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Gustavo Castro: Why Do the Killers of Berta Cáceres Want Him Imprisoned or Dead?

Photo Credit: Otros Mundos.

International pressure is rising for the immediate and safe return to Mexico of Gustavo Castro Soto, activist, writer, and director of Otros Mundos/Friends of the Earth Mexico. The sole witness to the March 3 assassination of Honduran environment and democracy leader Berta Cáceres faces great danger on Honduran soil. The wounded Gustavo remains a prisoner of the state, illegally forbidden from leaving the country until April 6.

On March 29, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights asked the Honduran government to allow Gustavo to leave Honduras so that he can participate in hearings in Washington beginning April 2.  Sixty-two US congresspeople sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking that he pressure the Honduran government to implement and comply with precautionary measures that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted. The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders called for the Honduran government to protect Gustavo and send him home speedily. Institutions and individuals, from the Vatican to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. have done the same.

Street demonstrations for Gustavo’s release and safe passage continue in Honduras and Mexico. Tens of thousands of letters, emails, and calls of protest from around the world have also conveyed that message to the governments of those countries, in addition to the US.

A Horror Story

When the killers entered the home of Berta Cáceres, they first shot Gustavo twice, injuring his hand and ear. He feigned death, at which point they went to Berta’s room. There, the two gunmen did the deed for which, a preponderance of evidence shows, they had been paid by the Agua Zarca dam company, with blessings from the Honduran government. (Berta and the group she headed, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras [COPINH], have led a multi-year fight against Agua Zarca, which is illegally constructing a dam on a sacred river in a Lenca indigenous community.)

The men left immediately, and Gustavo raced to Berta’s room. She died in his arms, blood from her chest, stomach, and arm flowing over him.

From that time, just before midnight, until the next evening, Gustavo would be forced to remain in those blood-caked clothes. The government, which took him into custody as a material witness, would not let him change or meet other essential needs. He remained in Honduran custody for several days for “questioning.”

Gustavo now languishes in the Mexican Embassy in Tegucigalpa. His physical well-being remains unassured as long as he is in Honduras, even with embassy protection, as the Mexican ambassador has confirmed.

His legal team has filed a writ of protection to overturn the judge's illegal and arbitrary ruling that he must remain in the country for 37 days after the assault. Honduran law does not allow witnesses to be forced to stay in the country. The judge’s decision also violates international law guaranteeing the right to free travel.

No charges have been brought against Gustavo. He is no longer even being questioned.

Framing Gustavo and COPINH

Meanwhile, the government’s investigation has been thoroughly discredited, both forensically and in terms of conflict of interest. The director of prosecution is a financial partner and friend of lawyers of the company behind the Agua Zarca dam.

One of Gustavo’s lawyer, Miguel Ángel de los Santos, said in an interview with the Guardian on March 28, “There is a lot of fear because in Honduras there is total insecurity and impunity – and blaming someone close to Berta would be the easiest and most convenient thing to do.”

On March 19, presidential advisor Marvin Ponce made coy statements to the press that “surprises” were forthcoming in the investigation. Inside sources leaked that the surprises were likely to include a formal charge against Gustavo for Berta’s murder.

However, the government has thus far made no statements regarding conclusions of its investigation. Indications are that this is due to the volume of international pressure it has received, and that it is waiting for pressure to die down and attention to turn elsewhere before moving forward.

Besides Gustavo, the government appears to be setting up COPINH leaders as murder suspects. In the week following the attack, police arrested or interrogated Aureliano Molina, Tomas Gómez, and Sotero Echeverria in relation to Berta’s slaying. The government is also running a broader campaign of violence and vilification on COPINH, including killing leader Nelson Garcia on March 15.

Reasons for Wanting Gustavo Imprisoned or Dead

The first reason for wanting to lock Gustavo away or eliminate him is that he can identify Berta’s killer. As such, he is a roadblock to the regime’s plan to pin the murder on COPINH.

There is a second reason the government is detaining Gustavo and possibly trying to implicate him. He is to lands and rivers in Mexico what Berta was - is - to lands and rivers in Honduras. Both have led powerful campaigns against damming, logging, and mining, especially on indigenous lands. Both have been at the forefront of fighting what is behind that extraction: transnational capital and its servitors in national government, multinational corporations, and the US government.

Gustavo has also been part of a strong international solidarity movement fighting, first, the US-backed coup d’état in 2009 in Honduras, and now its legacy. He has long stood with COPINH and other Honduran social movements in their quest for political and economic justice.

The administration of President Juan Orlando Hernández is a continuation of the dictatorship that has ruled with lawlessness and unaccountability since the coup. The US government assisted and funded successive sham elections, which it then certified as legitimate. This has allowed the US to maintain control of its main political and military client state in Central America. The regime is intolerant of dissent, as its human rights record has shown.

This includes intolerance of dissent by foreigners, especially those whom the government may perceive to be fostering trouble in their land.

To the distaste of the government, this week COPINH is publicly celebrating its 23rd birthday. Berta cofounded the group a few weeks after turning 22, and led it until her death. On March 29, Gustavo wrote a note of congratulations to COPINH, in which he said:

Berta is present in this moment... She is reborn in the hearts of everyone of you, of us, of the millions of people who raise their voice to cry for justice. Berta has transformed into a bird whose wings are poised toward Utopia.

An Appeal for Justice

It is too late to stop the Honduran government from ridding themselves of Berta. It is not too late to stop the Honduran government from imprisoning or harming Gustavo.

Otros Mundos and COPINH invite all people of conscience to call for Gustavo’s safe and immediate return to Mexico, as well as an independent commission of international experts, guided by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to participate in the investigation into the double crime against Berta and Gustavo. The call extends to an end to criminalization of COPINH members and for the permanent suspension of the Agua Zarca dam.

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