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The US military trained him. Then he helped murder Berta Cáceres | Honduras

When Roberto David Castillo graduated from the US Military Academy at West Level, the Honduran cadet was assured he’d depart behind a legacy.

“He will likely be remembered by all as being a fearless chief dedicated to God, his household and serving others,” learn the caption underneath his yearbook portrait.

Castillo’s graduation photo. A part of the caption says he spent a lot of time “working in circuits, coding and doing research”.
Castillo’s commencement photograph. Part of the caption says he spent a variety of time “working in circuits, coding and doing analysis”. {Photograph}: West Level

Castillo is for certain to be remembered: earlier this 12 months, the Honduran excessive courtroom discovered him responsible because the joint perpetrator within the 2016 assassination of the indigenous activist Berta Cáceres, then certainly one of Latin America’s most distinguished environmental defenders.

Cáceres was killed by a staff of hitmen after years of loss of life threats linked to her opposition of the 22-megawatt Agua Zarca dam, accredited by the federal government with out permission from the native indigenous folks.

Castillo was the president of the corporate constructing the dam and the courtroom concluded that he had used his military coaching to stalk her for years, whereas secretly serving to coordinate the assassination.

A few of that coaching got here from West Level, the place Castillo studied from 2000-2004.

A Guardian investigation reveals how Castillo’s time on the prestigious military academy helped form his profession – and raises questions concerning the coaching offered by the establishment to generations of Central American troopers, a few of whom later grew to become concerned with human rights abuses.

Xiomara Castro’s current victory in presidential elections has raised hopes for ending a tradition of impunity in Honduras. However Castillo has but to be sentenced for his crime, and West Level has but to publicly acknowledge the conviction of its alumnus.

Castillo was certainly one of a handful of worldwide college students in his class at West Level. Travis Dent, a former roommate, remembers Castillo as a jovial and useful pal. “I joke with him nonetheless that I failed English and he handed, as a result of he was a really, very good scholar when it got here to the books,” Dent mentioned. “We knew him simply as one other cadet.”

Roberto David Castillo escorted by penitentiary police to hear the verdict by the Honduras supreme court for murder of Berta Cáceres.
Roberto David Castillo escorted by penitentiary police to listen to the decision by the Honduras supreme courtroom for murder of Berta Cáceres. {Photograph}: Elmer Martinez/AP

At West Level, Castillo studied the basics of battle, techniques and weaponry, later concentrating on electrical and laptop engineering. However when worldwide cadets return to serve of their dwelling nations’ military, they profit from extra than simply the academy’s coaching.

“It provides them institutional and social bragging rights,” mentioned Martin Anderson, a former professor on the US National Defense University. And it may possibly assist them make highly effective buddies.

After graduating from the academy, Castillo returned to Honduras in 2006 to hitch the armed forces as a second lieutenant. His profession illustrates what troopers with connections can do in nations like Honduras, which has grow to be infamous for its murder fee, state-sponsored violence and political impunity.

Castillo rapidly grew to become concerned with the government-owned energy firm, first when the armed forces militarized it in 2007, then working with the corporate in 2008 as soon as it had been taken over by the military.

Activists and supporters of Berta Cáceres stand outside the Honduran supreme court. The trial began five years after her murder.
Activists and supporters of Berta Cáceres stand outdoors the Honduran supreme courtroom. The trial started 5 years after her murder. {Photograph}: Elmer Martinez/AP

Whereas there, he joined the fee that negotiated contracts for Honduran hydroelectric tasks with a subsidiary of Odebrecht S.A. The Brazilian conglomerate was later discovered responsible within the largest international bribery case in historical past after it paid lots of of tens of millions of {dollars} in bribes to authorities officers all over the world.

By then, Castillo began a enterprise that was caught promoting tools to the military at inflated costs. (He was later ordered to pay the federal government again.)

And when Castillo based the power firm, Desa, in 2009, he once more broke the foundations, Honduran anti-corruption prosecutors argued in a separate case. Associates allegedly began it on his behalf whereas he continued to work for the federal government entity that accredited the contract to buy electrical energy from the long run Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam.

“He obtained swept up into an influence construction – and that’s the military in Honduras.” mentioned Jackie McVickar, a human rights consultant who helped draw up a 2019 report on corruption within the Honduran power business.

When Desa started engaged on the dam, Castillo crossed paths with Cáceres.

As she rallied protestors and lobbied worldwide teams to withdraw their backing for the mission, Cáceres was spied on, tracked and threatened. In keeping with her daughter Bertita Zúñiga Cáceres, Castillo performed a central position within the harassment, consistently sending her textual content messages to remind Cáceres that he knew precisely the place she was.

By 2016, the mom of 4 was useless.

“He used his military expertise to order her murder – and never simply to kill her, however to persecute her,” mentioned Brigitte Gynther, a human rights advocate who labored with Cáceres.

However after Castillo was arrested two years later, his former West Level roommate rallied the category in his protection. Dent lobbied the US ambassador to Honduras and contacted colleagues working for lawmakers and federal businesses.

“The overwhelming majority of the complete class and everybody we talked to was as much as assist,” Dent mentioned.

That Castillo had help from an influential US community was not an accident. West Level’s Worldwide Cadet Program “was established as a international coverage software to offer a method for the US authorities to enhance relations and to foster stability with pleasant nations”, mentioned a 1997 report within the academy archives.

And Central American cadets have been outsized fixtures of this system because it started in 1889. Since then, nearly a fifth of the greater than 500 worldwide graduates have come from the seven small Central American international locations.

US taxpayers have coated some or all of worldwide college students’ prices – an expense that ought to be considered as an funding – the creator of the 1997 report argued. After being uncovered to US democratic beliefs, he posited, they might unfold these rules at dwelling.

Related arguments have been made in help of the “Faculty of the Americas”, a US Military program based in 1946 to coach Latin American troopers – greater than a hundred of whom have been accused of human rights abuse at dwelling. Amongst them have been two of the opposite seven males convicted in 2019 of collaborating in Cáceres’s murder.

“US-trained military figures have triggered immeasurable destruction and loss of life in Central America over the previous a number of many years and proceed to take action as we speak,” mentioned Gynther, now a coordinator at Faculty of the Americas Watch.

Castillo just isn’t the primary instance of a West Level graduate who did not stay as much as the worldwide program’s lofty beliefs. After graduating from the academy in 1946, Anastasio Somoza Jr returned to Nicaragua the place he grew to become head of the nationwide guard, then president and was accused of repeated human rights violations and the deaths of thousands. His son, Julio, was accepted by the academy in 1977, on the top of the regime’s battle in opposition to Sandinista rebels.

In a current presentation, West Level’s admissions staff included Somoza in an inventory of “distinguished worldwide graduates” – with no point out of his profession as a despot.

A presentation advertising the international program at West Point includes the former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.
A presentation promoting the worldwide program at West Level consists of the previous Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. {Photograph}: Screenshot

Extra Central People might have lived as much as the beliefs this system envisioned. However for the reason that US military redacted the names of most earlier worldwide graduates on an inventory launched to the Guardian and declined say what number of former cadets have been accused of crimes, its effectiveness is troublesome to measure.

West Level declined a request for an interview, referring the Guardian to the state division, which the academy mentioned is concerned in selecting which international locations might ship cadets to the academy. The state division referred a request for an interview to the Division of Protection, which referred the reporter again to the state division.

“This can be a public establishment that ought to be publicly accountable for what it does,” mentioned Beth Stephens, a professor of worldwide legislation and international relations at Rutgers Regulation Faculty, including that the onus ought to be on West level to display this system doesn’t result in human rights abuses overseas.

Because the US authorities protects West Level’s worldwide program from scrutiny, Honduran leaders proceed to be linked to undemocratic actions and illicit exercise.

Juan Orlando Hernández grew to become the nation’s president 5 years after a Honduran graduate of the Faculty of the Americas led a military coup in 2009. This 12 months, the president – underneath whose rule lots of of hundreds of residents have emigrated to flee poverty, violence and corruption – was recognized by US federal prosecutors as allegedly taking bribes from drug traffickers and utilizing the nation’s armed forces to guard a cocaine laboratory. Hernández has repeatedly denied any ties to drug cartels.

Although shielded till now by a US coverage of not charging sitting presidents, Hernández could possibly be indicted as quickly as Castro replaces him in January.

However Honduran cadets have stored coaching at West Level. One entered the academy in 2016, the 12 months of Cáceres’s murder.

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