Roberto David Castillo, the former president of the Desarrollos Energéticos SA (Desa) company and a West Point trained military intelligence officer, was found guilty in the assassination of Indigenous Honduran land defender Berta Cáceres. The high court in Tegucigalpa issued the ruling on 5 July after a 49-day trial wherein the defence and prosecution presented evidence, expert witnesses and testimonies from the victims.
In the trial, hundreds of records, chats and audios were presented by the expert witnesses of the public prosecutor’s office demonstrating the clear role of Castillo in years of harassment, monitoring and criminalisation of Cáceres and members of Copinh. Castillo’s sentence is set to be announced on 3 August.
The long struggle for justice
Cáceres was assassinated in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras, on 2 March 2016. She was the co-founder and coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (Copinh) and following the coup d’état in 2009, emerged as an important national leader in the movement for the refoundation of Honduras.
Leading up to her assassination, Cáceres had been subjected to a campaign of threats, intimidation, criminalisation and acts of physical violence by members of the Honduran security forces, as well as private security guards and employees of Desa. This was owing to her active role in the resistance to the construction of the hydroelectric project Agua Zarca on the Gualcarque River that is sacred to the Indigenous Lenca people.
Since her assassination five and a half years ago, her organisation and her family have fought tirelessly to uncover the truth behind her assassination and bring those responsible to justice. In November 2018, seven people were convicted who directly participated in the execution of the crime, but Copinh insisted that justice meant more than convicting those that pulled the trigger and doubled down on their struggle to bring those who financed, planned and organised the crime to justice. Castillo, who was arrested on 2 March 2018, was long considered the link between the hitmen and the financiers of the crime, and this was shown through evidence presented by Copinh’s legal team and by the public prosecutor’s office of Honduras.
In a statement released by Copinh following the verdict, they stated that the ruling was “a people’s victory for justice for Berta; a step towards breaking the pact of impunity”. They added that while they celebrate this victory, they reaffirm that the struggle for justice for Cáceres does not end here and that the ruling marked a clear path towards “bringing the masterminds behind the crime to justice, Daniel Atala Midence, José Eduardo Atala, Pedro Atala and Jacobo Atala and the other people and institutions involved”.
They also called for dismantling of the criminal structures that continue to operate and “acted during the trial to guarantee impunity for those responsible for the grave crimes presented during the trial”. They further condemned the “systematic and constant mistreatment towards the victims by public officials”.
The statement released by the organisation also calls for the cancellation of the concession for the Agua Zarca project. This concession was at the heart of the dispute between Desa and Copinh, with Cáceres playing a key role in the sustained resistance to the project.
Copinh and the community of Rio Blanco that lives next to the Gualcarque River allege that the concession was granted illegally, as the process of prior, informed and free consultation as guaranteed by Honduras’ ratification of the ILO Convention 169 was not carried out by Desa. The illegal granting of the concession is currently being contested in court, in the Gualcarque Fraud Case. Sixteen public functionaries, including Castillo, have been charged with fraud, abuse of authority and “acts committed with the objective of favoring the Atala Zablah family through contracts with the Honduran state and the Desa company,” according to Copinh.
The opposition waged for years, and that continues today, by the Rio Blanco community and Copinh was rooted in their rejection of the illegal consultation process, but also their rejection of the encroachment on Indigenous territory by foreign capital, the destruction of nature and their sacred spaces in favour of accumulation of capital, and of the collusion they witnessed between the Honduran state, state security forces and private security to suppress the will of the people. In addition to Cáceres, several other members of Copinh and the Rio Blanco community were assassinated during the years of resistance to Agua Zarca and the organisation continues to suffer attacks owing to their determined struggle for justice for Cáceres and their continued opposition to the Agua Zarca project.
Copinh’s statement that was read in a press conference on 5 July outside the court by Bertha Zúniga, the organisation’s coordinator and daughter of Cáceres, also thanked “all of the national and international accompaniment, of the communities, organisations, institutions and people in solidarity that have supported and made it possible to open the paths to justice in this case”. They emphasised that “justice is built by the people in daily work, along with the defence of our territories, the realisation of our projects of life, and the constant struggle against inequality and injustice”.
The conviction of Castillo was saluted internationally by political leaders, international institutions and social movements.
The Minister of Foreign Affairs of the European Union, Arancha González, wrote on Twitter that she “was satisfied with the ruling given in the trial against the co-collaborator of the assassination of Berta Cáceres”.
United States member of Congress Chuy García wrote on Twitter:
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras released a statement saluting the historic verdict and highlighted that “in establishing the responsibility of the co-collaborator in the assassination of Berta Cáceres, an environmental defender, it sets a legal precedent about the importance of justice in the crimes against human rights defenders”. It also called on the justice system in Honduras to continue the investigations and to sanction all of the people responsible.
This article was first published in Peoples Dispatch.