The murder trial of environmental activist Berta Cáceres in Honduras could open a small window into the nexus between criminal networks and elites, but will more likely illustrate just how difficult it is to prosecute powerful families.
Correction: An earlier version of this article falsely connected the Atala Faraj family to DESA and the Agua Zarca project. Neither the family nor the bank Ficohsa has anything to do with DESA or the Agua Zarca project. InSight Crime regrets the error.
The trial starts September 17, two-and-a-half years after armed gunmen stormed the home of the indigenous environmental rights leader in the city of La Esperanza in southwest Honduras, killing her and wounding Mexican environmentalist Gustavo Castro.
The case caught the attention of international activists and governments alike. Cáceres long fought for the rights of indigenous groups and environmental activists and received the highly regarded Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 for her work against the Agua Zarca Dam project that threatened indigenous Lenca communities living along the Gualcarque River.
Latin America consistently ranks as the world's most murderous region for environmental defenders, and land activists are more likely to be killed in Honduras than almost any other country in the region.
But the case also gives us a glimpse into the Honduran underworld where elite families mingle with criminal networks. The question remains: How much will authorities talk about those ties? The Honduran government has already been heavily criticized for their mishandling of the case, and the family in question has powerful friends.
Who's on Trial and Who's Not
In total, eight men will stand trial. Security forces in Honduras first made four arrests in connection to the activist’s murder in March 2016. Two of the men, Sergio Ramón Rodriguez and Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, are former employees of Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), the company that was building the dam.
SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles
By the middle of January 2017, authorities made four more arrests, including those of former Honduran soldiers Henry Javier Hernández Rodríguez and Edilson Atilio Duarte Meza.
Authorities arrested a ninth individual, Roberto David Castillo Mejía -- DESA’s executive director at the time of Cáceres' death -- in March 2018. Castillo Mejía is in pre-trial detention, but it’s unclear when and if he will face trial.
No charges have been filed against the owners of DESA, the powerful Atala Zablah family, who deny having any involvement in Cáceres' murder. The family owns numerous businesses and has longstanding political influence.
"There’s been a fraudulent campaign to link innocent people to a capital crime with absolutely no evidence … This is an economic attack against entrepreneurs trying to bring jobs to Central America,” DESA's lawyer, Robert Amsterdam, told the Guardian.
A Bellwether for the Justice System
The investigation has been a bellwether for the Honduran justice system and has been scrutinized at every turn.
From the beginning, there were accusations of mismanagement of the evidence both at the scene and thereafter. In an embarrassing turn of events just months after Cáceres’ murder, an appellate court judge was allegedly stopped by two vehicles who proceeded to rob her of her car and the case file. The judge reportedly took the case file from her office in order to further analyze it at home.
National and international organizations have also criticized the handling and sharing of key evidence in the murder case. Cáceres’ family and private prosecutors have filed four court orders and requested, on more than 30 occasions, that the prosecution share crucial information with her family.
The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras - COPINH), which Cáceres founded, has also denounced the Attorney General’s Office’s mishandling of the case. To be sure, it’s possible that dozens of electronic devices seized by authorities were never analyzed at all, according to a recent report from Truthout.
“It’s a form of denial, of refusing to determine what is really behind the murder,” Cáceres’ daughter Berta Zúñiga Cáceres, now COPINH’s general coordinator and a member of an opposition political party, told Truthout regarding the holes in the evidence.
Cutting Prosecutions Short
Despite it all, the Honduras Attorney General's Office has taken this case further than most murder trials. And with the arrest of DESA’s executive director, prosecutors appear to be knocking at the door of the Atala Zablah family.
Still, activists and their allies are likely to walk away unsatisfied, no matter the verdict, unless prosecutors find some way to connect the powerful family.
In the meantime, they are happy to push their own theories.
“The owners of DESA killed my mother,” Zúñiga Cáceres flatly told the Associated Press.
Others have done their own investigation of the case. An October 2017 report from an independent group of experts claimed that Cáceres’ murder was a coordinated plot made months in advance by senior DESA business executives and Honduran officials.
The existing evidence is “conclusive regarding the participation of numerous state agents, high-ranking executives and employees of DESA in the planning, execution, and cover-up of the assassination,” the report found.
While Honduran authorities have allegedly arrested several of those thought to be material authors in Cáceres’ murder, Castillo Mejía is the only alleged intellectual author to be arrested in connection to the crime.
“The [independent group] report asserts that, to date, the Honduran judicial system has failed to bring charges against the intellectual authors of the crime, although the investigators … could determine that the eight men charged were taking orders from higher-ups,” Lisa Haugaard, the executive director of the Washington, DC-based Latin America Working Group, told InSight Crime at the time of the report’s publishing.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article falsely connected the Atala Faraj family to DESA and the Agua Zarca project. Neither the family nor the bank Ficohsa have anything to do with DESA or the Agua Zarca project. InSight Crime regrets the error.