Honduran Activist’s Murder Trial Addresses Symptoms, Not Causes, of Violence
Seven men were convicted in the 2016 killing of environmental activist Berta Cáceres, but real accountability—and remedies for the corruption and insecurity plaguing Honduras—lag far behind.
Nearly three years after the murder of acclaimed activist Berta Cáceres in her home in Honduras, the trial of eight men charged with killing her and injuring another activist, Gustavo Castro Soto, in the attack, has come to a contested conclusion. Last week, seven of the defendants were convicted of her murder, and four of the men were also found guilty of the attempted murder of Castro.
The proceedings, which attracted intense international scrutiny, became a test of the Honduran legal system’s ability to uphold the rule of law and protect the rights of both victims and the accused.
Despite the historic convictions, only partial justice has been delivered. The investigation and trial have been deeply flawed, and the crime’s intellectual authors have so far escaped accountability. Unless they are remedied, these failures will do little to uproot the corruption, poverty, and insecurity that have already driven thousands out of the country and will continue to push them northward despite the U.S. crackdown on migrants at its borders.
Born in 1971 in La Esperanza, Honduras, Cáceres was an internationally recognized indigenous leader and social activist. Politically active since her younger years, she co-founded the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (known by its Spanish abbreviation, COPINH) in 1993. In 2015, Cáceres won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her campaign against the Agua Zarca Dam—a stand that likely marked her for death. Throughout her life, Cáceres decried the structural inequality that kept her people marginalized. As she saw it, their real oppressors were local and transnational investors—and the corrupt government officials enabling them—who extracted natural resources from the land without care for the resulting environmental destruction, social conflict, and economic misery.
Because of her broad local and international appeal, Cáceres was a particular irritant to Honduras’ political elites, who her defenders say subjected her to years of intimidation, smear campaigns, and death threats. Despite orders in 2009 from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights that Honduran officials better ensure her safety, the government did little to protect her. In the months leading up to her death, she reported 33 threats to state authorities that they refused to investigate.
The proposed dam, which remains unfinished, was to be built on the Gualcarque River. The river is sacred to Cáceres’s Lenca indigenous group and serves as the Rio Blanco community’s main source of irrigation and fishing. Although the dam is relatively small compared to massive hydroelectric projects, it took on outsized importance to those backing it, including the government and the politically well-connected Honduran firm Desarrollos Energéticos SA, or DESA, in part because investors considering other projects in Lenca territory likely saw Agua Zarca as a bellwether.
Over years of protest, the dam has become emblematic of the tendency of business interests to run roughshod over community needs. That’s why Cáceres continued to advocate on behalf of the affected communities, even in the face of ever-increasing harassment. When the persecution failed to silence her, her adversaries sought to quiet her for good. Of the first eight defendants charged with her murder, two have ties to DESA: Sergio Rodríguez Orellana, the company’s social and environmental manager, and Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, who worked as director of security for DESA until 2015 and remained close to the company. Several of the accused have links to state security forces. All say they are not guilty. A ninth suspect, David Castillo, the general manager of DESA, was arrested in March and is awaiting trial. He is suspected of being one of the masterminds behind the attack and also maintains his innocence. DESA, for its part, denies any wrongdoing as well. A lawyer for the company denounced the trial as politically motivated.
From the outset, the Cáceres family had to push for a real investigation. Government investigators who should have been trying to ferret out the crime’s real culprits instead tried to deflect attention away from the murder’s possible political motive. They suggested that the murder might have been a crime of passion or the result of internal squabbles in COPINH. A group of international experts later found that a year and a half after the murder, investigators had failed to review most of the vast cache of information they eventually did gather after unrelenting pressure from the Cáceres’s family and supporters to collect it. State prosecutors likewise refused to analyze or turn over critical evidence to either the victims or the defendants, despite repeated court orders to do so, compromising their ability to prepare.
The presiding judges did little to ensure that full justice would be served. Before the proceedings began, the court narrowed the scope of admissible evidence to only testimony relating to the operations of the accused assassins. Information about who had actually hired them and Cáceres’s longstanding persecution was disregarded. The judges also denied COPINH’s request to participate in the case as a victim, despite the fact that its leader had been murdered, along with ample evidence that the group had been targeted alongside her. And in a blow to transparency, the court refused to broadcast the hearing.
Not surprisingly, the victims’ advocates insisted that the trial would not be fair. In September, their lawyers requested the removal of the sitting judges for abuse of authority and due process violations. The trial was temporarily suspended before it resumed in October without a final resolution on the request or on several other pretrial motions. When their lawyers filed written objections to moving forward, the prosecution and defense argued for continuing the trial anyway. Instead of allowing the victims’ lawyers to participate as private prosecutors, a right enshrined under Honduran law, the judges ruled that the lawyers had abandoned the case and proceeded without them.
From afar, it may seem that the convictions of the hitmen and low-level organizers proved that Honduras’ legal system could function as it should. But the delays and irregularities throughout the investigation and trial show otherwise. The trial skirted evidence about the assassination’s alleged intellectual authors, though in its ruling, the court noted that the murder was carried out with the consent and knowledge of DESA executives. Still, the criminal network involved in the murder continues to operate, and whether the legal system will pursue the powerful remains very much in question. Systemically, much of the progress toward accountability is due to the persistence of Cáceres’s supporters, who advocated tirelessly for justice. Few other crime victims have the stature to mobilize and sustain the same level of international attention, and impunity will likely remain the norm.
The flaws in Honduras’ legal system are intertwined with the violence, grinding poverty, and inequality that have pushed thousands of Hondurans to seek refuge in the north.
Since the 2009 coup that ousted left-leaning President Manuel Zelaya, Honduras has been one of the deadliest countries in the world outside of a war zone. Although it is drug- and gang-related violence that grabs headlines, the same criminal networks—which are increasingly tied up with government officials and business leaders, and often backed by state security and paramilitary forces—also take land and natural resources from indigenous and small farming communities. Targeted repression has contributed to a pervasive climate of fear. Already marginalized people have been most affected. In the Bajo Aguan region, for example, more than a hundred people have been killed in a long-simmering land conflict that has pitted powerful agro-industrial elites against impoverished small farmers.
There is little chance that Honduras’ instability will be resolved any time soon. Since 2014, the right-wing National Party has controlled the legislative and executive branches under President Juan Orlando Hernández. It has even held sway over the judiciary since 2012, when the Congress ousted four Supreme Court justices that had opposed the National Party’s platform.
In 2015, Hernández’s packed court circumvented the constitutional ban on presidential re-election, allowing him to run again. (Notably, the pretext for deposing Zelaya had been his alleged interest in overturning that same prohibition.) The 2017 presidential vote, which was condemned by much of the international community, was marred by fraud and irregularities. With Washington’s backing, Hernández claimed victory. Protests mounted, and state security forces killed more than a dozen people and injured many more. For many Hondurans, the election and its repressive aftermath extinguished any remaining hope that conditions would ever improve.
For its part, the United States has stood by Hernández, whom it sees as a supposed ally in the drug war, even as the country’s political and human rights crisis has deepened. Yet powerful figures are embedded in the drug trade. The president’s brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, a former lawmaker, was just arrested in Miami, charged with “all stages of the trafficking through Honduras of multi-ton loads of cocaine that were destined for the U.S.” Multilateral development institutions, including the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, likewise continue to provide loans to his government and private companies operating there. Most promote a neoliberal model of development that relies on projects, including those like the Agua Zarca Dam, that enrich business elites and transnational investors without regard for the poor and their communities.
Those who resist the resulting dispossession, environmental degradation, and economic exploitation are subjected to repression that sometimes turns deadly, as it did for Cáceres.
Such instability reverberates back to the United States. U.S. President Donald Trump may prefer to demonize migrants and ignore Washington’s role in Central America’s humanitarian crisis, but some legislators have been pushing back. In remarks introducing a letter written by a group of 52 Democratic lawmakers, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey noted that “continued support of Juan Orlando Hernández’s government without continued checks on its behavior will only fuel the destruction of the rule of law, cripple an already devastated economy, and allow for a pervasive fear among the Honduran people, which are the very factors leading to the mass migration of ordinary citizens from Honduras we are currently witnessing.”
In the years since Cáceres’s death, the historian Dana Frank writes, she has become “a potent global symbol of people’s struggles from below and repression from above.” With activists around the world increasingly facing violence, the outcome of the trial against her alleged murderers will resonate far beyond Honduras. According to watchdog Global Witness, 2017 was a deadly year for land and environmental activists, with 207 killed. Mexico and the Philippines saw increased numbers, and 57 were killed in Brazil alone.
Cáceres’s family and allies are acutely aware of the trial’s high stakes, both within the country and abroad. That’s why they’ve doggedly pursued real accountability for those responsible for her murder, and pushed to strengthen the capacity and political will of the justice system to confront the corruption and impunity that permeate the country’s institutions. They will continue to demand truth and justice, including that the dam that cost Cáceres her life be permanently canceled. And Honduran citizens will continue to seek a life of dignity and security, whether at home or elsewhere. In that pursuit, Cáceres’s legacy will continue to inspire. “Berta didn’t die,” her supporters frequently intone, “she multiplied.”
Lauren Carasik is a clinical professor of law and director of the International Human Rights Clinic at
Western New England University's School of Law.