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

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, Victor 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 to do what needs to be done.

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 their Indigenous 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 find 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 brining 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. At present, 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.