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Seven Men Sentenced To Up To 50 Years For The Murder Of Honduran Environmental Activist Berta Caceres

Seven men were sentenced to up to 50 years in prison in a Honduras court on Monday for the 2016 murder of the environmental activist Berta Caceres. Four of the men, Elvin Rápalo, Henry Hernández, Edilson Duarte, and Oscar Torres Velásquez, who were identified as the hitmen hired to shoot Caceres dead in her own home, were sentenced to 34 years in prison each.

An additional 16 years and four months were handed down to them for the attempted murder of Mexican environmentalist Gustavo Castro, who was also with Caceres during the shooting. Three more prison terms of 30 years were handed down to other individuals that played a part in the murder including an officer, an ex-soldier, and a manager of the dam project that Caceres opposed. The three men reportedly paid the four gunmen $4,000 to kill Caceres because of her activism work. 

The slaying of Berta Caceres, then-45, brought international outrage and protests as she became a well-known women’s rights defender and indigenous lands rights activist. 

Caceras, a member of the Lenca indigenous community, may not have been a household name but her impact in the world of environmental rights was certainly felt. She was one of the co-founders of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, a grassroots organization that advocates for the rights of indigenous people. Caceras gained notoriety by protesting the company Desarrollos Energeticos (DESA), which had planned to create the $50 million Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam across from the Gualcarque River. Various indigenous communities depend on the river staying clean and healthy and free-flowing to sustain their communities.

“The river is like blood running through your veins. It’s unjust. Not only is it unjust, it’s a crime to attack a river that has life, that has spirits,” Caceres told Aljazeera in 2016. 

The building of the dam would have had major impact on water, food and medicine for her Lenca people and even caused flooding. One of her successful protests included placing a roadblock that halted construction workers from reaching the dam building site. After almost 10 years of opposition, the Chinese state-owned company Sinohydro, who was jointly developing the dam project with DESA, pulled out of the project citing community resistance. 

Her activism and work in stopping the building of the dam gave Caceres notoriety and international attention. Caceres was awarded the Goldman environmental prize in 2015 for her role in preventing the building of the dam. The project was suspended shortly following her untimely death.

Authorities have connected her death directly to her activism work against the failed dam project.

The individuals behind the death of Caceres were connected to executives that were connected to DESA and the failed dam project. The reasoning behind the plotted murder was due to multiple delays and financial losses that were linked to protests that Caceres was behind. Back in November 2018, a Honduran court convicted the seven men for the attack. 

“From the outset, the path to justice has been painful, as our rights as victims have not been respected. These sentences are a start in breaking the impunity, but we’re going to make every effort to ensure that all those responsible – the company executives and state officials identified in the trial – are prosecuted,” Bertita Zúñiga, Cáceres’ second-eldest daughter, said after the men were charged on Monday. 

While Caceres’ family is happy to see some justice be delivered, Zúñiga still believes the real culprits behind her the murder still on the loose. She has previously blamed the Atala-Zablah family, a well-known Honduran business group and DESA shareholders, as the ones behind her mother’s murder. 

“This is a day of pain because the intellectual authors of my mother’s murder are still enjoying impunity,” Zuniga said to reporters. “We are not going to believe that there’s true justice until these people are in jail.”

Despite this tragedy, Zuniga is not letting her mother’s legacy go to waste.

The message that Caceres spread of protecting indigenous communities still lives on according to her daughter, who continues to do similar work. She is committed to keeping her mother’s legacy alive and remembers her for the amazing impact she had on marginalized communities around the globe. 

“I remember her as a hardworking person. But I also remember her with a big smile on her face, because I believe that this struggle cannot be just to martyrize ourselves. We fight with joy and hope because if we do not, more than half of the struggle is lost,” Zúñiga told EarthJustice. “We always say that the image of my mother multiplied because we found her present in the struggle of so many women from so many communities who continue to fight very hard.

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