The recent arrest of one of the alleged intellectual authors of the murder of renowned environmental activist Berta Cáceres in Honduras is a sign of progress in the high-profile case, but only one piece of a larger network that was allegedly involved in her murder.
Members of the Technical Criminal Investigation Agency (Agencia Técnica de Investigación Criminal – ATIC) of Honduras’ Attorney General’s Office arrested Roberto David Castillo Mejía on March 2 at the San Pedro Sula international airport as he was trying to leave the country, according to a government press release.
At the time that Cáceres was killed in March 2016, Castillo Mejía was the executive director of Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), the company managing the construction of the Agua Zarca dam that Cáceres was campaigning against. Her lobbying on the matter is believed to be the factor that ultimately led to her murder. Castillo Mejía, a former military intelligence officer, is the ninth person to be arrested in connection to the crime, but only the first alleged intellectual author to be apprehended.
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According to authorities in Honduras, Castillo Mejía provided “logistics and other resources” to one of the material authors currently under arrest.
DESA released a statement shortly after Castillo Mejía’s arrest denying that the company or its former executive director had anything to do with Cáceres’ death. The company criticized the arrest as being the result of “international pressure and smear campaigns” from various non-profit organizations, and demanded Castillo Mejía’s immediate release.
Castillo Mejía will be held in pretrial detention and an initial hearing has been scheduled for March 9.
InSight Crime Analysis
The detention of one of the alleged intellectual authors of Cáceres’ murder is seen by many as a step in the right direction. But Castillo Mejía’s arrest represents just one part of a much larger network of individuals involved in the crime who are still at large.
“Castillo Mejía’s arrest is the welcome result of relentless pressure by Cáceres’ family, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), and observers worldwide, but two additional elite figures remain at large despite persuasive evidence of their involvement,” Dana Frank, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told InSight Crime.
An October 2017 report by an independent panel of experts found that the existing evidence is “conclusive regarding the participation of numerous state agents, high-ranking executives and employees of DESA in the planning, execution and cover-up of the assassination,” suggesting that authorities have failed to arrest all of the intellectual authors of the crime even with sufficient evidence.
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Frank told InSight Crime that the “Attorney General’s Office has been sitting on the evidence implicating all three” since at least May 2016.
Prior to Cáceres’ death, Castillo Mejía allegedly “hounded her” with texts and phone calls, and would appear at her house unwarranted. According to a statement from COPINH, which Cáceres founded, “No thanks is due to the Attorney General’s Office, who have tried everything possible to cover up the truth in this case.”
The timing of the arrest has also raised a number of questions.
Just days before Castillo Mejía was detained, authorities arrested former first lady Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo on money laundering and other charges.
Both arrests come amid questions regarding Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández’s willingness to tackle corruption in the country after a much-criticized recent legislative reform — dubbed an “impunity pact” — that effectively prevented the Attorney General’s Office from investigating corruption-related cases for a period of three years.
While the arrests of Castillo Mejía and Bonilla de Lobo, among other developments, may show some progress regarding the Hernández administration’s commitment to fighting corruption, Frank warns that there should be “no illusions that the larger, dire situation of corruption and impunity in Honduras has improved.”
“The arrests of Castillo Mejía and Rosa Bonilla de Lobo do not touch the deeper corruption and criminality” taking place in Honduras, she said.