Honduras authorities captured four men for the March murder of activist Berta Cáceres — two of which have direct ties to the hydroelectric company she and others have been battling in western Honduras — and indicated there may have been a larger conspiracy at play.

On May 2, Honduran police arrested four people in connection with the murder of Cáceres, an environmental and indigenous rights activist who spent a decade fighting to block construction of dams along the Gualcarque River in La Esperanza, Honduras, about a 100 kilometers from the capital, Tegucigalpa.

Two of the four men were connected to Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), the company managing the hydroelectric project in La Esperanza, where the four dams known collectively as the Agua Zarca Dam are being built.

In the strongest indication yet that Caceres’ murder was related to her activism, two high level Attorney General’s Office officials told InSight Crime that the crime reached “high” parts of DESA.

“Her death was a result of her struggle,” one investigator told InSight Crime. “The business that affected Berta was the dam.”

Hidroeléctrica Agua Zarca, the DESA subsidiary managing the project, issued a statement (pdf) dated May 2, in which it denied any involvement in the crime.

“Hidroeléctrica Agua Zarca declares that in no way is it responsible nor does it have any material or intellectual link to the murder of the indigenous leader Berta Cáceres,” it reads.

Of the two detainees with DESA connections, Sergio Ramón Rodríguez Orellana is the manager of community and environmental affairs at the hydroelectric facilities in question, while Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, worked for a security company previously employed on the dam project, DESA confirmed to the New York Times.

The government officials told InSight Crime they are working on the hypothesis that Rodríguez Orellana was the intellectual author of the crime.

In its statement, Hidroeléctrica Agua Zarca says it was “surprised” by Rodríguez Orellana’s arrest.

“Sergio Rodríguez acted as the manager for social and environmental issues for the company, a position for which we trust that all of his team’s actions are within the law,” the statement says.

The other two men arrested are both connected to the Honduran military, including one active military officer, Major Mariano Díaz Chávez, and one retired, Edilson Atilio Duarte Meza.

Authorities said that the two military men and the security guard played operational roles in the murder. They believe Major Díaz Chávez organized the hit but was acting on his own rather than as part of the military.

Military officials told the Honduran press they supported the investigation and had no issue with the arrest of an active officer.

“We were informed that they were going to carry out these arrests and that there would be a military official [Mariano Díaz Chávez] among them,” the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Francisco Isaías Álvarez, is quoted as saying in La Prensa. “And I said, ‘perfect, no problem, if he is involved then you have to capture him.’”

For its part, the United States Embassy in Honduras, which has deployed resources to help the Honduran government resolve the case, issued a statement about the arrests.

“We welcome the announcement of arrests in the murder of Berta Cáceres,” the embassy said. “From the very beginning, we have called for a thorough investigation into Caceres’ murder — one that followed the evidence and that would lead to those who committed the crime, including the intellectual authors.”

The arraignment for the suspects is scheduled for May 6. Authorities told InSight Crime they would use the hearings to more clearly spell out the motives behind the murder and how they intend to prove the case in court.

InSight Crime Analysis

Honduras has been labelled by human rights observers as the “deadliest country in the world to defend the natural world,” with over 100 environmental activists murdered between 2010 and 2015. However, even among this bloodshed, the murder of Berta Cáceres murder has stood out as an example of the dangers of standing in the way of private profits in countries like Honduras.

At first glance, the case bears some similarities to cases brought against companies in other parts of the region and around the world. In Colombia, for example multinationals including Coca Cola, Nestle, mining company Drummond and banana company Chiquita have all been accused of colluding with right-wing paramilitaries. In Chiquita’s case the company even admitted financing such groups — although it claims it was forced into it. 

The Honduran case does not involve paramilitaries, but it does allegedly involve private commercial interests seeking to settle a dispute with the community that was impeding its business. And that dispute has become bloody, perhaps at the hands of a paramilitary-style hit squad.

Cáceres was on the front lines of the battle against the planned hydroelectric dams, which would displace large numbers of Lenca indigenous people. It is a battle that at times has turned violent and at least three of her colleagues have been killed for their activism against the plants.

According to a freelance film producer close to the campaign, writing in the New York Times, the activists have nowhere to turn as security forces have taken the side of the company against them.

“Rather than provide protection to council members, the Honduran security forces and judicial authorities have been part and parcel of the campaign of attacks and intimidation against the organization,” he wrote.

The case is similar to previous examples in another way as well: it will not be easy to prove in any court. The challenge Honduran authorities face will be to connect Rodríguez Orellana, in addition to the company, to the crime.

Many such cases have never progressed past civil suits, while the case against Chiquita, Coca Cola, Nestle or Drummond never went to court in Colombia. Most of them were brought to US courts under a little known law known as the Alien Tort Statute, which allows for human rights cases not prosecuted abroad to be tried in the US. In every case, the companies won.

Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime and a senior research fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies in Washington, DC. In 2020, Dudley...