When the investigation of the murder of her mother began, Laura Zúñiga never imagined that five years later she would hear the verdict that the Honduran Justice issued this week. After years of complaints of obstacles in the judicial process on the case of the Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres, the court has sentenced David Castillo, a former military man trained by the United States in West Point and former executive president of the hydroelectric company Empresa Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) , the company that his mother fought so hard against because of the abuses committed in indigenous communities.
“It’s easy to get killed in the fight for the environment”
Laura Zúñiga celebrates the ruling, since she declares Castillo as a co-author of the crime and points out that the ex-military man functioned as an indispensable link between the material and intellectual authors. But the judicial process is not over for the Cáceres family, who point even higher. Precisely, they seek to reach those who devised and ordered to end the life of the renowned defender of the environment and human rights.
As the daughter of Berta Cáceres and a member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh), how do you assess the ruling?
I, who was most of the time at the hearing, was already certain that he was guilty. We knew it since my mom’s funeral, when we met, talked and understood the situation. But looking at each test, I was very sure. The thing was how to manage to confront all the power there was to protect Castillo, understanding that he is part of a criminal system. And its role as a logistical element of the intellectual structure was evidenced, it was the highest level operative in planning the assassination.
We know that we have faced one of the richest families (the Atala Zablah) and that accusing a businessman was very difficult. It was a lot of effort and when we received the conviction, there was joy, relief and it was to remember that five years ago we would not have imagined that we were going to be able to prosecute him. So we receive it as a victory, we celebrate it. Thinking that it does not end here, but that it is one more step in the long process of justice for my mom. But it is a very good precedent and it responds to the work we did.
That they condemn him as a co-author and not as an inducer, which the prosecution proposed, is very important. Because it was to recognize the work of our legal team, the private prosecution, which always cost us to be respected. Getting it to be reflected in the ruling is also a precedent in how to work.
You have to be rigorous in the legal field, in the accompaniment that was outside the Court. People spent three months in the camp [levantado frente al juzgado para pedir justicia], at times with rain that soaked you in two minutes. And they endured. That force has a lot to do with it.
Aside from belittling the private prosecution, what other complications did you face in the case?
I think the most serious was the delay in the process. Two years in which we could not open the oral and public trial. That stage of the testing debate was super exhausting, not knowing when it was going to be, how to prepare. It was also a lawsuit that they allowed to introduce the evidence, especially the expert opinions, that I could be in the room. Sometimes they even took us out of virtual audiences. Until the last moment, when I spoke the penultimate word, they cut me off.
Another complicated thing was the aggressiveness of Castillo’s defense, which was always trying to criminalize the victim, or generate hate speech against a person already murdered. It was quite annoying. It was a very disparaging court many times, it was facing a prosecutor’s office that denied us information. But we already lived it once and we were prepared, now we take it differently. I think we knew how to deal with it well, even when we stopped the court or the lawyers.
Castillo’s defense tried to argue a close link with Berta, when it was a military intelligence job that ended in the murder of your mother. What has it meant for you?
The exercise that I have done is to try not to affect me emotionally, especially. But it is outrageous, because they are tactics used against women. We can identify it in other cases, intelligence and military training are used to seek to approach and obtain information. And that information was then passed on to the groups that the company had running to try to dismantle and neutralize the struggle of my mom and the Río Blanco community.
But it also means a patriarchal legitimation of judging women and justifying men in their acts of violence. It bothered me a lot when they asked me if they were friends. I replied: “No, I deny it. But if they had been, it doesn’t excuse it either,” because most femicides are committed by close people. The expertise of (the Maya K’iché) Gladys Tzul Tzul helped a lot on this issue.
I wanted to ask you about his expertise and that of Harald Waxenecker, something never seen in a trial in Honduras. What was the importance of them declaring?
Gladys’s, above all, dealt with gender relations and talked about how Castillo sought to get closer to my mom, get information from her, and attack her for being a woman. How companies seek to attack female leaders to break the social fabric in communities and attack their struggles. Women are made much more vulnerable than men. With attacks on their children, their environment, from their decisions or private life. It does not mean that defenders are not attacked, but that it is otherwise and it was evident in this case.
What Harald does is an analysis of power networks based on telephone data, where it is shown that there were two large groups that acted to kill my mommy. One was the one who did the murder, the hit man group, and the other was the power group, the intellectual murderers. And David Castillo functioned as a liaison, hence the importance of his being found guilty. The sicarial group functioned subordinate to Castillo and carried the links, information and logistics necessary for the assassination. It shows how the Honduran Armed Forces operated to attack the Río Blanco community and my mom.
Then it was about how these power groups, the intellectual murderers, manage to have that power. And they do it by corrupting the institutions of the State, so that extractive projects are installed with the security forces, the laws, the Public Ministry (MP). And when there is opposition, to violate the communities.
During the expert’s presentation, Castillo’s defense sought to discredit the indigenous worldview and its organizational logic.
They even wanted to delegitimize the expert evidence itself, they said it was something romantic, “because it cites books.” It was to deny the forms of thought and construction that indigenous peoples have, the communal territorial logics, of collective lives, of caring for common goods, wanting to devalue it. And then, it was wanting to deny that my mom was indigenous.
Then they asked (the expert) who could be and who could not. Gladys was very right there when she said that it has to do with self-determination, self-identification and also with the community with her people. They didn’t even want to call her Doctor. It was very crazy, because the defense consultant is a man who left the university as a misogynist and denies the defenders of the land and the territory. And it is who they take to ask questions of Gladys, an indigenous woman. It was well visible what interests these sectors respond to.
What remains to be done?
First, deepen the justice processes against the intellectual murderers of my mother, who is the Atala Zablah family. There are their communications, it has been evident, since they participated in the murder until they sought impunity. When Sergio (Rodriguez, DESA Communications Manager) is captured, Castillo calls Jacobo Atala to inform him and he responds “now they have completely sunk us” and adds that he is going to call the Minister of Security, the Attorney General and the Deputy Prosecutor. .
But there was also a moment in the trial when the expert who made the telephone extractions projected his screen and a conversation was seen in which Daniel Atala offered him his services. It further evidenced the interference of this family, not only in the murder of my mother, but also in seeking impunity. At this point, there is more and more information about how they participated in this murder. Then you have to prosecute them.
What is the status of the project your mother fought against?
DESA has already been proven to be a criminal enterprise, they are murderers. Still, the river remains under concession. The Gualcarque river concession must be definitively canceled. But Río Blanco continues to resist and cultivate on the lands that DESA tried to appropriate, which is very symbolic and beautiful. In the communities, the fight against the extractive system continues, against impunity.
Since May, a camp made up of members of Honduran social and indigenous organizations have requested justice for the murder of Berta Cáceres at the gates of the Tegucigalpa Sentencing Court. What has it meant for you?
I believe that the camp was a moment that committed us even more and that achieved an exchange between communities, a strengthening of solidarity. And this trial, with all the learning to challenge the justice institutions, shows us that beyond being super strong and having power, the struggle, the organization, not getting tired, is what allows us to have won this ruling and that we are in the fight for others to start. Today people are organized with more conviction than before, with the certainty that fighting is how things are achieved.