“Justice for Berta” is a rallying cry that has echoed across Honduras and around the world since the murder of iconic Indigenous water defender Berta Cáceres.
The Lenca leader was recognized internationally with a prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her efforts to stop construction of the Agua Zarca dam on a river considered sacred and vital to the rights of her people. Back home, Berta got death threats. Then gunmen entered her home on March 2, 2016 and shot her to death.
In a country where impunity for such crimes is the norm – and a green light for more deadly violence – at long last there has been a breakthrough.
On December 2, seven men were sentenced to between 30 and 50 years in jail for their roles in the killing of Berta.
The convicted include four paid hitmen – Henry Javier Hernández, Edilson Duarte Meza, Elvin Rapalo and Óscar Torres. Each of them was sentenced to 34 years for the murder of Berta, together with 16 years and four months for the attempted murder of Gustavo Castro, an environmentalist who happened to be at Berta’s house when the hit squad burst in. He was shot but survived by pretending to be dead.
In addition to the hitmen, Sergio Ramón Rodríguez, a manager for Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA), the company building the Agua Zarca dam, and Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, a former security chief of the company, were sentenced to 30 years and six months for their role in the assassination. The seventh man, Mariano Díaz Chávez, an army major at the time, was sentenced to 30 years. Prosecutors submitted evidence that Díaz participated in reconnaissance missions with Bustillo. He had also provided a gun and logistical support for a 2015 plan to kill Berta that was called off.
Outside the court, Berta’s family and her organization, COPINH, called the prison sentences “the first cracks in the wall of impunity”.
During a vigil ominously watched by police in riot gear, other COPINH members lit candles for Berta. During its broadcast of the vigil via Facebook Live, COPINH recognized the support of Amnesty Canada activists who have signed more than 60,000 petitions and postcards sent to Honduran authorities in the past three years.
According to COPINH, it is international solidarity from around the world, together with the tenacious efforts of Berta’s family and community in Honduras, that has ensured progress on this emblematic case of such importance to all who seek to protect Indigenous rights and the environment.
But Berta’s daughter Berthita Zúñiga Cáceres reminded everyone that the struggle is far from over.
“Real justice requires ensuring that the masterminds who conspired, gave the orders and financed the assassination of my mother are also brought to justice,” she said. “Prosecutors must stop making excuses for not acting on evidence in their possession.”
DESA executive David Castillo was charged in March 2018 as an “intellectual author” of the murder of Berta. He has also been charged with corruption linked to the Agua Zarca dam concession. Almost two years later, Castillo has yet to be put on trial.
According to reporting in The Guardian by journalist Nina Lakhani, Berta’s family has applied to a US federal court to subpoena bank records linked to a $1.4 million luxury house in Texas purchased by David Castillo eight months after the killing, arguing the documents could help identify yet unknown individuals involved in the crime.
In 2017, an independent panel of international investigators issued a report that alleged the involvement of “Honduran state agents, senior executives of DESA and parallel structures to State security forces”.
Amnesty International continues to press the Attorney General of Honduras to ensure that EVERYONE responsible for the assassination of Berta Cáceres is identified and brought to justice.
You can help by joining our Justice for Berta Day of Action on March 2, 2020 – and by signing the e-action below.
Contact us for other ways you can show your solidarity with Berta’s family and COPINH.