Recently published messages have offered fresh insight into the plot to murder renowned environmental activist Berta Cáceres in Honduras, laying bare how authorities have failed to bring the alleged intellectual authors of the crime to justice.
Private call logs, SMS, and WhatsApp messages unearthed by the Honduran Public Prosecutor’s Office revealed that the hit squad “communicated through a compartmentalized chain that reached the highest ranks of leadership” of Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), the company building the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, the Intercept reported on December 21.
Cáceres, who was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, had long protested the construction of the dam, which threatened the livelihood of the Indigenous Lenca community living along the Gualcarque River. The activist was later shot dead in March of 2016 at her home in La Esperanza, in southwest Honduras.
One of the group chats included former DESA Executive Director Roberto David Castillo Mejía and Chief Financial Officer Daniel Atala Midence, as well as DESA board members José Eduardo Atala Zablah and Pedro Atala Zablah. The Atala Zablahs are one of Honduras’ most powerful families with close ties to the country’s government and financial elites.
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“It’s them or us,” DESA board member Pedro Atala Zablah said in a message to the group in October of 2015, in reference to the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras – COPINH), the organization that Cáceres founded and whose members opposed the dam.
“Let’s send a message that nothing will be easy for those SOBs,” he wrote.
An attorney for Daniel Atala Midence and Pedro and José Eduardo Atala Zablah told the Intercept that their clients “completely deny any participation in this unfortunate crime.” None of the men have been arrested or face criminal charges.
Seven of the eight men accused of carrying out Caceres' killing -- among them US-trained former military officials and DESA employees -- were found guilty in November of 2018 and later sentenced to serve between 30 and 50 years in jail.
When delivering the verdict against Caceres' killers, the court ruled that DESA executives had ordered Cáceres’ murder because her efforts had caused the company to suffer financial losses and delays to the project.
In March of 2018, Honduran authorities arrested Castillo Mejía, DESA’s executive director at the time of Cáceres’ murder, for his role as an alleged intellectual author. However, he is still awaiting trial amid a number of delays and other irregularities in the case. A Honduran law on pretrial detention could lead to Castillo Mejía's release if his case is not decided by March of 2020. He has denied all charges against him.
InSight Crime Analysis
Cáceres’ murder wasn't a spur-of-the-moment decision, it was the "culmination of years of coordinated corruption and violence,” according to the Intercept. While her shooters are behind bars, Honduran authorities seem less keen on prosecuting the alleged intellectual authors of the assassination, leaving the criminal network that directed her murder still very much intact.
For more than a year, DESA executives methodically planned to take down Cáceres and her organization by systematically co-opting police, government officials and the media, according to the Intercept.
In 2013, when the Honduran military murdered COPINH member Tomás García during a protest of the Agua Zarca dam’s construction, Atala Midence and Castillo Mejía quickly plotted to “control the media narrative,” using bribes to reporters in order to portray the deadly incident as a “confrontation over opposition to the dam,” according to the Intercept.
“Pay the reporter from HCH,” Castillo Mejía told Atala Midence in reference to the local news station HCH Televisión Digital. “1,000 lempiras [around $40] for last week … and right now we can give him another 1,000.”
Those that allegedly plotted Cáceres’ murder also reportedly relied on allies in the local police to intimidate community members protesting the dam’s construction.
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“We thank you for the support that you gave us yesterday, the Copinhnes saw the presence of the National Police … and they were afraid to cross the river,” read one message Castillo Mejía sent to a police chief that was later shared in the group chat of DESA board members, executives and other employees.
After Cáceres’ murder, company executives leaned on their powerful political allies, such as Security Minister Julian Pacheco, who, according to the Intercept, promised Pedro Atala Zablah just days after the murder that it would be classified as a “crime of passion” to divert unwanted attention away from the company.
The messages suggest that those involved in the plot to murder Cáceres knew that they had enough friends in high places to ensure that the odds of them facing justice were slim to none. They spoke clearly of their intentions in messages, discussing details of the “mission,” bribes to be paid and weapons to be exchanged to carry out the crime.
As things stand now, the elites that felt they could deliberately plan and carry out a high-profile murder with impunity were completely right.