“THEY SAID THAT IF BERTA WAS GONE, THE STRUGGLE IN RIO BLANCO WOULD DISAPPEAR”
Interview with Laura Zúniga, daughter of Lenca defender Berta Cáceres, and lawyer Alexa Maradiaga, over the trial against David Ca
The trial against David Castillo in Tegucigalpa has been underway since 5 April, although it actually began on 26 April. Castillo is a former intelligence officer from Honduras, trained at West Point military academy, who became a state official in the energy sector and then manager of Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) Company, in charge of carrying out the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project in Río Blanco. This is the project Berta Cáceres and the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH) are opposing. Castillo is accused of masterminding the assassination of Berta. He is the first to be tried as mastermind in the context of this case, which in 2018 convicted seven men as perpetrators.
The Cáceres family has highlighted that Castillo is a “key actor” linking the criminal structure of the murder with the masterminds, with the understanding that the powerful business family Atala Zablah was behind the order to murder the Lenca defender.
Real World Radio interviewed Laura Zúniga, daughter of Berta Cáceres, and lawyer Alexa Maradiaga, who is part of the International Qualified Verification Mission on the case, to find out how the trial is progressing, what key evidence was submitted this week and what is still needed to achieve justice for Berta.
RWR: 63 months have passed since that night of 2 March 2016, when Berta was murdered at her home in La Esperanza, Intibucá. David Castillo was arrested two years later as he was about to flee Honduras, and his pre-trial detention was about to expire before the trial against him began. His lawyers have filed numerous appeals to delay the beginning of this procedure. How did COPINH and the Cáceres family sustain the struggle ahead of this judicial procedure?
Laura Zúniga (LZ): One of the things we did was to break the strategy that the murderers had built to ensure their impunity. Even before the body of my mother was taken from her house, the Honduran State was saying that this was a “crime of passion” or a robbery. Being able to dismantle this hypothesis and pointing out that the murder was linked to my mother’s struggle was extremely important at the time. We have been able to sustain this thanks to our collective work, to COPINH, to the many communities who are resisting, but also to the support and solidarity shown throughout all these years around the world, like when people join global actions, such as the one that took place this 2 June, or when people send letters to embassies to continue pushing for this judicial procedure.
RWR: Alexa, could you explain the role of the International Verification Mission in this trial and the previous judicial procedure against the perpetrators?
Alexa Maradiaga (AM): With the Honduran judiciary, its significant delays, the serious technical limitations faced by several officials, and the lack of political will, it is extremely important to keep an eye on the judicial guarantees and the due process. The case of Berta Cáceres is emblematic, not only due to its importance on a social, political and historical level, and its relevance for the peoples and comrades who are defending public and common goods, water and lands, but also due to its relevance at the level of the actions taking place. This is the first time in the history of Honduras that people are talking about the social context in a Court.
It is important because this is challenging the view of justice, knowing that it is no longer enough to have a punitive justice system, whereby the first scapegoat would be taken to prison and then that was it. Rather, to genuinely assess the causes and identify the people who need to be brought to trial. There has been years of work to raise the issue of restorative justice: justice that really repays all the victims, which is not repetitive in its nature, which requires the State to implement laws and policies to improve the situation for defenders, indigenous peoples and any person.
RWR: We would like to highlight how COPINH has been covering each day of the trial. This is an important way of showing how the peoples are also ensuring access to justice. This is interesting and can serve as an example for other organisations about how, by covering these spaces and live streaming hearings, they can ensure that the trial is in fact oral and public. And this also ensures that this trial is different than the first one, where not even the Cáceres family was allowed to be present at the hearings.
Laura, in your case, you have been able to enter the room as a plaintiff, despite some resistance. In the previous trial against the perpetrators, the family was not allowed to be present. How are you experiencing this trial inside the room?
LZ: I am the only member of the family who is allowed to be present in the room. In this process our rights have been violated and we have again been made victims of by the lack of respect shown to us as part of the process. We experience it in many ways: when walking into the room you can see that this is not a space designed to give answers to the people, but a space that is highly racist, patriarchal, where from the moment you walk in, from the security guards to the hearing itself, you see a logic that actually ignores the realities of communities. But it also has been significant to give it the importance and the place we deserve as victims.
This murder is not the only one we have experienced in Honduras. Sadly, there are many victims and I think that fighting for this place helps to educate the legal system, to make these institutions understand that they must respect and provide justice to the victims. In this case, we consider that not only we as daughters are victims, but the collective as a whole.
And then we have the Berta Cáceres Feminist Campsite outside the court. When we get tired of being inside, in such a hostile place, we go there to recharge, to talk to our comrades, and build justice also from there.
It is a space for learning, sometimes quite difficult, but I think it is important in order to learn and to teach institutions.
RWR: In the five years since the crime, the family together with a team of investigators have gathered some evidence. They also have experienced difficulties in accessing in a timely and adequate way other pieces of evidence, such as hundreds of chat conversations. Some messages are evidence of monetary settlements to pay for the crimes. In other messages exchanged between Daniel Atala and David Castillo, for instance, there are racist expressions. What can you tell us about how you have been gathering and analysing evidence? What have you found? What do you think about these racist messages?
LZ: We know we are facing powerful interests who are also acting to favour impunity in this case and protect themselves from future cases. These pieces of evidence have shown many things: that the company acted in a racist way, not understanding the worldviews of people and ignoring decisions, and this is the first element that leads us to this murder. We also found how the company acted, in what we call “a criminal structure”, where there were hitmen who were linked to military training, who were former or active military officers, and this strikes our attention. Something to do in the future would be to investigate the link between the State and the military structures in this crime. Because we have had access to information, but not all the information available in this process.
And then we have chats about how the shareholders of DESA Company despised the Lenca people and how they targeted my mum and other leaders. How key people said that if my mum was gone, if Berta Cáceres was gone, then the struggle in Rio Blanco would disappear, and therefore, they had to take measures against her.
This information shows how my mum was targeted, how they used informants, public officers, ministers; they met with the President to see how to dismantle the struggle in Rio Blanco, how they criminalised the Lenca people as an attack against their struggle and how they planned this murder. It also shows how David Castillo is the one who executed these orders or was in charge of seeing that the orders given by the masterminds were executed. That is why we refer to David Castillo as a co-mastermind because he is the weakest link in the wholre structure of masterminds. And, through the former head of security of DESA Company (Douglas Bustillo) he communicates with the hitmen, who are currently in prison. We must bear in mind that the justice system works one way for poor people, and another way for rich people, because the weakest links are these hitmen who committed murder for a minimum pay, while those who benefited from the murder go unpunished today and are doing everything to keep it that way
TRIAL AGAINST THOSE IN POWER
RWR: On 28 May expectations were high because at the request of the plaintiffs, Daniel Atala would testify. He is the financial manager of DESA Company, owned by the Atala Zablah family. For the first time, a member of one of the most powerful economic groups in Honduras would have to go to a court to testify in the case of Berta Cáceres. But some loopholes were exploited: Atala asked the court that he not testify in the trial against David Castillo as he was being investigated. The Public Prosecutor´s Office acknowledged that Atala was being investigated for the murder of Berta Cáceres, but it has not issued a requirement for him to appear. Finally, the court accepted Atala’s request not to testify. Were you aware of this investigation against Atala or did you find out at that time?
LZ: We had called him to testify about the financial movements destined to attack the Lenca population and my mum. But him exercising his right not to testify against himself must be related to the fact that the Public Prosecutor’s Office must have required him and he must be going through a judicial process, because there is enough evidence of his implication in the murder of my mum. And if he hasn’t been prosecuted in five years of investigation it is because there is no political will and because they are protecting one of the most powerful families in Central America.
As we saw in some of the chats, when some of his employees were arrested, Mr. Atala says that he would speak to the attorney general and the deputy prosecutor. We see that they are being protected and this is an important moment to break with this impunity. But we can’t do it alone, we need the support of the people, for the demands for justice for Berta to be massive.
David Castillo coordinated with Bustillo the actions ordered by the Atala family.
And he met with the hitmen, he got the weapons. According to what we saw in the chats, David Castillo gave Bustillo money and logistics for him to commit the murder.
RWR: Some of us referred to the murder of Berta as a “political femicide” for it being a crime targeting a woman leader, a crime that had political and economic motives, because Berta and the Lenca community opposed the installation of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, and faced high political interests and officials. When presenting her technical assessment in the trial against David Castillo, Dr. Gladys Tzul Tzul concluded that the murder of Berta Cáceres was a “territorial feminicide”, a concept created by Lorena Cabnal. Why can we say that the murder of Berta is a territorial feminicide?
LZ: Because with this crime, the aim was to break with the social network of the communities, their life, their way of acting, understanding that the murder of women goes against community life. Each time a woman is murdered, life is affected, the struggle, the territory, and that is what they planned to do when they spoke of my mum as a woman who led the struggle and thought that with that they were going to destroy everything that was created. And it effectively goes against life, against the community network; if the Lenca people and indigenous peoples are resilient, this is sowing terror, terrorising the people to act against them. This is part of what we saw in the technical assessment by Gladys Tzul.
RWR: And are there any chances for this concept to be included in the verdict?
AM: Honduras is a country that imposes law in an extremely positivist way: what is in the law is what is said. It is very stringent, unless those at the bench are powerful people, as we saw with Daniel Atala. In Honduras we only have the legal concept of “femicide”, which despite being established in 2015, I believe that only 15 verdicts have included the concept. Femicide is not discussed, is not recognised. Before this categorisation, there was a discussion whether the concept of “feminicide” should be recognised as a structural issue by the State. So, if there is not a categorisation of feminicide, it is extremely difficult that a Court, even a Court of Guarantees, will recognise it. It is much easier, maybe, for it to be recognised at a Constitutional Court, as some kind of symbolic mention.
LZ: Beyond what institutions recognise, what matters is to bring these kinds of debates to the judges and judicial workers themselves: it serves to educate and raise awareness on these institutions. It also has to do with achieving justice beyond these institutions.
RWR: And the need for the media to use these concepts to raise public awareness, even if it doesn’t lead to a sentence. Lastly: Will David Castillo testify? How long is the trial expected to take? What verdict are you are expecting?
LZ: Well, we don’t know the exact date. As we have seen it has been very long, longer than we expected. We are at the stage where our lawyers are presenting evidence; then the defence attorneys will have to present their evidence, maybe in two weeks, but it is hard to know. David Castillo could testify at any moment of the trial; but he hasn’t yet.
AM: The evidence already presented has clearly shown how David Castillo participated as a co-mastermind. Maybe we are taking it as a given, but we still need to keep an eye on the court conviction and the characteristics of the individual verdict. We expect him to be convicted. We need to bear in mind that there was an appeal in the previous process, so it is still in the court of appeals.
As Laura said, as Roberto David Castillo has been charged, he can testify at any moment of the trial. But it is very important to keep all eyes on this trial because there is an obvious and logical disconnect between the plaintiffs, who represent the victims, and the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which represents the State but which does not have the political will or technical capacities to address this procedurein the most appropriate way. We have to keep all eyes on this Court. For the first time ever they must be frantic with all the technical assessments about the sociological context and analyses of structural violence and systems of oppression. They must be wondering what is going on, because this is not something that happens every day. So, for the law to be interpreted in an appropriate way it is very important to follow the case because, as Laura said, we are seeing clear signs of this hidden corporate pact. We must keep up the pressure so that the evidence, the logical connection between the masterminds and this person, is truly reflected in the court conviction.