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James Neilan is inside a bland, beige, carpeted boardroom. He's sitting in a large round table under the glare of fluorescent light in his role as the US ambassador in Honduras. He spends a lot of time in rooms like this. Today's meeting is in Washington, D.C., at the Council of the Americas. It's a group that promotes free trade and open markets. A couple dozen other diplomats from Central America and the Caribbean sit around the same table. It's March 2016, less than two weeks after the murder of Berita Casares, the killing is sure to be a topic of discussion today, and Neilan knows the case well.
He attended Berta's funeral and he's met with her family, promising them whatever support his embassy can provide. But before Neilan can get into all of that, the room erupts.
The blood of Nowthen Garcia, a gentleman, stood up in the middle of it.
And I think he unfurled a banner and he said, you know, pointing at me. He said, this man has blood on his hands. And it was in reference to the particularist case.
A couple of men grabbed the activists and began pushing them toward an exit door. The protesters fight back.
One is shoved hard into a doorframe on his way out of the room.
In Honduras, the U.S. embassy is a powerful institution, it's capable of exerting lots of pressure on local authorities, but for some, that influence wasn't always welcome back to herself, had been deeply critical of the U.S. and especially its military ever since her days in El Salvador when she aided leftist rebels there in their fight against the U.S. backed government. That distrust of America's motives is shared by many of her friends and colleagues in coping. For decades, America has provided financial and tactical support to the military and security forces of Honduras.
The US government has also, through business development ventures and aid programs, supported private development projects like the one behind the always Arkadia. Nilan says he doesn't mind being criticized. It's part of the job. But this kind of direct accusation that he was personally implicated in Batista struck a nerve.
I guess I personally draw the line when people accuse me of ill intent. You know, all I can say is that it was always my intention to try and do everything I could to bring the resources of the United States to bear to help Honduras in our mutual interest.
But in a way, those protesters were just amplifying a message Berta had been repeating for years. She often talked about the negative impact of the U.S., especially the U.S. military, on her country. The always Arcadium she deposed was one example some of the DSA employees she'd clashed with had undergone U.S. led military training.
This is Batoff in a 2013 interview for the story that the U.S. military, this as chief of security, he's ex military and the guy who identifies himself as the head of DEA, he went to West Point and was a specialist in military intelligence. We're seeing that there is a connection in all of these megaprojects, both in hydroelectricity and mining. There's a connection to the military I, you know, innoculation goal of militaries.
But Berta's relationship with America was complicated. She didn't really view America itself as an enemy. She visited the country regularly. She had family, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews who live there. She'd forged partnerships with U.S. based NGOs. And she'd even met with several U.S. Congress members and senators.
She didn't agree with a lot of what the U.S. government did, but she understood that sometimes the best way to get Honduran politicians to hear you was to have people in America help deliver the message.
I'm Monte Reel for Bloomberg Green, and this is Blood and River. Hidden away in the lower level of the Hart Building, where U.S. senators have their offices, you walk down a cavernous hallway, turn a corner and find room one 25 yellow Post-it notes with little arrows drawn on them are stuck on the walls and on the front desk, leading you toward someone named Tim. Ah, that's Tim Ricer. If you're down in this corner of the U.S. Capitol complex, you're probably looking for him.
He's the senior foreign policy adviser for the Democratic senator from Vermont, Patrick Leahy. And Tim is the guy who runs much of the day to day business of a very important Senate subcommittee, the one that decides which countries get American aid dollars. The second I walk into his office, he nods to a poster sized picture of Berta's smiling face. It's hard to miss the poster sits in the window directly behind his desk. It's been here since almost the day that Congress was killed.
Ricer was among those on Capitol Hill who'd met Barrett after she'd won the Goldman Prize in 2015. Having known her, even the slight amount that I did made it all the more sort of personal and just a feeling that this was something that we absolutely had to respond to.
Members of the Casares family visited Ricer and others on Capitol Hill. They spoke about the threats Berita had received and the false leads that were pursued in the early days of the murder probe.
What we saw was, first of all, predictable, an attempt to cover up the crime. It's how the police behave in Honduras and countries like that all the time to obscure what happened or to frame somebody else or to pretend to be investigating when really nothing is happening. And we saw all of that here.
Ricer knew of a very specific way to send a message to the Honduran authorities. He could withhold the money his subcommittee controlled if the Honduran security state couldn't protect Berita and solve a crime like this, did it really deserve tens of millions of dollars in U.S. financial support?
And I think people up here saw this as emblematic of a much larger problem and something that could not be allowed to just be swept under the rug the way these cases so often are as a result. Senator Leahy made clear that he was not going to allow. U.S. aid to Honduras, to the government of Honduras, particularly to the police and the armed forces to continue, at least not the aid which this subcommittee provides until we saw a satisfactory resolution of this case, the U.S. embassy in Honduras also offered to assist local police.
Honduras is a sovereign country and the U.S. can't just take over an investigation. But Ambassador Neilan told Berta's family that the embassy would try to help out around the margins. The embassy assigned a Justice Department officer to help the Hondurans with technical aspects of the investigation, such as telephone data retrieval. It also offered the use of the FBI crime lab for analysis of evidence. Berta's older brother says the presence of a U.S. justice official comforted him.
He liked the idea that there might be someone keeping an eye on the Honduran police as the investigation progressed.
Today, he believes that helped lead to the first arrests in the case, the ones we detailed in episode three. But others in the family were wary of U.S. involvement, and they remain so to this day, they don't necessarily see the U.S. embassy in the organizations that work closely with it as allies. Marta's daughter, Martita Izabel, said as much during a rally on the streets of New York weeks after the murder.
You know, and so you probably mean something, but I am still with you.
All staticky She repeated her calls for a new independent homicide investigation. She said the state run investigation was fatally flawed and nothing, not even the assistance from the U.S. would fix that. As Battuta Isabel address people in the streets of New York, her colleagues were delivering the same message inside Honduras. This is from a BBC report. The sun's beating down onto the tarmac here and a crowd of demonstrators, I'd say about 200 people from copying the organization that Berta Casitas co-founded are assembled here in front of them, a line of riot police.
And what the people here are demanding is that there is an international commission of inquiry that will investigate the murder of Berta Casitas. They don't trust the Honduran authorities. The Casares family and the protesters wanted a human rights commission within the United Nations to conduct a parallel investigation, one that ran alongside the Honduran governments. There was a precedent for this. In 2014, 43 students disappeared in Mexico and the commission did set up its own inquiry. But this time the Honduran government was not interested in more help.
They didn't want a third set of eyes looking into the case.
The Hondurans said that they did not need the Inter-American Commission to part with the investigation because they had the FBI supporting.
Roxana Ortho's is a professor at UC Berkeley's Law School and the co-director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic.
She says the Honduran government used the U.S. has limited involvement as a cover to try to derail a parallel investigation. The Casares family decided to take matters into their own hands. They tapped into a network of international human rights advocates and identified several experts with extensive legal and prosecutorial experience. The family, with help from several Honduran and international NGOs, convinced those experts to dig into the case.
The family members decided to move forward, and so they chose a group of five legal experts to comprise a team to conduct an independent, impartial investigation. And I was asked to be a member of that team. The group was called Gaspé, it's an acronym and translated from the Spanish, it stands for the International Advisory Group of Experts. Its members included attorneys who prosecuted high profile human rights cases around the world.
Cases like the war crime tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and prosecutions of military and paramilitary abuse in Colombia.
Roxana herself had spent two decades litigating cases mostly in Latin America.
These included extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances. At first she was reluctant to get involved in this one.
She was raising two very young kids in California at the time, heading to Honduras to investigate murder and corruption seemed like a recipe for trouble. She declined, but then reconsidered. She says she felt an obligation to help. So in October 2016, she and the rest of the group got to work.
So the first thing that we did was, you know, begin to compile background information, they tried to put the crime in the larger context of violence against activists in Honduras and specifically against activists aligned with Berta's organization Karpin.
They focused only on a three year period from 2013 to 2016, and they began compiling a list of instances where Dassa, the Hydro Electric Company, had threatened, harassed or violated the rights of members of Copi and their checkpoints to raid sewers.
Just three years, we documented 135 incidents of violence. So that was a first step to understand the context. The next step was to look at the criminal investigative file. That meant trying to review the evidence that the Honduran investigators had so far collected.
Roxana's team asked to see all of the tens of thousands of pages of the file. The Honduran prosecutors resisted at first, but soon they handed over about 3000 pages of it. Roxanna and the team studied the ballistics reports, the autopsy and the statements that the Honduran investigators had collected, interviewed witnesses, people who knew something about the context or knew something about the day of or the threats.
And then in July of 2017, after months and months of requests, we got access to about 55 gigs of telephone data.
This was mostly data that had been collected during the raids. We detailed in the last episode on May 2nd, 2016, when police confiscated the phones of four suspects and searched Das's offices. Those 55 gigs of data that the investigators got amounted to about 40000 pages, most of that was in the form of WhatsApp text messages, these texts would become the center of the case.
Guilt or innocence, imprisonment or freedom. Everything seemed to rest heavily on those messages. And even now, four years after the murder, it still does. Some of those WhatsApp texts were sent as part of a group chat, the group, according to its WhatsApp heading, was created to discuss matters of security at the Iwazaki site. It included members of Des's security team in Rio Blanco, as well as some of Des's high level executives and board members.
These individuals were so sure of impunity that they texted back and forth and pretty openly regarding their plans to neutralize the opposition, to eliminate the opposition to the dam project. With thousands of pages of messages to wade through, there were a few obvious time stamps to check out first, for example, the morning after Buratha was killed. There was quite a bit of chatter then. The members of the group seemed to be following the initial phases of the investigation closely to Roxanna's team.
It seemed like Dessa was getting frequent updates from inside the crime scene. The message string from the day after the murder includes a text from ADESA project manager who suggested he'd been in touch with a local police chief. He wrote, I've solicited the help of the commissioner, he confirms his support, he'll inform me of details of the murder. He also recommended we issue a press release to create some distance from these events. Then, just hours after Berta's body was found, Sergio Rodriguez, Des's, head of environmental standards and community relations, received a police report on his phone.
The report included descriptions of Berta's wounds and the bloodstains in the bedrooms and in the hallway of her house. It also identified two suspects, the ones that we talked about in episode one. They were Berta's ex-boyfriend, Aureliano Molina, or Lieto, and also Gustavo Castro, the Mexican activist who'd also been wounded in the attack. Sérgio forwarded the report to the others on the desk group chat, Roxana says telephone data showed that the report came directly from police in Santa Barbara, the province where the Iwazaki Dam site was located.
That that information is highly confidential. There is no reason or justification that law enforcement should share their preliminary conclusions regarding a murder with a company, but it was completely consistent with the relationship that the company had established with the police. The company treated the police like their private army.
But the messages didn't just show a connection to local law enforcement. They also revealed that Dassa executives were in contact with the minister of security himself.
ADESA executive reported on the group chat that the minister had assured the company that the murder was being treated as a LEO. They followed us or loosely translated, a skirt problem, a simple crime of passion, nothing more. Roxanna's team would trace the WhatsApp messages back in time. For years, those text messages allowed them to sketch a detailed narrative the story of what they describe as a long running and sinister corporate conspiracy.
You have a treasure trove of evidence in this case because the perpetrators were absolutely sure they would never be held to account, not just for the murder, but for all the other crimes that were being committed. In November 2017, more than a year and a half after the murder, Roxanna's team released the results of its investigation. The group handed its findings over to prosecutors.
One of the key figures in the plot they outlined was Douglas Bustillo.
He was one of the four men arrested in May 2016, two months after Berta's murder. He was a former lieutenant in the Honduran army, and he'd also spent a couple of years as the head of security for ADESA in Rio Blanco. Berta had known Bustillo well, even though they were on opposite sides of the protests, they sometimes exchanged messages before she died, Berta complained that the nature of his messages to her had changed from businesslike exchanges to aggressive pestering that amounted to sexual harassment.
In an interview with a Swedish journalist, she described it as abuse and called Bustillo out by name.
LTM adorable. Still, even after that public complaint, Bustillo continued to send Batta messages. In one exchange, he sent along a couple of pictures he'd found of her online. Who is this Battah respons?
Ha ha. Like you don't know, he replies. A few more lines are exchanged. He tells her she's very beautiful and that many men must find her attractive. He writes, I like simple, charismatic, slender women who are strong and stand up for themselves. He says he'd love to spend some time with her. He sends her a wink emoji. Take care, beautiful lady writes. Berta doesn't respond to that, but the next day Bustillo is back at it.
Hello. Good morning and bon appetit. Since it's lunchtime, he sends a flower emoji again. Berta doesn't respond. Another day passes another. Hello, Berta. Isabelle, he says. Berta finally writes back. It seems you've sold your conscience and ideals and you've turned your back on the people of LA Tahera Lazzara. That's the name of the cluster of homes in Rio Blanco, where the opposition to Dessa is center. Bhatta, ask Bustillo, are you not tired of being the front man for Dassa?
Bustillo had stopped formally working for Dessa a few months before, but in the context of these and other messages, it's clear he's still involved in the company's activities, Bustillo replies. Tabata, I am not a front man for Dessa, nor do I even remember that company, he tells Bhatta. She should encourage her people to stop being so ungrateful. Berta replies that she's pretty sure Bustillo remembers Dassa because he keeps repeating the company line. It's sad, she says, to see the role that you've been relegated to.
Bustillo ends the exchange with a long string of HA has. On November 22nd, 2015, about three and a half months before Berta's murder, Bustillo sent a message to ADESA executive. Roxanna's team did not identify him in its report because he hadn't been indicted. They called him directly about race or executive number three.
Bustillo road to executive number three, telling him complete the 50 percent prosecutors believed this was a request for payment and that Bustillo was requesting half of what was owed to him.
Executive number three responded with a time 615 p.m. He followed that with another message. Let's meet in 30 at Chili's in a small Bustillo seem confused about exactly when they should meet 615 or in 30 minutes. These were two different times when he expressed confusion. The executive, Roback Bustillo, get it together. This isn't a party. Have everything prepared because it could happen at any time in the course of the day. Roxanna's team believe that this time period, November 2015, was when the murder for hire scheme was first planted.
This is based on messages and phone calls exchanged between Bustillo, the DSA executives, the accused gunman, and Mariano Diaz. Diaz is the military guy whose phone was tapped as part of another investigation into a drug and kidnapping ring. One of the people Diaz had been in regular contact with was Henri Hernandez. He was one of the accused hitmen. Their direct messages to each other seemed to reference the exchange of a gun and payments and additional men who could be hired to carry out, quote, a job from the guy by investigators.
Reading of the messages, it seemed that this job they were talking about was supposed to happen in February 2016, about one month before Berita was actually murdered.
So what we think happened in early February was there is an effort to kill Berta. A failed effort, the plan, she says, was for Henry Hernandez to travel to La Esperanza there Mariano Diaz was supposed to meet him and give him a gun. The gay members believed the killing was planned for February 5th. But Berta's daughters were at the house. Henry makes it to Lesperance, he sees that there doesn't live alone and he says, I can't do this, that next morning on February six, Douglas Bustillo sent a message to executive number three.
He wrote Mission aborted yesterday. It wasn't possible. I will wait for your response. I no longer have the logistics in place. I am at zero. He says Mission Albertan mission aborted what he stands for a lack of resources, executive number three responded to Bustillo with this request that the listener remember the scene. And that is I think he said something like this. You know, like I got the message and you should go. What does remember this?
It's open for interpretation, I think if you look at that text in the context of the plan, it means clean up after yourself. At least that's the way I would interpret it. After Bustillo was arrested, investigators found photos of Berta's house in his phone and the day before the actual murder. The chats suggest he planned to meet with the executive number three. Hours before the murder, the phones that investigators believe were used by the accused gunman show them traveling to La Esperanza.
Around the same time, Douglas Bustillo was searching for pictures of birds on his phone, and about an hour before Batak Casares was killed, Bustillo was in contact with the accused gunman. These phone records and WhatsApp messages later would be used against those who'd been arrested up to this point. Sergio Rodriguez, Douglas Bustillo, Mariano Diaz and the accused gunman in June 2017, a judge ordered that those suspects would go to trial. A few months later, GAPA published its report revealing many of these phone intercepts for the first time, but the report did not publicly reveal one piece of information that would soon become critically important.
Who was executive number three? Way back in 2013, when violence was first breaking out in Rio Blanco, phone records suggest that executive number three was hard at work behind the scenes. Remember what happened in July 2013?
A soldier working for decis security team shot and killed a coping protester. Then the same day, young Kristian Madrid, whose family supported the dam, was shot and killed in the family cow pasture. Violence like that was a potential public relations disaster for Dassa. That same day, the executive sent a WhatsApp text message to his colleagues.
It said, Hey, the reporter from HCA, HCA, which is the name of the top cable news channel in Honduras, he suggested a payment of 2000 LEMPIRAS, or about 80 dollars. The guy pay. Investigators knew the identity of executive number three, but they didn't reveal his name in their report.
They knew that before he joined DUSA, he'd been a high level military intelligence officer. And through the phone records, they could see that he took an interest in Batak. Sometimes he reached out to her personally. So he's using her as a human source of intelligence, so he's taking the information she was revealing about her movements directly or indirectly, about her movements, her concerns, and he was feeding that information back to his company and then they were acting on that information.
I mean, that's a classic intelligence cycle. Berta's family also knew exactly who executive number three was, they'd been hearing his name from Bhatta herself for years. And within a few months, all of Honduras would know his name. It's March 2nd, 2018, the two year anniversary of Berta's killing a white Toyota pickup truck pulls up in front of a federal building in the city of San Pedro de Sula. Federal agents in black face masks opened the back door of the truck.
They let a man in handcuffs pass the cameras and microphones of reporters.
Police in Honduras have arrested David Castillo. He is an executive of Daystar. Castillo is being accused of being the mastermind behind the assassination of environmental activist. But the Casares. Most of the news reports include very few details about David Castillos life, but they hint at an interesting past. He grew up in Honduras but was educated in the United States at the military academy at West Point. He'd lived in the Washington, D.C. area for a couple of years before returning to work for the Honduran armed forces and intelligence and counterintelligence.
And in 2011, before he turned 30 years old, Castillo was named executive president of Dessa, where he was in charge of developing the Agua Zarka Dam.
On the day of his arrest, Berta's daughter, Berta Izabel, tells CNN that the family is relieved that an accused intellectual author behind her mother's murder has finally been identified and arrested.
We see and it's almost like it can be somewhat lower than today. We can begin to believe that we're starting to break the bonds of impunity that were behind the murder of my mother, Berta Gustus. David Castillo is the person that Gopin and the family members have denounced from the beginning and some of the principles for.
Dessa issued a statement again, denying involvement in Berta's murder and defending Castillos innocence, but Castillo himself has never told his full story publicly. He spent the last two years in prison awaiting trial during that time.
He's remained something of a mystery. The accused mastermind of a brazen murder waiting to make his case. I did not order this.
I did not participated in the murder cases. There is no evidence whatsoever that we could link him to the killing of Byrd on the next episode of Blood River. We need the accused mastermind. One river is written and reported by me, Montrail Topher Forras is our senior producer, Maya Cueva is our associate producer. Our theme was composed and performed by Senior Rubinos special thanks to Carlos Rodriguez. Francesca Levy is the head of Podcast's. Be sure to subscribe if you haven't already, and if you like our show, please leave us a review.
Thanks for listening.