Editor's Note: This transcript was automatically transcribed, so mistakes are inevitable. You can contribute by proofreading the transcript or highlighting the mistakes. Sign up to be amongst the first contributors.
It's now been four and a half years since the night of March 2nd, 2016, when Bhatta Casares was shot dead in the bedroom of her house, four and a half years of frustrations, secrets and revelation. First there was the survivor, the witness that the assassins failed to kill in Berta's guest bedroom. Then there were the false leads, allegations of a cover up and surprise raids. After all of that, investigators pieced together a murder plot that pointed the finger at the hydro electric company that Berita had opposed.
This led to seven murder convictions, but a critical piece of this story remains unresolved. David Castillo, the CEO of Dessa, was arrested in twenty eighteen for plotting Berta's death. And since then, his case has been in limbo. All the while, a clock has been ticking under Honduran law, a person can be held in custody without going to trial for only two and a half years.
And David's time in prison expires on September 2nd, 2020. It's now late August, with just two weeks to go before that day arrives and Berta's family is growing very worried. They say David's legal team is trying to run out that clock back to his older brother. Gustavo tells a Honduran television show that if David goes free, the family's hopes of finding some measure of justice will slip away to the U.S.A. because we're asking the court, let's go immediately with a public trial.
They can try and show his innocence and show that he didn't participate and show that he didn't threaten Berta Caceres. That's fine. Again, they can make whatever case they want, but we are prepared to show that David Castillo is guilty after all the evidence that's been submitted to the public ministry and submit it to the court that same day.
The Honduran Supreme Court makes a startling announcement. After more than a year of appeals and postponements, it decides to remove the judge who'd overseen the case from the beginning.
Berta's family is shocked. They see this change as a last minute delay tactic, something to make sure no trial could be set before time runs out.
They fear the Supreme Court itself is sabotaging the case.
The court doesn't give a reason for the change, and both sides seem a little baffled by it. The dismissed judge that allowed the case to drag on with little action. Some of David's supporters worry the court has bowed to pressure to schedule a trial no matter what.
Batista family fears that it's a delay tactic, something to make sure no trial can be set before time runs out.
They worry that the justice system has been fixed and they plead for action.
But as you know, today, the court has to demonstrate that no longer will people be set free because of their connections or because of the influence of powerful people in this country.
Even the hint that the place. This idea that powerful, well-connected people might be intervening on David's behalf has become a theme throughout this case.
As David has waited for a trial to be set, researchers with several nonprofit organizations, as well as an international anti-corruption panel, have dug into his company, Dessa. They say they've unearthed a history of corruption, the kind made possible by connections deep into Honduran government agencies and lawyers representing Berta's family argue that it was this system of corruption that had her killed. This is another reason they want David's murder case to go to trial. They hope to present some of this evidence in court.
Victor Fernandez is a lawyer representing Berta's family. This is from an August radio interview.
You can see there's a criminal structure that's linked to the highest levels of executive power.
And my husband will tell you, he says putting David on trial would be an unprecedented blow against a culture of impunity that has reigned in Honduras for years.
Impunity that, he says, originates with an elite group of politically and economically powerful people.
He says they want to protect David because that's how they can protect themselves. It's a group boy economical, though, this group of economic powers was able to be a part of this whole criminal dynamic, and it started with the creation of the Ogasawara project and extended all the way through Bertus assassination and the other crimes committed along the way. So the tentacles go up to this level.
And again, I assume you in Tabata supporters, simply setting a trial date has become a critical test of a country and of its entire system of justice. Honduras has never tackled a murder case like this one. Most homicide investigations are never closed and few result in arrests. Maybe the gunman might go to jail, but those who might have given the orders almost never do.
Back to his family and their lawyers want to face David in court because they're they hope to expose and dismantle a way of doing business that they describe as murderous.
My name is Montrail for Bloomberg Gerney and this is bloodroot. Father Ryan has traveled the Midwest accused of swindling millions, he stolen people's money and their faith in a con that's lasted decades. A new podcast called Smokescreen Fake Priest hosted by me Alex Schoeman, 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.
In 2016, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez faced calls for his resignation, more than 350 five million dollars had been embezzled from the country's Social Security program, and some of that money had ended up in the president's campaign chest. Under pressure, President Fernandez agreed to let an international anti-corruption panel come to Honduras, it would be overseen by the Organization of American States. It's sort of like the United Nations for the Western Hemisphere. That anti-corruption panel backed numerous investigations that uncovered evidence of rampant government led graft and lawlessness.
One investigation charged a former first lady of Honduras with embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars. She was convicted and sentenced to 58 years in prison, but now she's no longer in custody for the same reason that Berta's family fears David could be released this summer.
Her conviction was annulled because of procedural problems. Her new trial date hasn't yet been set, but she's already been in custody longer than Honduran authorities can hold her. So she's free for now.
But that's not the most important connection between David in that anti-corruption panel last year in Tegucigalpa, the panel's members gathered to announce some news released this thing.
I will say, as we witness the majority of the members of the panel revealed that its most recent investigation was called fraud on the Google Caraquet.
It centered on Dassa and the Ottawa Xhaka Dam.
Ana Maria Calderon, a former prosecutor from Peru, said the group had looked into the business dealings behind the hydroelectric project and had uncovered a wide range of crimes.
They accused David Castillo and 15 others, including government officials, of launching a project that was rotten from the very start. The alleged crimes included fraud, abuse of authority and falsification of documents.
You will get Issa with Criolla in vain. Daimyo then lost me Moirai Romanoff's about the Bonzie, Calderon said.
Dessa was founded in 2009 by two brothers who seemingly weren't involved in the company's daily operations.
At that time, David Castillo was working for the Honduran government run electrical utility. He wouldn't join Dessa until 2011, but the investigators said David was pulling the strings adesa from day one. They said the two brothers behind Dessa were actually low level employees who worked for David at a computer company he founded a couple of years earlier. They said one brother had worked as a driver there. So the investigators allege that David was the de facto head of Dessa while he was working for the state electrical utility, and this, they said, was the same time when the state utility signed its agreement with DCA to purchase electricity from the proposed Iowas Zarka Dam.
In other words, the investigators say David was playing both sides when the Xhaka project's approvals and contracts were drawn up. They say he effectively rigged the process, making sure Dessa could sell electricity to the government at inflated prices. In addition to David, several senior officials with the Honduran Environmental Agency face charges when announcing the case last year, the anti-corruption panel suggested a comprehensive review of the electrical utilities contracts. Calderon further warned that all government agreements tied to renewable energy sources might have been compromised.
But in early 2020, President Fernandez effectively shut down the anti-corruption group. The president's critics suspect that was because anti-corruption investigations have not been kind to the president in recent months. Last October, Tony Hernandez, the president's brother, was put on trial in a New York for us.
Prosecutors accuse Hernandez of helping smuggle almost 220 tons of cocaine into the United States while enjoying the protection of his brother, President Juan Orlando Hernandez.
Tony Hernandez was found guilty and the president was named as an indicted coconspirator. He's denied involvement. Prosecutors alleged the drug profits were funneled into the president's campaign, that the president helped secure drug routes and the cooperation of the Honduran police and its military. The court essentially ruled that Honduras is a narco state. But even though the anti-corruption panel was dissolved this year, its case against David and the others didn't die. It was passed on to another group of prosecutors inside Honduras.
David is fighting the charges. He says they're baseless, another attempt to smear him and his company. Several of the former public officials named in the case filed appeals for dismissal this month. Those requests were denied, but it remains uncertain whether any of the information from that corruption probe will actually surface in the separate murder case against David. The only way that would happen is if prosecutors charged David with something called elicit association. This is a legal term used to describe a group of people who have come together for one underlying reason to commit crimes.
Annie Bird is a Washington, D.C based human rights activist who's been investigating the Xhaka project since 2013. She says that in this case, the criminal group would be the Dessa executives. And she says the crimes would include all of the violations the anti-corruption panel highlighted as the company pursued the damn. Essentially, they're breaking so many laws in the process of trying to get it implemented that it's a criminal enterprise.
She and others have been trying to convince Honduran prosecutors to include illicit association charges in David's murder case. Those efforts haven't worked, and she believes that's because the state is afraid to go after those at the very top of decis, corporate pyramid, its investors. From the beginning, what we've seen is the tendency to protect the highers up from prosecution. While David Castillo has awaited trial, Berta's family and Karpin have very publicly been going after decis, investors in court and out of it, the Iwazaki project cost about sixty four million dollars and its funding came from two principal sources.
First was international development banks. The second was a family of private investors inside Honduras. Roughly 40 million dollars for the project came from three different development banks. They included one from Honduras, one from Finland and one from the Netherlands named EFM. Bhatta had publicly criticized all of those banks, and she fought to get them to withdraw funds from the project. She believed that Dassa violated the human rights of the community members near the river, and she thought the banks were complicit by giving money to the company.
Bhatta and others in Karpin reached out to Hanna, some Khaldoun, a Dutch human rights lawyer.
They wanted to force the family to stop their involvement in the project. Bhatta wasn't able to follow through, but after she was murdered, her colleagues in Karpin called Sam called in again and in twenty eighteen they filed suit against RFMO. That case alleges that the bank had ignored the reports of human rights violations that Bhatta herself had filed.
The idea of the lawsuit has been to establish that FAMO shouldn't have gotten involved in the project in the first place. And when they made the decision to support the project and they did get involved, after all, they should have properly monitored and tried to use their influence to prevent further human rights violations locally.
In other words, they're arguing that RFMO was negligent. She says if the bank had seriously investigated the complaints of human rights violations by Dassa, then they certainly wouldn't have backed the project. She says the bank's negligence was a contributing factor to Berta's death. It's been a particular issue, indeed, that had taken adequate actions timely, then her death probably would not have occurred. RFMO denies wrongdoing. A spokesperson for the bank declined to comment on the suit, but directed me to nearly two dozen documents the bank has released related to the case.
These include summaries of the fact finding trips where the bank sent delegations to Rio Blanco. These were thorough reviews, the bank says, and they didn't reveal a history of abuses. The Dutch bank, along with those from Finland and Honduras, pulled out of the Xhaka project after Berta's murder. David Castillo says RFMO and the other banks forgave Dassa and its shareholders all of their debt to them loans from the show to the shareholders and to the Osaka market.
They don't have to be paid back because the financial institutions behind this, they know that there was no wrongdoing from their shareholders.
Maybe the banks had forgiven the shareholders. Libertas family and their lawyers have not.
We met David Castillo around maybe 2010, and he was looking for investors in his project. This is Danielle Attala, he and his family owned a number of businesses throughout Honduras and provide financial backing for even more. As as an investor group, we saw the potential in an individual like David Castillo, we really liked his his curriculum, his his profile. We thought that was going to be a good investment.
At that moment, Danielle would become Des's chief financial officer. His father, José Eduardo Attala Zabala, is a board member and also a shareholder, as are two of Danielle's uncles in Honduras. Some people like to say that a small number of wealthy families really control the country. It's impossible to prove, but a lot of people believe it. Many of Barrett's supporters think that the Ital Isabella's are one of those families. I met them in the offices of a John Deere dealership they own in Tegucigalpa.
The room was full of trophies from the soccer club Mattawa, one of the country's most popular teams. Jose Eduardo is the executive president of that team. He also served as the president of the Honduran American Chamber of Commerce and he was a past board member of that same Honduras based development bank that partly financed the Iwazaki project. He had left that position years before ADESA was formed. But both he and Danielle bristle at the idea that the family enjoys any political influence, much less runs the country.
We don't have private jet, we don't have helicopters, we don't have nothing.
I have the same car during the last eight years and not the wealthiest family in the country by by far. We have, you know, a strong investment group. But it's we don't have the lobbying capacity. We don't have the funds. We don't have the funding capacity. We're it's extremely limited. And we and the investment that we have lost, as you know, made a big dent in in our in our finances.
But they say they risk losing even more their good name. These days, if you drive around La Esperanza, you don't have to look too hard to find the Attala name, it's spray painted on walls all over town, often next to words like Assassins' a Karpin Rallies. Now, there are almost always banners that say the members of the family should be in jail. One reason behind that anger has to do with the text messages that are being used against David Castillo, the Attala Zavala's participated in some of those message strings.
When the conflict with Karpin started in 2013, Danielle used racial slurs to describe the protesters and questioned the legitimacy of their indigenous identity. In another text exchange from 2013, Danielle references Bhatta and two other Karpin activists who were charged by police for inciting unrest in Rio Blanco.
He wrote, quote, It cost a lot of money and political capital to get these three arrest warrants. Danielle says he was talking about spending money on lawyers to pursue legal action against cocaine. We don't really have any political capital to spend. We just know it was it was it was like a off base comment and it didn't really mean a lot. What I really wanted to emphasize was that we were spending a lot of money on it and we were not sure it was going to work and it really wasn't in the budget.
And I had to do a lot of convincing with within the board to to to acquire the funds for for that for that, you know, legal legal expenditure. There are other messages in October 2015, there was one from Danielle's uncle that seemed to be referencing protesters from Karpin, he wrote, Let's send a message that nothing will be easy for those sobs. And then there was another sense after Berta's murder where Danielle wrote that the Honduran security minister had reported that the murder was being pursued as a LEO, they followed us or a skirt problem, that is, that it was a crime related to a love affair.
Kopans lawyers say this is evidence that the Italian Zabala family was in close contact with senior Honduran authorities, Danielle and Jose Eduardo say this isn't true. So we know well, that was public, I mean, that that's not that wasn't, you know, privileged information, but it was one that was that was public. And that's what everybody was saying.
That was like the initial theory in the news and everything. These and other messages have put a target on the backs of the Italian tabloids that was back, his oldest daughter, Olivia, leading a chant at a press conference in 2019.
She was calling out the Italian Zabala family by name, labeling them assassins. She said they were the hidden force behind her mother's death.
The Ayatollah Zavala's say these claims are baseless and dangerous, they generally have the same view of the situation that David has, that Dessa had nothing to do with the murder, that the always aka project was accepted by the community and that the texts have been misinterpreted and mishandled. They emphasize that the courts in other proceedings related to Berta's murder have explicitly stated that they've seen no evidence suggesting Dassa death is employees or its shareholders financed Birch's murder. The family members suggest they've been the victims of a smear campaign.
And they say the international activist groups aligned with Bhatta have made things worse.
This is amazing how they can coordinate all the information, all their own information, just to make it feel like we are the the empire and they are the rebels in the Star Wars saga.
But Jose Eduardo says if anyone represents Darth Vader's empire in Star Wars, it's those leading the international campaign against the family.
That is the story that sells. You know, that's the story that people want to hear. They want to hear about how the, you know, poor indigenous communities, you know, stood up to the bad businessmen.
They read about, for example, the Bhatta Casares Human Rights and Honduras Act. It's a pending bill in the U.S. Congress that references Berta's murder and would withhold military and security aid to Honduras until, quote, perpetrators are brought to justice. And they see images of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi meeting with the Casares family in Washington and during a trip to Honduras. The Italian police say when it comes to political capital and influence, they're the underdogs. This is a message that Dessa has consistently tried to express, that the international activists, not the business interests behind the dam, hold the power.
They say international activists and NGOs have more money than they do. And they argue that those interest groups have used Berta's murder to enrich themselves, to exploit a tragedy, to raise funds. The activists working for those NGOs shake their heads in disbelief when they hear this. Annie Bird has been one of the most persistent of death as opponents from that community. I spoke to her in the office of her human rights nonprofit in Washington, D.C.. It's in a cramped room on the second floor of an old house.
The stairs are creaky, the furniture is worn, and there's a malfunctioning burglar alarm that likes to go off at random intervals. If she's well funded, it doesn't really show. That's the discourse in Honduras that they referred to Burton Gopin as extortionists. It's almost as if they're unable to believe that people could operate for any other motivation than financial. And, you know, obviously, it's it's a ridiculous assertion. All of us who have been involved in this work, including Buratha, have chosen paths that compensate us in other ways.
The quest by the Cassus family's lawyers to go after the money has gone beyond the private investigators and the banks, they're also trying to uncover information about David Castillos personal finance. Last year, those lawyers filed papers to subpoena bank records of David and his wife, Tanya. The matter is with a court in Mississippi because that's where the bank that holds the mortgage is based. The lawyers wanted to find out how the couple paid for their one point six million dollar house in Houston.
They bought it months after Barrass murder. Court records say Berta's family wants to present that financial information to the court in Honduras to, quote, help secure Castillos conviction. David describes those efforts as a fishing expedition. Just one more way coping is harassing him and his family. Tanya, David's wife filed an affidavit last year related to that Mississippi case. She says the money came from companies that David owned. And she stated, David is a loving husband and a good father.
You worked hard to be a good provider and take care of our family.
David this year told me he believes that all of these accusations against him will come to nothing, that he'll be able to walk free and pick up the pieces of the life he was forced to abandon two and a half years ago when he was arrested. I have faith that they will come in, which I will be able to rejoin with my family, and I will be able to hug my wife of my three beautiful daughters and my mother and and I will be able to join them.
But after the first episodes of this podcast aired, Tanya independently reached out to me and she painted a picture that was very different from what David told me. In November twenty nineteen, Tanya filed for divorce. Her petition cites discord or conflict of personality. David has resisted her filing, encountered in court, denying Tanya's accusations of discord and demanding proof. He says he and his wife are still working on reconciliation. Tanya says that's not true. She says she's cut all ties to David.
She and I never spoke directly, but she sent me a recorded statement. She says she was glad to hear we were making this show and investigating Berta's murder case. She deserves justice. Cases of violence against women in Honduras occur far too often. And I, as a Honduran woman, pray that justice is served for all those involved in this case. As for my relationship with David Castillo, I filed for divorce over eight months ago on November 15th of 2019, and I've had no involvement with his defense since before that filing.
It is important to me that people know this divorce is not a legal strategy of any kind. I left. We are not in a relationship anymore and we'll never be again.
It's now Wednesday, August 26, exactly a week before David could be released, if no trial is set for procedural reasons, the newly appointed judge must make a decision today on whether or not the case will go forward. It's a tense day on social media, both sides worry that the system is working against them, but the court is silent. Then minutes before five o'clock in the afternoon, the word comes down, David's case will go to trial. Berita supporters cheer her daughter, Berita Isabelle writes on Twitter, We did it.
Berta's mother, Ostro, is with Berta's brother Gustavo at home in La Esperanza. They break into tears when they hear the news. I reach them the following morning on a Zoome call, a seasonal we take on Khonsari political. Berta's mother describes the past four and a half years as a tireless fight, one that takes aim against the economic powers that be in Honduras, powers that she says can no longer resist the will of the people. David Side has condemned the court's actions, they vow to keep fighting and say that all of the 11th hour flurry of activity in the past week seemed to develop under, quote, mysterious circumstances.
David's lawyer issued a statement suggesting that U.S. politicians have pressured Honduras for a conviction against David for years. He says those foreign officials have mounted an irresponsible intervention in Honduran judicial affairs. And due process, he says, isn't under pressure just from an outside government. He says that more than 500 NGOs have been harassing the country's courts.
It's not hard to imagine why they feel besieged and outnumbered, the groups that have aligned themselves against Dessa in this murder case represent a variety of causes and they're not always unified.
That's. They include self-described opponents of the Honduran government, as well as prosecutors from inside that government itself. There are groups that campaign against what they label the imperial influence of the United States, and they've been joined by members of the U.S. government. There are church based organizations and others that rail against the influence of religious groups in Latin America in all sorts of matters. These groups might not get along, but in this case, they've been unified by one thing.
Her campaign started as a struggle alongside a small river in western Honduras against a relatively small hydroelectric dam. Now, her brother says it has become something much larger than that, Ramona was a little bit of Elura, the struggle our sister undertook cross the borders of Honduras to Europe, the United States. And for that reason, there's a lot of people in the U.S. who view all of this with concern.
It can't be the case that you can get away with killing people for defending natural resources in nature, that this gets at an idea that Batista supporters have embraced. The Berta's message did not die with her, but instead has been amplified in a small band of protesters that fought alongside her by the river has grown into an international movement. They've turned it into a rallying cry. You hear it at demonstrations outside of court buildings in Honduras and even on the radio they sing.
Bhatta didn't die. She became millions upon. Oh, yeah, your guy. Yeah, that guy's dead, and I'm told by the. If you go to the Wall Cark River near Rio Blanco today, you'll find a swift stream twisting through the mountains. You won't see any boat traffic here. Rapids boiled over, huge boulders. It's very hard to walk along the banks for any length of time. There are two feet in some places. You might find a suspension bridge dangling from one side to the other.
There are gaps in the splintery boards where water shines through underfoot. A short walk from the river through a small, grassy pasture, you'll find Des's old worksite. Once there was a dormitory complex here for the workers. Now cinder blocks crumbled in the song. Weeds pushed through wide cracks in cement foundation nature seems to be reclaiming the site. The exact date of the trial will likely be set in the coming days, the trial itself might last a couple of weeks as all of this unfolds in the courtroom.
This case will no doubt evolve and so will this podcast.
We'll follow any new terms that arise. Blood River will be back.
White River is written and reported by me Fancy tofor Forras is our senior producer, Maya Cueva is our associate producer. Our theme was composed and performed by Xenia Rubinos. Thanks to Laura Carlson, Magnus Henriksen, Carlos Rodriguez, Katie Boyce, Aaron Rutka, Jackie Kessler, Cynthia Hoffman, Randy Shapiro, Jed Sandberg and Applegate Maps, Francesca Levy is the head of Bloomberg Podcast's. This is the last episode in our season, but be sure to stay subscribed. We'll be back for more episodes as the trial proceeds.
If you like our show. Please leave us a review. It helps others find us. Thanks for listening.