One month after the assassination of Honduran indigenous activist Berta Cáceres, the witness to her murder – environmentalist Gustavo Castro Soto – has finally been allowed to return home to Mexico.
Castro, who is the coordinator of Otros Mundos Chiapas (Friends of the Earth Mexico), was injured when gunmen broke into Cáceres’ home in La Esperanza in the western province of Intibucá on March 2 and gunned her down.
Colleagues said Castro (pictured left) was treated more like a suspect than a victim. They said they feared for his safety.
The activist returned to Mexico on Friday (April 1) after the First Courthouse of Letters in Intibucá, acting on instructions from Judge Victorina Flores Orellana, lifted the ban on him leaving the country, which had been in force since March 7.
On Sunday, Cáceres’ mother, Austra Bertha Flores Lopez, issued an open letter in which she said the Honduran state was responsible for the “heinous killing” of her daughter.
Cáceres was the coordinator and co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH) and was a key opponent of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, which is being constructed on indigenous community land in Río Blanco.
She won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize (South and Central America) last year.
Flores Lopez vowed to keep fighting for justice for her daughter “to break the wall of impunity in Honduras”.
She said that, despite national and international pressure, the Honduran government had not been able to capture the perpetrators of her daughter’s assassination and the masterminds behind the crime.
Cáceres (left) with her mother. Photo courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Prize.
In a statement issued on the anniversary of Cáceres’ assassination, her family members said they were grateful for the many messages and acts of condolence from hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and for the bravery of Gustavo Castro.
“However, we have yet to receive any kind of justice or respect as we search for answers from the Honduran government. Repeated formal and informal requests for information about the investigation that we should be provided with, according to Honduran law, have been denied without an explanation.”
The family continues to demand that the Honduran government agree to allow an independent international investigation into Cáceres’ murder. “The Honduran authorities are incapable of carrying out such a task in a neutral and professional manner,” the family said.
“In 2014, a Honduran NGO found that less than 4 percent of all murder cases resulted in a conviction. Given the massive corruption within the Honduran government, and given the fact that many threats and attacks against Berta and her organization COPINH involved members of state security forces and agents of private companies with links to high-level Honduran officials, it is highly unlikely that the intellectual authors of this assassination will ever be brought to justice.”
Flores Lopez said that when lists of assassination targets emerged after the US-backed coup in Honduras in 2009 her daughter, who was a key leader of the resistance movement, was “first on the list”.
Cáceres was “vilified and threatened” by agents linked to Desarrollos Energéticos (DESA), the owner and operator of the Agua Zarca dam project, Flores Lopez said.
She said the Honduran government had become a “defender of the private interests of extractive corporations”. It had failed, she said, to comply with its international commitment to ensure Cáceres’ safety.
Cáceres’ said repeatedly that she had received death threats and other harassment from state and corporate agents.
According to the pan-Latin American network TeleSUR, Cáceres stated in April last year that men close to Blue Energy (the Canadian transnational company seeking to construct a dam on the Rio Cangel), people “close to politicians”, and “death squads promoted from government policies”, were behind the death threats levelled against her.
The Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) raised concerns about Cáceres’ safety with the Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, last year. The commission had been asking the Honduran government to apply “precautionary measures” for Cáceres since 2009. Such measures were partially implemented from 2013, but her family says they were insufficient.
One of Cáceres’ daughters, Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, said at a congressional briefing in the US last month: “She asked for private security, but they didn’t give it to her because they said it was excessive for her situation.
“She asked for cameras and they gave her two, but they didn’t even work because when it came time to investigate her assassination, they didn’t record. They gave her police – escorts for when she traveled long distances – and the police were the same that DESA had.”
Family members say they have themselves been harassed since Cáceres was assassinated, and have demanded protection. Cáceres’ children say armed men have been following them and strangers have showed up to photograph their grandmother’s home, where the family has been staying.
Zúñiga Cáceres told the congressional hearing: “It’s important that it is clear that they are still coming after us, still harassing us, still intimidating us, and that the state of Honduras has done absolutely nothing to protect us, in the same way that they did nothing to protect my mother’s life …”
Cáceres’ relatives say they have desperately sought to obtain the most basic information regarding the Honduran investigation into Cáceres’ assassination, including a simple list of Cáceres’ personal belongings that authorities have seized, a complete autopsy report, and a raw copy of the video of the autopsy.
They say that one of the people denying them access to this and other information about the investigation is the Honduran Director of Public Attorneys, Jose Arturo Duarte.
Cáceres’ family says that, in legal proceedings against COPINH, Duarte has represented DESA, “the very same company, that built the dam Berta and COPINH were fighting against and whose employees threatened Berta”.
It was only after Cáceres’ daughters revealed this major conflict of interest in a public letter that Duarte announced his withdrawal from the investigation on March 31, the family stated.
“The US State Department was aware of this major conflict of interest, yet continues to show confidence in the Honduran investigation.”
The family added: “We are dismayed that the US government – despite appeals from our family, more than sixty members of Congress, 11 US senators, and more than 250 domestic and international NGOs – continues to express support for the Honduran investigative ‘process’.”
Flores Lopez accuses the Honduran authorities of contaminating the scene of her daughter’s assassination.
Members of Cáceres’ family and COPINH member Tomás Gómez have been talking to lawmakers and representatives of international banking institutions, NGOs, and the State Department in meetings in Washington.
“As painful as Bertita’s assassination is for our family, this event is now an opportunity to begin pushing back hard against Honduras’ pervasive corruption, impunity, and lack of rule of law.
“The US government has enormous leverage in Honduras through its assistance programmes and veto power over multilateral loans. It’s time for the US to begin using that leverage to promote justice and stop the killing of social activists rather than continuing to hand the Honduran government a blank cheque to carry on with business as usual.”
According to TeleSUR, Honduras has now asked the Organization of American States (OAS) to help investigate Cáceres’ murder. This comes after repeated worldwide calls for an independent and internationally-led investigation.
The local daily La Prensa reported that the Honduran authorities want the OAS to send a “renowned and experienced prosecutor or judge” to assist in the investigation.
“I know that nobody and nothing can bring my daughter back to life,” Flores Lopez wrote. “But I will not give up fighting, with all the strength of my life that I still have, so that the assassination of Bertita does not go unpunished.”
She urged people in Honduras and around the world to fight to defend Mother Earth and quoted her daughter’s words “Let us wake up, humankind. We’re out of time”.
Second murder prompts banks to suspend activities in Honduras
Less than two weeks after Cáceres was assassinated, another member of COPINH, Nelson García, was also killed.
Garcia is reported to have been shot four times in the face at Rio Chiquito after military police removed local people from land they were occupying.
Cáceres told Changing Times last October that ten members of COPINH had been assassinated, four of them for defending the Gualcarque river.
After Garcia’s murder, the Dutch development bank, FMO, which is the main European funder of the Agua Zarca project, suspended all its activities in Honduras.
FMO said in a statement that it was shocked by the news of García’s murder.
“After the recent violent death of Berta Cáceres, we have called upon the Honduran government to do anything in their power to stop the ongoing violence and killings in their country.
“The right of speech for those who speak up for their rights and the livelihoods of people are of very high value to FMO. Every individual should be safe when defending their position. FMO rejects and condemns any violence against those individuals or groups.”
FMO said that, “given the current situation, with ongoing violence”, it had decided to suspend all its activities in Honduras, with immediate effect.
“This means that we will not engage in new projects or commitments and that no disbursements will be made, including the Agua Zarca project.”
The Finnish aid-financed investment fund Finnfund told the journal Development Today that it was also suspending disbursements to the Agua Zarca dam.
The interim executive director of the organisation International Rivers, Peter Bosshard, says the pressure is now on on the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) to suspend all support for the dam. The CABEI loan to the project totals US$24,400,000.
‘Castro’s rights violated’
There was an international outcry not only over Cáceres’ assassination, but also over the Honduran authorities’ insistence that Gustavo Castro remain in the country.
At the congressional hearing in the US, Zúñiga Cáceres said Castro was subjected to psychological torture “because they left him in the same bloody clothes for 24 hours”.
She told the hearing: “They didn’t let him sleep; they haven’t let him return to his country or see anybody, including us. He hasn’t received psychological attention. They even made him travel long distances from my town to the capital several times.”
Friends of the Earth said that, as a Mexican citizen, and as a witness and victim of attempted murder in Honduras, Gustavo Castro had the right to collaborate with the Honduran authorities from his own country, in accordance with the Treaty for Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters agreed between Honduras and Mexico.
Castro’s rights were violated by Judge Victorina Flores Orellana when she issued a 30-day migratory alert against him and by the attorney-general’s office, which took 24 days to revoke the restriction, Friends of the Earth said.
“During this period, Gustavo Castro was only required to undertake two more procedures in the context of the investigation – an obligation he could have fulfilled from Mexico.”
Friends of the Earth condemned the lack of reaction on the part of the Mexican government. The organisation said the foreign affairs secretary failed to take the necessary steps to urge the Honduran government to allow a Mexican citizen to return home.
Castro’s lawyer, Ivania Galeano, said the decision to lift the migratory alert showed that the Honduran authorities had no grounds to keep Castro in the country and the attorney-general “could no longer sustain an illegal, arbitrary, and unsubstantiated measure”.
Beverly Bell from the US-based social justice group Other Worlds, writing online, said the Honduran government could not stand up to the international pressure from the US Congress, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Vatican, and many other sources of pressure and denunciation so finally allowed Castro to return home.
People around the world held rallies, sent well over 100,000 letters, and committed themselves to continue organising until Castro was freed, Bell wrote.
The Honduran attorney-general said a request was made to lift the restriction on Castro because all the inquiries and scientific tests for which he was needed had been completed.
Interviewed on the Cuban station Radio Progreso after he returned home to San Cristóbal de las Casas, Castro said of the indigenous people’s land struggles in Honduras: “What we are confronting are very powerful forces; obscure forces filled with ambition; and these forces are what the movements are fighting.”
Photos courtesy of the Goldman Environmental Foundation.
Congressional Briefing: “The Assassination of Berta Cáceres and Ongoing Killings and Attacks Targeting Social Activists in Honduras”.
Article updated to include comments in a statement from Cáceres’ family, reaction from Gustavo Castro’s lawyer, Ivania Galeano, and details of the congressional briefing held in the US in March.
Translated comments from the congressional briefing provided by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) in Washington, DC. (Article by Becca Watts.)