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[00:00:01]

July 15th, 2013, is a critical day in the story of Batak Nasserists and David Castillo. Here's what we know happened.

[00:00:13]

A security guard at the Iwazaki Dam's worksite shot and killed a protester from Karpin, the indigenous rights group led by Bhatta. If you're David, the CEO of the company behind the dam. You know, this is a crisis. The dam has already attracted controversy.

[00:00:33]

Depending on how the press reports it, this could make things much worse.

[00:00:39]

Here's what else we know, that same day David sends a text message to his colleagues at NSA, his company. He tells them, pay the reporter from h, c, h, h. H is a Honduran cable news network.

[00:00:54]

David instructs his colleagues to offer the reporter 2000 LEMPIRAS, which is about 80 dollars today.

[00:01:02]

And those two bits of information that someone was killed and that David wanted to pay a reporter are the only two facts in this instance that investigators and David can seemingly agree on. If you're the team investigating, David, this looks like a bribe, an attempt to spin the incident and provide cover for the project, HCA didn't respond to a request for comment. But David says his company did make that payment and that there was nothing wrong with it. Generals, local journalists do not have the funds to be able to travel far away.

[00:01:48]

Normally they don't have fuel to be able to go to remote places, even more so in the middle of the mountain.

[00:01:58]

David argues that the protesters, not the company's security guards, had incited the violence that day, and unless he covered a local journalists expenses to come to the area, no one in Honduras would ever hear his side of the story in his version. This wasn't a breach of ethics. It was a public service.

[00:02:22]

We wanted the news. We wanted the people of Honduras to know exactly what was going on, what was happening, what we were being victims of doing this time. The debate over the meaning of this text might seem like a side note in the Batak Atheros murder case, but investigators say it's important that it helps establish a pattern where Dessa used influence and money to twist institutions to their will. They say it was part of decis, corporate culture. And messages like that support other even more important texts, conversations that prosecutors say directly tie David Castillo to the murder plot itself.

[00:03:11]

But David will attempt to explain every one of these seemingly incriminating texts. We're going to explore some of the most crucial exchanges in this episode.

[00:03:22]

This will give us a glimpse into a big part of his defense, because ultimately so much could rest on how he explains them and whether a judge finds his counternarrative convincing.

[00:03:44]

I'm Montreal for Bloomberg Green, and this is Blood River. The text exchange we're going to start with involves messages sent between David and Douglas Bustillo and before we get into the messages themselves, it's important to say a little bit about the relationship between these two men and the timing of this exchange. Bustillo, if you recall, was the former security chief for Dessa at the Agua work site, and this particular exchange of messages happened in November 2015. That's right around the time when Bhatta and Karpin resumed their protests against the dam.

[00:04:58]

Now, it might seem strange that these two men, David and Bustillo, would have any correspondence at all around that time. That's because months earlier in July 2015, David actually had fired Bustillo as his head of security at Iwazaki. And he says one of the reasons he did it was because Berita asked him to ask me personally to fire, at least here from the project site. And when I found the chance, due to poor behavior and lack of judgment from problem for Mr.

[00:05:36]

Bush to you, he was he was fired sometime around July 2015. He got caught drunk driving in a company vehicle, which was unacceptable to us. So fast forward a few months from that firing to the fall of 2015. Bustillo is no longer working for David, at least not officially. But the texts show that David and Bustillo are still in touch and they're still working together on something. That November, Bustillo sends a message to David, one that prosecutors allege is very important.

[00:06:15]

It's the one where Bustillo asked David about the, quote, 50 percent. Investigators have alleged that these messages refer to payments made by David or his company to Bustillo and that the payments are connected to the plot to kill Battah. In this message, Bustillo greets David by name and writes in Spanish that the 50 percent as it's typed, that translates literally as a request complete. The 50 percent, a smoother translation might be, give me the 50 percent, David responds, telling Bustillo to meet him at a Chili's restaurant in a shopping mall.

[00:07:03]

Investigators believe Bustillo is asking for a payment half of the money that he's owed for helping to plan the murder and to hire the hitman. They say one of Bustos bank accounts shows a deposit of about four thousand dollars shortly before this call.

[00:07:25]

Roxana Ophuls is one of the members of the investigating team put together by Berta's family. She says the timing of these messages is important. It's November 2015. This is the same month when Bhatta and Karpin resumed their protests at the Google Khajeh River against Dassa. This is after more than a year of relative calm at the site. And when Debbie Costa realizes that Kolbeinn is going to continue to oppose the dam project, we think also in November of 2015 is when the murder plot begins to take shape to kill her.

[00:08:04]

So how does David explain these messages where Bustillo asks him for the 50 percent? Well, it starts with a typo.

[00:08:15]

Bustillo wrote the word complete there again, as written in Spanish. It's a command.

[00:08:22]

But if you put an accent, Mark, on the last letter of the word, the meaning changes with an accent. Mark, the word would not be a command. It would be a statement complete.

[00:08:34]

They would mean I completed. Bustillo did not put an accent Mark on that word, but David says he meant to. It's just that when you're typing texts, you're not so careful with punctuation. So David says he understood the text from Bustillo to mean I completed 50 percent. In other words, Bustillo was saying he'd finished half of a job he was supposed to do.

[00:09:10]

Remember, David had already fired Bustillo, but he says he realized Bustillo could still be of service.

[00:09:20]

David says no one knew the Karpin protesters in Rio Blanco better than Bustillo, his former head of security. He'd lived among those protesters for years. David says Boucher's job that November was to convince two local residents, men who had previously always been aligned with coping against Dassa, to come to the other side to work with the company. So we had asked Bustillo that he knew them to recruit them, that 50 percent refers to that. He had recruited one of them.

[00:09:57]

We had completed what we had requested from him 50 percent. David says the second potential recruit never panned out, so that is the context surrounding the message that Wistia says, I have completed the work of 50 percent. It has nothing to do with funding.

[00:10:21]

So David dismisses this entire exchange as meaningless. It was all about a recruiting drive, a misinterpretation that started with a missing accent Mark.

[00:10:43]

This brings us to another important text string again, this one is between David and Douglas Bustillo. It takes place a couple months later in February 2016, about a month before Berta's actual murder in early March.

[00:11:01]

So what we think happened in early February was there is an effort to kill Baabda.

[00:11:07]

Roxana says this was the failed effort to kill her and attempt that was abandoned when the Would-Be killers saw that Berta's daughters were with her at the house. Immediately after that, Bustillo sent another message to David.

[00:11:23]

He says Mission abort, their mission aborted, were filed today. Louise Stevens for a lack of resources.

[00:11:31]

David says that this mission had nothing to do with Berita. He says that Bustillo still doing work for him now and then at this point and not just around Rio Blanco. In fact, David says that by February he was considering hiring Bustillo as a security manager for a solar project he was developing in another region completely separate from the Iwazaki site. He says there was a substation connected to that solar project that had been taken over by gangs. The site was effectively held for ransom.

[00:12:09]

David says he wanted Bustillo to visit that solar site to do some reconnaissance and to figure out how many security guards would be needed to secure the place. But Bustillo had to abandon that visit.

[00:12:24]

He couldn't travel to the project on that specific date.

[00:12:28]

He was going to travel at a later date mission aborted again. David says investigators simply misinterpreted the meaning of the texts. He and Bustillo weren't focused on murdering Bhatta. He says they were preoccupied with a solar project. David says this explains a message that he sent to Bustillo, he wrote, quote, Remember the accidents and the scene? 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.

[00:13:08]

But David says this was a reference to the incident that led him to fire Bustillo from death a month before the drunk driving incident. David says Bustillo had made a scene in the town square where he wrecked his vehicle. David says he was reminding Bustillo of that unfortunate event before he made his trip to visit the solar plant in the town of Chaloupka.

[00:13:35]

That's why we were not going to provide or allow it to drive any vehicles from some from there somewhere. He was going to go to Toyota. So David says that exchange, which prosecutors say supports their theory of the aborted murder attempt, was also completely unrelated to Berita. But there's a complicating factor here, investigators know that around the same time Bustillo was in contact with David Bustillo was also in contact with Mariano Diaz. He's the military officer whose phone, coincidentally, was tapped as part of a drug and kidnapping investigation.

[00:14:19]

Prosecutors say Diaz was also helping coordinate the murder. Additionally, both Diaz and Bustillo were in direct contact with a guy named Henry Hernandez. Hernandez was arrested as one of the hit men who'd broken into Berta's house the night of the murder. Police had used cell phone data to place him there at her subdivision on that night. And later, Hernandez admitted to being there. He didn't say he killed Buratha. He claimed he was essentially dragged there against his will by the other hitmen whom he implicated.

[00:15:00]

So why when Bustillo is supposed to be working with David on a solar project, is he talking to Mariano Diaz and Henry Hernandez at the same time? And why a week before all of that was Bustillo himself in Berta's subdivision, taking pictures of her house and according to phone data, he'd return there again about a week before the actual murder. David says he doesn't know why Bustillo was doing any of that when he was supposed to be concentrating on a solar project, he doesn't know why Bustillo had been in contact through the time of the actual murder with Marianne Odiase or Henry Hernandez.

[00:15:46]

David says he only knows it had nothing to do with him or his company. No one wanted this has absolutely nothing to do with it, that's absolutely nothing to do with the work we have requested WTO to do, the conversations that we we're having. If there were a parallel, if he was addressing any issues with either Montejano or others were totally unrelated to us. And we had. Father Ryan has traveled the Midwest accused of swindling millions, he's stolen people's money and their faith in a con that's lasted decades.

[00:16:45]

A new podcast called Smokescreen Fake Priest, hosted by me Alex Schulman, explores why he's never been brought to justice. Subscribe to find out what this white collar criminal has to say for himself to listen to this nineham show. Just search for Smokescreen. Fake priest in Apple podcast or wherever you listen. Many of David's critics say his explanation of the text to Bustillo reveal a pattern, they say David wrote to him in a coded language designed to obscure meaning.

[00:17:19]

And they also argue that his friendly text to bear to herself were part of a similar strategy, that at the same time that he was plotting her murder, he was protecting himself and planting the seeds for his future defense. Billy Kate used to work for Global Witness, a London based human rights organization, in November 2015. He was in Honduras preparing a report about violence against activists. He met with Berita then. This was around the same time that David and Bustillo were exchanging the 50 percent texts.

[00:18:00]

Also at this time, David was offering to pay for Berta's mother's medical care.

[00:18:06]

Billy kept notes about his conversation with Bhatta. He says David Castillo was a topic of discussion. She said to me that he would often call her always with a fake kind of, you know, friendly tone, wanted to be her friend, the texts that David's team has produced show that David and Berita were exchanging messages in the days before Billy met with her. David says he sent assistance to the medical offices where her mother was being treated to pay some of those costs.

[00:18:43]

Millie says Bhatta suspected David was trying to bribe her.

[00:18:49]

She told me that two days previously when I when I met her, so Monday the I think it was the 2nd of November, he had called her again with a familiar tone and then he offered her a bribe to to stop her, her activism. So the exact words and these are from my notes from that day where you got an acquittal. So let's come to an agreement is what she she told me that he had said to her on that phone call on the 2nd of November.

[00:19:17]

And obviously, she told me she she refused.

[00:19:20]

She wasn't by any means a friend of David Cassidy. He or she she knew the games that he was he was playing. She knew that he was the one who was pulling the strings with David in jail death.

[00:19:33]

His defense team hired Amsterdam and Partners, a law firm based in London and Washington, D.C. One of its specialties is crisis management. Previous clients have included prime ministers, the Internet entrepreneur, Kim Dotcom and even the Turkish government. The firm published a report defending Dessa and attacking coping. It was titled The War on Development Exposing the Karpin Disinformation campaign surrounding the Batak Casares case in Honduras. Robert Amsterdam, the head of the firm, posted a video on his Twitter feed about eight months after David was arrested.

[00:20:17]

He argued that it would make no sense for Dessa to be involved with Berta's murder. He said everyone at the company had known that violence was the one thing they could have sunk their hydroelectric project because they'd learned that lesson in 2013 when the protester was shot by the security guard at the worksite. There was absolutely no business motive for murdering Casares because when one protester was killed by a member of the Army a year before, that had stopped the project. So it would be very clear to ADESA that any involvement with respect to Bertoia would have ended the project, number one.

[00:20:58]

Number two, on the day of her death, a journalist has stated that he spoke to Berta and she was worried about a threat she received from a mining company. Amsterdam is referring to texts Bhatta exchanged with a Swiss journalist, this happened on March 2nd, 2016, about five and a half hours before she was killed. The journalist was working on a project about mining. He asked her if he might visit the areas where she worked to take pictures of mining impacts.

[00:21:34]

Bater responded here. We have not allowed mining companies entry. Then she followed that with there are serious threats, very serious. We know the topic we can talk. David's defense team believes this text exchange illustrates an important point. Bhatta had made lots of enemies throughout lots of industries. Berta's backers do not believe Berita was referring to a specific threat on her life from a specific company.

[00:22:08]

When Bhatta spoke of the Iwazaki Dam, she often warned that it might be a gateway for mining. She put it this way If the dam were built, its electricity wouldn't benefit the locals. It was more likely to benefit mining companies who would use the power to move into the region.

[00:22:28]

David's team argues the tax raised the possibility of other suspects, suspects that never were seriously considered, they say, because investigators were determined to blame Dassa.

[00:22:41]

David's lawyers claimed the messages had been purposefully hidden by prosecutors who didn't flag them as being significant. David's defense team, however, labeled Berta's text to that journalist as being of, quote, transcendental importance. David's team, in fact, has tried to prove that all of the prosecution's phone data, the text messages, WhatsApp chats, should carry no weight in court. They say the state's lead forensic technician, the person who extracted the data from the phones, was biased, that she didn't follow proper technical protocols.

[00:23:24]

This has become a cornerstone of David's defense.

[00:23:29]

When we saw her report, we noticed inconsistencies that we knew that were not true, and you will be surprised that we have found out more evidence that she has manipulated more phone calls and more phone data.

[00:23:49]

David's lawyers contended in court last year the message strings from different chat groups got mixed together. And so they say the court was given transcripts where unrelated messages appear as if they flow together. And when transcribing a few of the chat strings, the lawyers say the prosecution omitted messages that were part of those conversations, they gave a couple of examples in a court filing. The most significant involved the WhatsApp conversation from October 2015, about five months before Berta's murder, Sergio Rodriguez, Des's environmental and social manager, wrote to David and other GSA employees in the message, Sergio refers to Berita and to Tomas Gomez, one of her colleagues with Karpin.

[00:24:44]

Sergio wrote, Obviously, as long as Tomas and Bhatta don't arrive, the movement weakens and there is little mobilisations power. We thus must also direct actions against them. Prosecutors highlighted this message because it comes right at the time Karpin was ramping up protests against Dassa. David's lawyers say the employees exchanged additional messages 11 days later in the same chat, those messages referred to a lawyer. The defense says that proves the actions Sergio was suggesting were legal actions, not violence.

[00:25:33]

David's defense team also argues that the government's technical expert changed the dates of messages to frame him.

[00:25:41]

The example of this David gave me was that string of messages between him and Douglas Bustillo, the one from November 2015, around the time that prosecutors say DSR began plotting Berta's murder. This is that 50 percent text Bustillo sent to David, the one prosecutors say referred to a payment. They say Bustillo was asking David to pay him half of what was owed for arranging the preliminary murder plaids. David told me that investigators presented those messages as unfolding not in November 2015, but in February 2016.

[00:26:25]

She lied, did not happen, and in February, this really confused me. I'd seen those texts referred to several times and every time I'd seen them, they clearly were labeled as having taken place in November, not in February.

[00:26:44]

In fact, the November date seemed central to the narrative that guy pay and the state had reconstructed. They argued that David and the others had begun planning the murder in November 2015.

[00:26:59]

That's when Karpin resumed its protests, and it's when David and Bustillo had exchanged that 50 percent string of messages.

[00:27:08]

And February was the time of the failed murder attempt when the mission aborted texts came. I told David that I examined that 50 percent string and I couldn't find anything that suggested that prosecutors had changed the date from November to February. But when I looked at it, it says that it was from November. Well, in one report, they changed the date. And it was presented as if it was in February. So I looked again and I found an example of what he was talking about when he was indicted.

[00:27:51]

Prosecutors presented a summary description of the facts to the court. It says the original planning was in November, but that in, quote, the months of January and February of 2016, Bustillo asked David to make a 50 percent advance on payment agreed to. That was wrong later the correct date was attached to those texts, but not here. This might seem like a minor point, but David and his defense team argue that these sorts of discrepancies add up.

[00:28:28]

The foundation of the prosecution's case is the presentation and interpretation of text messages. David's lawyers argue that if the prosecution can't be trusted to correctly handle and interpret that evidence, how can any part of the case against him stand? And all of this underscores a strange aspect of this case, both the victim's family and the defense have argued that the Honduran justice system can't be trusted. The justice is in shaky hands. Both have said the state at various points in the process has made a mess of the case.

[00:29:10]

The Honduran public prosecutor's office denies the family's claims that police mishandled the investigation and that court proceedings have been corrupted. But the court case against David practically ground to a halt for more than a year. One reason is David's defense team has filed appeals arguing the text messages were manipulated. Those proceedings repeatedly delayed the preliminary hearing that determines if his case will go to trial. With each delay, the demands for justice from Bertus supporters grew louder. Under Honduran law, a person cannot be held for more than two and a half years without going to trial.

[00:29:53]

For David, that deadline expires on September 2nd of this year. Bertus family says the defense's appeals have all been part of a strategy to delay the process, run out the clock and allow David to be released from custody. David denies this, he says he hopes for a fair trial, but doesn't accept the idea that government investigators have acted in good faith. He says they've had two and a half years to put together a case against him and holding him indefinitely violates his rights.

[00:30:34]

Weak institutions sometimes deliver weak results. A first test of the Honduran justice system in the Texas case came with the trials of several men who were arrested nearly two years before David. They included four accused hitmen and a couple of people with ties to Dessa. One was Sergio Rodriguez, the Hours, aka project's environmental and social manager. Another was Douglas Bustillo, the former security chief accused of plotting the crime with David and the others. Sergio had denied all involvement, starting with the allegations that he threatened Berta.

[00:31:35]

Multiple witnesses from Karpin had said Sérgio had threatened Bhatta during a specific protest in 2015 and at another one in early 2016, Sergio insisted his interaction with Bhatta at one of the protests was friendly and that he hadn't even been at the other one. In fact, Sergios lawyers presented cell phone and credit card records showing he'd been in Tegucigalpa hours away from the dam site at the time of that particular demonstration. His defense showed that there were no financial transactions that could be traced between him or Dessa and the other accused co-conspirators, and Sergios telephone experts argued that the evidence clearly showed that he'd not been in contact with Mariano Odiase, the military officer charged with plotting logistics or with anyone accused of being at the scene of the crime.

[00:32:33]

Sergio says he believes the expert witnesses testifying on his behalf made a convincing case. General conclusion, they can make interventions, they came to the conclusion that in all of the telephone communications or in the text messages that I wrote, there is no evidence at all that links me to the death of Berta Caceres, Neut and Ingoing.

[00:32:58]

This you can call on a murder investigation, but the court concluded that there was enough evidence to show he'd been involved in the planning. Sergo, along with Douglas Bustillo, Mariano Diaz and four others accused of being part of the squad of hitmen were all found guilty. Some have vowed to fight with appeals, but in December 2019, a full year after that verdict, they were sentenced.

[00:33:46]

The gunman got 50 years each. Bustillo, Diaz and Sergio were each sentenced to 30 years in prison. It wouldn't have surprised a lot of people if no one had ever been brought to justice for Bertocchi Kassovitz murder.

[00:34:08]

James Neilan, who'd been the U.S. ambassador to Honduras at the time of the murder, says successful murder convictions in Honduras are exceedingly rare and harsh sentences are almost unheard of.

[00:34:22]

He believes that international pressure, as well as some practical assistance during the investigation, turn this particular case into an almost unprecedented success story. I see it as a great achievement because if if you know as much about Honduras as I do, you know that it could have gone in a very different way. I'm proud of the work that a lot of people did on that case. Obviously, Hondurans were at the at the center of it, but there were people from the United States embassy who who did fabulous and unsung work on that case.

[00:34:59]

And I think I can say with a straight face that you wouldn't see the result that you've seen if it hadn't been for their work.

[00:35:08]

The Casares family applauded the verdicts, but they certainly didn't celebrate. They reminded people that those who'd been sentenced were relatively low level players in a much larger scheme. They feared complacency that people would think these convictions amounted to justice being done, but the family believed Sergio and the others were simply being sacrificed to protect the real criminals. In this case, the executives like David Castillo and the investors behind his company. Just a few weeks after Sergio and the six others were sentenced in the murder of a Honduran government agency announced that it was seeking one billion dollars for the construction of 54 new hydroelectric projects throughout the country.

[00:36:03]

Bartosz daughter Martita Izabel says that announcement felt like a slap in the face. It does not produce no body, no one was I looked at looking as though Tristam were Buscaino among ourselves, we said, no, we are not going to achieve what we are searching for.

[00:36:22]

We said they're insulting us with this announcement. They're insulting the memory of my mummy.

[00:36:28]

They were saying, OK, you can have these seven guys and leave them in jail for 30 years, 50 years.

[00:36:36]

But we have loads more projects on the way to profit from. This has nothing to do with energy or the right to energy. It's about economic profits, period. They literally with announce economical point. David's case, meanwhile, seemed to be going nowhere, but this summer, in August 20 20, the Honduran court made a surprise announcement. It removed the judge that had overseen the case, replacing her with a new one. Berta's supporters were shocked. They described it as a last minute surprise in just two weeks, the time limit on keeping David in custody would expire if no trial is set, according to the law.

[00:37:27]

David might be released. Karpin issued a statement. This subjects the process to forms of manipulation and procedural trickery. And it wasn't just Karpin expressing alarm, the Twitter account of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee quoted New York Congressman Eliot Engel. I urge Honduran authorities to act swiftly to bring Castillo to trial and provide justice for the Casares family later the same week, the preliminary hearing in David's case was finally held.

[00:38:04]

David's lawyers argued that telephone text messages were manipulated and couldn't be trusted. Prosecutors said the evidence against him was clear and definitive.

[00:38:17]

Next week, the court must make a decision. Will David Castillo finally stand trial?

[00:38:25]

That's next time on the season finale of Blood River. 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 Bloomberg podcasts. Be sure to subscribe if you haven't already. And if you like what you hear, please leave us a review that helps others find out about the show. Thanks for listening.