The past few months have been vital in the fight against those violently targeting human rights defenders in Latin America. In Honduras, David Castillo, the president of a hydroelectric dam company and a former Honduran army intelligence officer, was found guilty of being a co-collaborator in ordering the murder of Indigenous environmentalist Berta Cáceres more than five years ago.
But, in Brazil, there were new setbacks in the investigation into the killing of Black Rio de Janeiro councilwoman Marielle Franco. Recent changes in leadership of the case show that it remains stuck, three and a half years after the assassination of Franco and her driver, Anderson Gomes.
Both cases are stark reminders of the threat faced by rights defenders in the region, and of the fragile protection mechanisms available to them. Activists continue to be targeted – a recent Global Witness report said Latin America accounted for three-quarters of the killings of environmental defenders in 2020 – and justice and accountability lag far behind.
That said, Castillo’s conviction in Honduras was an unprecedented victory. It showed that it is possible to punish those who intimidate environmental and human rights defenders in Honduras. On 3 August, the prosecution asked for a maximum sentence for Castillo of 25 years.
But it has been a long road to reach his conviction. In December 2019, seven men were sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison for murdering Cáceres. It was not until July 2020 that Castillo was identified as one of those who had coordinated and planned her assassination.
Castillo had been the president of Desarrollos Energeticos (DESA), the company responsible for the construction of the proposed Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River in western Honduras, which encompasses Lenca Indigenous territory. The community was not consulted about the construction. Cáceres, a Lenca leader and a co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), led the campaign to stop the dam’s construction.
Cáceres was threatened, harassed and made the target of smear campaigns. She was given protection by the state. And yet she died of multiple gunshot wounds while asleep at home in the southwestern city of La Esperanza on 2 March 2016. The subsequent investigation into her death revealed the involvement of members of both retired and active members of the security forces. Shortly after Cáceres’ death, Honduran authorities were quick to insinuate that it might have been a crime of passion. But her family and her community fought for the truth and for accountability.
After calls for an independent international investigation were ignored by the government, Cáceres’s family and COPINH asked legal experts from the US, Guatemala and Colombia to launch an inquiry. The International Advisory Group of Experts (GAIPE, by its Spanish initials) found evidence of a conspiracy involving DESA’s senior management.
Additionally, in 2019, data extracted by Honduras Public Prosecutor’s Office from the convicted men’s phones revealed a chain of WhatsApp, SMS and call logs involving DESA’s high-level leaders, including members of the Atala Zablah family. The Atala Zablahs control DESA and are one of the country’s wealthiest families. In one of the chat groups, executives and board members of the company expressed concerns about activists’ activities and hate against the Lenca Indigenous people. They also coordinated to activate their network in the media, security forces and political sphere to protect DESA’s interests.
COPINH and Cáceres’ family claim that members of the Atala Zablah family should also be held accountable. During Castillo’s trial, Daniel Atala Midence, who is part of the clan and DESA’s chief financial officer, was excused of having to testify as he was under investigation in connection with Cáceres’s murder. Atala Midence has never been detained, and no member of the clan has ever been charged. DESA and the Atala Zablahs have always denied any involvement in Cáceres’ murder.
The ‘Berta Cáceres Cause’, which is fighting 13 separate legal cases surrounding Cáceres’s murder, continues the fight for justice. One of the cases investigates corruption involving the contracts of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project. COPINH and the Indigenous community of Río Blanco recently won the right to be recognized as the victims of corruption cases and to participate in the legal processes that affect them.
The Berta Cáceres Cause also seeks the revocation of permission for the hydroelectric project. It wants the state to be held accountable for failing to protect Cáceres and to investigate the investment in initiatives premised on such massive human rights violations.
Cáceres family’s fight inspires that of Franco’s
Meanwhile, more than 6,000 kilometres away from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, another fight for justice grinds on. In Rio de Janeiro, the investigation into the murder of Marielle Franco and Anderson Gomes is underway, in secret. The authorities argue that this is necessary to protect the investigation but it does raise questions about transparency. On 10 July, prosecutors Simone Sibilio and Letícia Emile announced their withdrawal from the investigation. They cited external interference but did not offer specifics. The lead on the Franco-Gomes investigation has already been replaced four times.
According to reports, Sibilio and Emile discovered that sensitive information had been leaked, and disagreed with the plea bargain negotiations in the case.
During the past three-and-a-half years since the murders, many of Rio de Janeiro’s politicians have been accused of ordering the hit. Yet, still, the question remains: who ordered the killing of Marielle Franco?
Fighting for human rights is a human right, and it is the state’s responsibility to protect activists
In 2019, Ronnie Lessa and Élcio Queiroz, two former officers of Rio’s military police, were arrested for the murders of Franco and Gomes. Both men have been charged and are currently awaiting trial. They remain in jail and deny the allegations against them.
Franco’s sister Anielle, director and co-founder of the Marielle Franco Institute, says that the Cáceres case in nearby Honduras remains an inspiration in the fight for justice. The Institute was founded by Anielle, along with her parents, Antonio and Marinete, and Marielle’s daughter Luyara, to demand justice for Franco and support broader political change. In November 2020, Monica Benicio, Franco’s widow, was elected to the Rio council on the promise of defending women's and LGBTQIA+ rights, as well as social inclusion. “Marielle is the fruit and the seed of those who fight and see the possibility of a different world on the horizon. I dream of her legacy being understood this way,” says Benicio.
Cáceres and Franco were human rights defenders in one of the most dangerous regions in the world for such activities. Fighting for human rights is a human right, and it is the state’s responsibility to protect activists. In 2020, Honduras was the third, and Brazil the sixth, deadliest country for human rights defenders. And Honduras had the world’s second-highest murder rate per capita of environmental defenders. At least 21 female land and territory activists have been murdered in the Mesoamerica region since Cáceres’ death, according to a report by Iniciativa Mesoamericana. Eight of them were in Honduras.
In Brazil, the space for human rights defenders has been shrinking. The Brazilian Committee of Human Rights Defenders has noted repeated interruptions between 2018 and 2020 to the national programme for protecting at-risk defenders. The conservative political context, especially after the October 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro, is considered a pivotal factor.
A new generation of activists rises
These are troubled times, with multiple unfolding emergencies, which affect many of the groups represented and defended by Franco and Cáceres. The COVID-19 pandemic has grave implications for vulnerable communities in Latin America, including women, girls, LGBTQIA+, Black, Indigenous people and quilombolas (former Brazilian slaves). The climate crisis is already affecting food systems and rainfall patterns, causing extreme weather events, deaths and the destruction of livelihoods, housing and infrastructure. As frontline defenders of their area’s natural resources, Indigenous people play a key role.
As women, both Cáceres and Franco faced specific challenges shaped by who they are and who they identify with, as well as their work to challenge power structures.
They dared to defy the objectification of their bodies, as well as of their local area. In doing so, they placed themselves on the frontline of the fight against systems that uphold capitalist greed and colonialist control. As a Lenca woman and a Black bisexual woman born and raised in a favela (a slum), Cáceres and Franco respectively epitomised the challenge to white hegemony, class structures and traditional family and gender roles.
Both achieved recognition for their work. In 2015, Cáceres won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her defence of the Gualcarque River. In 2016, Franco won one of the largest vote shares of any candidate running for Rio de Janeiro’s state legislature.
In the circumstances, it’s obvious that both Honduras and Brazil are sending a dangerous – and all too clear – message by allowing the perpetrators of Cáceres and Franco’s death to get away. Both countries are essentially telling the world that violence against human rights defenders is tolerated.
This is despite the reality that a whole new generation of activists have been inspired by Cáceres and Franco. Young feminists, who see the world through an intersectional lens, are organising, identifying compounded systems of oppression that subjugate individuals, communities and natural resources. In order to tackle these issues, the activists remain focused on the root causes and the need to defy entrenched power structures. Their work ranges from championing migrants’ rights, body autonomy, the right to land, and sexual and reproductive health and rights to the fight against homo-, trans- and biphobia, femicide, state violence, poverty, hunger and unemployment. Plural, diverse and creative, their activism cannot be compartmentalised. They are inspired by the values embodied by Cáceres and Franco, whose legacies transcend geographical borders.
If we are serious about human rights in Latin America, this new generation of activists must be supported. International donors need to provide flexible and sustainable financial and non-financial resources in order for the fight to continue. Activists’ autonomy, agency and expertise need to be respected. We don’t want any more martyrs. Activists must be able to stay safe and to continue their work.
In her Goldman Environmental Prize acceptance speech, Cáceres said: “Our Mother Earth – militarised, fenced-in, poisoned, where basic rights are systematically violated – demands that we take action:” She added, “Let’s build societies that are able to coexist in a way that is dignified, just and protective of life”. And just a few days before she was murdered, Franco tweeted, in reference to the police violence against young Black people in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas: “How many more will need to die before this war comes to an end?”
We owe them an answer.
Get our weekly email