Berta Cáceres (Honduras)

Honduran environmental leader Berta Cáceres was assassinated on 2 March 2016 in her home in La Esperanza, Intibucá Department, Honduras. She was a vocal land defender and was also known for her devotion to protect Indigenous and campesino cultural rights as well as women’s rights. She coordinated the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).

Prior to her death, Berta Cáceres had received multiple death threats and had been criminalized as a consequence of her work in defence of human rights.

The trial of the eight men accused in the killing of the Honduran activist was initially scheduled for 17 September 2018. After the Court rejected five related pending injunctions, the trial began on 20 October 2018.

Berta Cáceres’ last years were devoted to a campaign against the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque river, which is sacred to the Lenca people in Honduras. She gained international acclaim as part of her work coordinating the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), and won the prestigious Goldman Environmental prize in 2015.

As a result of her work defending indigenous Lenca land against the Agua Zarca dam project, Berta Cáceres had been criminalized and received multiple death threats. In June 2009, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) ordered Honduras to grant her protective measures to ensure her safety, but Mrs. Cáceres claimed the Honduran state did not fully implement such measures.

In May 2013, Berta Cáceres was arrested on charges of possession of an illegal firearm, but she claimed that the firearm had been planted by military officers in her car. The case was later dismissed due to a lack of evidence against her. In September 2013, she was charged with usurpation of land, coercion and causing damage to the company that owns the dam project. Human rights organisations have claimed that these arrests were part of a pattern of judicial harassment and criminalisation because of her protests against the project.

The Agua Zarca project is owned by the Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA). Among other complaints, COPINH has argued that the construction of the hydroelectric dam was initiated without the consent of local communities or proper consultations with them. The duty to consult is required by ILO Convention 169: Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (1989), which Honduras ratified and incorporated into its national laws.

One of the men accused of participating in the assassination was a DESA executive at the time of the assassination; another was a manager. One of the defendants was also an active major in the Honduran military at the time of the killing. In 2016, a former soldier claimed that Berta Cáceres’ name had appeared on a U.S.-trained special forces hitlist.

The trial was set to begin on 17 September 2018, but was indefinitely suspended until five related pending injunctions are resolved. Berta Cáceres’ family also filed a request for the judges to be recused and replaced, claiming abuse of authority. Lawyers for the family argued, in part, that the judges had failed to sanction prosecutors for withholding important evidence.

As part of an International Legal Expert Observation Mission comprised of 17 Honduran and international organizations, CCIJ is monitoring this case for possible violations of national and international human rights and due process standards. From 17-25 September 2018, CCIJ team members were on the ground in Honduras as part of this mission, which produced a preliminary report on the trial.

Case Timeline

  • June 2008: The IACHR grants Berta Cáceres precautionary measures due to the great risk she faces as a result of her work.
  • 29 June 2009: The IACHR amplifies the precautionary measures for Berta Cáceres after receiving information that military forces had periodically surrounded her home.
  • March 2013: Berta Cáceres leads a community roadblock preventing DESA from accessing the dam site.
  • 24 May 2013: Prosecutors accuse Berta Cáceres of carrying an unlicensed gun in her car. She claims it was planted by the military officers at checkpoint.
  • June 2013: Charges against Berta Cáceres are conditionally dismissed. Weeks later, this decision is reversed and she continues to be prosecuted on the original charges.
  • August 2013: DESA accuses Berta Cáceres of inciting others to commit the crimes of usurpation, coercion and ‘continued damages’ against the company.
  • December 2013: Berta Cáceres tells Al Jazeera that the Honduran army has an assassination list of 18 wanted human rights defenders with her name at the top.
  • April 2015: Berta Cáceres wins the 2015 Goldman Prize, the world’s leading environment award, for her campaign against the construction of the Agua Zarca dam.
  • 20 February 2016: COPINH reports that during a peaceful protest against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, over 100 people, including Berta Cáceres, are detained and harassed by security forces.
  • 2 March 2016: Suspects break into Berta Cáceres’ home at night and fatally shoot her. Mexican environmental activist Gustavo Castro Soto survives the shooting by pretending to be dead.
  • 7 March 2016: Honduran authorities stop Gustavo Castro Soto, who witnessed Berta Cáceres’ murder, from leaving the country.
  • 18 March 2016: Berta Cáceres’ daughter, Bertha Isabel Zuniga Cáceres, calls for an independent investigation into her mother’s killing.
  • 1 April 2016: Honduras lifts a ban that prohibited Gustavo Castro Soto from leaving the country.
  • 22 April 2016: The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders calls on Honduras to set up an independent investigation into the murder of Berta Cáceres.
  • 2 May 2016: Four men are arrested in connection with the murder of Berta Cáceres. Two have ties with DESA, the company building the Agua Zarca dam.
  • 31 October 2017: The International Advisory Group of Experts (GAIPE) releases the report of its investigation into the killing of Berta Cáceres. The report concludes that her murder was the result of a conspiracy involving financial institutions, DESA employees and executives, and Honduran security forces.
  • 2 March 2018: Honduran authorities arrest David Castillo Mejía, president of DESA and former military intelligence officer. He is charged with being the intellectual author of the killing of Berta Cáceres and is awaiting trial in a separate case.
  • 12 September 2018: Seventeen international and Honduran organizations, including CCIJ, form an Expert Observation Mission for the trial in the assassination of Berta Cáceres. The mission’s objective is to ensure that the trial complies with national and international due process standards.
  • 17 September 2018: The trial is postponed in part due to a request by Berta Cáceres’ family that the judges be recused and replaced.
  • 25 September 2018: The Appellate Court rejects the request for recusal and the victims’ lawyers’ injunction requesting that the public have greater access to the trial through a live audio transmission of the proceedings. The court also rejects two appeals by Berta Cáceres’ family’s lawyers requesting the inclusion of material evidence that was previously declared inadmissible.
  • 19 October 2018: Lawyers representing the Cáceres family lodge a complaint claiming that the judges are not competent to hear the case because of evidence of bias against the victims and lack of due process. The Court nevertheless rules that the trial will begin on 20 October and dismisses the lawyers of the victims from the proceedings, declaring them to have abandoned the case. The Cáceres family, COPINH, and Gustavo Castro will now be represented through the public prosecution.
  • 20 October 2018: Trial begins without the victims’ lawyers. The judges order the prosecution to submit missing information and adjourn the hearing until 22 October.
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