David Castillo

Honduran security forces transport David Castillo Mejia to the Tegucigalpa High Court for his July 5, 2021 sentencing for his role in the 2016 murder of Indigenous environmental activist Berta Caceres. (Photo: Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images)

Conviction of Dam Company Executive for Murder of Berta Caceres Hailed as 'Step Towards Justice'

"However, justice for Berta will never be truly complete until everyone who took part in the crime, including those who planned it, is brought to justice."

Human rights advocates on Monday welcomed the conviction of Roberto David Castillo Mejia, a Honduran businessman and former military intelligence officer, for the March 2016 assassination of Indigenous environmental activist Berta Caceres, while calling on authorities in the Central American nation to bring everyone involved in planning the murder to justice.

"Until allthose responsibleare heldaccountable,other human rights defendersin Honduraswill continue to lose their lives."
--Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty International

The Guardianreports the Tegucigalpa high court found Castillo--formerly head of the dam company Desarrollos Energeticos, or DESA--guilty of collaborating in Caceres' murder. The court ruled that Caceres was killed for leading the campaign to stop construction of the $50 million Agua Zarca dam, a local grassroots effort which caused delays and monetary losses for DESA.

The environmentally destructive hydroelectric project is located on the Gualcarque River, which is sacred to the Indigenous Lenca people, and was approved despite its failure to comply with Honduran and international environmental requirements.

Caceres, who was 44 years old when she was murdered, was co-founder and coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), a group dedicated to the defense of the environment in Intibuca and the protection of the Lenca. In 2015 she received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for leading "a grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world's largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam" project at Rio Gualcarque.

According to The Guardian:

After a trial that lasted 49 days, the high court... ruled that Castillo used paid informants as well as his military contacts and skills to monitor Caceres over years, information which was fed back to the company executives. He coordinated, planned and obtained the money to pay for the assassination of the internationally acclaimed leader, which was carried out by seven men convicted in December 2018.

COPINH hailed Monday's verdict as "a popular victory for the Honduran people" that "means the criminal power structures failed to corrupt the justice system."

"Berta lives, the fight continues!" the group tweeted.

Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, said in a statement that "the long-awaited prosecution of David Castillo, convicted as co-author of the murder of Berta Caceres, is an important step towards justice and the result of her family and COPINH's tireless efforts to secure truth, justice, and reparation. However, justice for Berta will never be truly complete until everyone who took part in the crime, including those who planned it, is brought to justice."

"We urge the prosecutors to keep uncovering the truth," Guevara-Rosas continued. "Until all those responsible are held accountable, other human rights defenders in Honduras will continue to lose their lives, for raising their voices and defending the most vulnerable. The Honduran authorities must put an end to impunity."

Noting that Honduras is "the most dangerous country for defenders of land, territory, and the environment," Guevara-Rosas admonished the Honduran government, which she said "seems to look the other way when human rights defenders are attacked instead of fulfilling its obligation to protect them."

"Authorities must take this seriously and do whatever is necessary to keep human rights defenders safe from harm, so that a crime like the murder of Berta Caceres is never repeated," she added.

A 2019 profile (pdf) of Castillo by five human rights advocacy groups states:

Evidence suggests that the murder of Berta Caceres was part of a pattern of violence, corruption, intimidation, malicious prosecution, and impunity for violence orchestrated by Castillo and others at DESA, who appear to have functioned as a criminal structure...

Castillo and his associates and employees at DESA enlisted the support of key agencies of the Honduran government, using influence in the Ministry of Security, police, and military and improper influence in the Honduran judiciary, seemingly to advance efforts to intimidate, persecute, and neutralize Berta Caceres and COPINH's opposition to the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project.

DESA, and representatives it employs, continue to promote the stigmatization of Berta Caceres, COPINH and Indigenous Lenca villagers in Rio Blanco after Caceres' murder.

Prior to Castillo's arrest, eight other men, including Douglas Bustillo and Sergio Rodriguez, both of whom worked with Castillo at DESA corporation, and both graduates of the U.S. Army School of Americas (SOA), were arrested and charged with Caceres' murder. Bustillo, Rodriguez, and five other men were convicted of murdering Caceres in 2018.

A 2017 report (pdf) by international legal experts concluded Caceres' murder was not an "isolated incident" and alleged "willful negligence by financial institutions." The report found that the targeting of Caceres was part of a "strategy" by DESA employees, private security firms, and public officials "to violate the right to prior, free, and informed consultations of the Lenca."

"The strategy was to control, neutralize, and eliminate any opposition," the report said.

Caceres co-founded COPINH in 1993 and led campaigns against dam building, illegal logging, U.S. military bases on Lenca land, and other environmental and social injustices. Her work became increasingly dangerous following a 2009 coup perpetrated by SOA-trained military officers and backed by the Obama administration, as numerous activists were assassinated, attacked, or threatened for their work.

Shortly before her assassination, Caceres excoriated former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for her role in the coup.

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