Gustavo Castro Soto, a lifelong environmental and human rights activist from Mexico, was the sole eyewitness— and survivor —of the assassination of world-renowned Honduran environmental and indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres. Though Castro survived the attack, his treatment by the Honduran authorities amounted to what he has called psychological torture. Now back in Mexico after being barred from leaving Honduras for a month, Castro reflects on his experience in Honduras; the continued danger facing activists throughout the Americas; the crisis of capitalism; and his vision for a future filled with other, better, worlds.
Moira Birss (MB): You’ve already described in detail elsewhere the moments surrounding Berta’s assassination, including how you were also shot by Berta’s killers and survived by playing dead. Tell us what happened in the hours and days following the assassination. How did Honduran authorities treat you? Were you allowed access to a lawyer? To a doctor?
Gustavo Castro Soto (GCS): Berta was killed about 20 minutes before midnight on March 2. After calling friends to alert them to what had happened, I had to wait for someone to rescue me; it took nearly two hours. As soon as word began to spread about what had happened, the police began to seek me out. I stayed and waited until the local prosecutor arrived, and then COPINH [the social and environmental organization Berta founded] members took me to see a local family of healers to treat my wounds.
I answered all the questions the Honduran authorities asked of me, provided all the statements, formal and informal, that they wanted, including informal questioning about the person who had shot at me. It wasn’t until 1 PM on the 3rd [of March], however, that I was taken to the prosecutor’s office. When I first arrived they offered me something to eat, but then nothing after that, for many hours. I asked to be seen by a doctor, but they never took me to see one. All day I had to wear the bloody clothes I had on when Berta and I were shot. Not until 3am the next morning did the medical examiner arrive to examine me and take photos of my wounds. And then that night, before letting me rest, they wanted me to look at photos of suspects; at first they only showed me photos of COPINH members.
The treatment I received was polite, but indifferent; they treated me like another piece of evidence, not like the victim of a crime.
In the hours that followed I provided other statements, both to the prosecutor and the judge. I asked for copies of those statements, but those requests were denied. I also asked for recordings; I don’t know if they recorded my statements, but I certainly wasn’t given any copies. All the statements and proceedings were sealed, and only weeks later did my lawyer receive a copy of the order to seal them.
In the first hours I didn’t have a lawyer, and it was only days later that I was able to have a trusted lawyer with me. The Mexican Consul arrived the night of the 3rd, and was always there with me, which provided important protection and support.
Finally, on the 5th [of March] the plan was for me to go back to Tegucigalpa, and the consul purchased a ticket for me to go back to Mexico, leaving on the morning of the 6th.
MB: In another interview you described the how the Honduran authorities hid in waiting for you at the airport on March 6 as you prepared to leave the country accompanied by the Mexican ambassador, and at the last minute detained you and refused to let you board the plane. Why do you think the authorities behaved in that way?
GCS: I don’t know why they acted that way. It seems like such a blunder on their part, and actually they later apologized. It would have been more than sufficient for them to simply ask me to stay a few more days.
[In those initial days after the assassination] they never once told me that that I was legally prohibited from leaving. Nor did they ever present me with a formal summons. And originally the authorities had even offered to fly me in a helicopter from La Esperanza [the town where Berta was assassinated] back to Tegucigalpa to make that flight on the 6th, though that was later canceled due to bad weather, and we drove instead.
I responded to all their requests, at any hour they wanted. In fact, the prosecutor and the Attorney General’s Office later acknowledged how cooperative I had been. They seem to have forgotten that I am a victim and a witness, not a suspect, and they treated me like a piece of evidence, at best.
MB: You have called your treatment by the Honduran authorities psychological torture. You already described some of the treatment you received; what else makes you call it psychological torture?
GCS: After that humiliating experience in the airport, I was told to return to La Esperanza. I asked for more security because I felt very insecure going back there, and worried that the assassins could be looking for me to keep me quiet. The Honduran government wanted to have me under its supposed protection. But there exists no law in Honduras to protect victims in these kinds of cases. There is a witness protection law but no regulations have been adopted for its implementation. The same is true for the recent human rights defenders protection law. Victims, witnesses, and human rights defenders are left totally unprotected in Honduras. That is why I wanted accompaniment from the Mexican embassy, and wanted to stay in the embassy while in Tegucigalpa.
After being told to return to La Esperanza, I was informed that the judge had issued an order prohibiting my departure from the country for 30 days. They refused to give a copy of that order to my lawyer, even though local laws require such copies. The next day, my lawyer filed an appeal to the order and an official request for a copy of the document. In response, the judge suspended my lawyer from the case, and suspended her professional license. That was unprecedented, and I was left without legal defense [for a time]. My lawyers filed every possible kind of appeal, including habeas corpus, but all were denied. Also denied was the authorization I requested to go to Washington to appear at a meeting requested by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
When they took me back to La Esperanza, I responded to more questions and assisted the investigation until the 9th [of March]. So, I basically didn’t sleep between the 2nd and the 9th, and was constantly subjected to interrogation.
And in the rest of those 30 days I was made to remain in Honduras, basically nothing happened. Well, they did ask me to hand over my boots, even though by that point the crime scene had been totally altered. And a few days before I was to leave the country, they arrived with some photos to see if I could identify anyone. But that was it.
MB: You have spoken before about the “criminalization of human rights” and of human rights defenders. Berta herself faced judicial harassment and criminalization. What is behind this criminalization, and why is it so problematic for human rights defenders?
GCS: This is such an important issue that few take into account. It is not just Berta, nor just COPINH, but all the social movements in Honduras, and in the region, which face this threat.
Let me explain: In all free trade agreements (FTAs), companies seek protection for their investments, through mechanisms like the World Bank’s International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). This allows them to sue, for millions of dollars, when a government cancels a concession or kicks out a company.
Pretty much all Latin American countries have FTAs with Canada, the U.S., Asian countries, and others, and this means that local governments have to modify local laws to facilitate this foreign investment. For example, the extractive industry needs lots of water; how does a government assure water to a mining company when there are indigenous communities on those lands and waterways? By changing local legislation.
Some FTAs even require that the local governments put in place new infrastructure, like highways, to facilitate foreign investment. And for many of those infrastructure projects, much of the funding comes from places like the Inter-American Development Bank. These banks don’t have operating norms that require consultation with the local communities, nor do they guarantee the human right to water, let alone the right to life.
Knowing that these potential lawsuits are for millions of dollars, and then considering that there are hundreds of extractive projects, highways, agribusiness, palm oil, transgenic corn, ports, and airport investments in these countries, well, if a government decides to protect the human rights of its people, the lawsuits would be absolutely enormous.
FTAs have also expanded the concept of expropriation. If a government cancels a concession, that’s expropriating the company’s property. Or if people block a roadway in protest, the company calls it indirect expropriation, and sues the government.
So the governments have to prevent social mobilization, and therefore across Latin America they are modifying laws to criminalize the defense of human rights and neutralize protest. For example, they are making it illegal to mobilize, to go out to protest to defend the right to water, or to protest the assassination of an indigenous leader like Berta; they are calling it terrorism. Obstructing a road becomes equivalent to hijacking or kidnapping.
It is cheaper for governments to throw some human rights defenders in jail than pay for those million dollar lawsuits.
MB: Berta’s family and COPINH are calling for an independent commission of experts, led by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to assure a fair and independent investigation of Berta’s assassination. What does your experience tell you about the need for such a commission? Why do you think the Honduran government is resisting such a commission, and why hasn’t the U.S. supported the family’s request?
GCS: The Honduran government wants to have control of the investigation, the evidence, and the results. If there were political will to render justice and find the responsible parties, there would be no reason for them to oppose a credible investigation.
The problem, as COPINH has said—and even as the Attorney General’s office has acknowledged—is that the investigation has inevitably led to DESA [the company building the hydroelectric dam that Berta and COPINH have long opposed], and weapons were found on company property. The authorities don’t want to get to the bottom of that, however, because behind DESA are very powerful economic interests, like the World Bank, Dutch banks, and many political interests as well. As an example, the Honduran director of prosecutors has been part of the law firm that represents DESA.
MB: The U.S. government provides significant amounts of foreign aid to Honduras, including to the justice system and the police. How do you think such aid affects the situation facing COPINH and Honduras as a whole?
GCS: It is well known that the presence of the U.S. in Honduras is very strong. After all, Honduras houses the biggest U.S. military base in Latin America. The country is strategic for the U.S., as it is located right in the middle of Central America, and I think Honduras is important to the geopolitical interests of the U.S. in the region. Many in Honduras believe, particularly after the experience with the coup, that the U.S. can install and remove governments.
Though plenty of foreign funds in Honduras come from other governments and from banks, we know that the U.S. invests in military training of elite units, in military bases, in mining and dam projects, and in the so-called “model cities”, or special economic zones. In fact, the Honduran government is debating a new law to implement new special economic zones, and those who are now in power in the country are the ones who proposed the original model cities law, after the coup.
MB: Your organization is called Otros Mundos Chiapas (Other Worlds Chiapas), and you talk often about “other worlds” being possible. Can you describe the “other worlds” that you want to see?
GCS: We believe that this capitalist system is leading us to ruin. Systemic change is a moral and ethical imperative. But we cannot just substitute one model for another. Rather, we must recognize that many worlds are possible, in every region and every town; there are other worlds that can be created, other ways to live our lives.
We all have a great responsibility to work to build those other worlds, because there isn’t just one solution, nor can we sit and wait for a solution to arrive; we can’t save ourselves from having to think and work and build other forms of living and being.
We like to call the construction of these other worlds the building of “alternatos,” because they are alternatives that are born out of every region, every culture, reflecting the immense cultural diversity in the world, just like the immense biological diversity that also exists. We have to respect the many different ways to live, and know that there can be harmony and unity, happiness and dignity. It is possible.
MB: What do you ask of those of us who live in the U.S.? How can we contribute?
GCS: We would love to have people in the U.S. join this search for alternatos. The extractivist model that we are dealing with here in Latin America exists so that people in the U.S. can have a high standard of living. There is a major struggle going on in Latin America against this model, and this struggle requires significant resistance, and has come at the expense of many lives, including Berta’s. But we have to continue to struggle so the current system doesn’t keep destroying nature and destroying us.
But even in the U.S., it cannot continue like this; no one can live at the expense of others’ lives. Solidarity is for all of us. Climate change affects us all. The earth is home to all of us.
Therefore, all of us have the responsibility to seek out other ways of doing things. What do people in the U.S. have to do? I don’t know; that is for them to figure out, just like here we are figuring that out for ourselves. In the U.S. I know there are already many important and beautiful struggles, and we know that it is not easy to carry out those struggles in the belly of the beast.
In crisis, we find hope, although it sounds contradictory. Like Berta used to say, we have to wake up; we have run out of time.
The challenge is that each one of us has the responsibility to play a part. But it is a beautiful challenge.
Gustavo Castro Soto is a Mexican writer and organizer for environmental and economic justice who serves as the coordinator of the group Otros Mundos/Friends of the Earth Mexico. He has cofounded — and sits on the governing bodies of — many anti-mining and anti-dam networks, as well as the U.S.-based organization Other Worlds.