Honduran environmentalist's murder probe botched, experts say; intentionally, family fears

When Honduran activist Berta Cáceres was murdered inside her home in the western city of La Esperanza early last month, there was a swift promise of justice from the administration of President Juan Orlando Hernández.

More than a month later, however, that promise seems to have fallen flat. Little progress has been made into the manner and motives of her death, and, given the Honduran government’s track record in solving crimes – 98 percent of murders in the country go unsolved – there appears little hope that Cáceres’ family and friends will find the culprits behind her slaying, expert say.

“In Honduras, there is a government that is doing everything it can to maintain a climate of impunity,” Eric Hershberg, the director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University, told Fox News Latino.

At the time of the death of Cáceres, an indigenous rights and environmental activist, was in the middle of a three-year fight with the hydroelectric power company, Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. or DESA, over a proposed dam on the Gualcarque River in the western part of the country. Cáceres and the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), which she headed, had received numerous threats for their opposition to the project – with three of her colleagues having been killed.

There has been widespread speculation that the government of President Hernández has been shielding DESA, keeping under wraps its alleged involvement in Cáceres’ death. No hard evidence has been uncovered to connect DESA or the security forces used by the company to the activist’s murder, it took investigators 11 days after her death for them to visit company headquarters.

More On This...

So far, the government's main theory in her death appears to be that she was murdered by a fellow activist.

In the days following Cáceres’ death, authorities interrogated numerous members of COPINH and even detained Gustavo Castro Soto – the only witness to her death – for two days. Castro Soto was shot twice by Cáceres’ killer in the attack, and he was unable to change his clothes while he was locked up.

“All yesterday morning and well into the night, I could not change my bloody clothing,” Castro Soto wrote in an email obtained by the New Yorker magazine.

American University’s Hershberg said that given the lack of transparency in the Hernández regime and Honduras’ record on violent crime – it has the world’s highest per capita murder rate – it would not be surprising to have the government involved in either Cáceres’ killing or a cover up after the fact.

“It would not be unprecedented for people from the security forces to be involved in something like this,” he added.

President Hernández claimed soon after Cáceres’ death that the FBI was working with the Honduran government (a claim that turned out to be false), and his government also contacted the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, despite the fact that the commissioner's office does not perform criminal investigations.

Relatives and supporters of Cáceres have called for outside investigation, and, while that has so far not materialized, experts say it's an idea that bears consideration.

“This case underscores how the Honduran government can’t be trusted in these types of investigations,” Hershberg said.

Cáceres, a Lenca Indian and mother of four, was awarded the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize in recognition of her grassroots efforts to protect natural resources in western Honduras.

She also led protests against the June 28, 2009, coup that ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya. Before her death, the activist had complained about death threats against her and members of her family on several occasions.