Insult to injury

Berta Caceres’ case file was stolen. Is Honduras bungling this murder investigation on purpose?

Goldman Environmental Prize

The case file on the murder of one of Honduras’ most prominent human-rights figures was stolen last week, marking the latest setback in an investigation that has been so constantly bungled that many suspect it’s intentional.

On Sept. 29, two unidentified individuals assaulted Honduran Supreme Court of Justice Magistrate María Luisa Ramos as she was traveling with documents related to the killing of award-winning human rights activist Berta Cáceres. The suspects forced Ramos from her car and made off with the vehicle, with the case file inside.

Cáceres, who was murdered on March 3 in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras, gained international prominence for her campaign against a major dam project that would have damaged a river sacred to the Lenca indigenous community to which she belonged. In 2015, Cáceres was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work opposing the dam project.

Six suspects have been arrested in connection with Cáceres’ murder, but authorities have yet to identify the intellectual authors of the assassination.

The recently stolen case file included evidence supporting accusations against several suspects in the murder of Cáceres, as well as other documents related to the investigation. International organizations have expressed dismay over the theft of the case file, adding to mounting criticism of the Honduran government’s handling of the case.

The Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, known by the Spanish acronym MACCIH, has urged Honduran authorities to “carry out a swift and purposeful investigation into the theft,” which the organization described as “serious and unacceptable.”

Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, called the theft a “deplorable act” that could “obstruct justice,” and called on Honduran authorities to expedite their investigation of the incident and bring those responsible to justice.

Honduran officials, meanwhile, have attempted to downplay the significance of the robbery.

The president of the Supreme Court of Justice, Rolando Argueta— who misspelled Cáceres’ name in a letter calling for an investigation of the “loss” of the case file— claimed the theft will not impact the murder investigation because the court maintains copies of the documents. Argueta has since instructed judges and magistrates not to remove case files from the court.

While it remains unclear how the theft will impact the investigation of Cáceres’ death, experts close to the case have expressed mounting concerns about the way the Honduran government has handled the process.

Marcia Aguiluz, a human rights lawyer who represented Cáceres while she was alive and has continued to work with her family following her murder, criticized a lack of communication between Honduran authorities and Cáceres’ family regarding the investigation.

“The family has found out about occurrences of this kind through the press,” said Aguiluz, noting that the family once again learned of the theft of the case file in news reports rather than directly from Honduran officials, further increasing their distrust of the investigation.

Aguiluz criticized Honduran authorities for failing to address the Cáceres family’s repeated requests to receive updates on the investigation, and called for the Honduran government to authorize an independent body to support the process.

“The family has been asking for an independent commission to support the investigation of the case since Berta Cáceres was regrettably assassinated,” said Aguiluz.

The theft of the case file “is further evidence of the necessity for an independent, international observer of the process, because this is yet another event that increases distrust in the justice system,” Aguiluz added, saying that an independent body would “give legitimacy to this process.”

The Cáceres family has not yet publicly responded to the theft, but are expected to release release a statement today, which marks the seven month anniversary of Cáceres’ murder.

Cáceres’ nephew Silvio Carrillo, a San Francisco-based journalist for Fusion, says the Honduran government does not “have the will, desire, or capability to get to the bottom of this case.” He echoed calls for the Honduran government to authorize an independent international committee to investigate his aunt’s murder.

Carrillo also expressed support for a bill introduced in the U.S. Congress earlier this year that would suspend U.S. assistance to the Honduran government until it improves its human rights record, arguing the theft of the case file is “another obvious sign that the U.S. can’t trust the Honduran government” to bring those responsible for Cáceres’ murder to justice.