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Blood River: Episode 2

When a Company Becomes the Murder Suspect

An ambitious energy project by the Honduran government clashes with indigenous rights, and bloodshed results.

When a Company Becomes the Murder Suspect

An ambitious energy project by the Honduran government clashes with indigenous rights, and bloodshed results.

Sergio Rodriguez (right), along with six others who were accused of murdering indigenous environmental activist Berta Cáceres, sits in a Tegucigalpa, Honduras, courtroom on Sept. 17, 2018.

Sergio Rodriguez (right), along with six others who were accused of murdering indigenous environmental activist Berta Cáceres, sits in a Tegucigalpa, Honduras, courtroom on Sept. 17, 2018.

Photographer: Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images
Sergio Rodriguez (right), along with six others who were accused of murdering indigenous environmental activist Berta Cáceres, sits in a Tegucigalpa, Honduras, courtroom on Sept. 17, 2018.
Photographer: Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images

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In 2010, the Honduran government hosted an international symposium to attract foreign investment, where officials unveiled a new slogan for the country’s economic development plan: Honduras is Open for Business.

The plan’s centerpiece was renewable energy. Dozens of new hydroelectric dams would be built throughout the country, the government announced. One was slated for the Gualcarque River, which runs through western Honduras. That project grabbed the attention of environmentalist Berta Cáceres, who spearheaded a campaign to stop the dam’s construction before it could begin.

At the time, Berta already was one of the country’s most prominent activists. When she was just 22, she co-founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, which fought for the rights of Honduras’ indigenous communities. A small number of Lenca—members of the largest indigenous group in Honduras—lived near the Gualcarque River. They would become Berta’s partners in her latest fight.

The Lenca argued that disrupting the flow of the river would degrade the land they depended on for crops. Beyond the environmental impact, they also said the river was sacred to them: The Gualcarque was their lifeblood.

In July of 2013, the battle over the dam turned violent. A security guard at the project’s worksite shot and killed a protester, claiming the man had threatened him with a machete. Later that same day, a 14-year-old boy whose family supported the dam was shot dead behind his house. Sinohydro—a Chinese company contracted to handle construction—immediately abandoned the worksite, and everything ground to a halt.

The Honduran company in charge of the dam, Desarrollos Energeticos (DESA), eventually came up with a plan to salvage it. DESA moved the site about 2 kilometers upriver and reduced the project’s scale. But the protests didn’t end. Berta argued the dam would still devastate the community, and occasionally organized demonstrations in the years leading up to her murder in March 2016.

HONDURAS-ENVIRONMENT
People honor murdered environmentalist Berta Cáceres with a ceremony on the Gualcarque River on March 27, 2016. 
Photographer: Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images

After Berta was killed, her family pointed the finger at DESA. Employees of the company, they told police, had repeatedly threatened her life.

“We were saying, ‘Look at the company!’” recalls Berta’s daughter, Bertita Isabel. “But 13 or 14 days passed before the company—for the first time—was targeted.”

DESA’s head of community relations, Sergio Rodriguez, was among the first to be questioned. Witnesses said he was one of the people accused of threatening Berta. Rodriguez contends the allegation shocked him. “I had seen Berta Cáceres three times in my whole life,” he says.

His interrogation marked a turning point in the probe, however: DESA was now the prime suspect in Berta’s death.