Independent investigation reveals new details on the plot behind Berta Cáceres’ murder

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The murder of Berta Cáceres, the Honduran indigenous rights leader, was part of a plot meant to silence the opposition to the construction of an illegitimate hydroelectric project, according a team of international human rights lawyers.

The lawyers recently published a report examining the circumstances surrounding Berta’s murder. They allege that high-ranking “executives, managers, and employees” of DESA, the firm behind the Agua Zarca project, as well as private security forces, and “state agents” were involved in the plot.

Simply put, Berta was killed for opposing powerful people and standing up for her community’s rights, threatening the large profits that would come once the project became operational. This is what her family and her fellow activists knew from the very beginning. 

This team of lawyers came together after Berta’s family and activists with COPINH, the group she co-founded, called for an independent investigation into her murder. The lawyers have conducted interviews and, crucially, have, had access to select evidence collected as part of the criminal investigation.

Some of the evidence they reviewed includes telephone records, text messages, emails, and other electronic communications.

The authors of the report make it clear: individuals in DESA, the government, and private security forces devised a strategy “to control, neutralize and eliminate any opposition” to the Agua Zarca project, including “smear campaigns, infiltrations, surveillance, threats, contract killing, sabotage of COPINH’s communication equipment.”

Specifically, the report reveals that planning for Berta’s murder dates to November 2015, coinciding with the “mobilization of indigenous communities and COPINH in opposition to the Agua Zarca Project.”

We’re encouraged to see international media cover the report, and we hope that it will help bring us one step closer to justice.

Global marches were held on 15 June 2016, demanding justice for Berta Cáceres, the Honduran land rights activist murdered on 3 March 2016. Credit: ICIJ

Global marches were held on 15 June 2016, demanding justice for Berta Cáceres, the Honduran land rights activist murdered on 3 March 2016. Credit: ICIJ.

Oxfam has stood in solidarity with them for, and joins them in demanding that:

  • The Honduran government must ensure effective and immediate measures of protection and security for the Cáceres family, COPINH members and the lawyers for the family.
  • The Honduran justice system must capture and convict both the material and intellectual authors of Berta’s murder and the threats and attacks on COPINH members.
  • The Honduran National Congress should immediately cancel the contracts they approved in 2010 on behalf of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project on the Gualcarque river.
  • The Honduran Public Ministry should allow strong international oversight of the criminal investigation and trial proceedings, something the family and COPINH have called for since the day of Berta’s murder.
  • The Honduran Public Ministry must immediately hand over to the family’s lawyers all information they have on the Berta Cáceres murder case as mandated by law, to avoid further delays to the trial proceedings.

Berta and COPINH’s campaign started after the Agua Zarca project was approved without the consent of the indigenous Lenca people. This was in clear violation of both international agreements ratified by Honduras and agreements between COPINH and then-president Porfirio Lobo Sosa.

International pressure from Oxfam and other allies has yielded some results. Two of the financial backers and an engineer supply firm involved in the Agua Zarca project have backed out, and all work on the project is currently suspended.

As the murals and posters which decorate the offices of COPINH say, “Berta Lives.” The campaign for justice has made progress, but those close to her are still waiting for those who plotted and carried out Berta’s murder to face the full consequences of their actions.

Impunity in this case will only lead to more violence against brave activists and human rights defenders like Berta. The international community has helped fund recent reforms to Honduras’ judicial system; this case is a crucial test of their effectiveness.

The Berta case is not an isolated incident. Oxfam and others are seeing similar patterns in other conflicts over land and resources-- irregularities in the approval of contracts, companies supported implicitly or explicitly by security forces.

There’s real danger in standing up to these powerful interests; we cannot let these communities face it alone.

The entry posted by George Redman, Oxfam in Honduras Country Director, on 29 November 2017, the International Women's Human Rights Defenders Day.

Oxfam team members visit Cáceres' family and colleagues in La Esperanza, Honduras, July 2016. Credit: Cinthia Casco/Oxfam

Photos top and bottom: Oxfam team members visit Cáceres' family and colleagues in La Esperanza, Honduras, July 2016. Credit: Cinthia Casco/Oxfam

Read the powerful personal reflection by Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director, Oxfam International, on her visit to Berta Cáceres' family: What I learned during my visit to La Esperanza, Honduras