Twenty months after the killing of Honduran land rights defender Berta Caceres, the masterminds behind the crime have yet to be punished, while other female rights campaigners face growing threats across Central America, Nobel peace laureates said.
Caceres, an award-winning environmental and indigenous rights activist, was fatally shot by gunmen in her home in March 2016 after receiving death threats over her opposition to a hydroelectric dam project.
Her killing sparked an international outcry. So far, eight people have been arrested in connection with the murder and are in jail, according to lawyers leading an inquiry into Caceres' murder at the request of her family.
But during a recent visit to Honduras two Nobel peace prize winners, Yemen's Tawakkol Karman and Shirin Ebadi of Iran, urged the Honduran government to bring to justice those who ordered the killing.
"The government authorities in Honduras told us that the investigation into the murder of Berta Caceres still continues ... but who is behind them, who ordered the killing and who is benefiting from this, is what the investigation should reveal," Karman told Reuters following a visit to Guatemala and Honduras. "The people who kill human rights defenders aren't held accountable. Justice doesn't happen."
Deadliest place on earth
Honduras is the deadliest place on earth for environmental activism, according to a January report by UK-based watchdog Global Witness, with at least 120 activists killed since 2010 but most crimes going unpunished.
Indigenous communities battling often big international companies to preserve their ancestral lands from mining, dams, logging, and other mega-developments are caught in the firing line and are targets.
"We told government officials in Honduras we met about their responsibility to protect human rights defenders and to fulfill their international obligations and agreements on protecting indigenous rights and the environment," Karman said.
Honduras was criticized for failing to protect rights activists in several major reports last year by organizations including the United Nations and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Caceres led a decades-long campaign against the construction of the $50 million Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam that she and local communities said threatened to destroy the livelihoods of the Lenca indigenous people and their water resources.
Both the government and Desarrollos Energeticos SA (DESA), the private Honduran company in charge of building the dam, have repeatedly denied any involvement in Caceres' murder.
International backers of the dam — the FMO, the Dutch development bank, and a Finnish state investment fund, Finnfund — suspended $20 million in funding following the killing. Work to build the dam has been suspended.
Not an 'isolated incident'
Norma Allegra Cerrato, Honduran vice minister of human rights and justice, told Reuters earlier this year the government is working to bring those responsible for Caceres' murder to justice and stem violence against activists and better protect them.
A report on Caceres' murder on Tuesday by a group of five independent lawyers, the International Advisory Group of Experts (GAIPE), said Caceres' murder was not an "isolated incident."
GAIPE was set up last year to lead an independent inquiry into Caceres' murder at the request of her family and rights groups following concerns about the official investigation.
In its report, GAIPE said the threats against Caceres were part of a "strategy" by DESA employees, private security companies and public officials "to violate the right to prior, free and informed consultations of the Lenca indigenous people."
"The strategy was to control, neutralize and eliminate any opposition," the report said.
DESA did not respond to an emailed request for comment on the report. The Agua Zarca dam project said it rejected the findings.
"Agua Zarca is totally disconnected from any act of violence and/or threat that is expressed in the report," the company said in an email Tuesday to Reuters.
"The information ... is taken out of context and does not reflect the reality but it has been created with the intention of doing damage to the Agua Zarca project and generating instability in the country 26 days before the (presidential) elections in Honduras."