On 5 July, the city of Tegucigalpa sentencing court’s first chamber unanimously found David Castillo, Honduran businessman and intelligence officer, guilty of co-perpetrating the murder of Berta Cáceres. His sentence will be announced on 3 August.
The ruling confirmed, among the main pieces of evidence, the numerous phone communications, text messages and WhatsApp chats through which Castillo coordinated actions to monitor Berta Cáceres and COPINH. The judges especially highlighted the communications between Castillo and Douglas Bustillo, a retired lieutenant and former head of security of DESA. In 2018, Bustillo was prosecuted and convicted for Cáceres’ murder, along with six other men charged as perpetrators.
Roberto David Castillo Mejía is a Honduran businessman, a former public officer of the state energy company, who later became Executive President of DESA Company (Desarrollos Energéticos S.A.). He is also a retired military intelligence officer who graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point. Castillo was arrested at the San Pedro Sula Airport in March 2018, two years after Lenca defender Berta Cáceres was murdered at her home in La Esperanza (Intibucá). His plan was to flee the country, despite already being identified by Berta Cáceres’ family, COPINH and several human rights organisations as one of the masterminds of the femicide.
Castillo was the head of DESA, the company in charge of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project (PHAZ) which was planned for construction in the Rio Blanco community, Intibucá. As a response of the “opposition” to the project by the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organisations of Honduras (COPINH), coordinated by Cáceres, “DESA’s authorities sought to neutralise the actions of Berta and COPINH,” reads the ruling. This was coordinated in two WhatsApp groups which included DESA authorities.
Among them were members of the Atala Zablah family, who were not mentioned at all in the verdict but are precisely who the Cáceres family considers to be the “masterminds” of the crime. The private attorneys representing Berta Cáceres’ daughters and mother requested that Daniel Atala be called as witness “to declare about his financial transfers aimed at attacking the Lenca population and my mom,” as explained by Laura Zúniga to RWR in a recent interview. However, this was not done because the businessman is being investigated by the Prosecutor’s Office.
Nevertheless, the ruling establishes that amidst the phone evidence “there is information that could only be managed at the level of DESA” and that “the messages allow us to infer that they wanted to eliminate Berta Cáceres.”
The court explained how Bustillo talked with “DESA authorities, among them, Castillo,” to coordinate the monitoring of Berta’s movements and to contact members of military forces (active and retired) and hitmen to organise the execution of the environmental defender. Although the records of Castillo’s communications with Bustillo cover the period from 8 October 2015 to 6 March 2016, the military officer had not been working as head of security for DESA since July 2015, something highlighted by the judges. At that time, there was no professional relationship between Castillo and Bustillo, and therefore no reason for them to continue messaging – contrary to what Castillo’s lawyers said,
In October 2015, Castillo changed the name of the WhatsApp group he was in with other DESA authorities, including Communications Manager Sergio Rodríguez, to “Seguridad Phaz” (“PHAZ security”). The court established that, through that group, they coordinated “services to monitor Berta Cáceres and COPINH’s activities against Agua Zarca.”
Among the messages, the court highlighted when Rodríguez said: “we need to take actions against Berta and Tomás Gómez, because when they are not there, the movement gets weaker,” and their planned boycotts against COPINH radios.
As the opposition to the Agua Zarca project gained strength in November 2015, the messages between Castillo and Bustillo reveal how “they decided to kill Berta Cáceres to end the opposition,” reads the ruling, “an action carried out by Bustillo with the means provided by Castillo.” “Bustillo told a friend of his who was an active member of the Armed Forces (Mariano Díaz) to kill Berta Cáceres, something that was proven by phone calls monitored in the framework of other investigations,” stated the judges.
Caption: The communication hierarchy of the criminal network behind Berta Cáceres’ murder, from intellectual authors (“autor intelectual”) down to hitmen (“sicario”).
As mentioned in the first trial of the case, the communications between Castillo and Bustillo, who coordinated the killing, show that there was at least one attempt to murder Cáceres before the femicide on the night of 2 March 2016 at Berta’s home in La Esperanza, Intibucá. On 2 February 2016, the messages show that Díaz was watching and photographing Berta and informed Bustillo of her movements. On 5 February, Castillo talked to Bustillo about a “mission” and asked him to take care of “accidents at the scene,” but the next day, Bustillo said that the mission was “aborted”: “Yesterday it was not possible. I’ll wait for your command because I don’t have the logistics anymore”. In response, Castillo said: “I do not need the information, I need what you will budget for the job.” Two days before the crime, Daniel Atala made a financial transaction to Castillo, which would prove that he paid Bustillo to murder Cáceres. Finally on 2 March, the action happened “according to plan” says the ruling, and “on 3 March Bustillo telephoned Castillo.”
For all these reasons, the court deemed that “there is no question that David Castillo coordinated with Douglas Bustillo the murder of Berta Cáceres.”
“The court is fully convinced that David Castillo has been involved both as co-perpetrator and mastermind in Berta Cáceres’ murder,” says the ruling.
What about the Atala family?
The judicial decision comes after 48 hearings in Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras during what the Honduran Judicial Branch called “marathon-like days”. A collective effort was led by COPINH, the National Network of Human Rights Defenders of Honduras, OFRANEH and other organisations, who set up the Berta Cáceres Feminist Campsite outside the court during the three months of the trial. There was international pressure for the trial to take place after multiple delays by Castillo’s attorneys during the two and a half years he was under preventive detention. Daily coverage of the hearings by COPINH’s communications team ensured access to information and the conditions for an oral and public trial.
For Berta’s family, the legal team of the Movimiento Amplio por la Dignidad y la Justicia and COPINH this is “a popular victory of justice for Berta; one step towards ending impunity.” The victory “means that the criminal power structures have not been able to corrupt the judicial system”, even considering the support that business sectors expressed for Castillo hours before the verdict, and the economic and legal support provided to him by the Atala family.
For this reason, Bertha Zúniga stated in a press conference outside the court that the Berta Cáceres case “does not end with this ruling, but it is strongly steered towards bringing the masterminds of this crime to justice: Daniel Atala Midence, José Eduardo Atala, Pedro Atala, Jacobo Atala and the rest of the people and institutions involved.”
The COPINH Coordinator also demanded to “immediately” cancel the concession on the Gualcarque river that belongs to the Lenca community and to “prosecute all people involved in this illegal and corrupt concession” and “dismantle the criminal networks that still exist today, that acted during the trial to promote impunity and who are responsible for serious crimes exposed during the trial, about which we provided evidence.” When Castillo’s trial was announced in August 2020, Zúniga warned Real World Radio that he was a “key actor” in revealing how the criminal structure behind her mother´s femicide operated, but that “political will” was needed to get the ultimate culprits: the Atala family.
The activist also denounced the “systematic and constant attacks on the victims by public officers”, saying “it is unacceptable that a victim in her own trial be silenced, or denied or obstructed entry to the court.”
Lawyer Victor Fernandez was next to her in the press conference and he highlighted that this judicial ruling is “not the end,” but “the continuation of the commitment to achieve justice in the Berta Cáceres case.” He said it gives us hope in the face of “hundreds of crimes that have taken place in this country, which follow the same pattern of murder.”
Leader Rosalina Dominguez, a witness in the trial, said: “they killed Bertita because they couldn’t lock her up. They thought that by removing Berta, Rio Blanco would go silent, but they screwed themselves. Screw the Atala! Screw DESA! They will never get to Rio Blanco!” And she called on women from COPINH to resist: “I still get threats, but I carry on walking alone, without guns. We will not give up, we will not be silent,” she said, amid applause.
Finally, Yessica Trinidad, Coordinator of the National Network of Human Rights Defenders, welcomed the verdict after five years of struggle. She invited those present to join the inauguration of the “Viva Berta Park” on the territory that was claimed for 90 days as a feminist campsite, where they have built a sculpture in homage to the defender. “The territories are ours,” said Yessica, “We will continue following the example that Berta gave us.”