Bertha Zúniga, daughter of Berta Cáceres, does not underestimate the importance of what may be revealed in the trial against Roberto David Castillo Mejía, Director of the Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), a hydroelectric company backed by the millionaire Atala Zablah family, and how this may point to the masterminds behind her mother’s murder.
On April 6, a Honduran court opened the trial of Castillo, a former military intelligence officer and executive of the hydroelectric company commonly known as DESA. Castillo is being tried for the murder of Indigenous Lenca defender and organizer Berta Cáceres five years ago, but the daughter of the Lenca Indigenous activist warns that the political and economic actors behind the assassination are still protected by a criminal structure.
“He’s a key piece between the material perpetrators and the intellectual authors who continue in impunity,” said Bertha Zúniga in a virtual press conference on March 30.
In 2018, seven men were convicted of Cáceres’ murder, including an active military officer, the former head of security for DESA and the socio-environmental manager of the company, along with four hitmen. The attorneys representing Cáceres’ family allege that Castillo acted as an intermediary, coordinating with the already convicted assassins, and in particular with the former head of security Douglas Bustillo, in addition to unindicted senior company executives to kill Cáceres and stop the organized resistance to the “Agua Zarca” hydroelectric project on the Gualcarque River in the ancestral Lenca territory.
The evidence collected by the Public Prosecutor’s Office and used in the first trial includes cell phone extractions, information from telecommunications antennas and wiretaps. Much of this evidence will be used again in the trial against Castillo, and demonstrates how he coordinated with convicted murderer and former DESA security manager Douglas Bustillo to monitor and control Cáceres’ movements. Evidence points to years of harassment, explicit racism and violence against Cáceres and COPINH, but shows how this intensified in the months leading up to the murder. Bustillo in turn coordinated with active military officer Mariano Díaz (also convicted in 2018), to hire the hitmen responsible for carrying out the assassination.
Zúniga is Berta Cáceres’ second daughter who now heads the Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), a movement co-founded 28 years ago by her mother to fight for better living conditions for women and Indigenous communities and to protect the cultural and territorial rights of the Lenca people. In the press conference days before the trial, she assured that Castillo had generated “a pattern of permanent persecution against COPINH and particularly against Berta Cáceres, a woman of territorial resistance.”
Although Castillo was the president of DESA at the time of the assassination, the private prosecution argues that the communications evidence shows that he played a subordinate role to the rest of the company’s executives, members of the Atala Zablahs, in planning and executing the assassination plan.
On the second day of hearings, April 7, during a phase of the trial when new evidence can be proposed, the family’s lawyers presented bank documents seized in a search of the DESA offices after the murder. They reveal an important $1.2 million USD transfer made by Daniel Atala Medince on behalf of Concretos del Sur (CONCASA) to Potencia y Energía de Mesoamérica S.A (PEMSA), a company registered in Panama and controlled by Castillo.
The transfer happened just days before Cáceres’ murder and according to the lawyers, coincides with chats where Castillo is coordinating payments to carry out the murder with convicted former DESA Security Manager Douglas Bustillo. During the 2018 trial, it was revealed that now convicted DESA Social-Environmental Manager Sergio Rodríguez also received monthly payments following his incarceration for the murder of Cáceres from CONCASA. Daniel Atala is the unindicted Chief Financial Officer of DESA who is also the General Administrator of CONCASA, a company founded by Castillo shortly after he created DESA in 2009.
For DESA, the organized resistance against the Agua Zarca project meant multiple setbacks, including the loss of the investment of the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, the departure of the multinational SinoHydro, as well as the costs of redesigning the project and moving the facilities to the opposite bank of the Gualcarque River.
The mobilizations and legitimate protest actions in rejection of the project resulted in delays and multi-million dollar losses of investment and resources for the company. The investment of the international banks, FinnFund, FMO and CABEI was put at risk due to the protest actions against the project.
The 2018 sentence affirms that more than one Executive of the DESA Corporation knew about and consented to the plan to assassinate Cáceres, but the Public Prosecutor’s Office, responsible for the investigation and pressing charges in the case, has failed to make any further arrests since that of Castillo in March 2018.
Investigations by the Prosecutor’s Office and independent experts indicate that the murder of Cáceres stems from the resistance to the hydroelectric project and the complaints made against DESA, the Atala Zablah family, the Agua Zarca Project and the public officials who approved it.
In 2019, an investigation uncovered by the then OAS Mission of Support Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) and the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Corruption (UFERCO) showed how a network of corruption existed to grant the necessary licenses to operate the hydroelectric project and to negotiate contracts between DESA and the National Electric Energy Company (ENEE). Sixteen functionary and former functionaries were initially charged, but in 2020, a special Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court resolved an injunction presented by the defendants. The results of that ruling have still not been communicated to the Tribunal presiding over the case and the trial has been delayed as a result. To date, COPINH has also been excluded from participating in the process as private prosecution, a right enshrined through Honduran law.
At the time the licenses were granted, Castillo was the de facto president of DESA, but he was also still employed by ENEE on behalf of the Honduran Armed Forces, which had created a commission to intervene ENEE. The investigation shows that Castillo and his associates used privileged information as state employees at ENEE to obtain the necessary licenses for the Agua Zarca project, which they then developed through DESA. Prior to his involvement with DESA, Castillo had no experience in hydroelectric projects. However, once the environmental and then operating licenses were granted, the company was able to access multi-million dollar loans from various multinational financial institutions.
The case demonstrates profound irregularities in the development of energy generation projects in which two illegal phenomena are combined. First, there is abuse of authority and fraud in awarding contracts, and second, there is corruption through the purchase and sale of energy without the agreed amount of total energy coinciding with the energy that the company will produce, which also results in fraud.
Evidence presented by UFERCO in the “Fraud on the Gualcarque” case shows that DESA and the state energy company ENEE negotiated a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) on the basis that DESA would generate 21.7 MW even though an environmental study shows that the river could generate a maximum of 8 MW. In practice, the higher the generation capacity and the higher the construction and operation costs of the hydroelectric project, the higher the cost of each MW sold to the State due to the ENEE guidelines and the PPA. As a result of the negotiation, DESA would charge for the alleged power generation capacity, not for what the energy project could actually produce. For DESA it was more profitable to develop a 21.7 MW dam but only produce 8MW.
In its sentence following the 2018 murder trial, the Tribunal confirmed that Cáceres was killed to neutralize resistance to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project on the sacred Gualcarque River. During her battle to stop the project, Cáceres and the Lenca Indigenous community of Rio Blanco organized in COPINH which never gave their free, prior and informed consent for the project to move forward, denounced the corruption and the grave human rights violations that were being committed with its implementation. Evidence suggests that Castillo coordinated the police to mobilize against the resistance, while the Atala Zablah’s used their political influence to criminalize Berta and others from COPINH. In addition to Cáceres, Indigenous Lenca land defender Tomas Garcia from Rio Blanco was also killed, and his son injured, by a Honduran soldier outside the company’s facilities. Other people have been victims of aggressions and threats for asserting their rights that continue to this day.
The Honduran narco-state and the murder of Berta Cáceres
On the same day that COPINH held the press conference announcing the murder trial, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández was sentenced in a Southern District of New York (SDNY) court to life imprisonment plus 30 years and forfeiture of $138 million in assets for distributing 185 tons of cocaine, firearms offenses and false statements. Tony is brother of current president Juan Orlando Hernandez, who was supported by the Canadian government to be sworn in as president for a second term in 2018 amid widespread allegations of fraud during the November 2017 elections. At time, when mass protests erupted to denounce what had happened, Honduras responded by implementing state-led terrorism measures and violently repressing civilians, leading to the deaths of at least 37 people. At the same time, Juan Orlando used fake social media accounts to garner support for his bloody administration.
According to the Judge Castel in SDNY, Tony worked alongside Juan Orlando to create the current day Honduran narco-state. For its part, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) noted, “Tony Hernandez, along with his brother Juan Orlando Hernandez, played a leadership role in a violent state-sponsored drug trafficking conspiracy.” Washington continues to openly support the Juan Orlando Hernandez regime and the National Party that it firmly supported to carry out and implement the 2009 coup.
According to Honduran attorney Edy Tábora, the Honduran narco-state was consolidated through the aggressive co-optation of the state to guarantee economic and political support for Hernandez brothers and their allies after they first began their drug trafficking ventures twenty years ago. The implementation of their narco political agenda followed the Canadian-backed 2009 coup d’état through legislative reforms that would serve to punish civil resistance to the narco-state they were creating. Many of these laws have also been used to repress and criminalize land defenders.
Over the course of two presidential elections resulting in Juan Orlando taking power as president, which was largely denounced by Honduran civil society but legitimized by foreign governments, the Hernandez clan consolidated power through more restrictive policies and decrees and the creation the National Security Council, made up by the President of the Republic, President of Congress, President of the Judiciary, Attorney General, Minister of Defense and the Minister of Security, completely erasing the independence of powers. This Council collects and spends the proceeds of the “Security Tax” – for which there are few if any accountability mechanisms – instated by Juan Orlando soon after first taking power as President. FUSINA, an inter-institutional force in the hands of the armed forces, reports directly to the Security Council, extending its reach over civilian surveillance and ensuring key protection of drug activities.
SDNY Judge Castel noted in the sentence, “Over a period of 15 years, the defendant corrupted the democratic institution of Honduras to enrich himself.”
Following the 2009 coup, Tábora points out that interest in extractive projects, and particularly energy generation projects like the one that Cáceres was fighting to stop, ramped up in Honduras. In his perspective, a national framework to more easily exploit natural resources was implemented, going so far as to create conditions to grant “express concessions,” in large part thanks to reforms in the mining law in 2012 which Canada played a heavy role in ensuring. In addition to expediting the process to obtain licences, the mining law also effectively cut out active participation of affected communities from the licensing process and includes a two per cent security tax that goes to forces directly linked to serious human rights violations and drug trafficking.
Obtaining an “express concession,” in some cases, provides an easy way for drug traffickers to launder money. Tábora points to Pepe Lobo, the National party president who took power in the 2010 post-coup elections. According to court testimony provided by Devis Maradiaga, of the dangerous Los Cachiros drug cartel, Lobo told the convicted kingpin to make up shell companies that looked like extractive companies to easily get licences and launder drug money. As a result, the Los Cachiros cartel had interests in mining on the north coast and solar projects, including one linked to David Castillo, in the southern part of the country.
Just a week before Tony’s sentencing, in a separate but related case, Honduran citizen Geovany Fuentes was also convicted of drug trafficking by SDNY Courts. Fuentes was a violent co-conspirator with the Hernandez brothers in the production of cocaine and its transportation to the United States, who paid off judges to ensure impunity. He had also made investments in extractive companies to launder drug assets. During his trial, a protected witness who was formerly an accountant for Fuentes testified that he was a witness when Juan Orlando Hernandez, then a presidential candidate, promised Fuentes protection because Oscar Chinchilla would protect them.
Oscar Chinchilla, current Attorney General who sits on the Security Council, was irregularly re-elected for a second term in 2018 despite the fact that he didn’t even run as a candidate. He was widely seen by civil society as part of the leadership that paved way for Juan Orlando Hernández’s re-election in 2017 despite the fact that the Constitution prohibits re-election.
Under Chinchilla’s leadership, Cáceres’ case was immediately labelled secret, cutting out the family and their private attorneys from the investigation, refusing to hand over information and even failing to analyze key evidence. Chinchilla’s office has publicly stated for more than three years that there is an open investigation into the participation of DESA CFO Daniel Atala, who allegedly coordinated with David Castillo to ensure the necessary payments to carry out surveillance of Cáceres and her murder, but has refused to file an indictment.
Impunity consolidated by the Hernández clan
As a result of the creation of the post-coup narco-state, Honduras became one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Cáceres’ life was in danger. She was ordered protection by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights in 2009; the last person she called before she was murdered seven years was the police officer responsible for keeping her safe. But it was Julian Pacheco, the Minister of Security, who ultimately responsible for her protection. Pacheco, like others in the National Security Council, has been linked to drug trafficking through judicial proceedings in the United States. According to chats presented in the 2018 trial and to be used again in the trial of Castillo, shortly after Cáceres’ murder, Julián Pacheco promised Pedro Atala Zablah, from the family that controls DESA, that he would make sure the murder was labeled a crime of passion.
Erika Guevara Rosas, Americas Director for Amnesty International who accompanied Bertha Zúniga at the March 30 press conference, recalled that when she arrived in Honduras days after Berta Cáceres’ assassination in 2016, the false narratives, used to create confusion, were already circulating.
“The government did not protect Berta; and not only did it not protect her, it has taken it upon itself to obstruct all avenues to guarantee truth and justice since her assassination,” said Guevara Rosa, who refers to the heinous femicide of Cáceres as a “tragedy foretold.”
“Berta had repeatedly denounced aggressions and death threats against her, threats and harassment against the criminal proceedings that COPINH was carrying out at the community level, precisely to resist the expropriation and extraction of natural resources.”
Cáceres, in addition to being a voice of permanent resistance to the hydroelectric project in Lenca territory, worked hard in what she and her allies called “the refounding” of Honduras. Especially after the 2009 coup d’état, Cáceres saw how power structures aligned to guarantee impunity for the most serious acts of aggression and corruption by the economic and political powers in the country and fought not only to denounce it, but to create a new Honduras. The fact that her assassination, at the height of the Hernandez drug boom, has gone unpunished should come as no surprise given the narco-state in which the crime occurred.
Yet, Bertha Zúniga does not underestimate the importance of what may be revealed Castillo’s trial. The former military intelligence officer has denied wrong doing while his defense claims key evidence against been made up by the prosecutors and their expert witnesses. Castillo claims he had a friendship with Berta, but the family argues he used his intelligence background to gather information from Berta while plotting and carrying out the murder with other members of the criminal structure, both people to whom he was subordinate and others he coordinated.
Though Castillo’s trial was temporarily suspended on the second day after his defense filed a motion for recusal – now the fourth – Berta’s family is not dismayed and vows to keep fighting for justice.
“It’s a decisive moment to give way to other legal processes for which the State is in debt,” said Zúniga days before the trial began. “To end the impunity enjoyed by highly influential economic actors who remain untried in our country.”
Jackie McVicar has accompanied human rights social movements and land protectors in Central America for the past 15 years and has worked closely with the family of Berta Caceres and COPINH since 2018 to support their struggle for justice.