A Tale of Two Rivers: Berta Cáceres and Impunity in Honduras

Featured Image: Berta Cáceres pointing to Gualcarque River in the Rio Blanco region of western Honduras in 2015 (Source: Ceasefire Magazine)

By Sofia Godoy

Two years ago, a brave woman died protecting the Gualcarque River.

In the months before her death, Berta Cáceres, a prominent environmental and indigenous rights defender in Honduras, spearheaded the opposition movement against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam. The dam was part of a state renewable energy initiative and was being built by energy giant Desarrollos Energeticos S.A. (DESA). It also enjoyed funding from an impressive array of international investors, including the Central American Bank of Economic Integration and Finnish development financier Finnfund. Yet high-level support didn’t translate to similar sentiments at the grassroots level. Instead, Cáceres and other civilian leaders vehemently protested the dam, knowing it might dehydrate a river that for the local Lenca population, was imbued with cultural and economic significance. Their organizing efforts garnered some success in hampering the dam’s construction, to which an angered DESA responded with intimidation tactics and ultimately lethal force. In March of 2016, hitmen cloaked by the fall of night broke into Cáceres’ home and shot her dead. Subsequent investigation would connect DESA executives and Honduran state officials to the crime.

In the immediate aftermath of the assasination, Honduras’ long history with violence against activists like Berta Cáceres was placed front and center on an international stage. Demonstrations broke out in Guatemala, Spain, and the U.S., and over fifty organizations spanning the globe signed on to a joint letter urging stronger safeguards for defenders of indigenous territory. Despite this, Honduras has remained one of the most dangerous places in the world for environmental and land rights advocates. Human rights NGO Global Witness reports that since 2010, over 120 people have been killed for defending land against corporate projects ranging from mines to logging operations. Among the latest victims are father and son Salomón and Juan Samael Matute, Tolupan indigenous persons who were actively involved in the defense of their community’s ancestral forest. María Digna Montero, defender of Garifuna indigenous land, suffered a similar fate in October. The carnage begs the question, why is taking a stand for your home a death sentence in Honduras? 

While Cáceres’ killers have now been tried and convicted, only one of the despicable plot’s architects, then-CEO of DESA Roberto David Castillo, has been apprehended. The reasons for this continued absence of justice have come to surface as of late in the form of text threads implicating additional DESA executives as well as senior state officials. Tellingly, the newly uncovered messages take on an unabashed tone. Referring to the environmental and indigenous defense organization that Cáceres founded and led, DESA board member Pedro Atala Zablah wrote “Let’s send a message that nothing will be easy for those SOBs.” Another communication reveals that Zablah collaborated with the Honduran Security Minister to ensure Cáceres’ murder was classified as a “crime of passion,” thereby insulating DESA from any undesirable news coverage. Hence an equally important implication of the threads is that the masterminds didn’t anticipate having to face the music at all. They spoke plainly of their plans, and trusted their wealth and friends in higher places to get them off scot-free. Unfortunately, much of the violence against activists in Honduras is fueled by such impunity. Criminals, especially elites like Castillo and Zablah, aren’t deterred by the threat of jail time because they know the chances of them being prosecuted are slim. This is in part explained by the never-ending supply of corrupt public servants in a poverty-ridden country, government officials are all too willing to help circumvent the justice system in exchange for some fast cash. Like several other Latin American countries, Honduras is also home to a kleptocratic network of actors in the private, public, and criminal spheres. Danger arises when the interests of these stakeholders overlap. The resulting elite project excludes ordinary Hondurans and more alarmingly, increases the likelihood that they become its casualties, just as Berta Cáceres did.

Aside from quid pro quo, the Honduran justice system has other fundamental weaknesses. Criminal investigations are often handicapped by a shortage of funds and “high-tech investigative tools.” These deficiencies can draw out an investigation to the point where its final conclusion, however justifiable it may be, is simply no longer relevant. By the time arrests are made, local and national news cycles have already moved on, and the idea that the perpetrators got away with their crime is already ingrained in the public’s mind. Even if the case remains in the public eye, as has occurred with the Cáceres case and other high-profile investigations, Honduran law could still prevent justice from being fully delivered. Detainees awaiting trial legally cannot remain imprisoned for a period extending beyond the maximum prison sentence for their alleged crime. Slow-moving justice, combined with de facto and de jure time constraints, thus mitigates the benefits of any well-handled case. It similarly obstructs the pursuit of accountability in the Honduran court system. Inadequate resources, structural inefficiencies, and judicial appointments based on political patronage rather than competence are notorious for impeding the judicial process. These factors work together to cause massive backlogs in the courts. According to the Alliance for Peace and Justice, upwards of 180,000 cases remain unresolved and the vast majority of homicide cases remain uninvestigated altogether. 

Although unfettered power and institutional flaws drive rampant impunity in Honduras, some of the blame rests with foreign actors. Following Cáceres’ murder, the Honduran government was immediatley mired in suspicion, as allegations that it had ignored death threats sent to Cáceres and failed to provide her with appropriate emergency protections abounded. In light of this, Cáceres’ family and friends, as well as activists from around the world sought an alternative to what they were sure would be an investigation rife with corruption and negligence. Together, they demanded an “independent, international investigation into the circumstances around her death.” Self-proclaimed bastions of justice such as the European Union and U.S., however, were notably absent in the chorus for an impartial investigation. Their responses to the assasination were instead limited to vague calls for accountability that amounted to silence and tacitly approved a state-run investigation. As a result, Honduras faced relatively little pressure for an independent investigation and easily rejected the proposal. In other instances, purported global leaders in anti-corruption have not only been complicit to Honduran impunity, but outright responsible. The U.S., for one, has poured millions of dollars into the state’s security forces for years, disregarding links between police militarization and heightened violence against activists. Most recently, U.S. funds have been funneled to Honduras’ special forces units, which are accused of targeting community organizers alongside the criminal and terrorist elements that are their official targets. The U.S. has also come under fire for its role in training Honduran security personnel. During an interview with The Guardian, a former special forces member revealed that his U.S.-trained unit had received a “military hit list” containing the names of Caceres and other environmental defenders. Mounting evidence thus suggests that blind, militaristic support from wealthy countries like the U.S. has only perpetuated a status quo that endangers Honduran activists.

Chronic impunity in Honduras is the product of unbridled elite influence, structural and technical weakness, and misguided foreign involvement. The upshot is an imperiled Honduran democracy. A lack of accountability has undermined the rule of law and legitimacy of institutions, allowing for Honduran kleptocrats to continue their assault on the most vulnerable segments of the population. Undoubtedly, protecting the rights of indigenous and environmental activists will require large-scale internal changes. But throughout such transformations, the international community must do more than play bystander. That begins with us remembering Berta Cáceres and her story of not one, but two rivers –– the Gualcarque River, lifeblood of the Lenca community, and the much longer river of blood that the Lenca have spilled in defense of their homeland throughout the years. 

Sofia Godoy is a rising sophomore in Saybrook college. You can contact her at sofia.godoy@yale.edu.