TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — For months before her death, environmental activist Berta Cáceres complained of repeated threats warning her to stop leading protests opposing a hydroelectric project on her Lenca people’s ancestral lands.
Then, on March 3, armed men forced their way into Cáceres’ home in the middle of the night, shot her four times and wounded a visiting Mexican activist, who survived by playing dead. The killing prompted widespread condemnation and calls for an independent investigation, in part due to Cáceres’ international prominence as the winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize.
Cáceres’ slaying remained officially shrouded in mystery until Monday, when authorities arrested four people in the case, including a security employee working on behalf of Desarrollos Energeticos SA, or DESA, the company carrying out the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project.
The fact that those arrested have DESA and army ties was no surprise to Cáceres’ allies and relatives, who have long suspected the company and elements of Honduras’ government and military of being behind her killing.
Previously unpublicized court records from 2014 show that the government and DESA repeatedly sought to tarnish Cáceres and her colleagues as violent anarchists bent on terrorizing the population through their protests at the project site. In filings seeking an injunction against the demonstrations, Cáceres and two leaders of her organization were accused of “usurpation, coercion and continued damage” and even attempting to undermine the democratic order.
Activists say the demonizing language helped create a dangerous climate of hostility and harassment that they link directly to her murder.
“These court documents go beyond just showing the contempt the dam company holds toward Berta Cáceres and her organization,” said Billy Kyte, a senior campaigner for land and environmental defense at London-based Global Witness, which acquired the records through lawyers working with Cáceres’ people and shared them exclusively with The Associated Press.
“It’s evidence of a company ready to do whatever it takes to neutralize opposition to its business,” he added. “The legal harassment and threats … are a stark reminder of the huge risks faced by Honduran activists.”
Kyte said Cáceres reported receiving threats from DESA security personnel, as well as an attempt by a company official to bribe her to call off the demonstrations.
Multiple phone calls to DESA went unanswered, and there was no response to questions delivered to its headquarters in Tegucigalpa. Via email, the public relations office of DESA’s Agua Zarca project issued a statement denying responsibility for Cáceres’ slaying but did not respond to AP questions about the court records. The Public Ministry, which is listed as a co-plaintiff, also declined multiple requests for comment on the documents.
Juan Sánchez Cantillano, who represented DESA in the appeals filings, said the case against Cáceres’ group was based on Public Ministry accounts of damage allegedly caused by the protesters.
“The company was harmed by the protests, which were not peaceful but instead violent,” said Sánchez, who no longer represents the company. “The protesters invaded the terrain of DESA and burned the machinery and the offices. … They destroyed everything.”
Honduras is one of the most violent countries on the planet, according to homicide statistics. It’s also one of the most dangerous to be an environmental activist, with 109 killed between 2010 and 2015, according to Global Witness.
Violence against land activists is common across Latin America, with over 450 slain in 2010-14, the group said. Drivers of conflict include mining projects in Peru, ranching in the Brazilian Amazon, Colombia’s civil war and hydroelectric projects in Guatemala and Honduras.
The Agua Zarca project, located in the Montana Verde reserve in western Honduras, was conceived to harness the power of the Gualcarque River, which is considered sacred by the indigenous Lenca community.
In 2015, Cáceres was awarded the Goldman Prize for rallying the Lenca to halt construction of the dam through her Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras, or Copinh, which she co-founded more than 20 years ago.
The protests have sometimes crossed a line into destruction of property. At a demonstration last month against Cáceres’ killing, people threw rocks outside the Public Ministry, smashed windows, broke into the building and hung a banner with her likeness from a balcony.
The court documents describe damage to the dam site that included downed utility poles and demonstrators allegedly carrying machetes and clubs, and the company claimed some $3.4 million in damage and economic losses. Agua Zarca published photos of vandalism it blamed on protesters: a burning shed, broken cement tubes, a construction vehicle with smashed windows.
But DESA and the ministry went further, accusing Cáceres and others of “sabotage and manipulation of the masses.” In court filings, they argued that the state should act against those who would “sow terror … attacking the very independence and national sovereignty.”
Cáceres and her colleagues posed a threat to “peace in the Republic of Honduras by violating its economic sovereignty and putting in grave danger the integrity and security of the state and its persons,” the filings said.
The tribunal ruled in favor of Copinh; an appeal is currently dormant at the Supreme Court, said Sánchez, the former lawyer for DESA.
Those close to Cáceres say that sort of talk encourages threats and attacks. They report being followed and harassed by DESA security and police, and even being shot at. Two weeks after Cáceres’ slaying, unidentified gunmen killed her colleague Nelson García after he returned home from helping Indians who were evicted from land they had been squatting on.
“What we are up against is a declared war on the Lenca people,” said Copinh leader Tomás Gámez, who was named as a co-defendant along with Cáceres in the court documents.
Austra Flores, Cáceres’ mother, accused the government of failing to provide her daughter with protection as called for by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Honduras’ security minister, however, said a guard detail was assigned to Cáceres and she asked for it to be removed because the guards bothered her.
“The Honduran state is primarily responsible for this crime,” Flores told the AP. “It should have assumed responsibility for guaranteeing my daughter’s life … and it did not fulfill that international commitment.”
“DESA has a lot of thugs and they, some politicians, businesspeople and people in the government are responsible for Berta’s killing,” Flores added. “I don’t have the slightest doubt.”
On Monday, Agua Zarca issued a statement reiterating its denial of any link to Cáceres’ slaying and saying it has cooperated with the investigation from the beginning.
“Agua Zarca ratifies that it is in no way responsible for nor is it materially or intellectually linked to the murder of the indigenous leader Berta Cáceres,” the statement said.
Those detained in the slaying include a man Cáceres had identified as the company’s security chief, Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, and Sergio Ramón Rodríguez Orellana, who prosecutors said was an environmental technician for the hydroelectric project. Both appear in the court documents as witnesses against Cáceres and Copinh. Cáceres reportedly said Bustillo sent her text messages threatening her with sexual assault.
An armed forces spokesman said the other two detainees, Mariano Díaz Chávez and Edilson Duarte Meza, are an active infantry major and a retired infantry captain.
Prosecutors said three of the suspects were linked to DESA, but Agua Zarca said the only one who worked for the project was Rodríguez. It said it was “surprised” by his arrest and trusts that all its employees’ actions have been lawful. DESA spokesman Roque Galo told AP that Bustillo was deputy security chief for a subcontractor, and he didn’t know who the other two were.
Kyte called the arrests “a positive step” but said an independent, international investigation is still needed. He noted that according to other legal documents, DESA directors include people with ties to Honduras’ most powerful sectors: the government, the military and wealthy business families.
“It remains to be seen whether the government-led investigation will result in the right people behind bars,” he said. “The real perpetrators must be held to account — not just the triggermen.”
Without an independent probe, “those who ordered her killing will likely never be found,” Kyte added. “The powerful interests behind DESA and its links to the Honduran government and military intelligence have seriously compromised the investigation of Berta Caceres’ death.”