Just before her assassination, environmental activist Berta Caceres told a filmmaker that she was being threatened by Roberto David Castillo, a Honduran hydroelectric company executive. He has now been arrested for conspiring in her murder. We speak to documentary filmmaker Jesse Freeston

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Police in Honduras have arrested David Castillo. He is an executive of DESA, the hydroelectric company in western Honduras at the heart of the battle with local population resisting the construction of a dam. Castillo is being accused of being the mastermind behind the assassination of environmental activist, Berta Cáceres. Armed gunmen murdered Berta Cáceres and wounded a fellow activist in her house exactly two years ago. This is the ninth arrest in the case, which has garnered international tension because Cáceres was a prominent figure in Honduras.
Here’s what Berta Cáceres’ mother, Austra Berta Flores [López], had to say just prior to the arrest at a protest on the second anniversary of her daughter’s murder.
AUSTRA BERTA FLORES: (Translator): Today, we’re asking that they sentence those that are in prison. I believe there are eight, and that they capture their masterminds, and also that, internationally, the government of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández is not recognized because not only is he an impostor, but he also permits these murders in this country.
SHARMINI PERIES: Joining me now to analyze the significance of this arrest is Jesse Freeston. Jesse is an independent documentary filmmaker and the director of Resistencia, a film about the 2009 coup in Honduras against President Manuel Zelaya. Thanks for joining me, Jesse.
JESSE FREESTON: My pleasure.
SHARMINI PERIES: Jesse, you were close to Berta Cáceres and her family. What is your reaction to the arrest of the DESA executive Roberto Castillo?
JESSE FREESTON: So, Roberto David Castillo was the last name that Berta Cáceres mentioned when she was talking about how her life was under threat. Two days before she was killed, she met with Honduran Filmmaker Katia Lara and wrote down David Castillo’s name in Katia’s notebook as somebody that Katia should be trying to get an interview with to talk about the threats on Berta’s life, that Berta was receiving, and two days later, she was assassinated. So, if we just go with the evidence that Berta herself left for us, then David Castillo was at the top of the list from day one.
It took two years for him to be detained or to be questioned in any way, despite all kinds of other evidence against him as well, which we hope will be revealed in the coming months, but this system here is extremely slow. So, for example, the first seven arrests in the case, which we should point out came as a result of a lot of national and international pressure, from everywhere, from the family itself, from Berta’s mother, who you just saw, to her children, to the community, to the national community and the international community. Even Leonardo DiCaprio famously. one of his first tweets after winning the Oscar was that he wanted justice for Berta Cáceres.
So that led to, the police up until then were saying that this was a crime of passion and that they were looking into Berta’s former husband and Berta’s most recent boyfriend as the probable executors of the assassination. Recently, news has come out that there was actually a video that the police have had since day one that was actually from the police post nearest to Berta’s house that showed a bunch of men, masked men in a pickup truck. So, it wasn’t just like one angry boyfriend or something. And nonetheless, despite them having had that information, their original thesis that they went after was that this was a crime of passion of these boyfriends.
When it was clear that the national, international pressure was not going to accept that, then they arrested the trigger people, but the family has been at the forefront from the beginning and saying like, “We know there’s trigger people. That’s not necessarily helping us. We know it wasn’t the billionaire’s that went in with a gun and killed Berta Cáceres. We want who ordered it, we want the people behind it and we want this project ended,” because if it had any legitimacy and they said it had no legitimacy from the beginning because it didn’t have prior informed consent from the indigenous…people of the region.
While it does have great, quite a bit of support in the region, I can definitely say that. We’ve actually seen marches in the area asking for David Castillo to be released, although it seems like, one has the question and one would wonder, especially given how things work in this country, how, whether or not the people in the streets are being paid to be in the streets. That as yet, I haven’t investigated that myself. But I’m just saying, it’s a conflictual thing. And so, there may have been an argument for some legitimacy of this dam. But at the point where you start killing those who oppose it, now, the family says, “You have to scrap that dam.” That has not happened.
Not only has it not happen nationally with this government, which the translation of what Berta’s mother said in that video clip, was. “imposter,” which reads as more like, “usurper,” is would be like a better translation maybe. Somebody who’s taken power by force or is holding onto it by force. And so, that’s the situation right now and that government has not in any way canceled this dam project that Berta gave her life for. But there is some European financing from Finnfund in Finland and a Dutch development bank that are on pause, as far as I’m aware right now, but they also have not canceled their involvement with the project.
They’ve just temporarily put it on pause. So, I think the fact that two years later that financing was still on pause, this would be my thesis. This is not a fact, necessarily. The fact that that financing was still on pause two years later, it led this regime to say, “Okay, we need to take another step. We need to at least detain David Castillo.” And David Castillo, it’s very important to note, is trained at West Point in the United States, a very, very well-trained intelligence operative who’s been working both for the company and for the Honduran Intelligence Agency on and off. He, from all reports from the region, is considered a very dangerous man.
And also, behind Berta’s case, there are a lot of other cases of people who have been killed like Tomas Garcia or even journalist Felix Molina, who was forced to flee the country two months after Berta’s assassination. Felix reported on some documents that he obtained about the activity of military people within DESA, people like David Castillo and that they might have been involved calling it paramilitarism. And so, Felix was shot within hours of posting that on Facebook. So, Felix says that he knows very well that David Castillo knew about his movements inside the region, for example. So, there might be more cases than just Berta that have to do with this man, David Castillo.
But the family is still calling for the people above David Castillo because David Castillo is not the man who stood to make millions and millions of dollars from this project. He’s still an employee and the name that’s been floated around mostly at this point in terms of who’s really at the top of this whole thing is the Atala family, which is one of the few billionaire families in Honduras and their name was just mentioned by none other than Julio Arbizu, a very well respected Peruvian lawyer who was the second-in-command of the International Anti-Corruption Commission, who just resigned under pressure from the OAS, and on his way out, he mentioned the Atala family as most likely being behind this DESA project.
SHARMINI PERIES: So Jesse, if nine people have been arrested so far related to the murder of Berta Cáceres, would one come to the conclusion that President Juan Orlando Hernández is truly intent on bringing those who murdered Cáceres to justice, including this family that you just mentioned?
JESSE FREESTON: I mean, Juan Orlando Hernández doesn’t really talk about Berta Cáceres and ideally, this would be a situation where it wouldn’t matter who was president. I mean, essentially, this is supposed to be a republic, and the judiciary should be operating, and the police as well should be operating outside of politics and should be operating outside of the executive, of which, Juan Orlando Hernández is the head. But it’s pretty clear that’s not how things work here. Juan Orlando Hernández’ personal connection is unclear. It’s definitely in his region of influence of the country, his base of power where he comes from is western Honduras, which is the same area.
But yeah, in terms of his own personal perspectives or his influence in the situation, I think, those are the details that the family wants. This is the kind of thorough investigation that the family wants. They want to know how high up this goes. They want to know what role the president played in it. They want to know what role the Atala family plays in it and they want justice.
SHARMINI PERIES: Jesse, as far as we know, there’s a number of other independent investigations that are going on. One by the Guardian, one, a group of lawyers commissioned by COPINH, that’s the organization Cáceres founded. They all conducted investigations. What did they find?
JESSE FREESTON: Well, they found a lot of unturned stones. For example, there’s, I forget what the amount is, but there’s thousands of phone calls that have been recorded that need to be listened to. So, it’s like, there’s an abundance of work here that can be done to help untangle this situation. There’s just not enough people to do it as it stands and not enough people with access, with security access. So, for example, the Anti-Corruption Commission, which was recently, basically, defanged by the same organization of American states that it came out of in an act of international corruption that we still don’t know the roots of. But the president of the OAS, Almagro, just basically fired the leads of the Anti-Corruption Commission only when they started to name names and publish documentation about what was going on.
The Anti-Corruption Commission is seriously understaffed. They only have about 10 to 12 people doing actual investigation in which, in comparison to a comparable country like Guatemala, where they have 85 in the international Corruption Commission. But they did take on Berta Cáceres case and actually appointed one of probably the world’s most famous and respected lawyers in cases like this, Almudena Bernabeu, who’s a Catalonian lawyer who has taken on some really big cases like the Ríos Montt case in terms of the Guatemalan genocide as well as the assassination of the six Jesuit priests in El Salvador in the ’80s, 1989.
And now, she’s doing a lot of work in Syria right now. Anyway, she’s taken on the Berta Cáceres case as a money laundering case because the Anti-Corruption Commission can only deal in questions of corruption. There’s a lot of evidence right now, and that’s why the Anti-Corruption Commission picked this up that this dam project is perhaps above all a drug, money-laundering project. And so, they’re taking on the case from that, through that door in terms of criminality, but are also hoping along the way to uncover more about the involvement in Berta’s assassination.
SHARMINI PERIES: Jesse, earlier you mentioned there might be more people who’ve been murdered, killed by certain groups, people associated with this company in particular or is it in general? Because according to a report by Global Witness, they say that Honduras is the deadliest country in the world for environmental activists. Over 120 environmental activists were killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2016. So, what is the situation for environmental activists in general? And then, do you suspect that this particular dam and DESA in particular have been involved in more of those cases?
JESSE FREESTON: There’s a couple of cases that DESA looks immediately implicated, and one is Tomas Garcia, who was also a member of COPINH, who was shot and killed by a military soldier actually, part of the engineering wing of the military, while defending the construction of the dam from a COPINH action. So, that’s definitely one case. I would urge people to, when they see that statistic, that’s a great piece of work by a Global Witness, that the term environmental is a little misleading on that point. The people that have lost their lives in Honduras are land defenders or territory defenders. This is not, like for example, now, I’m not saying this in a pejorative way but it’s not people who are going around trying to raise awareness about climate change or something like this.
This is people that have either taken land or are defending land they already work on or live on. The vast majority of those 121, I believe is the number, defenders that are assassinated were in the Aguán Valley, where it was the recuperation, in the words of the farmers themselves, of 10,000 or more acres of palm oil plantations from one of the richest families in the country. So, I would encourage people to when they see that word environmental, to swap it out for land or territory.
SHARMINI PERIES: All right, Jesse. I thank you so much for joining us today and giving us this insight from the ground there. I look forward to hearing from you again as this case proceeds.
JESSE FREESTON: Yeah, my pleasure.
SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.

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Jesse Freeston is a filmmaker, shooter and editor based in Montréal, Québec.