THE WASHINGTON POST
Four men have been found guilty in Costa Rica in the 2013 killing of a sea turtle conservationist, while in Honduras, the government has freed the only witness to the slaying of an internationally known environmentalist after holding him for nearly a month.
Those events last week in Latin America, one of the world’s deadliest regions for activists fighting projects such as dams and logging, were greeted as positive by international conservation groups that are unaccustomed to good news. The reports came as relatives of Berta Cáceres Flores — killed early March 3 by gunmen who barged into her home in Honduras — traveled to Washington to speak with members of Congress.
In addition, community leaders from Sayaxche, Guatemala, arrived in Washington this week to meet with nonprofit organizations and possibly lawmakers. They want to discuss the growing development of indigenous lands by the palm oil industry and death threats against protesters who stand in the way, according to the nonprofit Friends of the Earth.
Protests against palm oil expansion in the Sayaxche region led to the killing of Q’eqchi’ Mayan activist Rigoberto Lima Choc in September, the group said. The teacher had documented a toxic spill and filed a complaint that forced a company to cease operations. A day after a court order shut the company down, he was killed. No one has been arrested.
From 2010 to 2014, more than 450 activists were killed in Latin America. Arrests and convictions are rare. In Costa Rica, a court last year acquitted the men accused of killing sea turtle conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval, 26, as well as kidnapping and robbing four foreign volunteers.
But in a surprise last week, the men — Héctor Cash, Ernesto Centeno, José Bryan Quesada and Donald Salmón — were found guilty after prosecutors filed an appeal in the case, which is allowed in the Costa Rican legal system. The four could serve up to 70 years in prison.
Mora, who worked to protect endangered leatherback sea turtles and their eggs on nesting beaches, was reportedly beaten and dragged behind a car. A panel of three judges deemed that his role with the group Widecast was a key factor in his murder.
“The court rejects that there is any other motive for this murder,” Carlos Álvarez, the trial’s chief judge, was quoted as saying in the Tico Times. “The killing of Mr. Jairo Mora Sandoval was the straw that broke the camel’s back in this war that was taking place between poachers and environmentalists on the beach.”
The court rejects that there is any other motive for this murder.”
-Carlos Álvarez, trial’s chief judge
In Honduras, Gustavo Castro, a Mexican activist and friend of Cáceres, also feared for his life. He was staying overnight at her house when the gunmen shot her four times and Castro twice. He said he survived by playing dead.
But the Honduran government blocked Castro’s attempt to leave the country after the slaying, arrested him and held him under house arrest at the Mexican Consulate for nearly a month.
“What we are confronting are forces very powerful, obscure forces, filled with ambition,” Castro said after arriving home in Mexico, according to Democracy Now, an independent news agency.