Seven men have been found guilty of the murder of the Honduran indigenous environmentalist Berta Isabel Cáceres. An eighth defendant, Emerson Duarte Meza, was cleared and freed on Thursday.
Cáceres, a winner of the Goldman prize for environmental defenders, was shot dead late at night on 2 March 2016 – two days before her 45th birthday – after a long battle to stop construction of an internationally financed hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque river, which the Lenca people consider sacred.
The court ruled the murder was ordered by executives of the Agua Zarca dam company Desa because of delays and financial losses linked to protests led by Cáceres. The murder was contracted to a group of hitmen who were paid to kill Cáceres.
The seven men convicted of orchestrating her murder by a court in Tegucigalpa: Sergio Ramón Rodríguez, communities and environment manager for Desa; Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, former Desa security chief and ex-US trained army lieutenant; Mariano Díaz Chávez, US-trained special forces major who served with Bustillo; Henry Javier Hernández, former special forces sergeant who served with Díaz; Edwin Rapalo; Edilson Duarte Meza; and Oscar Torres.
Gustavo Castro, a Mexican environmentalist, was shot in the same attack but survived by playing dead. Hernández, Rapalo, Edilson Duarte and Torres were found guilty of the attempted murder of Castro. The other three defendants were found not guilty of that crime.
Thursday’s verdict was welcomed by Cáceres’ family and colleagues, but they reiterated demands that justice be delivered against the masterminds and financiers of the plot.
“Today there’s no satisfaction, or happiness, but we are glad to see jailed the killers who murdered my mother simply for defending natural resources at a moment when she was defenceless. We don’t want revenge because we are not killers like them, but we demand that the masterminds behind the murder be brought to justice,” said Olivia Zuniga, Cáceres’ eldest daughter.
Cáceres, the coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh) was best known for defending indigenous territory and natural resources, but was also a respected political analyst, women’s rights defender and anti-capitalist campaigner.
Her murder became a litmus test for a country where corruption and impunity reign – and for a justice system which has received millions of US and European dollars in international aid.
But the case has been plagued by allegations of negligence, secrecy and bias. Lawyers representing the family and Castro were expelled from proceedings shortly before the trial after calling for the judges to be recused for bias and abuse of authority.
The verdict confirmed a Desa executive coordinated with Bustillo before and after the murder. During the trial the executive was identified as company president David Castillo, a US-trained former military intelligence officer. Castillo faces trial separately, accused of masterminding the murder.
As a result, Bustillo coordinated with Diaz, who provided a gun, logistics, and participated in a reconnaissance mission. Diaz linked Bustillo to Hernandez, the point man on the night of the murder who organised the group of killers.
These four military men, ruled the court, were involved in an aborted attempt to kill Cáceres on 5 February 2016.
Rodriguez’s family declined to comment but his lawyers said they would appeal.
Wendy Amador, the wife of Diaz, said: “They’ve condemned innocent men to protect those higher up.”
The mood outside the court was a mix of relief, anger and sadness about the loss of one of the region’s most celebrated defenders.
Victor Fernandez, the family’s lawyer, saidL “The state must immediately revoke the dam licence so that Desa stops being a threat to the Lenca people, the Rio Blanco community and Copinh.”
Zuniga added: “We demand justice for Berta Cáceres in country with so much impunity, not just for our family but for the Lenca people, for Honduras, and all the environmentalists who’ve lost their lives.”
The group will be sentenced on 10 January 2019.