’s human rights-based activism in the region. The guilty parties will be sentenced on 10 January 2019, and they face up to 30 years of imprisonment.
However, the trial of the only person charged as the intellectual author of the murder is still pending. Roberto David Castillo Mejía, a former military intelligence officer and the president of Desa, is accused of hiring the murderers. He was detained at San Pedro Sula airport on 3 March 2018, as he attempted to leave the country. Since his initial hearing on 9 March 2018, he has been held in pre-trial detention at the Tamara National Penitentiary Center.
The criminal process against the eight defendants was marked by controversies, especially regarding the Court’s decision to expel Berta Caceres’s family and their lawyers from the case – leaving the defence to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which has received complaints from the defender’s family for overlooking their rights.
Front Line Defenders welcomes the Court’s verdict, however, it remains concerned at the possibility that not all of those involved in planning the murder will be held accountable. Front Line Defenders remains deeply concerned at the increasingly extreme levels of violence faced by human rights defenders in Honduras.
On 12 January 2017, former Honduran soldier Henry Javier Hernandez Rodriguez – who has been accused of being involved in the killing of human rights defender Berta Cáceres - was captured in Mexico. He is the eight person arrested in connection to Berta's murder.
Rodriguez was also accused of the attempted killing of Berta's colleague, Mexican enviornmental defender Gustavo Castro. However, the Honduran prosecutor did not call Gustavo and did not ask him to identify Rodriguez, even though Gustavo is the only eyewitness to the murder.
The legal team representing Berta's family and her organisation, COPINH (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Indígenas Populares), was not notified of Rodriguez's arrest and has reported “serious inconsistencies and weaknesses in the Public Prosecutor’s approach to the case”.
Berta's family and COPINH have called for an independent international investigation into her murder, led by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, as there are credible and serious doubts about the ability of the Honduran police to investigate, as well as questions about the government's prior knowledge of and potential involvement in the assassination.
Front Line Defenders supports Berta's family and COPINH members in that call, and urges the Honduran authorities to implement effective measures to guarantee the physical and psychological integrity and security of Berta Cáceres’ family and all COPINH members.
Front Line Defenders expresses strong concern over the continuing attacks, threats and intimidation against COPINH members and its supporters, which have intensified following the murder of Berta Cáceres on the night of 2 March 2016.
On 25 October 2016, immigration authorities at Tegucigalpa airport prevented international observer Luis Díaz de Terán López, who has been accompanying COPINH for the past two years, from entering Honduras and deported him.
According to reports, Honduran authorities held Luis Díaz at the airport for eight hours, before forcing him to fly first to El Salvador and then to Colombia. His documents and luggage were confiscated and returned to him only after he landed in Bogotá. When Luis got his belongings back, he realised authorities had taken away his hard-disk and digital camera.
The security officers declared the international observer, who is a Spanish national, had been deported because of some problems with his immigration status. However, while waiting to board on his flight to Colombia, Luis Díaz was told by the security guards who were with him that they were deporting him because “he was damaging the reputation of Honduras speaking to international media”.
This is not the first time international observers are under attack in Honduras. Shortly after Berta’s murder, on 15 April 2016, during the closing march of a three-day international meeting organised to commemorate the life and work of Berta Cáceres, demonstrators were violently attacked. Front Line Defenders was also part of this event along with many other international organizations. The following month, on 13 May 2016, Giulia Fellin was the target of a smear campaign on social media. An anonymous YouTube account called "Nos Queda Claro" (It Is Clear to Us) published a video, demanding the deportation of Fellin, falsely alleging the observer incited violence. As a result of the smear campaign, Giulia decided to leave the country early, rather than potentially face violence against her or against COPINH members.
On 20 October 2016, riot police attacked a group of people participating in a peaceful march organised by COPINH and supported by OFRANEH and other organizations in Tegucigalpa (“Marcha de la Resistencia por la Tierra, los Ríos y la Vida”).
When the demonstrators arrived in front of the Public Ministry and were preparing to hold the ceremony, the riot police started throwing stones at them and attacked them with tear gas and water cannons. According to COPINH, the people attacked were mainly unarmed women and children. Several of them were seriously injured.
Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, Berta's daughter, wrote on her Facebook page after the attack:
“It took us hours before we could find all our friends and colleagues who had run away after the attack, and help the wounded ones. Children were shocked and in panic because of the tear gas, and all the violence they witnessed. We are outraged because of the excessive use of force by the police, during a peaceful action. They didn't start any dialogue with us, and they didn't care about all the children and elderly people who were there".
They keep killing us and stigmatizing us, but we will keep defending our right to protest and to speak out.
Only ten days earlier, on the evening of 10 October, COPINH General Coordinator Tomás Gómez Membreño was driving to his house from the organisation's office in La Esperanza, Intibucá, when gunmen opened fire on his vehicle. In a separate attack on the same day, COPINH local leader Alexander García Sorto was awaken by shots fired through the door and window of his house in Llano Grande, Colomoncagua. Both human rights defenders survived the assassination attempts.
Front Line Defenders Protection Coordinator for the Americas, Ivi Oliveira, says: “Following the international outcry over the assassinations of Berta Caceres, Nelson Garcia and Lesbia Urquia we had hoped that the government of Honduras would finally bring perpetrators of violence to account. Instead, while the government talks a lot and does little, Honduras remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders, and members of COPINH and their supporters remain the targets of this relentless violence".
The government of Honduras must take urgent action to reverse this tide of violence and impunity.
As of November, Front Line Defenders has recorded at least 12 killings of human rights defenders in the country in 2016. In connection with Berta Cáceres’ murder, six suspects have been arrested. However, authorities have not identified the people behind the crime and the investigation has been marred with irregularities. Additionally, the authorities have refused to keep Berta Cáceres’ family updated on developments in the investigation.
On 29 September, two unknown individuals attacked María Luisa Ramos, Honduran Supreme Court of Justice Magistrate, who was travelling with documents, including key evidence, related to the investigation. The attackers forced the magistrate out of her car and took off in the vehicle, with the case file inside.
Front Line Defenders supports Berta's family and COPINH members in that call, and reminds the Honduran government that any investigation into the murder of Berta has to take into consideration her human rights work, as well as at least 33 known threats she had received while conducting that work. Front Line Defenders also urges the authorities in Honduras to implement effective measures to guarantee the physical and psychological integrity and security of Berta Cáceres’ family and all COPINH members.
On 2 May 2016 four men were arrested in connection with the murder of human rights defenders Berta Cáceres, who was shot dead at her home in Intibucá on 3 March 2016.
According to the Honduran public prosecutor’s office, two of the people arrested have ties with Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), the Honduran company which was building the Agua Zarca dam that Berta and her organisation, COPINH, had strongly opposed. Berta successfully campaigned against the hydroelectric project, which was initiated without consent of the local indigenous communities or proper consultations with them.
The Honduran press reports that one of the people arrested, Sergio Ramón Rodriguez, is an engineer who works at the Agua Zarca dam. Another, Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, is a retired military officer and former head of the DESA's security unit. The other two men arrested, Mariano Díaz Chávez and Edison Atilio Duarte Meza, are respectively a former military officer and a member of the armed forces still on duty.
In an open letter, issued on 2 May following the news of the arrests, Berta's family members and colleagues have expressed their concerns regarding the investigation run by the Honduran authorities:
“Since the beginning we were exlcuded from the investigation process, so we cannot say whether the recent arrests are the result of a complete and adequate investigation, neither we know if among the people arrested there are also the intellectual authors of the crime (...) We are disappointed, because we were not involved at all in the investigation conducted by the Public Prosecutor. They did not listen to our voices”.
Berta's family learned about the arrests in the news. The authorities did not inform them previously. The family has strongly criticised the way the Honduran government is following Berta's case and has reiterated its call to allow the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to run an independent and transparent investigation.
"If the Public Prosecutor and its officers have worked correctly, they do not have to be afraid if the Inter-American Commission immediately launch another investigation. We want truth and justice for Berta's murder. If we succeed in this, it will be a victory for all of us,” Berta's family and colleagues wrote in the letter.
Front Line Defenders supports Berta's family and COPINH members in their call, and reminds the Honduran government that any investigation into the murder of Berta Caceres has to take into consideration her human rights work, as well as at least 33 known threats she had received for carrying out that work. Front Line Defenders expresses strong concern over the lack of information available to Berta's family regarding the investigation in place
On 6 March 2016 more than fifty international organisations signed a joint letter to urge the Honduran authorities to open an investigation into Berta Cáceres's killing.
Dear President Juan Orlando Hernández,
We, a group of 50+ international organisations, write to express our shock and concern over the recent killing of Berta Cáceres, environmental activist and head of the indigenous rights group COPINH.
As you will know, Mrs Cáceres was shot dead by gunmen in the late hours of 2 March 2016. Over the years she had received multiple death threats and attempted kidnappings because of her work defending indigenous Lenca land against the Agua Zarca dam project in Río Blanco. These threats had escalated in recent weeks since construction of the dam had restarted.
We demand an independent international investigation into the circumstances around Mrs Cáceres’ death, and guaranteed protection for her family and colleagues. Mrs Cáceres was granted emergency protection measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights because of her acute vulnerability, but she claimed the Honduran state did not fully implement them.
We also demand urgent action to protect Gustavo Castro Soto, a Mexican activist who witnessed her assassination, and to ensure his safe passage back to Mexico.
Mrs Cáceres’ case is the most high-profile killing within a growing trend in the murder, violence and intimidation of people defending their indigenous land rights in Honduras. Honduras is the world’s most dangerous country per capita to be an environmental or land defender, with at least 109 people killed between 2010 and 2015.
Mrs Cáceres’ case has not escaped international attention. In a statement issued in response to her death U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy called on you to find and punish those responsible for “this despicable crime.” Last year, US Senator Barbara Boxer wrote a letter to US Secretary of State John Kerry urging for better protection of environmental defenders in Honduras. This was in direct response to Mrs Cáceres winning the 2015 Goldman Environment Prize – a prestigious award recognizing grassroots environmental activists from around the world. News of her death has generated substantial international media attention.
The 50+ international organisations listed below call on the Honduran state to ensure indigenous peoples’ right to their land is respected and that they are able to carry out their legitimate work without fear for their safety.
For a full list of the signatories, please go to: Public joint letter to the President of Honduras
On 3 March 2016, environmental rights defender Ms Berta Cáceres was murdered by as yet unknown assailants who broke into her home in the city of La Esperanza in the early hours of the morning.
Berta Cáceres was deeply involved in an ongoing campaign in defence of the Gualcarque River, the site for the proposed Agua Zarca hydro-electric dam which is being developed by the Honduran company FICOHSA and the multi-national company SINOHYDRO. The human rights defender was one of the strongest voices of opposition to the construction of the hydroelectric dam, which was initiated without consent of local communities or proper consultations with them, in clear violation of the ILO Convention 169.
The human rights defender was shot dead at approximately 1 am on 3 March 2016. It is believed that the assassination was carried out in retaliation for the human rights defender's work in defence of indigenous and environmental rights and denouncing human rights abuses in the context of large-scale development projects in Honduras. One week prior to her assassination, the defender had denounced the killing of 4 leaders of her community as well as threats against her and other human rights defenders, at a press conference.
The human rights defender had previously been threatened and faced persecution as a result of her human rights work, including her criminalisation through trumped up charges of usurpation of land and coercion, in a case that was dismissed in January 2014. A recrudescence in the threats against Berta Cáceres and members of COPINH was reported in an alert issued by COPINH last February.
Other members of COPINH have been targeted in the recent past. On 15 July 2013, human rights defender and member of COPINH Mr Tomas García was shot dead by the Honduran Army as he participated in a peaceful protest opposing the Água Zarca project. To date, none of the perpetrators of his killing have been brought to justice.
On 10 February 2014, the trial of human rights defender Ms Berta Cáceres was dismissed at the Court of First Instance in Santa Barbara. She had been facing charges of “illegal possession of a firearm endangering the security of the Honduran state” since 24 May 2013.
As a consequence of the judgement of 10 February 2014, the criminal case has been suspended and the precautionary measures which had been pending against the human rights defender have been revoked. The precautionary measures meant that Berta Cáceres was forced to sign in every week at the Juzgado de Paz de la Esperanza and was prohibited from leaving the country.
While Front Line Defenders welcomes the dismissal of the case against Berta Cáceres, it remains concerned that the case taken by the company DESA against Berta Cáceres, and Messrs Aureliano Molina and Tomas Gómez Membreño continues. For more information on the case please see Berta Cáceres' page on the Front Line Defenders website.
On 26 January 2014, at midday, human rights defender and co-ordinator general of the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras –COPINH (Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras), Ms Berta Cáceres, was temporarily detained. This was in spite of the fact that Berta Cáceres had been granted a provisional suspension in the trial against her by the Appeals Court of Comayagua on 9 January 2014.
On 26 January 2014, Berta Cáceres was detained by members of the criminal investigation unit, who showed her an order for her capture and informed her that the authorities had not communicated any counter-order to them. According to sources, only her knowledge of her rights and the law lead to her release an hour later.
Berta Cáceres and the other members of COPINH have been facing a pattern of judicial harassment and criminalisation for approximately eight months, since Berta Cáceres and Mr Tomás Gómez Membreño were stopped by the army and detained in a military operation on25 May 2013. The human rights defenders had been travelling with the intention of protesting against the construction of a dam on the River Gualcarque. COPINH has also suffered the killings of at least two of its members, Mr Tomás García and Mr Justo Sorto, in July 2013 and January 2014 respectively.
Front Line Defenders is concerned by this latest incident of harassment against Berta Cáceres as it sends a clear message to environmental and human rights defenders in Honduras that dissent will not be tolerated. For more information on this case please see Berta Cáceres' pageon the Front Line Defenders website.
On 9 January 2014, the Appeals Court of Comayagua provisionally suspended the case against human rights defenders Ms Berta Cáceres and Messrs Tomás Gómezand Aureliano Molina. They had been facing charges of usurpation of land, coercion, and causing more than $3 million in damages to DESA, a hydroelectric dam company.
The Court further reversed a decision to displace the indigenous Lenca community from their ancestral lands, and revoked the arrest warrant which had been in place against the human rights defenders. No court date has been set for the final decision in the case.
The case comes in the context of serious concerns in Honduras, and the region in general, that large-scale development projects are impinging on environmental rights and the rights of indigenous people, and that the principle of free, prior and informed consent is not being fully respected.
On 20 September 2013, a magistrate ordered the pre-trial detention of human rights defender Berta Cáceres following a hearing on charges of usurpation of land, coercion, and causing more than $3 million in damages to DESA, a hydroelectric dam company. Moreover, human rights defenders Aureliano Molina and Tomás Gómez Membreño have been ordered to sign on at a police station every 15 days.
The official arrest warrant is due to be issued and Berta Cáceres is currently not in detention. The human rights defender's lawyer, Mr Víctor Fernández, is currently seeking to appeal the decision.
On 12 September 2013 human rights defenders Berta Cáceres, Tomás Gomezand Aureliano Molina will appear in court charged with usurpation of land, coercion, and causing more than $3 million in damages to DESA, a hydroelectric dam company. Berta Cáceres is also facing separate charges of illegally carrying arms“endangering the internal security of Honduras.”
On 13 June 2013, human rights defender Ms Berta Cáceres was granted a temporary stay in proceedings against her due to a lack of evidence. The human rights defender was accused of possession of an illegal fire-arm, which she said had been planted in her vehicle, in a trial that took place in Santa Barbara, Western Honduras.
The testimonies of the police and army personnel against her were deemed insufficient and the travel ban imposed on her has also been lifted. Although the defence argued to dismiss the accusation definitively, the judgement is still open and it now awaits new elements of proof from the State’s attorney.
Berta Cáceres was arrested on 24 May 2013, along with fellow human rights defender Mr Tomás Gómez Membreño. Whilst he was immediately released, Berta Cáceres was transferred to prison, before being released on 25 May 2013.
On the morning of the trial, representatives of over forty social movements and human rights organisations arrived outside the courthouse in a show of solidarity with the human rights defender. However, representatives from COPINH were stopped at a military checkpoint on their way to the courthouse and temporarily detained, an act which they have interpreted as intimidatory. It has also been suggested that the many long breaks in the trial itself, which lasted over 8 hours, were intended to tire the crowd outside the court so that they would leave.
On 25 May 2013, just after 1pm, Ms Berta Cáceres, general co-ordinator of Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Indígenas Populares – COPINH (Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organisations) was conditionally released from her detention by Judge José Francisco Pineda Ayala del Juzgado in Santa Barbara, Western Honduras.
The human rights defender had been arrested the previous day along with Mr Tomás Gómez Membreño, who is also a member of COPINH. COPINH is currently involved in a campaign for the defence of the Gualcarque river which is the site of a proposed dam to be built by the Honduran company FICOHSA and the multinational SINOHYDRO.
On 24 May 2013, Berta Cáceres and Tomás Gómez Membreño were arrested in a military operation in the Agua Caliente sector of Santa Barbara. Twenty members of the engineering battalion based in the town of Siguatepeque stopped their car and conducted a search in a violent and aggressive manner, before requesting police backup. The police backup arrived in cars belonging to the companies responsible for the project which COPINH is currently opposing. The human rights defenders were informed that they were being arrested for possession of a weapon, supposedly found in the boot of their car. Whilst Tomás Gómez Membreño was released at 11pm that night, Berta Cáceres was placed in a cell and treated as a highly dangerous person.
Before her release, the Honduran Attorney General, Mr Nery Betancourt, directed the judge in the case to order Berta Cáceres to sign in at the court every Friday of the month, to ban her from leaving the country, and set a trial date for 13 June 2013. The organisation's car remains out of service.