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MURDER OF ECOLOGIST

Eighth arrest made in hunt for killer of environmentalist Berta Cáceres

Honduran activist is thought to have been murdered over her campaign against a dam project

The investigation into the murder of Honduran environmental campaigner Berta Cáceres has taken a new turn. Mexican Federal Police officers have arrested one of the suspects in Reynosa (Tamaulipas). The detainee is Henry Javier Hernández Rodríguez, a 26-year-old former member of the military, who was working in a barber shop at the time of his arrest. A total of eight people have been detained so far in the investigation.

Honduras environmental leader Berta Cáceres.
Honduras environmental leader Berta Cáceres.

Cáceres was killed on March 2, 2016 in La Esperanza, located to the west of Tegucigalpa. The murder shocked the world, and prompted the United States, the United Nations, the Vatican and Venezuela to demand that the killing be properly investigated.

The winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize (considered the “green Nobel Prize”) had made a lot of enemies during her years of activism due to her fight against environmental excesses in Honduras. Her last battle was being waged against a dam in Agua Zarca. The huge project would have drained the River Gualcarque, which is a sacred site for the indigenous Lenca people.

The winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize had made a lot of enemies during her years of activism

To combat the plan, Cáceres mobilized the indigenous communities and took her campaign outside the borders of Honduras, managing to get the World Bank and the Chinese public company Sinohydro to abandon the construction project. The Honduran company Desarrollos Energético SA (DESA) was left in charge of the work, and this was allegedly at the origin of the killing.

Early versions of the story suggest that it was the manager of DESA, Sergio Ramón Rodríguez Orellana, who ordered the murder. To get the job done he is thought to have enlisted one of his security chiefs, retired lieutenant Douglas Geovanny Bustillo, whom Cáceres had already publicly denounced for making threats and sexually harassing her.

Bustillo allegedly turned for help to Major Mariano Díaz Chávez – a military police instructor and a member of the armed forces – who was asked to carry out the operation and to hire hitmen. Edilson Duarte, 25, is suspected of shooting the activist while she was in the bedroom of her own house. He is alleged to have received 50,000 lempiras ($2,200) for the murder.

Gustavo Castro is the only witness to the murder of Berta Cáceres.
Gustavo Castro is the only witness to the murder of Berta Cáceres.

At the time of the attack, Mexican environmentalist Gustavo Castro was asleep in another room. A hitman fired a shot at him, but it merely grazed his left ear. Left for dead, he managed to escape, and his testimony has been key in exposing the plot.

But the arrests have not managed to bring any closure to the case. The family of the victim and Castro himself say that senior figures from DESA are yet to be arrested. And the deaths of ecologists continue. Just 12 days after Cáceres was killed, another colleague from her organization was left dead after being shot in the face. Four months later, another activist died from a machete blow to the head.

According to Global Witness, a total of 114 environmental activists have been killed in Honduras in the last decade. The majority of cases have gone unpunished.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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