The March 2, 2016 assassination of venerated Honduran social movement leader Berta Cáceres sent shockwaves around the world. In her new book from Verso, Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet, journalist Nina Lakhani describes the fraught process that led, two years later, to the conviction of seven men for the murder and the ongoing struggle for justice. In this interview, Lakhani discusses the structural context for the violence in Honduras, the fight against impunity for Cáceres’ killers, and her legacy.
Hilary Goodfriend: Berta Cáceres is internationally celebrated as an environmental activist or an Indigenous land defender. But as your book makes clear, Berta’s organizing extended into multiple spheres, from leadership in Honduras’s post-coup resistance to deconstructing patriarchal oppression within her organization, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). Your research also reveals some fascinating, little-known episodes from Berta’s biography, including her service with the Salvadoran guerrillas during the 1989 Final Offensive. Can you tell us a little about who Berta Cáceres was?
Nina Lakhani: She would never have identified herself as an environmentalist, even though that’s how she became known. I think she first and foremost thought of herself as a social warrior—a luchadora social. She was first and foremost a human rights defender and understood that human rights and land rights and Indigenous rights are all part and parcel of the same thing. She was a pioneer in the fight for equality and women’s rights and LGBT rights as well, but she always saw them under the umbrella of a much broader struggle for equality and human rights in general.
HG: At the time of her murder, Berta and COPINH were engaged in a struggle against the construction of a hydroelectric megaproject by the company DESA in Honduras’ Río Blanco community. At trial, the state prosecutors never presented a clear, comprehensive narrative of the conspiracy. You lay out the available evidence in the book, but there are a lot of unanswered questions about her death. How would you answer your title question of who killed Berta Cáceres?
NL: I see [her murder] as sort of the grand finale of a campaign of terror and violence and threats to neutralize her and COPINH. A private business can’t repress a social movement or a social leader without that explicit involvement and say-so of political and social and security forces. All of those players were involved at different parts, whether before her murder, the murder itself, and after. If she’d been murdered during the 1980s, it’d have been a stone-cold political, state-sponsored killing, because that was the lens [through] which we looked at all murders. I don’t think that it’s really any different. The murder was the last step, because the campaign to neutralize her failed at all the other previous steps: bribes didn’t work, discrediting her didn’t work, slandering her didn’t work, threatening her, they couldn’t put her in jail. It was the last act by these political and economic and security elements, working together in different ways.
HG: This was very much an unfolding story, even as your manuscript was being finalized—especially when it comes to what we call the “intellectual authors” of the crime. David Castillo, the only DESA executive charged for Berta’s murder, was still awaiting trial, and Berta’s family was still demanding justice. What developments have there been in this case since your book went to print?
NL: David Castillo continues to await trial. He was detained just over two years ago, so under Honduran law his trial should begin by September. It keeps plodding along. What was clear to me when I started reporting and investigating her murder is that you couldn’t understand Berta’s murder without understanding who she was, nor could you understand her murder without putting it into a wider context of a criminal state propped up by national and international economic and political powers, including the U.S. government and the World Bank.
All of that is still playing out in a grotesque way. The day after the president’s brother is convicted of being a major drug trafficker, and after the president himself is named as a co-conspirator in this international drug trafficking network, he appears at a public event with the acting U.S. ambassador to Honduras. What we’re seeing now, during the pandemic, is an authoritarian who is in power not because he won an election, but because he won in 2013 using money that was clearly from illicit activities—drug activities—and stolen from the public purse, and in the second election, which was fraudulent. He’s emboldened to do what he wants. You see this every day with the number of people that are leaving Honduras, who would rather risk having their kids taken away and being trapped at the U.S. border than staying in their country. I see Berta’s case unfolding in that way as well.
Yes, the fight for justice in her case goes on. Castillo is the only executive [charged], there’s two other DESA employees who have been convicted. But those who paid for the crime, who ordered the crime—because it certainly wasn’t Castillo acting alone—have not even been interviewed. All the international pressure that was on the Honduran government in the first two or three years—with the current U.S. administration, they don’t feel any pressure at all.
HG: One of the arguments at the heart of your book is that Berta’s murder, and the social and ecological destruction in resource-rich areas like the Bajo Aguán, is the consequence of the insatiable demand for energy in major economies like the U.S. and what we might call “green capitalism,” or the free market expansion into so-called renewable energy industries, whether it’s biofuels from African palm plantations or hydroelectric power from river dams like the Agua Zarca. What is the role of these industries in the violence that plagues Honduras today?
NL: First of all, even thinking about them as energy projects is a myth. These aren’t projects to provide energy to people of that country. A lot of this energy is used to fuel mines and other extractive industries. Show me a community which has had its river taken away, its land taken away, campesinos killed, where now everybody has light—I haven’t ever come across one. Does some of this energy end up outside the country in people’s homes? Absolutely. But a lot of it doesn’t, a lot of it is used to fuel this insatiable drive to get resources out of the ground. We’re in this vicious cycle of extraction, extraction, extraction.
That’s why Berta opposed Plan Puebla Panamá, for example, from the very beginning. She knew these projects would be death sentences, literally and metaphorically; if you take away a community’s river, the community cannot survive. Río Blanco without a river is a dead community. People who had been living sustainable and self-sufficient lives, they are bullied, threatened, coerced, bribed, tricked into having these projects in their communities. This spells the end of their way of life. These energy projects are fueling forced migration not just from Honduras but from across the region, as are mines and other extractive projects.
Berta wasn’t against green energy projects. She was against having any project imposed on a community without consultation and without proper compensation. If you’re going to make millions of dollars out of a river by generating electricity, then the community needs to be adequately compensated, not a few cents here and there, or going to a local government and offering communities basic things like classrooms or even light or roads. That’s not payment, these are services that everyone has a right to, and it’s the state’s obligation to provide them.
It’s a myth on so many levels, this green energy myth. The Aguán is a perfect example—hundreds of campesinos forcibly evicted from their land killed, communities and families split up, for what? For an inedible palm to make biofuels and junk food. The Aguán was the bread basket of Central America. It exported grains and other produce for years, and now you can’t grow anything. This palm has made a few people very rich, and there’s been a lot of carbon credits trading done. We’ve seen this not just in Latin America, but in Asia, in African countries, it’s so destructive. It can’t be a coincidence that there’s violence associated with the imposition of these projects everywhere in the world.
HG: Another thread that runs through your book has to do with the legacies of U.S. imperialism, and specifically U.S. counterinsurgency training of Honduran security forces. How has the U.S. government contributed to the creation and maintenance of what you call the “criminal state” or the narcostate that has consolidated in Honduras?
NL: Honduras and the U.S. have a special relationship—I know other countries claim that, but they really have. Honduras has depended on the U.S. first [with] bananas, then mining and other industries for foreign capital. That very unequal, dependent relationship starts way back. There was no national armed forces in Honduras until 1954, there were regional units. These were brought together under a National Armed Forces by a law written by the U.S., which enabled it and continues to enable it to use Honduras as a military satellite. That’s where the coup in Guatemala was launched, which led to the insidious civil war. That also fueled this dependency of American dollars coming into the military.
In the late 1970s and early 80s, there’s all of the anti-communist Cold War paranoia, and John Negroponte is named ambassador. Honduras is turned into the U.S.’ Cold War military satellite to train and fight its dirty wars in Central America. While there is no official civil war, it is where the worst death squads are trained, from El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua—they all come to Honduras, to the Bajo Aguán to be trained. It’s where Chilean and Argentinian dirty forces, well-trained previously by the U.S. in torture and disappearance, are invited come to teach more of the same. There’s a massive injection of U.S. personnel and military dollars and aid. The embassy becomes one of the highest staffed in the world, and the whole operation is run from there.
As the Berlin wall comes down and the Cold War comes to an end, there’s a lot of cleaning up that goes on, but that counterinsurgency and the special forces way of doing business just doesn’t disappear. Some of these units were disengaged, but some were just suspended and can be brought back to life whenever needed. Those same military powers are the ones that enter organized crime or form alliances with new forces. Emerging from the counterinsurgency state you have the criminal state.
With the coup in 2009, it takes hold of every aspect of every institution—judges, businesses, prosecutors’ offices, security forces. Honduras was never a failed state, it was just the strengthening of the criminal state. You’ve got the economic elite with organized criminals at the top, and the political power is very much a second layer. There’s overlap: the Hernández and Lobo families are classic examples. But really, the power brokers are the money men.
In the case of Berta, two people convicted in her murder were trained by the U.S. at the School of the Americas, one of whom was special forces. He was on his way to being a colonel lieutenant. He had received U.S. training; he had been in Iraq and had been a UN peacekeeper not a few years earlier. David Castillo did his whole military training at West Point, he’s a U.S.-trained ex-military intelligence officer. So broadly speaking, in terms of the techniques and strategies used against Berta and others, the U.S.’ tentacles are everywhere, but specifically, two people we know who are convicted of playing a role in her murder [were U.S. trained].
HG: You are also a character in this story. While covering the investigation and trial, you faced threats from a fabricated campesino group and were even called out by name by Honduran authorities for exposing information linking top military brass to Berta’s murder. As a journalist, how did you navigate the risks of reporting in these circumstances?
NL: I come from a tradition of journalism where being a part of a story is not what we do, I find it really uncomfortable. The moment I first published the story about Berta’s name appearing on a hitlist, that’s when high level ministers and the armed forces chief of staff and the U.S. ambassador launched this very dirty campaign to try to discredit me. The U.S. did it off the record, saying I had no idea what I was talking about, I was just some young journalist. [The Honduran military] called me out by name, with a picture, saying that I was trying to stain the good name of the Honduran armed forces. All these fake materials were passed around, and from that moment on until the trial, I never published another story about Honduras while I was in the country.
I’ve never been back into Honduras by plane. I go in overland using different routes, because Honduras has an inglorious track record of stopping journalists, activists, and human rights monitors at the airport and turning them away on trumped up immigration charges. Honduras has this criminal defamation law. They can charge me, arrest me if I’m entering the country, and force me to wait in jail. Criminal defamation is condemned by every freedom of speech organization because of its repressive impact on journalists and others.
I didn’t want to be bullied into leaving. I made as much noise politically, publicly, and diplomatically as I could. I put in place a series of measures to protect myself—a lawyer to act on my behalf in case I was detained. I made sure the message got to the U.S. embassy, I spoke to the UK ambassador, I went to speak to the EU. There was a brilliant group of freedom of speech organizations, human rights organizations and movements in Honduras and around the world, they made so much noise.
HG: Bringing it back to Berta, can you say a little about her legacy in Honduras in the contemporary social movements, and what would justice look like in this case?
NL: I don’t want to speak for the family, but how do you feel justice has been done in any crime? To me, that’s when no stone is left unturned, where investigators go wherever the evidence leads them, no matter how high, no matter who it touches. Until every line of inquiry is investigated, I don’t think anybody could claim that justice has been served. Even at the most simple level, there are dozens of phone numbers still not looked into properly, at least one other person who was there the night of the failed mission to kill her has still not been identified.
She wasn’t just anybody. They killed her because they knew the devastating impact it would have on the social movement in Honduras, and it has had that devastating effect. It’s still recovering.
I think her legacy is multifold. For lots of people, her leadership role and vision in recovering the Lenca identity, in retrieving that pride in identity and culture will be her greatest legacy. Her actions, in a society ruled by machismo and patriarchy, to call out and act towards equality was absolutely pioneering. I don’t know many Indigenous organizations that have done that even today. She made LGBT rights a core principal of COPINH. For her, every battle was her battle. Any inequality, any injustice was her battle.
She understood local battles in regional and global terms, economic and political terms. There are few people that can do that as smartly and eloquently as she could. Her being remembered as an environmentalist is very narrow, but she understood that the battle for the Gualcarque river was emblematic. It was a battle in a much bigger war, because that imposition of that dam spoke to taxpayers’ money coming through development banks, it spoke to the militarism that had been greenlighted through the coup and afterwards, it spoke to this green energy myth, it spoke to the repression of Indigenous people and the right to self-determination, not just in her corner but everywhere. She obviously massively cared about that community and that river, but it was so emblematic of all these greater forces.
Fundamentally, what anyone who knew Berta would say is that she believed in change. She believed in a better world, that it doesn’t have to be like this. There is enough natural wealth and resources in Honduras for everybody. We don’t have to live in a country where tens of thousands of young people flee every year to work in horrible conditions, and leave their children and their family. Always, she believed in a better Honduras. She could see that it had the potential as a country, and in every battle I think that’s what she was fighting for.
Hilary Goodfriend is a doctoral student in Latin American Studies at the National Autonomous University of México (UNAM). She is a member of the NACLA Editorial Board.