Berta Cáceres murder Trial in Honduras: Week April 26-30, 2021
For more details on the trial against David Castillo for the murder of Berta Cáceres (available in Spanish only), please see here.
This week was a momentous time for human rights defenders in Honduras and the region, where high rates of impunity mean that very few murders of environmental, land and water defenders are prosecuted. The oral and public debate for the murder of renowned Lenca activist Berta Cáceres began, after a two-week hiatus for the Court of Appeals to resolve a motion to recuse the Court filed by David Castillo's defense on April 8, the day after the trial officially opened.
At the beginning of the week, the incidents phase continued and the Court ruled on the evidence that would be presented. It also decided to allow two socio-economic expert reports as part of the evidence to be presented by the private prosecution. This is a very important precedent for cases involving human rights and environmental defenders in Honduras, since this tool is not regularly used in Honduras to demonstrate the factors that contribute to crimes. Nevertheless, a document showing a bank transfer between Daniel Atala, the CFO of Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. DESA, and the accused David Castillo, days before the crime, which would correspond to telecommunications data on the payment to the assassins, was not admitted.
After the incidents phase, the opening statements were read and the accusation against Roberto David Castillo Mejía was formalized by the Public Prosecutors, who accused him of murder with malice aforethought with the promise of remuneration and requested a sentence of 25-30 years. While the Public Prosecutor’s Office accuses David Castillo as "Participant" or "Perpetrator by Inducement", the Private Prosecution qualify Castillo as "Perpetrator" of the crime .
This is an important difference to note. While "inducement" could be understood only as convincing to commit the murder, for the family of Berta Cáceres, their legal team and the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), David Castillo was an essential element in the commission of the crime as an active part in tracking and tracing for the purpose of planning and providing resources to carry out the murder. They do not consider him as the intellectual author, but as a co-author and key part of a criminal structure that carried out the assassination. For this reason, when David Castillo was first arrested, the Private Prosecution asked that David Castillo be charged with "illicit association" in addition to "murder", but to date, the Honduran state hasn’t opened an investigation into this crime.
To date, the only DESA executive indicted for the murder is David Castillo, while no one from the Atala Zablah family, who are majority shareholders and part of the company's board of directors, has been questioned about the crime. Daniel Atala Medince, the unindicted CFO, and Douglas Bustillo, the former security director who was convicted of the murder in 2018, will be called to testify by the Private Prosecution later in the trial.
During the opening statements, the MP recounted how DESA began construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project in 2013, which was met with significant opposition from the affected Lenca Indigenous communities of Rio Blanco due to the negative impacts of the project to the local economy and the environment. This opposition resulted in large economic losses for the company's associates, and the project site was forced to be relocated.
According to the MP, this is when David Castillo, together with Sergio Rodríguez, the DESA socio-environmental manager convicted in 2018, made a plan to begin monitoring the actions of COPINH and Berta Cáceres in the area, paying informants and members of COPINH for information on their movements and mobilizations against the project in order to coordinate retaliatory actions and weaken the movement.
According to the MP, by the end of October 2015, Sergio Rodriguez, through a WhatsApp chat called "PHAZ (Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project) Security" that included members of the Board of Directors of the Atala Zablah family company, the head of security of DESA, public relations consultants and other company employees, wrote: "It is evident that while Tomas or Berta are not here, the movement is weakened. There is little turnout. It is against them that we must take action."
The MP claims that it was around this time that David Castillo allegedly contacted Douglas Bustillo, a former DESA security manager trained in intelligence in the Armed Forces who was convicted of the murder in 2018, to begin planning the assassination. Bustillo allegedly then contacted Mariano Díaz, an active major who joined the armed forces the same day as Bustillo. Díaz, in turn, reportedly approached Henry Hernández, a former military sniper who was under his command in the 15th battalion of the Armed Forces in the special "Xatruch" unit in Bajo Aguán, and plans for the assassination began to develop, first with surveillance actions. According to the MP, Bustillo asked for 50% of the payment to carry out Cáceres’ assassination in January 2016 and indicated to him that "it could happen at any moment."
According to the charges filed by the MP, on February 5 and 6, 2016, Hernández allegedly went to Berta Cáceres' house in La Esperanza Intibucá to assassinate her, but the plan was aborted. In the weeks that followed, Bustillo, Díaz and Hernández reportedly accelerated their plan and Hernández allegedly contacted a group of hitmen to carry out the assassination on the night of March 2, 2016 after receiving the necessary logistics.
These facts were confirmed in a previous sentence where Rodriguez, Bustillo, Díaz, Hernández and three hitmen were convicted of the murder. In the current trial, the MP and the Private Prosecutors seek to demonstrate David Castillo's active participation with this group to plan and provide the logistics to carry out the murder.
Meanwhile, in their opening statements, the Private Prosecutions narrated the context of attacks and violence caused by the illegal granting of the concession of the Gualcarque River and the construction of the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project in Lenca territory without prior consultation, which led to the murder of the Indigenous leader.
During their opening statement, the lawyers representing Salvador Zúniga, the son of Berta Cáceres, noted, that what happened on March 2, 2016 had its origin in 2010 when the concession of the Gualcarque River was granted to DESA, a company that was used as an instrument to commit acts of corruption and attack the Lenca people, and which is currently being investigated for corruption offenses in "Fraud on the Gualcarque " case, and in which David Castillo is being prosecuted."
For its part, the legal team of Berta Cáceres' daughters and mother pointed out that David Castillo "was a key player, acting as a link between the operational/executive structure of the assassination and the management/political structure of the DESA company that consented to the assassination.”
David Castillo's defense countered the accusation by saying that the MP had rushed the investigation and made mistakes in doing so in order to please the international and national community demanding justice for the murder of Berta Cáceres. They are sure of Castillo's innocence and claimed that they would demonstrate throughout the trial how the family had been deceived, or was made a "double victim" in their fight for justice due to the actions of the investigation.
Following the opening statements, the Private Prosecution requested that the Court clarify whether the victims could be present in the courtroom during the trial. The Observatory highlights that the role of the victims, the daughters, son and mother of Berta Cáceres, has been fundamental from the moment of the crime to demand a transparent and serious investigation, pressing for the inclusion of the contributing factors in the judicial process. In 2018, they were excluded from the judicial process as a Private Prosecution taking away their right to access truth and justice as victims while in the "Fraud on the Gualcarque case, COPINH has also been excluded from participating as a Private Prosecution representing the Lenca people, affected by a series of fraudulent actions, including the granting of the project license and the negotiation of the power purchase agreement.
At the beginning of the current trial, the participation of the victims had been limited due to the biosecurity protocols imposed by the Court. The Private Prosecution asked the Court to reconsider its decision, reminding it that at the time of the assassination, Berta Cáceres was a beneficiary of precautionary measures by the IACHR, and that the State of Honduras owes a debt to the family for not fulfilling its responsibility to guarantee the safety and life of Berta Cáceres. In addition, it stressed that the participation of the victims would be a small way for the State to address the need for dignified reparation in this case. The Court ultimately granted Laura Zúniga, daughter of Berta Cáceres in representation of her family, permission to attend the hearings in person. They granted the same to the mother of David Castillo. At the same time, the Court declared that it would not allow anyone else to enter the courtroom, making it impossible for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras (UNHCHR), the National Commissioner for Human Rights (CONADEH) and the Expert Observation Mission of the criminal process to observe the trial in person.
The Court proceeded to examine the evidence of the MP to establish the motive for the murder of Berta Cáceres, following a report presented by an investigator of the Technical Agency of Criminal Investigation (ATIC), which established that the line of investigation indicates that the murder was a consequence of Berta Cáceres’s work to stop the implementation of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project in Lenca Indigenous territory. That is, her work as a defender of the right to land, the environment and the rights of the Lenca Indigenous community.
ATIC also pointed out that a first line of investigation by the National Police indicated that the murder of Berta Cáceres was a "crime of passion", a hypothesis often used in Honduras in crimes committed against women, which the family disqualified from the beginning as an attempt to divert the investigation.
During the hearing, important testimony was heard from Rosalina Domínguez, a member of the Lenca Indigenous Council of Río Blanco, who met Berta Cáceres in 2013 when the Lenca Indigenous authorities of the community approached COPINH to ask for accompaniment. She spoke of the community organizing to stop the energy project that did not have the consent of those affected, of the physical violence the community faced and also of the damage caused to their crops and livelihoods, as well as the threats Berta received for her leadership role. Rosalina's testimony complements other evidence showing that Berta's murder was not an isolated event, but part of a well-documented pattern of threats and intimidation over the years.
According to Domínguez's testimony, with the support of Berta and COPINH, the affected communities organized to claim their ancestral rights against the imposition of the project starting in April 2013 with the "Protest at the Oak", a permanent and peaceful encampment set up in the community to reject the hydroelectric project. Domínguez recalled seeing David Castillo at the occupation.
The Observatory stresses that the case of Berta Cáceres is no different from many others in Honduras, where those who claim their rights against extractive projects in their territories without consent are watched, monitored, victims of smear campaigns, criminalization and ultimately threats, violence and murder. However, what is exceptional about the Berta Cáceres Case and its passage through the national courts, thanks to the tireless work of her family, COPINH and the social movements that have demanded justice, is that official documents are confirming the important role that those who promote large economic interests have in the creation of illicit structures to promote industrial projects that generate high levels of conflict.
The public nature of the trial, with live transmission, is an important step towards making visible the attacks and threats against people and communities defending land, territory and the environment in the face of the imposition of extractive projects without consent in their territories. It also makes it possible for this trial to acquire great relevance to demonstrate similar patterns of violence against defenders throughout the country and the region, such as that pointed out by the witness Rosalina Domínguez regarding the violence of the company and power networks at the local level and also the negligence of the State in failing to act in response to these acts.
"For us, the loss of Berta left a void in the community, her legacy was very great, she was a very decent woman, awakening the communities and the women to value our rights," said witness Domínguez.