Berta Cáceres was a Honduran human rights and environmental activist who was shot dead in her own home in spring 2016. Despite causing outrage on both a national and international scale, her murder was followed by continued violence against activists across Honduras. Due to dissatisfaction with the Honduran state’s handling of these incidents, COPINH, the protest group co-founded by Cáceres and now run by her eldest daughter, commissioned a report into her death, which was released this week.
A member of the indigenous Lenca tribe, Cáceres dedicated her life to defending the territory and rights of indigenous groups, primarily through co-founding the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH). She spent her life on the front-line of protests against illegal loggers, plantation owners, multinational corporations and dam projects that would cut off food and water supplies to indigenous communities.
Despite receiving threats of death, sexual assault and physical violence (as well as numerous legal challenges), Cáceres was staunch in her commitment to protecting the vulnerable in Honduran society. According to Human Rights Watch, Cáceres reported thirty-three threats to her life, none of which were investigated.
At the time of her murder, Cáceres was involved in a campaign in defence of the Gualcarque River, the site for a proposed hydro-electric dam. The main reason for her protest was that there had been no consultation with the local communities who depended upon the river, despite international law requiring some form of dialogue.
Cáceres’s death is widely believed to have been in connection to this protest. Her murder was witnessed by Gustavo Castro Soto, a Mexican activist, who was wounded in the attack. More than fifty international organisations, as well as numerous prominent international activists, signed a joint letter to urge the Honduran state to open an investigation.
Between May 2016 and January 2017, eight people were arrested in connection to her murder, the most recent being a former Honduran soldier captured in Mexico. However, the judicial dealing with his prosecution was viewed as unsatisfactory: Gustavo, the only eye-witness to the murder, was not even called upon to identify the soldier and the legal team representing Cáceres family were not notified of the arrest.
Due to their growing frustration with the state’s slow response to this and other attacks on activists, COPINH commissioned a report to look into Cáceres’s death. Investigations were undertaken by independent US, Guatemalan and Colombia academics and lawyers. The final draft of the report, titled Represa de Violencia: The plan that murdered Berta Cárceres, was released earlier this week. The report judged that the participation of numerous Honduran state agents and senior managers of the energy company DESA in the planning, executing and concealing of the murder was “conclusive”, based on the evidence they had collected.
A spokesman for DESA responded by stating that this report was commissioned as an attempt by COPINH to influence next month’s elections, in which Cáceres’s eldest daughter is running. They went on to say that the arrest of their employees was “unjust” and that the report contains “false and malicious interpretations [of] certain conversations taken out of context.”
Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Indeed in 2013, it was named the most dangerous country on the planet not embroiled in a fully-fledged war, and the situation has not significantly improved since. The murder rate was 59.1 murders per 100,000 in 2016, which was only 1.5% lower than in 2015. The legal system is full of corruption and abuse, and it is common for the police to use disproportionate levels of force against civilians. In addition to that, the current government is using military force in its attempts to combat gang violence.
Indigenous groups are in a “critical” situation, according to the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, since their rights to their land, territories and natural resources are unprotected. As well as facing inequality, poverty and a lack of basic public services, their access to justice is virtually non-existent.
The only way for Honduras’s major issues to be resolved is for successful reforms of the judiciary and the police to be carried out (something the state is supposed to be doing). It will be a complex and long-winded task, but it is not impossible. El Salvador managed to carry out judicial reforms following its civil war in the 1990s, and despite Salvadorian society remaining deeply troubled, these reforms have led to some success.
Until Honduras has resolved its judicial issues, those who can bribe judges and the police will continue to avoid any real consequences for their actions. The disingenuous response of DESA to this report suggests a lack of remorse for their role, irrespective of how large it is, and an absolute confidence in their enduring impunity. It may be a while until those responsible for Cáceres’s death are held accountable for their actions. The state’s behaviour following this report will give the first clue as to whether real change is likely to come to Honduras any time soon.