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Newly Released Documents Reveal International Funding Trail Preceding the Murder of Berta Cáceres

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Two days before Berta Cáceres was killed in Honduras, a bank in the Netherlands released just over $1.7 million to a concrete company through an offshore account.

Two years earlier, the Dutch-state-owned bank FMO had signed on to finance the controversial Honduran Agua Zarca dam project. Led by a company called Desarrollos Energéticos Sociedad Anónima, or DESA, the dam was the joint effort of David Castillo and Daniel Atala Midence, the company’s respective CEO and CFO. Cáceres, a renowned environmental activist and leader in the Indigenous Lenca community, was the driving force behind the protests against it.

A trove of Dutch and U.S. legal and financial documents shared with The Intercept reveal, for the first time, the flow of international funding in the days leading up to March 2, 2016, when a hit squad broke into Cáceres’s house and killed her. The bank provided the documents to two Dutch human rights lawyers, Wout Albers and Ron Rosenhart Rodriguez, who have spent the past two years representing Cáceres’s family and COPINH, the organization she co-founded, in a civil lawsuit that seeks to hold FMO accountable for its role in the Agua Zarca project. (The suit was first filed in the Netherlands in 2018; Albers and Rosenhart came on in 2020.)

In at least four instances, according to the records, the bank released funding to a company affiliated with Castillo and Atala that did not match the stated payee, routing the money through an offshore account with Deutsche Bank in New York City.

Castillo, who was convicted of being a co-collaborator in Cáceres’s killing in 2021 and sentenced to 22 years and six months in prison on Monday, held leadership positions and financial stakes in several companies beyond DESA. These included PEMSA, a Panamanian shell company with anonymous shareholders, and CONCASA, a concrete company which provides almost no information about its activity in the Honduran corporate registry. His business partner, Atala, is a member of the powerful Atala Zablah family, who preside over a banking and private industry empire almost without parallel in Honduras. No member of the Atala Zablah family has been charged in connection with Cáceres’s killing.

It was Atala who directed the $1.7 million payment to the concrete company Concretos del Caribe S.A., or CONCASA, though another firm was listed as the intended recipient, the documents reveal. Hours after the loan landed, Castillo, in WhatsApp communications released by the Honduran public prosecutor and previously reported on by The Intercept, texted the head of the hit squad that payment was coming, because “the loan [we] requested is available.” It is not known whether Castillo was referring to the loan proceeds sent to CONCASA.

Less than 48 hours later, Berta Cáceres was dead.

“Chats between Castillo and the leader of the hit squad suggest that a few days before [the killing] they didn’t have the funds yet,” Albers, the lead attorney on the case, said to The Intercept. “After the payment, authorized by FMO and carried out by Deutsche Bank as an offshore bank, they did.”

Asked about the bank’s oversight of the payments, FMO spokesperson Monica Beek wrote in a statement: “In view of the legal proceedings that COPINH has started, a response belongs primarily within the framework of a careful judicial process, and not now, selectively and without context.” She referred The Intercept to FMO’s website for further information.

Before Castillo, seven out of the eight men tried for carrying out the hit were convicted of murder in 2018 and later sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison. But more than six years after Cáceres’s death, family members and human rights workers allege that the killing’s most powerful authors are still at large.

“The practices of these financial institutions … are really surprising to us,” said “Bertita” Zúñiga Cáceres of the revelations. As the current general coordinator of Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations, or COPINH, she is continuing the work that her mother, Berta, started.

“These transfers weren’t just irregular,” Zúñiga Cáceres told The Intercept. “They were used practically so the owners of DESA could use that money for their own whims — without having any verification measures, without knowing how the transfers were being executed. It’s shocking, knowing that [the money] went to places and to sources that they shouldn’t have been going to, for things that weren’t consensual.”

An Indigenous leader prays during a spiritual ceremony before the start of a trial against one of the alleged masterminds of the killing of Berta Cáceres, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on April 5, 2021.

Photo: Elmer Martinez/AP

In 2015, Cáceres rocketed herself to world fame — and DESA to infamy — when she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, or the “Green Nobel,” for leading the Indigenous resistance to the Agua Zarca dam construction. As an activist, she helped unite Honduras’s social movements into a common resistance front against the right-wing regimes that took power after Honduran security forces carried out a 2009 coup. The forced transfer of power brought with it a murderous spike in general and state violence, earning public condemnation from the Obama administration — though the State Department never officially classified it as a military coup. The Honduran forces’ deep ties to the United States were well established, and later reporting revealed that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had sought communication with the interim, post-coup government.

In the years since, Honduras has seen scores of assassinations of land and water defenders, many of them Indigenous or Afro-Indigenous, who opposed mining, agro-business, and dam projects which they argued would displace them from their lands. Many of these projects lacked consulta previa, or “prior consultation,” from Indigenous groups, as required under international conventions to which the Honduran government is party. Yet they still received support from transnational financial........

© The Intercept

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