Dam Violence

John Perry

Since the murder of Berta Cáceres in March 2016, several more community activists have been killed in Honduras. And little progress has been made in solving Cáceres’s murder. Eight people have been arrested, but court hearings have been postponed several times because of the prosecutors’ failure to produce evidence, ignoring the judge’s deadlines. Data collected from phones and computers and in police raids has not been presented in court. The government says the judicial process continues, but has admitted that the crime’s ‘masterminds’ remain untouched.

In 2013, as the leader of the local community organisation COPINH, Cáceres had written to the Dutch and Finnish development banks planning to fund the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, with evidence that the company building it, DESA, was violently suppressing any opposition. Two of DESA’s former staff members are among those under arrest. In June this year, the two banks announced their intention to ‘exit as soon as possible’. They changed their minds in July, however, saying the decision would now be subject to ‘local consultation’, apparently to be led by DESA. Eighty international organisations wrote to the banks urging them to stick by their June decision.

Cáceres’s daughter Bertha Zúniga, the current leader of COPINH, has been threatened. In September, a vehicle she was travelling in was assaulted by men armed with machetes, and later nearly forced off the road by another car. No one was seriously hurt, but the attacks were a warning of the danger she faces in continuing her mother’s work.

In the absence of determined government action, five international lawyers began an independent investigation in November last year. Their report, Represa de Violencia ('Dam Violence'), was released earlier this month. They had access to 40,000 pages of phone transcripts and other evidence not yet presented to the court, including texts sent by the two accused DESA employees to their bosses. The lawyers say they have proof of the involvement of these executives, of private security personnel and of state agents in crimes committed before, during and after Cáceres’s murder.

One of the accused, Douglas Bustillo, sent a message to DESA on 6 February 2016 saying ‘mission aborted’, apparently referring to an earlier planned assassination attempt. Another, Silvio Rodríguez, was sent a copy of the official crime scene report by the police on 3 March, hours after the killing. He passed it on to a DESA executive, who told him to ‘relax … Everything will turn out fine, you'll see. Don't panic, you’ll affect the others.’

The lawyers conclude that there is evidence to show the crime was planned by private and state agencies, acting together from at least November 2015. They say that the government has more unpublished evidence implicating the crime’s ‘intellectual authors’. In July, the Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández said that the government was acting emphatically to solve the case and to protect Cáceres’s family. Contrary to the Honduran constitution, Hernández is running for a second term of office. The election is on 26 November.

Cáceres was one of 365 women murdered in Honduras last year. Only two of those cases have yet been dealt with by the courts.