Conservation news

Honduras arrests alleged mastermind of Berta Cáceres’s murder

Berta Caceres at the banks of the Gualcarque River in the Rio Blanco region of western Honduras where she, COPINH (the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) and the people of Rio Blanco have maintained a two year struggle to halt construction on the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric project, that poses grave threats to local environment, river and indigenous Lenca people from the region.

On March 2 Honduran authorities arrested a hydroelectric company executive they say orchestrated the murder of indigenous activist Berta Cáceres two years earlier to the day.

David Castillo Mejía is executive president of Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), the company building the Agua Zarca dam in western Honduras to which Cáceres had led a formidable opposition. In a press release, the Honduran government said Castillo is the ninth person to be arrested in the case and is being charged as an “intellectual author” of Cáceres’s murder.

A mural of murdered activists Berta Cáceres in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Photo by disoniador via Pixabay.

Cáceres co-founded and led a group devoted to improving conditions for the indigenous Lenca people and other local communities in western Honduras called the Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras or COPINH). The group mounted a vocal opposition to the Agua Zarca dam, as well as other extractive projects in the Lenca’s traditional territory.

Cáceres received international attention for her work, including the prestigious Goldman Prize in 2015. She reportedly received numerous threats related to her opposition to the dam before being shot while sleeping in bed in her hometown of La Esperanza on March 2, 2016. A Mexican environmental activist named Gustavo Castro was wounded in the attack. Her murder raised an international outcry that has put continuous pressure on the Honduran government to pursue her killers.

Castillo, a former military intelligence officer, was arrested at an airport in the city of San Pedro Sula as he prepared to leave the country for the United States, according to news reports. The eight others arrested so far in the murder case include a DESA manager and several former members of the military. Among them are the four accused gunmen.

In a statement DESA denied that Castillo or the company have any connection to Caceres’s murder and asked for Castillo’s immediate release. The company “completely rejects this decision, which arises from international pressure and discrediting campaigns by various NGOs toward the company,” the statement said, referring to the arrest.

David Castillo Mejía, the hydroelectric company executive arrested for orchestrating the murder of activist Berta Cáceres, in the custody of Honduran authorities. Photo courtesy of the Attorney General’s office of the Republic of Honduras.

COPINH, the group Caceres once led, released a statement crediting national and international pressure for leading to the arrest while accusing the Honduran attorney general’s office of having “tried in every way to hide the truth in this case.” The statement continued: “COPINH will continue denouncing the entire criminal and murderous structure behind the assassination of our friend Berta Cáceres, of which David Castillo is just one piece.”

A 2017 report by the London-based NGO Global Witness found that Honduras is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for environmentalists, with 120 killed there since 2010. The report also found that government corruption related to dams and other development projects, along with international aid, were implicated in the killings.

Banner image: Berta Cáceres. Photo courtesy of Goldman Environmental Prize.

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