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BERTA CÁCERES CASE: TRIAL FOR MILITARY OFFICER AND BUSINESSMAN ACCUSED OF MASTERMINDING MURDER

Honduran court announces that David Castillo must face oral and public trial. Interview with Bertha Zúniga.

After an 18-month suspension of the preliminary hearings to decide whether to open trial against David Castillo, a Honduran court finally announced on 26 August that he will face an oral and public trial. A military intelligence officer trained at West Point, David Castillo [1] is also a known businessman linked to the Atala Zablah family. The Atalah Zablah business group forms part of the Board of Directors for the hydroelectric extractive project on Rio Blanco, against which Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres was fighting before her murder.

The decision to take Castillo to an oral and public trial was made just before his pre-trial detention ended on 2 September. Castillo was arrested in March 2018, two years after Lenca defender Berta Cáceres was murdered at her home in La Esperanza.

“We want it to be a fair trial where all rights are respected. Anything that is done wrong will be to the detriment of the search for justice,” said Bertha Zúnica, daughter of the Lenca defender and Coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH).

Cáceres was murdered [2] on 2 March 2016. Seven men were convicted as perpetrators of the crime. [3] The trial against Castillo, who was arrested and put in pre-trial detention since 2 March 2018, is long anticipated, as he is the only alleged mastermind detained so far.

“David Castillo is a key actor, connecting the perpetrators of Berta’s murder with the masterminds, who still go unpunished”, said Bertha Zúniga in this interview with Real World Radio.

Roberto David Castillo Mejía is a Honduran businessman, former government employee who was part of the Supervisory Board of the National Electric Power Utility, and former military intelligence officer who graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point.

Evidence presented by the legal representatives of the Cáceres family linking Castillo with the murder includes two series of WhatsApp chats, explained Zúniga. One of the chats is called “PHAZ Security” [4] (acronym of Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project in Spanish), where Castillo makes reference to “attack and neutralisation” actions to “end with COPINH’s struggle,” since the organisation has been fighting against the construction of a dam on Río Blanco. The other chat was between Castillo and Douglas Bustillo, former head of security of DESA, who was tried and convicted as one of the perpetrators of the murder [5], and who repeatedly threatened Berta Cáceres.

They also presented messages from Castillo to State officials and members of the Atala Zablah family, one of the most powerful families in Honduras. “We therefore suggest that this is a criminal structure created to put an end to COPINH’s resistance to both the Agua Zarca project and our country’s economic system,” said Zúniga.

Castillo had a close relationship with Daniel Atala, financial manager of the company in charge of Agua Zarca. Also, before her murder on 2 March 2016, Berta Cáceres received several messages from the military officer/businessman. Her daughter Bertha explains that these messages were “part of his intelligence work” – not threats like some of the messages from the convicted perpetrators, but rather offering projects to COPINH in order to “weaken the struggle”.

Bertha feels that political will is needed to prosecute the main culprits of the crime against her mother, the Atala Zablah family.

Getting to this trial has not been easy

The first trial over the murder of Berta Cáceres was delayed multiple times and the court even removed the legal representatives of the Cáceres family [6], COPINH and Gustavo Castro (a member of Otros Mundos Chiapas/Friends of the Earth Mexico whose attempted murder was also part of this process.) Similarly, during the preliminary hearing for this second oral and public trial, Berta’s daughters were “expelled” from the online hearing, and the members of the international observation mission that monitors the case were not allowed to be present.

In response to these new limitations which hinder the participation of Berta’s family, COPINH and international observers, Zúniga insisted on the need for the international community to pay as much attention as possible to this new process, to ensure that the case does not go unpunished.

The oral and public trial should start in three months at the latest, considering the COVID-19 pandemic and the potential appeals and suspensions of the judicial process. Castillo’s defence aims to delay the trial, denounced Zúniga.

“For us [the announcement of the trial] has been a relief. We were very worried that the pre-trial detention term would end, and that protection of victims’ rights would not be ensured.” Bertha warns that it took a lot of effort to reach this point and that they remain alert to potential unusual or last-minute changes, as happened with the judge who was replaced two days before the recent preliminary hearing.

“There is great pressure at the level of communications media and the judicial system, but we trust that the evidence is there, and that it is strong”, concluded the member of COPINH.

Who is David Castillo?

Castillo is accused of being one of the masterminds of Berta Cáceres’ murder. He has been in pre-trial detention since March 2018. It was important that the preliminary hearing took place as soon as possible, before the end of this detention period.

“Evidence presented to Honduran courts by prosecutors suggests that Castillo participated in the murder of Berta Cáceres as an intellectual author, allegedly coordinating with, and presumably providing funds to, the material authors for the purpose of carrying out the murder”, states the report.

“He sent a lot of messages to my mother. We were aware of the fact that he was dangerous, but he wasn’t the typical thug,” said Bertha Zúniga to RWR. COPINH stated: “The evidence linking Castillo is clear. He is the connection between the masterminds and the criminal structure that perpetrated the crime. The trial will reveal the involvement of the Atala family in the crime.”

A year ago, COPINH launched the report Violence, Corruption and Impunity in the Honduran Energy Industry: [1] The profile of Roberto David Castillo Mejía [1]. “The report exposes the criminal structure that has benefited from this concession (to DESA) to obtain profits, a pattern seen not only in Agua Zarca, but in other energy projects in Honduras as well”, said Bertha Zúñiga.

At the time of the report launch, the Cáceres family had started a judicial process in the US to demand “financial details” about the purchase of a house in Texas on behalf of David Castillo valued at 1.6 million dollars. “The aim was to find out if this purchase was related to some payment (he may have received) for murdering (or ordering the murder) of Berta Cáceres.”

When asked about this, Zúniga confirmed that there has been some progress in this claim, despite “the many actions by Castillo’s lawyers, likely paid by Atala Zablah, to hinder the process.”

“We believe that if our legal team can access this information, this would allow us to know what actions took place before and after the murder of my mother, and know if that money had something to do with a payment or compensation for ordering the crime.”