Indigenous Lenca leader Berta Cáceres gained international renown for mobilizing her community against the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam, one of dozens of massive development projects on indigenous lands authorized by the Honduran government. The campaign led to the withdrawal of one of the world’s largest dam developers from the project, but also an increase in death threats and violent attacks against Berta. Although she requested and received precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, on March 2, 2016, armed assailants broke into her home, gunning her down and injuring fellow activist Gustavo Castro Soto.
In a region where defender deaths have become the norm, Berta’s murder could have remained another casualty in the struggle to defend ancestral indigenous lands against development megaprojects. However, after the government refused to support the establishment of an international group sponsored by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, family members, the organization that she led, and her international legal representatives did not sit still.
Determined to uncover the truth, Berta’s family, and the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH), with the support of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), and the Movimiento Amplio por la Dignidad y la Justicia (MADJ) convened a group of five international human rights, humanitarian, and criminal law experts to pursue an independent and impartial investigation of Berta’s murder, with the belief that this scrutiny would increase the chances of accountability. In October of 2016, the experts established themselves as the International Advisory Group of Experts (GAIPE, for its Spanish acronym).
After spending a year sifting through more than 40,000 pages of call logs, chats, texts, GPS coordinates, and emails linked to persons of interest, visiting Honduras repeatedly, and interviewing dozens of people, the GAIPE released the results of its investigation last week.
The report implicates high-level executives of Desarrollos Energéticos Sociedad Anónima (DESA), the Honduran company responsible for the Agua Zarca dam project, in designing a strategy, aided by international funding and state security forces, to repress dissent regarding the dam project.
According to the GAIPE, members of DESA used their political connections to create a network of private security companies, hitmen, state security forces and employees of the judiciary to control and neutralize opposition to the Agua Zarca dam project. Moreover, the report concludes that DESA surveilled and infiltrated Berta’s organization, COPINH, since at least 2013 with the aim of disrupting the community. The GAIPE also concluded that this strategy was most likely funded indirectly by the international financial institutions that invested in the Agua Zarca project, disregarding the reported violence committed by DESA and government forces as well as the right of indigenous communities to free, prior and informed consultation.
While eight men have been indicted for Berta’s murder –among them an active member of the military, the social and environment manager for the company, and DESA’s former director of security— Honduran investigators have not examined who ordered the killing. At the same time, the GAIPE report makes clear that the Public Ministry has had sufficient evidence in its possession since May 2016 to initiate legal actions against company executives for involvement in Berta’s murder and other crimes. Thus far, the investigation has ignored this line of inquiry.
More broadly, the report underscores the failure of Honduras to prevent and properly investigate Berta’s assassination. Prior to her death, Berta reported over 30 threats. Along with her precautionary measures from the Commission, this should have triggered protection measures, but also an enhanced investigation of these threats and the risks she and other COPINH activists faced. Her story became a chronicle of a death foretold.
Unfortunately, this story is all too common for human rights defenders in Honduras and elsewhere in Latin America, who frequently face surveillance, persecution, threats, and violence. According to a report by Global Witness, in 2016 nearly 60% of murders of human rights defenders working on issues related to land, territory or the environment occurred in Latin America. In 2016, with 14 registered deaths, Honduras ranked third in Latin America for human rights defender murders despite its relatively small population. With an estimated 30 percent of Honduran land earmarked for mining concessions –870 of these currently in the exploitation phase— it is likely that clashes between mining companies and human rights defenders will continue.
In this context, initiatives like the GAIPE shed a brief moment of light on the dynamics that promote impunity for violations of human rights committed against those who stand up against illegal networks. The GAIPE also forms part of a recent tide to improve the protection of human rights defenders. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Office announced a joint initiative last week to improve the protection of human rights defenders. Additionally, laws have been approved in Mexico and Honduras, and are under discussion in Guatemala, to bolster protections for defenders. Finally, an International Protocol to define adequate standards to identify and investigate threats against human rights defenders, journalists and others working for the public good, is currently being drafted to ensure that these individuals can carry out their work freely.
Until states comply with international standards to protect and investigate threats made against human rights defenders, we will not sit still. #JusticiaParaBerta