Officials on Trial for Authorizing Dam Linked to Berta Cáceres’s Murder

The trial of alleged assassins is still to come

By Sandra Cuffe

June 2, 2018


Photo courtesy of Sandra Cuffe

Berta Cáceres was speaking. Two years after her murder, Cáceres’s face was projected onto a courtroom wall in Siguatepeque, central Honduras, and her voice was coming back from the grave as prosecutors screened a film featuring the well-known Indigenous and environmental leader. “Colonialism hasn’t ended,” Cáceres was filmed telling Río Blanco residents during the community’s fight against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project. On an outer wall of the courthouse, a related message had been scrawled in red spray paint: “526 years resisting, and here we continue.” 

The president of Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (or DESA), the hydroelectric company behind the controversial dam, and other executives are among the nine men in jail pending trial for the March 2016 murder of Cáceres; the trial for most of those alleged perpetrators is expected to begin this year. But before that case starts, another set of trials are already underway—trials that are less well known outside of Honduras but, in their way own way, just as important since they address the initial measures that sparked the years of community resistance and state violence leading up to the killing. 

Eleven former Honduran government officials have been charged with abuse of authority for authorizing the Agua Zarca Dam without first consulting affected Indigenous communities in Río Blanco. They are the first criminal trials in Honduras connected to the issues of consultation and consent regarding natural resource projects in Indigenous lands, and the verdicts could help shape land-use policies and Indigenous rights in the Central American country.

The developmentof the Agua Zarca Dam without the consent of affected communities sparked a conflict that continues today, according to Francisco Sánchez, president of the local Indigenous Council of Río Blanco and the land, territory, and environment coordinator for the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH, the organization Cáceres cofounded and led at the time of her murder). “We’re the owners of the territory, and we can say yes or no to projects like [Agua Zarca],” Sánchez told Sierra. “If they had first come to the community, we would have said no, and there wouldn’t have been so many killings and so much persecution from police and soldiers.” 

One of the 11 municipal and national government officials charged with approving the Agua Zarca Dam permits and licenses without prior consultation with Indigenous Río Blanco inhabitants has been acquitted. There are five total trials between the 11 officials. Two other trials are under way, while the remaining two haven’t begun yet.  

In 2011, government officials gave a greenlight to the proposed Agua Zarca Dam, a 21.3-megawatt facility on the Gualcarque River in western Honduras. It was one among dozens of hydroelectric project concessions granted in the years immediately following the 2009 coup. The Honduran company behind it, DESA, quickly obtained the environmental and construction permits to move the project forward.

But Indigenous communities in the area weren’t consulted first, as is required by law. In 1995, in the face of growing Indigenous movements around the country, Honduras ratified the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which mandates that national governments consult with Indigenous peoples, “whenever consideration is being given to legislative or administrative measures which may affect them directly.” 

While the convention’s stipulations have never been incorporated into the country’s laws, according to the Honduran Constitution international agreements supersede national legislation. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has also urged Honduras to align its legislation not only with the convention, but also with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which also includes the principle of free, prior and informed consent. 

“The convention isn’t a handout from the state,” lawyer Victor Fernández told court during the trial against Martiniano Domínguez, the former mayor of Intibucá who was charged with improperly permitting the dam. A leader of the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice, Fernández is the legal representative for COPINH, which is participating as a co-plaintiff in the consultation-related trials, alongside the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Ethnic Groups and Cultural Heritage. “The convention is the accumulation of the historic struggle of Indigenous peoples.”

Domínguez issued a construction permit to DESA in 2011. Residents of Río Blanco, located in the municipality of Intibucá, contend they never gave their consent for the Agua Zarca project. During court proceedings in April, the prosecution screened La Voz del Gualcarque, a documentary film about the conflict over the dam. “I’m surprised at how easily you let yourselves be brainwashed,” Domínguez told Río Blanco residents in one scene. He also stated Cáceres had orchestrated local opposition. 

Domínguez maintained his innocence throughout the trial. “I have not committed a crime,” he told the three judges presiding the case, and on April 23, Domínguez was acquitted. COPINH is appealing the ruling. 

Domínguez’s trial was just the first of five, however. The former mayor, vice mayor, and six municipal councillors of neighboring San Francisco de Ojuera are divided into two trials for abuse of authority for issuing DESA a construction permit for Agua Zarca in their municipality. Two former vice ministers of the environment were also charged with failing to consult Indigenous communities in Río Blanco. 

As vice minister of the environment in 2013, Dario Roberto Cardona authorized a change to the original environmental license for the Agua Zarca Dam and increased the initial permitted generating capacity of 14.4MW by 50 percent. Cardona’s trial began earlier this year, but then his case was thrown into legal limbo after the Honduran Supreme Court ruled in his favor on a due process issue. 

A conviction for abuse of authority carries a prison sentence of three to six years, and sentences under five years can be paid off with a per-day fee in lieu of jail time. A conviction of a former government official related to a failure to consult with Indigenous peoples would have profound implications, according to Jany del Cid, the country’s Special Prosecutor for Ethnic Groups and Cultural Heritage.

“It would lay the foundation for a beginning of respect for and recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples in Honduras,” she told Sierra. Del Cid believes a conviction would spark a change in behavior by officials from all branches and levels of government. “No one wants to be convicted, and obviously they would have to take every precaution before making a decision of that scope.” 

The forthcoming trials of Berta Cáceres’s alleged murderers could also have a profound impact in the Central American nation, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for Indigenous and environmental defenders. Nine men have been arrested in connection with the 2016 killing, and more than half of them have direct ties to DESA and/or to the military. 

DESA president David Castillo is the most recent alleged perpetrator arrested. He was taken into custody on March 2, 2018—two years to the day after the murder he is accused of orchestrating. The case against Castillo remains separate from those against the initial eight men detained, whose cases have since been joined.

Despite the arrests of company executives and the evidence of communications and coordination between them and other alleged perpetrators, DESA denies any connection to the killing. None of its personnel has anything to do with the murder, according to the company, and the arrests are the result of NGO campaigns.

“Mr. David Castillo and all members of DESA are totally unconnected to the unfortunate incident that ended Mrs. Berta Cáceres’s life, and the company completely rejects this decision, which stems from international pressure and campaigns by various NGOs against the company,” DESA wrote in a March 2 statement following Castillo’s arrest. 

Río Blanco resident Alan García is closely following the case against the alleged gunmen and masterminds of Cáceres’s murder. “They have to be convicted because they killed her just for defending resources,” he told Sierra.

García’s father was also killed in connection with the dam. Tomás García, a community leader and member of the Río Blanco Indigenous Council, was shot at close range and killed by a soldier on July 15, 2013, during a protest against the Agua Zarca project. His son Alan, 17 years old at the time, was also shot several times and seriously wounded. The soldier, Kevin Saravia, was convicted of homicide.

Alan García believes the killings and violence would have been avoided had Río Blanco’s lack of consent been taken into account earlier. Some communities elsewhere would later side with the company, but in the most directly affected communities, in Río Blanco, people expressed overwhelming opposition from the outset, he said. 

“They should have consulted the people, because we weren’t in agreement with that company that was coming in,” García said.

Now in his early 20s, García continues to farm his family’s land in Río Blanco. At one of the hearings earlier this year, he smiled outside the courthouse as he and his partner cared for their baby girl. They named her Berta. She will never meet her grandfather, Tomás García, nor will she ever meet the iconic leader after whom she is named.