CARTEL WATCH

Army Major, Corporate Goons Charged in Murder of Berta Cáceres in Honduras

Five men with ties to a construction company have been arrested in connection with the murder of famous environmental activist Berta Cáceres.

05.08.16 4:01 AM ET

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Friday was Day 1 in court for five men accused of the assassination of Honduran environmentalist and indigenous rights leader Berta Cáceres. Fifty soldiers and national police in riot helmets and shields lined the rainy street in front of the courthouse before 9 a.m., awaiting the arrival of the four defendants.

According to the prosecution, the plot to assassinate Cáceres originated at the executive level of Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA), the construction firm embroiled in a land dispute with the indigenous Lenca people over a proposal to build four hydroelectric dams on the Gualcarque River.

Prosecutors claim that Sergio Rodríguez, 46, an environmental engineer employed by DESA, ordered the firm’s assistant chief of security, Douglas Bustillo, to have Cáceres killed.

Bustillo, 39, a retired Honduran Armed Forces lieutenant and military intelligence specialist, allegedly sought help in recruiting the assassins from Major Mariano Díaz. Major Díaz, 43, is a special-forces veteran of the Honduran Army and onetime military adviser in Iraq; at the time of the alleged plot to murder Cáceres he was an instructor at the élite Estado Mayor military academy in Tegucigalpa, training members the recently created anti-crime force known as the Military Police for Public Order.

The other defendants in the case are Edilson Duarte, 25, the alleged shooter, and his twin brother, Emerson Duarte, whom police hadn’t added as the fifth defendant in the case until midway through the hearing on Friday. Police say Emerson was arrested in La Ceiba with the murder weapon in his possession.

None of the defendants have publicly commented on the charges against them.

Berta Cáceres was shot to death the night on March 3 at her home in La Esperanza, a town in southwestern Honduras. She was an indigenous Lenca woman and leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations (COPINH), which organized the inhabitants of communities along the Gualcarque River and led them in a successful campaign of civic resistance to thwart the dam project. Last year, she was awarded the Goldman Prize, the world's largest award honoring grassroots environmental activists

Cáceres had reported 33 violent threats against her in the year before her murder—death threats, rape threats, and kidnapping threats against her, and against her children and grandson.  She was the beneficiary of precautionary measures granted by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2009. Last October, the IACHR criticized the Honduran government for shortcomings in the implementation of the precautionary measures for Cáceres.

The lone witness to the murder, the Mexican environmental activist Gustavo Castro, was staying in a guest room at Cáceres’s house on the night she was killed—he was scheduled to give a lecture at a conference the following day. He told police that two gunmen broke into the house that night; Castro himself was shot in the arm and ear. He was scheduled to testify at Friday’s hearing via video-conference from Mexico.

A man puts flowers on the coffin of slain environmental rights activist Berta Caceres at a cemetery in the town of La Esperanza, outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras March 5, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera - RTS9H1M

Jorge Cabrera/Reuters

A man puts flowers on the coffin of slain environmental rights activist Berta Caceres at a cemetery in the town of La Esperanza, outside Tegucigalpa, Honduras March 5, 2016.

On Monday, the day of the arrests, DESA issued a written statement publicly denying its involvement in the Cáceres murder—a claim roundly rejected by the Cáceres family through their attorney, Oscar Menjívar.

“We, on behalf of the family and the social activists of this country, are saying that the cause the murder of Berta Cáceres is her struggle against the extractive economic model of this country, and against one firm specifically,” Menjívar said during a court recess. “We don’t want the investigation to be limited to low-level perpetrators. These firms have owners, these firms have financiers, and they are the ones most concerned when something like this happens. They should be the main suspects in the investigation.”

More arrests are anticipated, due in part to reports in local media—citing sources close to the investigation—that alleged additional suspects include a Honduran congressman and the deputy mayor of a municipal government in the area of Agua Zarca. The lobby of the courthouse was alive with the rumors yesterday, stoked by at least one report in the local media that Jorge Ávila, DESA’s chief of security, was in police custody. No additional arrests have yet been confirmed.

Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, the youngest daughter of the slain indigenous-rights leader, reiterated to reporters outside the courtroom her family’s desire for an independent investigation into the murder. The Cáceres family has requested the IACHR launch a parallel and independent investigation.

“We don’t trust this process because there are many powerful economic interests involved related to stopping my mother’s struggle, and we know that these persons have a lot of power inside the prosecutor’s office, inside the government, and we have to face it that the state bears responsibility in large part for my mother’s murder,” Zúñiga Cáceres said.

“To deepen the murder investigation and arrive at the true intellectual authors of the crime we are going to need an international commission.”

In March, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights offered to send a team of international legal experts to Honduras to conduct a parallel investigation of the murder on behalf of the victims’ families. To date, the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, who alone has the power to authorize such a move, has not responded to the offer.

Critics of the government’s investigation, meanwhile, continue to uncover links between DESA and the Honduran government, including some that appear to be clear conflicts of interests for top government officials.

The Honduran radio journalist Félix Molina reported on Monday that the current minister of security of Honduras, General Julián Pacheco—the government official ultimately responsible for the Cáceres murder investigation—is related to one of DESA’s highest-ranking corporate officers. Molina also reported that DESA’s president, Roberto David Castillo Mejía, is a nephew of the longtime congressman from the ruling National Party in La Ceiba, Rodolfo Irías Navas.

Molina says his source for the information is a leaked police report from the Cáceres investigation that has yet to be released. He said the report also implicates a congressman from the Department of Santa Bárbara and a retired military officer with close ties to the ruling National Party. Molina survived two assassination attempts last week, by the same assailant on the same day; he was wounded in both legs and his cellphone was stolen in a crime that he and human-rights advocates suspect was related to his independent investigations of the Cáceres murder.

Olivia Zúñiga Cáceres, the victim’s eldest daughter, pointed out that the new Chief Prosecutor of Honduras, Arturo Duarte, is a law partner in a firm that counts DESA as a client. “And this is the director of the prosecutors who are conducting the criminal investigation into the crime,” Zúñiga Cáceres said. “How is anyone who is a family member of the victim going to trust in a system where the murderers are the same ones handling the criminal proceedings?” In late March, Duarte met privately with the Cáceres family and informed that he was recusing himself from the investigation.

Activists hold photos of slain environmental rights activist Berta Caceres after her body was released from the morgue in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, March 3, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera - RTS97FC

Jorge Cabrera/Reuters

Activists hold photos of slain environmental rights activist Berta Caceres after her body was released from the morgue in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, March 3, 2016.

The team of lawyers representing the Zúñiga Cáceres family in the criminal proceedings says the prosecutors are stonewalling them from obtaining any information about the investigation. “Even though we, as representatives of the victims’ families, are parties to the investigation, we find ourselves in the unheard-of situation of being refused access to information by the prosecutor’s office, on the ground that it is secret—which is completely illegal and unconstitutional,” said Víctor Fernández, a legal representative for the family.

Prosecutors have not acknowledged these apparent conflicts of interest. The case had gone dormant for two months until Monday, when, in the course of seven days, the police made five arrests and opened court proceedings against the suspects.

The law in Honduras permits the victims’ families equal access to information in the investigation. But the prosecutors in this case, Fernández said, are denying the Cáceres family access to information, treating them like a third party in the case.

“The law allows for secrecy with respect to third parties, but the victims’ family members are not third parties. And though we have pursued every legal avenue to ensure our rights are enforced, we continue to be unable to access any information about the case.”

At the hearing on Friday, prosecutors introduced as evidence the cellular phone records of the defendants, allegedly showing they were in communication in the days leading up to the murder. The prosecutors say they also have recordings of the defendants discussing the alleged murder plot over the phone.

They also introduced the results of a ballistics test that claims the .38 special allegedly recovered from Emerson Duarte was the same gun used to kill Berta Cáceres.

At 2 p.m., when the hearing was still in session, a crush of reporters formed in the courthouse lobby around two women who had just arrived, and who identified themselves as relatives of the twin brothers Edilson and Emerson Duarte.

Diana Martina Meza, the mother of the twins, and Daira Roches, the wife of Emerson Duarte, had taken a taxi from the bus station after a five-hour bus journey from La Ceiba, a city on the northern coast of Honduras. The women say they came to Tegucigalpa after they saw the news report linking their family to the Cáceres murder. They say the twins had been held incommunicado since Monday. “We came to get word of them,” Roches said.

Meza and Roches protested the innocence of the two defendants. They declared themselves willing to testify that the twins were in La Ceiba on the night Cáceres was murdered.

Meza denied previous reports that Edilson Duarte, the alleged shooter, is a discharged soldier from the Honduran army. “Neither of my sons have ever been soldiers or police,” she said.

Meza, who mentioned that she is an evangelical Christian from the neighborhood of Colonia Pizzati, said prosecutors are railroading her sons instead of finding the real killers. “Something dark is happening here,” she said. “The Lord says, ‘Defend yourself, have courage,’ and that’s what we’re going to do.”