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Glimmer of Hope in Honduras: Ex-Dam CEO & West Point Grad Convicted in Murder of Berta Cáceres

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A former U.S.-trained Honduran military officer and businessman has been found guilty of plotting the assassination of Berta Cáceres, the award-winning Lenca land and water defender killed in 2016. The Honduran Supreme Court ruled unanimously that David Castillo, the former president of the hydroelectric corporation DESA, was a co-perpetrator in Cáceres’s murder. Cáceres was assassinated as she led the fight against the construction of DESA’s massive hydroelectric dam on a river in southwestern Honduras that is sacred to the Lenca people. Seven hired hitmen were convicted of her murder in 2018 and sentenced in 2019. Castillo’s conviction this week comes just days after Honduras marked the 12th anniversary of the 2009 U.S.-backed coup. “This is the first time in 12 years that we have seen any kind of justice in Honduras,” says Honduran scholar Suyapa Portillo Villeda, an associate professor at Pitzer College and the author of “Roots of Resistance: A Story of Gender, Race, and Labor on the North Coast of Honduras.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Honduras, where a former U.S.-trained Honduran military officer and businessman has been found guilty of helping to plan the 2016 assassination of Berta Cáceres, the renowned Lenca land and water defender. The Honduran Supreme Court’s verdict Monday was unanimous and came after a 49-day trial against David Castillo, the former president of the hydroelectric corporation DESA.

At the time of Cáceres’s assassination, she was fighting the construction of DESA’s Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River in southwestern Honduras. The river is sacred to the Lenca people. In 2015, Cáceres was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her ongoing resistance against the dam.

In Monday’s ruling, the court said David Castillo used his military contacts and skills to surveil Cáceres for years on behalf of DESA. The court also said Castillo obtained money to pay for Cáceres’s assassination and coordinated the attack with DESA’s former director of security, who was in touch with the main hitman. Cáceres was shot to death the night of March 2nd, 2016, inside her home in La Esperanza, Honduras, by seven hired hitmen, who were later convicted in 2018 and sentenced in 2019.

Following Monday’s verdict, Berta Cáceres’s family, surrounded by other Honduran social leaders, held a news conference outside the Honduran Supreme Court in Tegucigalpa. This is one of Berta’s daughters, Berta Cáceres — Berta Cáceres’s daughter is Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres. She’s the general coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras.

BERTHA ZÚÑIGA CÁCERES: [translated] We recognize this as a step toward justice, as a victory for the communities around the world who have accompanied us through this process in solidarity. … We urge the international and national communities to continue their efforts against impunity in Honduras and to support the efforts of social and popular organizations. In the words of our Berta Cáceres, we reiterate that justice is built by the grassroots from our daily work with the defense of our territories, the fulfillment of our life projects and the constant fight against inequities and injustices.

AMY GOODMAN: After Bertha Zúñiga’s statement, the crowd of dozens of supporters began chanting in Spanish, “Berta didn’t die, she multiplied.”

SUPPORTERS: ¡Berta no murió, se multiplicó!

AMY GOODMAN: David Castillo, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 2004, will be sentenced in August and faces up to 30 years in prison. Berta Cáceres’s family and supporters have vowed to continue fighting for the prosecution of others involved in her murder.

Monday’s verdict came just days after the 12th anniversary of the 2009 U.S.-backed coup in Honduras, which overthrew the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya, and installed a right-wing regime. Since the coup, violence against women, LGBTQ+ people, Indigenous and Black leaders and environmental activists has skyrocketed in Honduras, forcing thousands to flee to the United States, particularly under the government of President Juan Orlando Hernández, a key U.S. ally.

Well, for more, we go to Los Angeles, where we’re joined by the Honduran scholar Suyapa Portillo, associate professor at Pitzer College and the author of the new book Roots of Resistance: A Story of Gender, Race, and Labor on the North Coast of Honduras.

Professor, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Can you talk about the significance of the verdict and who exactly David Castillo is?

SUYAPA PORTILLO VILLEDA: Thank you for having me.

The significance of the murder is huge, right? This is the first case since the coup d’état that has been brought to justice, that has been heard publicly, not just by Hondurans, but by the international community. And it’s also a testament to the resistance and organizing against the coup that COPINH has led and that Berta had led — right? — and OFRANEH, the Afro-descendant organization in Honduras, have led against the coup government, and particularly Juan Orlando Hernández.

So, it gives us a glimmer of hope that at the time of sentencing in a month or so, we might see some real justice in that sentence itself. And also, there’s a little hope that the Atala family will be brought to justice, as well, as they are the owners of DESA corporation. So, we’ll see if they’ll face their death in court. So, this is the first time in 12 years that we have seen any kind of justice in Honduras.

And, you know, the attorney said this yesterday in the press conference: The courts had all the evidence they needed to try this case in May of 2016, three months after the murder of Berta Cáceres, but it took them almost five years to bring this to justice. And it was really due to that organizing on the ground that mobilized the international community, including, you know, actors from Hollywood and other famous people speaking out about this internationally. So, you know, my props to COPINH and their organizing on the ground.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Professor Suyapa Portillo, I wanted to ask you — you mentioned the Atala family. Most people here in the United States have never heard of it. Could you talk about the family’s role with DESA and what links them — what evidence links them, possibly, to involvement in the killing of Berta Cáceres? And also, the other elite families of Honduras, how have they fared since the 2009 coup?

SUYAPA PORTILLO VILLEDA: So, the elite families of Honduras — you know, you have to think that Honduras, like El Salvador or Guatemala, are small countries. There’s maybe 20, 22 families in Honduras who own the country, basically. They have corporations. They vacation in Miami. Their sons and daughters study in the United States, right? They live this very posh life. And they were definitely opposed to Mel Zelaya’s government in Honduras in 2009 potentially joining the pink tide, as it was known back then. And they were, you know, concerned — right? — about Honduras potentially becoming a socialist country. And so, these families, in cahoots with the nationalist party — some of them were from Liberal Party — executed the coup d’état.

And so, the Atala family, the Atala Zablah family, is one of these families. Many of these Arabic families came to Honduras in the early 1900s and have now become part of the Honduran elite. And, you know, they own the Desarrollos Energéticos, DESA. They hired, you know, former army-, military-trained folks like Castillo Mejía — right? — David Castillo, who graduated from West Point in 2004 and was a specialist in intelligence and counterintelligence.

And what the case demonstrated was this really sinister way in which Berta Cáceres was being followed. And, you know, he pretended to be friends with her, called her all the time to kind of connect with her, and then, at other times, threatened her. And so, you know, Berta said it many times to some of her allies, who ended up testifying in this case, that, you know, “This guy is following me and tracking me, and this guy is going to try and kill me.”

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the U.S. role in Honduras since the coup, clearly, the coup occurred against Mel Zelaya during the Obama administration, with Hillary Clinton as the secretary of state. What’s been the role of the United States since then?

SUYAPA PORTILLO VILLEDA: You know, I like to think about the United States — and this is what I do in my book, by looking back over 150 years of U.S. involvement in Honduras and in the region of Central America. I like to think of the United States never leaving Honduras after the Cold War sort of ended with the peace accords. As some people say, you know, Honduras has always been a geopolitical area for the United States, and certainly in 2009, when Mel Zelaya Rosales was allying with Hugo Chávez and supporting Cuba entering the OAS, if you will remember that conversation. You know, this was very threatening to Hillary Clinton — Hillary Clinton who is a disciple of Kissinger, whom many people credit with the dirty war in South America, right?

So, there was all these sort of Cold War people within the Democratic Party that executed the coup d’état in 2009. Of course, the Obama administration refused to call it a “coup,” if you will remember. You know, your reporting role in that moment was really key, because it was only independent media that was calling the coup in 2009 a coup d’état, effectively. And it wasn’t until 2011, when WikiLeaks sort of released cables from the U.S. Embassy in Honduras at the time of the coup, that the administration had to admit that it was — they called it a diplomatic coup.

But Honduran people knew that it was a violent coup. It was a coup that, you know, over 2,000 people were killed. Over 4,000 people’s civil rights were violated at the time. And then you had the death of Vicky Hernández, a trans woman activist, the day of the coup, Isis Obed Murillo, and many, many more since then.

And Berta Cáceres was someone that called out Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration constantly and tried to let us know — right? — that this is a historic role that Honduras — that served the United States in Honduras — right? — that Honduras was geopolitical. And, you know, she used to say Honduras is a laboratory for what the U.S. wants to do in other countries, not just in Latin America. And effectively, we’ve seen that since there.

So, the role of the U.S. in Honduras and the reason we’re critical of it is because it has been a role of extractivism, of racial capitalism. If you look at the history of the United Fruit Company — right? — over a hundred years, free — were given land for free. There were concessions of land in the north coast, that then they sold when they left Honduras just after Hurricane Mitch, when they began to sell pieces of that land to national growers and other Latin American growers from Brazil or Nicaragua.

And what’s interesting about this is that when Kamala Harris decides to come to Guatemala and talk about migration, the companies that she brings with her, one of them is Nestlé corporation, which we know is just as problematic as the United Fruit Company in other parts, in Africa and in Asia — right? — so that the U.S. State Department has had an extractive role, a role that has never been about respecting the sovereignty of Honduras or other Central American nations. And, you know, this is more of the same, right? We’re seeing more of the same.

So, when I say I credit this win to COPINH and local organizers in Honduras, it’s really important, because it shows agency and determinism, and despite — against all odds. I mean, most of those people working on the Berta Cáceres case have protective orders, because they have received death threats, or they receive death threats for the work that they do — the attorneys, the family.

AMY GOODMAN: And we should mention, in other big news coming out of Honduras, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared that the Honduran state was responsible for killing the trans woman Vicky Hernández, who you mentioned, Professor Portillo, that happened the night of the 2009 coup, and go back to our coverage at, when Juan, who also worked with the New York Daily News, in a Daily News board meeting, questioned Hillary Clinton about her support of the coup. We’re going to end with the words of Berta Cáceres herself. She was assassinated a year after she won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work protecting Indigenous communities and for her environmental justice campaign against that massive dam on the sacred Gualcarque River. This is Berta speaking in 2015.

BERTA CÁCERES: [translated] In our worldviews, we are beings who come from the Earth, from the water and from corn. The Lenca people are ancestral guardians of the rivers, in turn protected by the spirits of young girls, who teach us that giving our lives in various ways for the protection of the rivers is giving our lives for the well-being of humanity and of this planet.

AMY GOODMAN: The great environmentalist Berta Cáceres receiving her Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015. In 2016, she was assassinated in her own home in La Esperanza, Honduras. This weekend, Monday, David Castillo was one of those found guilty of her murder. We want to also thank Suyapa Portillo, the Honduran scholar and associate professor at Pitzer College, author of the new book Roots of Resistance: A Story of Gender, Race, and Labor on the North Coast of Honduras.

When we come back, we air the explosive video from Greenpeace of Exxon lobbyists speaking in their own words about the oil giant’s secretive efforts to block climate action on Capitol Hill and what senators and congressmembers they’ve captured. Stay with us.

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