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Three Former Soldiers Held for the Murder of Honduran Activist Who Wanted to Stop a Dam

The authorities have arrested four people for the murder of Berta Caceres that caused an international outcry two months ago. Two of them are linked to the company behind the dam project Caceres was trying to stop, three to the country’s security...

by Andalusia Knoll
May 3 2016, 10:05pm

Imagen por Jorge Cabrera/Reuters

When environmental activist Berta Cáceres was murdered in her home in Honduras on March 2, the country's chief prosecutor said the crime was probably a robbery gone wrong.

Two months of international outrage and significant pressure later and the authorities have announced the arrest of four suspects — two of whom are employed by the company building the massive dam she had dedicated her life to fighting, and three of whom are former soldiers.

"These arrests show us that the assassination of our compañera was coordinated by the government," said José Gaspar Sánchez, spokesman for the same activist group known as the COPINH, to which Cáceres also belonged. "Neither COPINH nor Berta's daughters were notified about these arrests which is very concerning for us."

Cáceres was the best known member of the COPINH, which stands for the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras, and won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015 mainly in the name of their struggle against the Agua Zarca Dam.

This dam is part of a larger hydroelectric project on the River Gualcarque in a largely indigenous area in Western Honduras. The river is the main water source for these communities who believe that the project directly threatens their livelihood.

In the years and months before her murder Cáceres received numerous death threats, including some from employees of the DESA Company that is is building the dam her organization had brought to a halt thanks to their protests.

In a video published by a Swedish blogger, Cáceres stated that she had been threatened by Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, a former military lieutenant and current head of security for DESA.

Bustillo is among those arrested on Monday in what the attorney general's office has dubbed Operation Jaguar.

The other three detained are Sergio Ramón Rodríguez, who is a manager for the company, as well as Mariano Díaz Chávez, who is an instructor for the Federal Police, and a former army captain named Edilson Antonio Duarte.

Related: Award-Winning Honduran Environmentalist Berta Cáceres Has Been Shot Dead

But while the attorney general's office released a statement claiming that the arrests were rooted in "a broad and exhaustive investigation based in technical and scientific methodology," many doubts remain about how far the probe can be trusted, and how much further it will go.

Cáceres' family underlined these in a statement released by COPINH that expressed their "regret" at not being allowed to be involved in the investigation that they consequently felt unable to fully trust.

The only witness of the assassination also said that he had not received any information from the authorities about the arrests, or whether the detainees had or would be charged with his attempted murder.

"The crime scene was contaminated from the get go, which comes as no surprise," said Mexican environmental activist Gustavo Castro. "They didn't cordon off the crime scene, and they let members of the press enter immediately allowing for the fingerprints to be confused."

Castro stayed with Cáceres on March 2 in her home in the small city of La Esperanza in Western Honduras. Cáceres had expressed fear of being alone because of a recent intensification of the death threats she had been receiving for years.

That night, armed gunmen broke into her home at approximately 11:45pm. They entered her bedroom and fired at her many times leaving her dead.

Immediately after they entered the room where Castro was staying. He received a bullet himself, at close range. He survived, he says, because the shooters took him for dead and left him lying in his own blood.

Following 48 hours of questioning, Castro, fearful that his life remained in danger, immediately tried to return to return to Mexico. He was detained at the airport in Honduras and only allowed to return home after a month living in the Mexican embassy.

Related: The US State Department Maintains a Hands-Off Approach to Honduras, Despite Wave of Activist Murders

Some international groups are also wary of dialing down the pressure in the wake of this week's arrests.

"The government must continue to investigate all possible leads including the masterminds," said Sara Rafsky a researcher on Central America for Amnesty International. "Anything short of that will not only be devastating for her loved ones and will perpetuate the message that the Honduran government is not truly committed to fighting impunity or protecting human rights defenders."

Honduras is considered one of the most deadly places in the world for environmental activists, but the murder of Cáceres has had more international impact than most, because of her high international profile. Even so, there has been no let up in the violence against COPINH since the assassination brought a spotlight to the dangers faced by Honduran activists in general.

Two weeks after Cáceres was killed, fellow COPINH member Nelson García was also murdered following the eviction of a group of indigenous activists from a land occupation in Río Chiquito in Western Honduras by the country's military police. It is unknown who fired the four shots that killed García.

A month later a caravan of buses full of national and international activists travelled to the Gualcarque River to hold a ceremony honoring Cáceres and all the work she did in defense of the river threatened by the dam project. The group later said that a few dozen employees of DESA threatened the caravan with machetes and pistols and left four of them injured.

Related: Peruvian Activists Predict a Right-Wing President Will Bring More Conflicts Over Mines

Follow Andalusia Knoll on Twitter: @andalalucha