A high court in Honduras has found one of the intellectual authors of the high-profile murder of renowned Indigenous activist Berta Cáceres guilty, adding to convictions of the material authors but falling short of holding everyone suspected of being involved accountable.
Roberto David Castillo Mejía, a former US-trained Honduran army intelligence officer and former executive director of Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), was convicted on July 5 for his role in coordinating Cáceres’ murder, the country’s judiciary announced.
“[He] ordered the death of Cáceres as part of a plan to remove any obstacle that would interfere with DESA's operations on the Gualcarque River,” the Attorney General’s Office stated in a press release.
Cáceres and the organization she founded, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras - COPINH), were staunchly opposed to the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam managed by DESA. The dam was seen as a threat to the lifestyle of the Lenca Indigenous community members living along the Gualcarque River, which they consider to be sacred.
The verdict comes more than five years after a hit squad stormed Cáceres’ home in La Esperanza in southwest Honduras in early March 2016, killing her and wounding Mexican environmentalist Gustavo Castro, who survived only because he played dead.
Castillo Mejía will be sentenced on August 3 and faces between 25 and 30 years in prison. He marks the eighth person to be convicted in connection to the murder. In November 2018, prosecutors found seven defendants guilty of murder, while another individual was released due to insufficient evidence.
Members of COPINH called the verdict a “popular victory for the Honduran people,” adding that “criminal power structures failed to compromise the justice system.”
InSight Crime Analysis
The latest guilty verdict in Cáceres’ murder marks a major advancement in the pursuit of justice in Honduras, one of the most dangerous country's in the world for land defenders and where the impunity rate was the highest in all of Latin America last year, according to the 2020 Global Impunity Index.
The Central American nation scored worst at the “structural level,” specifically regarding its justice system, according to the index. Just days before the verdict, Cáceres’ legal team had expressed concern about the armed forces and economic sector potentially influencing the outcome of the case. The guilty verdict shows the courts can successfully prosecute high-profile cases amid considerable national and international pressure.
That said, this is only partial justice. The court itself seemed to recognize this, as it found Castillo Mejía guilty of being just one of the co-authors of the murder, potentially leaving the door open for prosecutions of other elites who may have financed and ordered the hit.
“David Castillo was a key figure connecting the material authors of Cáceres’ murder to other businessmen, military officers and public officials who also participated in the murder and have yet to be prosecuted,” said Annie Bird, Director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, who has done extensive research on impunity and corruption in Honduras.
In December 2019, private messages published by The Intercept in an exclusive report revealed that the team of hitmen “communicated through a compartmentalized chain that reached the highest ranks of [DESA’s] leadership.”
Present in one of those group chats, titled "Seguridad PHAZ,” or “Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project Security,” was Castillo Mejía and DESA’s chief financial officer, Daniel Atala Midence. DESA board members José Eduardo Atala Zablah and Pedro Atala Zablah were also included. The Atala Zablah family wields considerable influence in Honduras and has close ties to the Honduran government and financial sector. None of those men have been arrested or charged criminally. All of them deny any participation in the crime.
"Berta Cáceres’ murder was part of a much broader criminal conspiracy. ... Only a fraction of the crimes and … people responsible have been investigated,” Bird told InSight Crime.