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GUSTAVO CASTRO was the sole witness to the murder on March 3 of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, the co-founder of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Movements of Honduras (COPINH). Castro, the director of Otros Mundos, an environmental organization in Chiapas, Mexico, was also shot in the attack. After being barred from leaving Honduras, Castro was released on March 30 and has since settled in an undisclosed location. Last week he spoke by phone to The Intercept about the night of the murder and the reasons why environmental activism in Latin America is so dangerous.
Castro’s experience over the past month provides a remarkable glimpse into the Honduran justice system, which is notorious for its culture of impunity. In the months before her murder, Cáceres repeatedly said that she was being harassed by Desarrollos Energéticos, SA (DESA), the private energy company behind the Agua Zarca dam project, which she had vigorously opposed. After the murder, Cáceres’s family immediately pointed to DESA. On March 31, the Honduran public prosecutor’s office announced that it had seized weapons and documents from DESA’s office and questioned several employees.
Contacted for comment, DESA provided the following statement: “The board of directors of the company that is carrying out the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project has not given any declaration nor does it plan to do so until the authorities in charge of the investigation determine the causes and perpetrators of this regrettable incident that ended the life of the indigenous leader Berta Cáceres.”
What happened during your last hours with Berta Cáceres?
I arrived on March 1 in San Pedro Sula, and that day they put me up in another home that belongs to other COPINH members in La Esperanza. It had been years since I had seen Berta in person, although we had been in touch by email. I was there to facilitate a workshop on environmentalism. That day Berta said to me, brother, come to my house, I have internet so you can get in touch with your family. We spent a while talking, even discussing the threats that she had received in the past and in recent weeks — intimidation and threats to her safety by employees of DESA and people who seemed to be hit men contracted by DESA, the company behind the hydroelectric project called Agua Zarca.
And I said to Berta, this is a very isolated home, how is it that you live here alone? So I decided to stay the night. I started to get ready for the second day of the workshop, and she was in her room. At midnight, there was a loud bang on the door and immediately one hit man entered my room, and simultaneously another entered hers. Everything happened very quickly, within 30 seconds, in which simultaneously they assassinated her and shot me. They had clearly been following her and were expecting her to be alone, so I think it surprised them to find another person there and they didn’t know what to do, so they just shot me and ran away.
Were their faces covered?
I don’t know about the other one, but the one who shot me wasn’t masked. I wasn’t able to decipher his face well, but that’s the moment when I became the principal witness, and a protected witness.
When Berta told you that she had received threats from DESA and Agua Zarca, did she say at any point that the people threatening her were from Honduran state security forces? Or were they gang members, or just random individuals?
I don’t remember her saying anything like that. She did say they were employees, people in favor of the company. In fact when I arrived in Mexico, on March 30, the public prosecutor’s office in Honduras published a press release publicly linking the company to their line of investigation. In the press release they also announced that they had seized weapons and questioned some of the company’s people. But they didn’t want to get to this point. Before coming to that line of investigation, I got the impression they wanted to see if another line of investigation could be useful or believable for national and international public opinion, but that was impossible. Everyone in COPINH already knew the recent history, so they had no other option than to finally go after the company. I’m unaware of any advances they’ve had in this line of investigation.
Over the last decade there were more than 100 murders of environmentalists in Honduras. And these conflicts are often linked to the army and the police. That’s part of the reality of Honduras. In this specific case, Berta said that the guilty party was the company. It was the company with which she had a strong and direct confrontation.
At first we were hearing that they questioned you, took you to the airport, and then suddenly told you that you couldn’t leave the country. Is this how it happened?
The whole process was confusing and handled poorly. I spent the first three or four days in constant legal procedures in La Esperanza. I could have refused several times, because one has the right to solicit a six-hour prevention order as a victim and a protected witness. Nevertheless I never used this instrument, and every time they asked me to take part in more legal procedures, I did — at any hour, in the middle of the night, whenever. So I went nearly four days without sleeping. I gave the statement for the attorney general, the statement for the public prosecutor, medical examinations, cross-examinations, photographic identification, etc.
And, yes, at first they said I could go. They always said, just one more thing, and then just one more thing, and then it finally seemed like everything was done and ready. They even prepared a helicopter for me to get back to Tegucigalpa on March 5. But because of weather conditions they weren’t able to land the helicopter, so instead they deployed a security detail to accompany me to Tegucigalpa by land. Later, the public prosecutor’s office claimed I was trying to escape, which was a huge lie.
So I arrived at the Mexican Embassy, where the ambassador and the consul bought me a plane ticket for March 6 at 6:20 a.m. But when we got to the airport, Honduran officials were waiting in hiding around the airport for me, as if this were necessary, as if this were a criminal matter and as if I weren’t a protected witness and a victim. It was so shameless. It felt like having an army at my heels. And the ambassador and the consul were with me. Suddenly eight or 10 people from the attorney general’s office and the public prosecutor’s office stood in front of the door and said that I couldn’t leave. They wouldn’t hand over any official document explaining anything. I know that this government is the result of a coup, but this game was so ridiculous that even they had to ask for apologies from the ambassador and me. What they did was totally unnecessary. And obviously they had to justify themselves before the national and international press by claiming they thought I was fleeing. Even then I could have said I was leaving. Because of a convention on penal matters between Mexico and Honduras, as a victim and a protected witness, I had the right to participate in the legal procedures from Mexico. I’m not a criminal — I’m a victim. But they forgot that.
They said, we need just one more thing. So I asked for more protection for the ride back: a bulletproof vest and more bodyguards. What they originally said they needed was more testimony, but what it ended up being was more cross-examination. At the end of the night they produced a document saying it was necessary for me to stay 30 days more. That was also illegal — the judge used arguments based on international human rights laws regarding suspects. When my lawyer argued they were violating my rights, the judge not only removed her from the case but furthermore suspended her ability to practice law for 15 days.
The government wanted me under its control. It has no laws that protect victims. Nor does it have regulations or protocols or a budget to protect human rights activists. Nor does it have regulations for protected witnesses. So they wanted me under their so-called protection where there is no law that obligates them to do anything. Which is why I stayed in the Mexican Embassy. But it was a month of horrible stress and tension, in which the government, with its complete lack of regulations or protocols, could easily accuse me of anything at any moment, show up with a judicial order, and the Mexican Embassy wouldn’t have been able to do anything. One week before I arrived in Honduras, the Judicial Commission had been dissolved, so there was no legal instrument with which I could defend myself. There was no commission before which I could denounce a judge who acted illegally, because that commission had been dissolved. So I found myself in total legal defenselessness — without a lawyer, because they suspended her. And it seemed neither international pressure nor the Mexican government could do anything. So it was a state of complete insecurity and a constant violation of my human rights.
Did they ever try to accuse you of anything officially?
There wasn’t anything explicit. There were rumors in the press that the public prosecutor’s office was trying to justify involving me in the crime in some way. But with the evidence and my declarations, it was simply impossible for them to invent such a farce. No matter how many circles they ran around the matter, they eventually had to go to DESA. They had no other option. I had the sense that they wanted to keep me there while they were trying to find something. It was a horrible uncertainty, because you have no lawyer. They have the ability to leave you totally legally defenseless.
How do you explain the fact that opposing dams is interpreted as a threat?
This isn’t true only in Honduras — also in Guatemala, Mexico, Chile, etc. One of the reasons is that these dams mean flooding out huge swaths of jungle, forest, and indigenous and campesino lands. And this causes a strong reaction from these communities, because there are thousands and thousands of them displaced violently.
Another reason is that one of the most profitable businesses at the moment is the sale of electrical energy, especially in Latin America, because free trade agreements are opening huge investments for transnational corporations. And what does this mean? For example, free trade agreements allow major investors to put up factories, industrial parks, infrastructure, and mines, which all consume a ton of electricity and a ton of water. And bear in mind that one gold mine can use between 1 and 3 million liters of water every hour. That implies relinquishing the water that belongs to communities, their rivers, and their wells — using it to instead generate electricity for the big industrial corridors. So the sale of energy, and thus investments in energy, is one of the most profitable businesses for big capital. But that means entering into battle over territory with campesino and indigenous communities.
Additionally, with the Kyoto Protocol they’ve invented the stupid idea that dams make “clean energy.” Thus in order to gain carbon credits and reduce their greenhouse gases, wealthy countries started investing in dams. That’s why we have a world full of dam construction.
In Latin America almost every country has free trade agreements with the U.S., Canada, and Europe, and many also with Asia. This means changing your constitution, your environmental legislation that concerns water, energy and foreign investment, in order to adopt and facilitate these free trade agreements. If you don’t, companies sue. For governments, it’s easier to repress people than to pay damages and compensation to corporations. A good example is the case of the gold mine in El Salvador. El Salvador has had to pay millions to defend itself against a mining company before the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes. And we are talking about one mine. But imagine 10,000 or 15,000 — we are talking about thousands of mining concessions in the region. And to this if you add dams, and to that you add highways, ports, airports, mines, fracking, petroleum, huge shopping malls, tax-free zones, charter cities, huge elite tourist resorts — there are so many concessions.
If the human rights claims that activists make are actually upheld — contamination of water and land, violating previous and informed consent of communities — or if they kick out a company for dumping toxic waste into rivers, for murdering community members, for causing cancer around mining sites like we’ve seen in Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala — if governments have to do something about these human rights claims by kicking out the extractive industry, they’ll have to pay millions and millions of dollars that they don’t have. Each country would have to sell itself 20 times over to pay off the debt. So this is not easy to solve.
This leads to confrontation with communities. This will only deepen with things like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and governments prefer to react by criminalizing citizen protest. Peaceful protest used to be a human right. Now they call it “terrorism,” “violence.” They’re criminalizing human rights.
In a recent interview, Hillary Clinton said that the coup in Honduras was legal. What do you think about this statement?
It seems to me that in the end, the government had to justify a way for another group to come to power. And Honduras’s legal antiquity allows you to make any argument you want. For example, one of the reasons they gave for overthrowing Zelaya was that he proposed to modify the constitution to allow for re-election. Which the current president, Juan Orlando Hernández, is now trying to do, to modify the constitution to allow for re-election for him next year. So that’s why I say it depends on how you want to see it. If Zelaya proposes it, it’s unconstitutional and he has to go. If the oligarchy and the global hegemony says it, it’s legal, it’s democratic.
How do you see your future? Or are you living more day by day right now?
More day by day. Many are asking me if I’m going to throw in the towel, if I’m like the boxer who can’t take any more and gives up. I say no, I’m picking that towel up. This struggle must continue. I am not alone. Across Latin America there are thousands of people who are criminalized, who are being persecuted and threatened for defending human rights, who are defending the well-being of our planet. We must realize that that no one is exempt from this criminalization. Like so many friends who have been murdered for resisting. But there are many of us, and we will carry on.
The voracious capitalism we face cannot continue as is, with its accelerated and extractionist logic that is finishing off our planet. I think our great challenge is to realize that other worlds are possible. We can build something different, something dignified and just. There is enough water for everyone. There is enough land, enough food for everyone. We cannot continue feeding this predatory system of capital accumulation in the hands of so few. That system is unsustainable. So from wherever we are — in the Americas, in Europe, in Asia — we will all be affected by this system. Sometimes it seems that the crisis doesn’t touch certain places, and sometimes we don’t make the structural link to capitalism with the crises that the U.S. and Canada and France and Spain face. But I hope that we realize this soon, because it will affect us all sooner or later. And I want to say that there is still time to do something. This is urgent.