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Calls for independent inquiry into murder of environmental advocate

SANTO DOMINGO (CNS): Authorities arrested four men implicated in the murder of Honduran environmental advocate, Berta Cáceres Flores (Sunday Examiner, March 27) on May 2. However, family members and Catholic organisations continue to call the international community to carry out its own investigation in one of the world’s most murderous countries.

In early morning raids, police captured the men, two of whom were linked to Desarrollos Energetico SA, or DESA, a company with international funding proposing to build a dam on the Gualcarque River in western Honduras. As an indigenous rights leader, Cáceres had been working to block construction of the dam in an area considered a sacred place for the Lenca people.

However, in a statement following the arrests, Cáceres’ family and the group she founded, the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organisations of Honduras, said that it had been excluded from the investigation. It called on the government to open the investigation to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

“We have no way to judge whether the arrests are the result of an exhaustive investigation, nor whether they included the intellectual authorship at each level,” the statement said. 

“However, news of the alleged participation of active and retired military officers linked to the company would seem to demonstrate the involvement of state agencies in the assassination,” it went on to note.

In a statement, DESA denied any link to the murder and said it was surprised by the arrest of one of the men, Sergio Rodriguez Orellano, “who serves as manager for social and environmental matters.”

Authorities allege that Rodriguez paid a retired military captain, Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, who planned the murder and contacted local hitmen to carry it out. 

Cáceres, who had reported receiving death threats from Bustillo and others for her opposition to the dam project, was killed in her bedroom on March 2. 

Claretian Father Cesar Espinoza, a priest in Arizona, Honduras, said megaprojects, such as the dam proposed for the Gualcarque River, have fuelled conflicts in rural communities.

“There has been a legalisation of the processes allowing these projects to expand and Berta became a victim of that legalisation,” he said.

Father Espinoza said pressure from the Cáceres family and international community pushed the authorities into making the arrests.

“That does not mean, however, that the intellectual authors will be brought to justice,” he said. “There is little confidence in the government (to) hold them accountable.”

Questions over the government’s capacity to solve the crime underscore the deep distrust of authorities in the Central American country, which has a checkered history in fighting human rights abuses and protecting activists, said Gerry Lee, director of the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns.

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