Berta Cáceres Murder Unveiled Network of Impunity for Honduras Elites

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After two years, authorities in Honduras still have not identified the individuals responsible for ordering the murder of renowned environmental and indigenous activist Berta Cáceres, underscoring the widespread impunity enjoyed by Honduran elites amid mounting questions about the future of an international body meant to help tackle the issue.

On March 3, 2016, armed men stormed Berta Cáceres’ home in the southwestern Honduran city of La Esperanza. The gunmen fatally shot Cáceres and seriously wounded her friend, Mexican environmental activist Gustavo Castro Soto, leaving him for dead.

Cáceres had garnered international recognition in 2015 after she received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work against a major hydroelectric dam project that critics said would harm indigenous Lenca communities living along the Gualcarque River, which the Lenca hold as sacred.

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Cáceres faced repeated threats in the days leading up to her death attempting to intimidate her into abandoning the campaign against the dam project. Honduran officials later told InSight Crime that responsibility for the activist’s murder reached to high levels of Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), the company managing the project.

“Her death was a result of her struggle,” a source in the Attorney General’s Office said. “The business that affected Berta was the dam.”

Two Years, No Answers

Cáceres’ murder triggered international outrage, and eventually led three international backers of the dam project to withdraw $44 million in planned funding. But despite intense pressure to solve the case, Honduran authorities still haven’t arrested or charged any of the intellectual authors of the crime.

In October 2017, a report by an independent panel of experts presented compelling evidence that Cáceres’ murder was a coordinated plot made months in advance by DESA executives and Honduran officials.

More recently, Cáceres’ eldest daughter, Olivia Marcela Zúniga, said that a police report pointed to the involvement of Elden Vásquez, a congressman from the governing National Party who serves as secretary of the environmental committee in congress.

Nevertheless, authorities in Honduras have taken no action against top DESA executives or government figures, though they have arrested eight individuals alleged to have participated in the murder, including current and retired Honduran military officials as well as two men connected to DESA.

“We expected a lot more, a lot sooner.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cáceres’ family has little trust in Honduran authorities. Silvio Carrillo, a US-based journalist and the nephew of Berta Cáceres, told InSight Crime that the slow and bumpy progress of the investigation has shaken his confidence in the government’s commitment to solving the case.

“It’s very difficult for us to put any faith into the investigation given the manner in which authorities have handled it over the last two years. We expected a lot more, a lot sooner,” he said.

A Network of Impunity

Experts consulted by InSight Crime stressed that the anniversary of Cáceres’ murder and the lack of progress in bringing the intellectual authors to justice serves as a stark reminder of the fragile state of efforts to fight elite corruption and impunity in Honduras.

“This is a case that has received the most international attention and pressure. If Honduras’ judicial system cannot advance this investigation beyond the material authors and to the intellectual authors, this shows the weak and corrupt state of the judicial system in Honduras,” said Lisa Haugaard, the executive director of the Washington, DC-based Latin America Working Group.

Dana Frank, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, echoed these statements, and told InSight Crime that it’s “very clear that there is a great deal of evidence being buried.”

“The intellectual authors have not been charged and evidence is not being shared with the family and its lawyers as is required by law. Even in the most emblematic of cases … justice is not being served. Honduran authorities are failing to arrest or convict the alleged authors of the crime even with substantial evidence,” Frank said.

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Sarah Chayes, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told InSight Crime that the failure to achieve substantial progress in the Cáceres murder case is the result of an “operating system” based on corruption and impunity.

“It’s not as though there are one or two intellectual authors, or one or two isolated individuals behind this murder,” Chayes said. “It’s a network and it’s a quite tightly woven network that comprises public officials, business magnates and out-and-out criminals at the top.”

Anti-Graft Efforts Under Fire

The anniversary of Cáceres’ murder comes in the context of upheaval at the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH), an institution created by the Organization of American States (OAS) to help the country deal with cases involving elite corruption.

The former commissioner of the MACCIH, Juan Jiménez Mayor, recently resigned from the position, citing pushback from elites against anti-graft initiatives and a lack of support from the OAS.

The resignation cast doubts over the future of efforts to tackle elite impunity in Honduras, particularly as President Juan Orlando Hernández’s begins a second term in office after a controversial election that raised allegations of fraud and corruption against him.

“Honduran authorities are failing to arrest or convict the alleged authors of the crime even with substantial evidence.”

Although the MACCIH did not play a central role in investigating Cáceres’ murder, its work on the investigation revealed some of the body’s fundamental shortcomings.

For instance, Haugaard said, the MACCIH “faced difficulties in obtaining the information they needed from the Attorney General’s Office and judicial authorities.”

Frank told InSight Crime that the built-in weakness of the anti-corruption body was also part of the problem.

The MACCIH “was imposed by the United States through the OAS as a deliberately weaker alternative to a powerful body like the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG). The commission depends on cooperation from Honduras’ Attorney General’s Office and has only weak powers,” she said.

While there have been some signs of progress in tackling corruption and impunity under the MACCIH, the Cáceres case has made clear that Honduran elites generally have little interest in addressing the systemic factors that contribute to these problems.

According to Chayes, the Cáceres case shows that “not only will the Honduran government not seek to address corruption, it will seek to thwart any effort to investigate [it].”

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