“We will use the full extent of our fiscal and legal influence to bring the individuals and the organisation behind these criminal, barbaric acts to justice.” — The chief of security for DESA, builder of the Agua Zarca dam project opposed by the late Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, in a text message to company executives and PR representatives on February 21, 2016.
Activist Berta Cáceres
That message and many others were revealed in a new investigation from the Grupo Asesor Internacional de Personas Expertas (GAIPE) into the death of Goldman Prize winner Berta Cáceres. It’s been 20 months since Berta was assassinated in her own home, and one year since GAIPE formed to do what the Honduran government has not: find out who was behind her murder.
Of the eight men accused of killing Berta, not one has been identified as the mastermind behind the crime. Through public records, GAIPE obtained text messages, phone records, emails, photos, and other evidence that the planning, execution, and subsequent cover up of Berta’s murder began in November 2015.
Most importantly, they conclude that DESA, the Honduran government, and the banks financing the Agua Zarca dam all had a role to play in the death of Berta Cáceres.
1. The company
“I have spent a lot of money and political capital to get these three warrants out.” — Translation of a text from a DESA executive in 2013 referencing attempts to arrest Berta and two other Indigenous activists.
The Agua Zarca dam project, approved by Honduran officials in 2013, is a multi-million dollar mega-dam that threatens the survival of Honduras’ Indigenous Lenca community and the health of the Gualcarque River. Berta and her organisation COPINH (the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras) were its primary opponents.
The GAIPE investigation revealed that DESA deployed private security forces, hired hitmen, and influenced law enforcement in order to neutralise Berta and other Lenca activists opposing the Agua Zarca dam.
2. The government
“I’ve requested the commissioner’s help … and he promised his support. He will share the details of the murder with me and he suggested we make a statement to disassociate ourselves from the event.” — Translation of a text between executives and employees at DESA sent 14 hour after Berta’s murder.
The investigation also recounts frequent meetings between DESA executives and partners, Honduran government authorities, and security forces as early as 2012. These meetings opened the door for DESA employees to direct police and members of the military toward repressing those who opposed the Agua Zarca dam.
The Honduran Ministry of National Security played a double role in this plan, both providing protection to the Agua Zarca project headquarters and its managers while denying it to Berta at the same time.
3. The banks
DESA did not have enough money on its own to complete construction on the Agua Zarca dam. Funders like the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, Dutch development bank, and Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation (Finnfund) turned a blind eye to its strategy to repress Berta and other activists.
It’s likely that these banks have valuable information pertaining to Berta’s murder that they have not yet made available to investigators.
Activist Berta Cáceres
Threats to environmental defenders are on the rise
Of all the deeply disturbing information contained in the GAIPE report, the most painful is that Berta’s murder was not an isolated incident. In fact, the report points to a “political system of attacks against human rights defenders in the wider context of violence that impacts everyone in Honduras.”
According to Global Witness, 200 environmental activists across 24 countries were murdered in 2016. Forty percent of those killed were Indigenous, like Berta. Brazil saw the most deaths of any country, with Honduras in fifth place.
Berta once said that the fight to protect human rights “is despised and made invisible because, for those with political and economic power, it’s a bad example. It inspires the struggle for liberation and shows that other ways of life that protect the planet are possible.”
Her words — along with those of the countless human rights defenders she’s inspired — continue to confront the governments and corporate bullies that seek to impose their will at the expense of people and the planet.
This new report is crucial to bringing justice to those who planned and carried out Berta’s murder. But more than that, it’s crucial to protecting those who speak out against injustice at a time when we must all raise our voices to protect human rights and the environment.
Cecilia Carballo is a Program Director from Greenpeace Spain