December 2nd marked 33 months of the murder of the Lenca people defender, Berta Cáceres, at her home in La Esperanza, Intibucá department (Honduras) and the attempted murder of environmental activist Gustavo Castro, member of Otros Mundos Chiapas – Friends of the Earth Mexico.
The case went to trial after many irregularities in the investigation carried out by the Public Prosecutor´s Office, which affected the access to justice by Cáceres relatives and the organization they are part of, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), as well as the access to evidence and the results of the search warrants at DESA company, in charge of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project opposed by Berta Cáceres and her people.
Amid challenges and appeals filed by Cáceres lawyers against the Prosecutor´s Office and the Tribunal due to lack of impartiality in the judicial process, the judges decided to expel the victim´s representatives from the hearings.
Despite all setbacks and the assumptions that the crime committed on March 2nd, 2016, could be left unpunished, on November 29th, 7 out of the 8 people accused of murdering Cáceres and attempting to murder Castro, were convicted. While the members of the Atala Zablah family –members of DESA´s Board of Directors and considered the masterminds of the crime- have not been charged yet, in the pleadings it was clear that several members of the company participated in giving orders to kill Cáceres because she and her organization represented a “problem” for the continuation of the Agua Zarca project.
In the reconstruction of the events read on Thursday 29, before the verdict, it was established that Sergio Rodríguez (DESA´s Communications Manager) coordinated with Mariano Díaz (Honduran Army Mayor) to plan the murder. Díaz contacted Douglas Bustillo (retired lieutenant and former head of security of DESA), who in turn met with Henry Hernández (former military officer) in La Esperanza “to study the area where Berta Cáceres lived”, to locate the COPINH coordinator and to follow her through paid informants.
In a series of messages through phone chats, Hernández confirmed Díaz that he was willing to “do the job”, in reference to killing Cáceres. On February 6th, 2016, a DESA executive was informed that the action had not taken place due to the lack of a vehicle. They also made reference to COPINH mobilizations that “disrupted” the building of the dam. On February 21st, Bustillo resumed communications with Hernandez (and in turn Hernández with Díaz) to reactivate the plan to kill Berta and “find a way to avoid involving Díaz and Bustillo in the event”, so they hired hitmen to murder the environmental defender. Finally, on March 2nd, 2016, between three and four in the afternoon, they came to La Esperanza. That same day, Berta was at the Utopía Center participating in a forum together with Gustavo Castro, and was executed at her home at night, when she had already gone to sleep, while Castro was injured and the hitmen left the scene believing they had also murdered him.
While the final sentence against Sergio Rodríguez, Mariano Díaz, Douglas Bustillo, Henry Hernández, Elvin Heriberto Rápalo, Edilson Duarte and Oscar Haroldo Torres will be made public on January 10, 2019, they could be sentenced from 20 to 50 years in prison. The second trial in the case will be against Roberto David Castillo, president of DESA, since there is evidence of him coordinating with intermediaries to persecute and murder Berta. Castillo is the nephew of MP Rodolfo Irías Navas, of Partido Nacional for Atlántida. He is a military officer, graduated at West Point (2004) and served in the Department of Intelligence and Counter Intelligence of the Honduran Armed Forces. Cáceres´ family will continue struggling to bring the other masterminds to justice.
One of the daughters of the murdered defender, Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres, was interviewed by Real World Radio and talked about the judicial ruling. Bertha said that the trial “has been extremely hard and exhausting”, but she highlighted that “it is important that there are two people linked to the company who were convicted”.
“The State still is indebted to us, because there is no political will to investigate the Atala Zablah family, knowing that they are funding Partido Nacional, and officers who could be acting in collusion to cover up the crime”, added Zúñiga.
She and COPINH believe that there are “pacts of power” that have not allowed to prosecute this powerful family and they believe the Honduran State aimed to close the case with this trial. But the organization will not stop demanding justice, they are going after the “big fish” and their immediate challenge is to file an appeal to withdraw DESA´s permits over Agua Zarca.