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Berta Cáceres is a Catalyst for Change in Honduras. There is Still a Long Road Ahead.

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

Press Conference After Castillo Verdict

By: Allison Lira

Earlier this month, Roberto David Castillo, former head of the Honduran dam company, Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA), was found guilty of participating in the murder of beloved Indigenous rights leader Berta Cáceres.

Cáceres, the co-founder and coordinator of the Indigenous Lenca organization COPINH, was fatally shot in her home by hired hitmen in 2016, following years of threats and persecution for leading Lenca communities in Rio Blanco opposed to the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project, owned by DESA.

Her murder sent shockwaves through the global human rights community and received a tsunami of international outcry. Berta had dedicated her life to the defense of the earth, water, and the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community and was internationally recognized, going on to win the prestigious Goldman Prize just a few months prior to her death.

In 2018, a court ruled that DESA executives ordered Cáceres’ assassination due to financial losses as a result of her opposition and found seven men guilty of carrying out her murder. Now, a high court in Tegucigalpa has convicted David Castillo of having been a co-collaborator in planning and ordering the operation.

Over the course of almost 50 days of trial, the prosecution demonstrated conclusively that Castillo used military contacts and training as a former military intelligence officer to monitor Cáceres for years. Analysis of messages taken between Castillo and others illustrated that Castillo coordinated, planned, and procured the money for the assassination.

Castillo’s conviction is a victory for COPINH and their national and international allies, the culmination of over five years of unprecedented solidarity organizing against the corruption networks that facilitate overwhelming impunity in Honduras. In a press conference following the verdict, Víctor Fernandez, one of the Cáceres family lawyers stated, “We have nothing to thank the justice system for. It was they who persecuted Berta; they criminalized her and displaced her. This victory is a result of our militancy.”

Laura Zuniga Cáceres, Berta’s youngest daughter spoke of hope, “This is a collective victory, and my message to other communities in similar situations is this: the fight is hard, but in the end, as my mom said, we are going to triumph and we are going to dismantle the violence against our people...We will keep contributing to this process so that [such crimes] are not repeated, but also so that the judicial process can lead to healing."

As the Solidarity Collective, we welcome this step forward and are continually inspired by Berta’s legacy, the strength of COPINH’s leadership and the courage of the Honduran human rights community. We recognize that this process has been vital to the broader movement for a more safe and just society and we will continue to accompany the Honduran grassroots social movement as they work towards greater accountability and the promise of non-repetition. Below are just a few of the sites of struggle that we are monitoring.

Faltan Los Atala

On one of the most important days of the Castillo trial, Daniel Atala Midence, DESA’s financial manager and member of the economically and politically powerful Atala Zablah family, was summoned to court to testify about his involvement in the repression campaign against Cáceres, primarily through his authorization of payments to informants used to spy on her.

Midence appeared but refused to testify, invoking his constitutional right not to do so on the basis that he is still under investigation for the murder. This was confirmed by prosecutors despite his never having been interviewed or detained. Still, Midence’s presence in the courtroom proved significant in a context in which the elite are rarely ever made to answer for involvement in criminal activities.

Midence’s father Jose Eduardo Atala and two uncles, Pedro and Jacobo Nicolas Atala, were majority shareholders in DESA and stood to lose a lot of money with the failure of the project. In-depth analysis of messages taken from relevant phones demonstrated that members of the Atalah clan inappropriately used their political influence and financial resources to surveil, intimidate and attack Berta Cáceres and members of COPINH.

Last year, COPINH made a formal request to the Public Prosecutors for an injunction against Midence for his involvement as an intellectual author in Berta’s murder. The request was submitted in light of “strong evidence about the participation of Daniel Atala Midence, in the persecution, criminalization and surveillance resulting in the assassination of Berta Cáceres, for which this person should be prosecuted and brought to justice.”

Although no indictments have been made, the court crucially found that Castillo participated as a co-collaborator rather than a sole mastermind, leaving the door open for future investigation and prosecution of those who may have ordered and financed the crime.

While bringing to light the complicity of members of this elite family is important, justice in this case will have to go beyond responding to the actions of any one person. As Roxanna Altholz, a professor at UC Berkeley Law said to The Intercept, “In order for there to be accountability in this case, that criminal network must be dismantled.”

Honduras is one of the most dangerous places in the world for human rights and environmental defenders precisely because violent and corrupt networks such as the one that killed Berta Cáceres operate with impunity. For this to change, the Honduran grassroots social movement continues to pressure its institutions to build the capacity and political will necessary for the guarantee of fundamental rights.

Fraude Sobre el Gualcarque

In 2019, the OAS-backed international prosecutors office MACCIH along with the local prosecutors special fraud unit filed a case against DESA and state officials for fraudulent and irregular acts in the process of approving the Agua Zarca project. Prosecutors allege that the concession was granted to DESA despite not being on the list of approved bidders and without a valid environmental license, along with other irregularities.

For years, COPINH and the Rio Blanco communities denounced the illegality of the Agua Zarca project and the harm caused. Along with violating the Lenca people's right to prior, free, and informed consent, the project heavily impacted and put at risk community cohesion, the environment, and people’s livelihoods. Berta Cáceres was assassinated, however, before a serious investigation was undertaken.

The Agua Zarca project was approved shortly after the 2009-coup, when the Honduran government was still not recognized by the international community. During this period, dozens of concessions for hydroelectric projects and other extractive endeavors were rushed through, without consultations, environmental impact studies or proper oversight. Since then, the giving away of the country’s natural resources has only grown. In a 2019 report by FOSDEH and OXFAM, researchers found that if all hydroelectric concessions currently approved are realized, the percentage of rivers impacted will grow from 19% to 36%.

The proliferation of extractive projects has generated fatal conflicts in many communities across Honduras. In Jilamito for example, communities organized against a proposed hydroelectric dam project have faced threats and criminalization and two people connected to the peaceful resistance have been killed. Like Agua Zarca, this project was granted its concession in the same post-coup period and has been accused of benefiting from a similarly corrupt process.

Thus, the Gualcarque fraud case is critical to bringing to light the corrupt practices that facilitate the violence and impunity that endanger human rights defenders and forces thousands of Hondurans to flee.

Unfortunately, it seems that securing justice in this case will be an uphill battle. Presently, COPINH has been excluded from participating in the case. Although the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court has admitted COPINH’s constitutional challenge to their exclusion, the court has refused to stay the trial until a decision is made. In the meantime, charges against 10 of the 16 defendants have been dismissed.

As the death of Cáceres clearly demonstrates, corruption is a primary driver of violence and poverty. To enrich themselves, the Honduran political and economic elite develop projects that generate conflict, violate Indigenous rights, damage the environment, compromise livelihoods, and dispossess communities. That COPINH struggles to be recognized as a victim in this case signals just how far there is to go.

Following the original publishing of this article on July 16, 2021, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court overturned the lower court decision to exclude COPINH from the Gualcarque Fraud case, ordering the suspension of the trail and a return of the judicial process to the moment when COPINH was excluded. The trial against all 16 defendants is expected to begin on July 27th, 2022.

The Complicity of International Financial Institutions

Shortly after the conviction of David Castillo, the FMO Dutch development bank, a former financier of the Agua Zarca Project, issued a statement.

For many Hondurans, this statement was not nearly satisfactory. For years, the FMO, along with the Finnish Fund for International Cooperation, and the Central American Bank of Economic Integration financially advanced a project linked to numerous instances of violence, criminalization, smear campaigns, and complaints of corruption.

It was only until after Berta Cáceres was assassinated, that these financial institutions chose to withdraw. To this day, there has been no acknowledgement of their complicity in the crime.

In 2018, COPINH and the Cáceres family announced a lawsuit against the FMO, alleging that the bank had failed to honor the human rights of the affected communities and had ignored warnings of human rights violations. In an article for the Guardian, Berta Zúñiga, Cáceres’ daughter hoped that the lawsuit would elicit an apology from the FMO and would motivate them to abide by their responsibilities to protect human rights and the environment.

Well known social justice lawyer, Edy Tabora’s response to the FMO statement, posted on social media, spoke to deeper problems in the relationship between Honduras and development banks:

How many death projects are international banks still financing in Honduras? Will they continue to finance projects that generate violence, criminalization, forced displacement, murders? What will the FMO do to repair the damage to the family of #BertaCáceres at @COPINHONDURAS?

The Agua Zarca case is not unique or rare in terms of the behavior exhibited by international financial institutions. Since the coup, development banks have been financial backers of the extractive projects that have proliferated across Honduras, enriching corruption networks and generating conflict in marginalized communities. As the Agua Zarca case clearly demonstrates, the “due diligence” procedures that IFI’s rely on to justify their involvement are not equipped or maybe even designed to safeguard human rights and the environment.

Following the original publishing of this article on July 16, 2021, COPINH and the Cáceres family presented a lawsuit in Holland accusing the FMO Bank and their leadership of complicity in corruption, misuse of funds, money laundering, and violence through their financing of the Agua Zarca project.

The Role of the United States

In 2015, USAID signed an agreement with DESA to provide financial assistance to agricultural producers in the communities surrounding the Agua Zarca project. USAID’s relationship with DESA was inaugurated after five years of community resistance, well after allegations of human rights violations and corruption were well established.

The relationship with USAID lent DESA substantial diplomatic support at the height of community resistance, a positioning that is typical of broader US policy in the region.

In 2009, the United States played a key role in legitimizing the military coup, and in 2017, it once again backed the Honduran political elite, this time in the midst of a fraudulent election, the brutal repression of mass protest, and strong international calls for a re-vote.

Over the last decade, it has shored up an increasingly corrupt and anti-democratic government, giving Honduras hundreds of millions in security assistance and training while ignoring reports of systematic human rights violations on behalf of the Honduran police and military.

As the militarization of the country has increased, so has the presence of private security and shady “bandas'' or paramilitary groups working on behalf of economic elites to repress community organizing. The consequences of this certainly played out in the Agua Zarca case. David Castillo himself had been an intelligence officer in the Honduran military, trained at West Point. Mariano Días Chávez, convicted of Cáceres murder in 2018, was also an active military officer with training from the US Southern Command.

Following the assassination of Berta Cáceres in 2016, Representative Hank Johnson introduced the Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act in the US House of Representatives, a bill which calls for the suspension of all military and police aid until systematic human rights violations are addressed.

Five years later, the legislation continues to build traction as the relationship between the United States and Honduras becomes harder to defend. Tony Hernandez, the brother of current Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez was convicted in New York courts on charges of major drug trafficking in which the president was heavily implicated. In the meantime, Hondurans continue to flee their homes, driven out by the severe political and economic crisis experienced there.

This year, growing Congressional discontent led to the introduction of the Honduran Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Act in both the Senate and House of Representatives, which on top of reinforcing the call for the suspension of security aid, calls for sanctions on the president of Honduras and other anti-corruption measures.

Following the original publishing of this article on July 16, 2021, former President Juan Orlando Hernandez was extradited to the United States to face charges of major drug trafficking. The new Honduran government, led by President Xiomara Castro has stated its commitment to dismantle security forced implicated in large scale human rights abuses yet no significant steps have been taken. We continue to call for the passage of the Berta Cáceres Act in the House of Representatives and the Honduras Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Act in the Senate.


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