Sole witness to Berta Cáceres murder fears he might be framed, lawyer says
Attorney for Gustavo Castro Soto calls on Mexican government to intervene and secure client’s release from Honduras amid growing concern for his safety
Nina Lakhani in San Cristóbal de las Casas
The lawyer representing the only witness to the murder of the environmental activist Berta Cáceres is appealing to the Mexican government to help secure his release amid mounting concern he could be framed for the killing.
Gustavo Castro Soto, coordinator of Friends of the Earth Mexico and director of the Chiapas-based NGO Otros Mundos, was wounded during the attack in which Cáceres – last year’s winner of the Goldman environmental prize – was murdered.
Cáceres, a longtime friend and colleague, died in Castro’s arms just before midnight on 2 March at her home in La Esperanza, north-west Honduras.
Castro, who only survived by playing dead, was subsequently questioned for 48 hours before investigators said he was free to return to Mexico.
But on 6 March, police stopped him boarding his flight after investigators obtained a court order requiring the activist remain in Honduras to further assist investigators. The order initially prevented his departure for 30 hours but was later extended to a month.
Since then, Castro, who is married with four children, has stayed at the residence of the Mexican ambassador in the capital Tegucigalpa for his own protection. He has not been required to give further assistance to investigators, apart from to hand in his shoes.
In an interview with the Guardian, his lawyer Miguel Ángel de los Santos said he was concerned for Castro’s safety and called on Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto to intervene.
“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,” he said. “We need action at the highest diplomatic level to get Gustavo home.”
He added: “Under Honduran law, witnesses and victims of crimes cannot be prevented from leaving the country. Gustavo’s detention is totally illegal and arbitrary.”
Castro arrived in Honduras on 1 March to give a series of workshops to Cáceres’s organisation, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (Copinh), about alternative energy. He had worked for years with Copinh, which Cáceres cofounded 22 years ago to defend indigenous Lenca community territory.
According to the chronology recounted by Castro to De los Santos, Cáceres invited him to stay with her on 2 March so the pair could continue working that evening. They returned to the house around 7.30pm, ate dinner, and then worked on the patio until around 9.45pm, when they both retired to their rooms.
At around 11.45pm, Castro, who was working on his laptop in bed, heard noises coming from outside. He heard Cáceres shouting “Who’s there?” – and seconds later, the kitchen door was kicked in.
One assailant with a pistol entered Castro’s room, where the Mexican activist pleaded for calm.
Castro heard three shots from Cáceres’ room; then the gunman opened fire. Two bullets grazed his left ear and left hand, and Castro dropped to the ground, where he played dead.
The assailants fled immediately and Castro rushed to Cáceres, who was bleeding profusely from bullet wounds to her heart, left arm and stomach. Castro called for help, but she died almost immediately, he said.
Supporters of the two activists have raised serious concerns over the impartiality of the investigation and the detention of Castro. According to De los Santos, a bilateral treaty between Honduras and Mexico means Castro could still collaborate with investigators from his home in San Cristóbal.
But the Honduran government has rejected calls for an independent investigation overseen by international experts.
Three legal cases, including an attempt to secure a writ of habeas corpus, have been launched in Honduras, but they will almost inevitably be delayed by the Easter holiday.
At least 109 people were killed in Honduras between 2010 and 2015 for opposing infrastructure and logging projects, making it the most dangerous country in the world for environmental defenders, according to the NGO Global Witness.
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