Berta Cáceres had seen the signs. She knew, better than most, that her time was running out. But the threats being leveled against Honduras’s most famous land and human rights defender—the venomous messages on WhatsApp, the armed stalkers—had become so regular that, even as the danger escalated late in 2015, her family and friends thought nothing would ever come of them. Any illusions of invincibility were shattered the night of March 2, 2016.
Berta’s assassination marked an ominous new era. As early as 2002, police or military-affiliated death squads in Honduras—resurrecting the tradition of state killings carried out by groups such as Battalion 3-16 in the 1980s—would execute low-level political activists or teenagers accused of gang activity. But Berta was different. She’d been famous on an international scale: waging successful campaigns against powerful dam corporations, traveling the world raising awareness of those struggles, meeting the pope, and winning the Goldman Prize—the “Green Nobel”—for her work. If they could kill her, it meant no one in Honduras was safe.
Her murder added another macabre chapter in the history of Honduras, which in the wake of a 2009 U.S.-backed military coup has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world—especially for human rights defenders.
Besides Dana Frank’s The Long Honduran Night—an exhaustive account denouncing the injustices forcing millions to flee that country—there has been a striking absence of literature unpacking the nightmare of post-coup Honduras, now suffering under a U.S.-backed regime many call a “narco-dictatorship.”
But Nina Lakhani, who met Berta when she began reporting on Central America in 2013 and who covered her life, her death, and—facing terrifying personal risk—her murder trial, has provided a welcome and much needed antidote. Her new book, Who Killed Berta Cáceres? synthesizes multi-decade history and investigative reporting—drawn from Lakhani’s time covering Honduras—to paint a haunting portrait of the doomed environmentalist. The book transcends biography, painting a panorama of a region condemned to struggle under neoliberalism and U.S. imperialism. To date, it is the most powerful English-language indictment of the violence unleashed on Honduras.
The Political Origins of Violence Against Environmentalists
Not long after the assassin pumped the bullets into her chest, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, soon to be besieged by drug trafficking scandals, made an address to a grieving nation:
“The state of Honduras has been directly attacked by the death of Berta Cáceres,” he lamented with all too predictable melodrama and aplomb. “This is a crime against Honduras, a blow to the Honduran people. It will not go unpunished.”
If she had been alive to hear these words, Berta would have laughed.
Who, after all, benefited the most from the assassination of one of the most charismatic critics Honduran governments?
Berta was killed after helping the rural indigenous community of Rio Blanco fight the construction of the Agua Zarca dam—the largest of its kind in Central America—which would both displace the village and the divert waters of their sacred river, the Gualcarque.
Energy from Agua Zarca was to be directed to a nearby mining project, one of the many extractive concessions granted out with abandon in the wake of the 2009 coup. The pretext for that event—which saw the military kidnap then-President Manuel Zelaya from his house and, while still in his pajamas, fly him out of the country at gunpoint—was the Honduran business elite’s apprehension over his slight shift to the Left (though Zelaya, when I interviewed him, suggested his overthrow received international support as well—that the final straw wasn’t his receptiveness to social movements as much as his gestures towards joining ALBA, a Venezuelan oil alliance). Zelaya’s ouster, and the violent repression of the protests that followed, was condemned the world over. But it was soon legitimated by the United States. Aid was resumed to the new post-coup regime, which, stacked by free market fundamentalists as much as drug traffickers, began authorizing mining projects around the country and environmentalists, already endangered, began getting killed at ever greater rates.
The contradiction of a government shedding crocodile tears over the assassination of an activist it once worked to criminalize and imprison is clear enough. But though many investigators pointed out the Honduran government’s antagonism for Berta preceding her death, many like her who were killed are assumed to have been victims of mere drug violence, with government narratives that they “failed to protect them” taken at unquestioned face value.
U.S. media coverage of Latin America tends to bleach violence of its political nature, treating the killings of human rights workers across Latin America as resulting from the avarice of cartels or, in the “bad apple” scenarios, from cartel infiltration into otherwise well-meaning governments.
Violence in Latin America, write Dawn Paley and Simon Granovsky-Larsen in Organized Violence, “tends to be linked, by governments and the mainstream media, to criminal activity or the drug trade. What is not told is that this violence can take on a reactionary character, and its victims were, often in nontraditional ways, participating in local autonomies or acts of resistance, or building towards alternative futures.”
This narrative is trapped within what Mexican journalist turned scholar Oswaldo Zavala, in his controversial work Los Cárteles No Existen, calls “the epistemological limits of the state.” Within the overworked, Procrustean bed of this framework, the hundreds of environmental defenders gunned down in Latin America—340 murdered between 2016 and 2019, according to Global Witness—are painted as tragic victims of the drug violence’s random and uncontrollable juggernaut.
Lakhani’s biography is a sobering corrective to the false state and media narratives in Latin America. Through the life of Berta, culminating in the night of her death, we see that the two phenomena of violence and environmentalism—ostensibly apolitical and separate—are deeply intertwined.
From an investigative standpoint, Who Killed Berta Cáceres adds to a growing body of literature refuting the baseless, Netflix-fueled mythology of “drug violence.” Lakhani’s meticulous documentation of the groups targeting Berta—with ties to corporations trafficking drugs and politicians facilitating that drug traffic—supplements the investigations of Dawn Paley, Oswaldo Zavala and Alexander Aviña: scholars and journalists who have all demonstrated that “Drug Wars” have less to do with stemming narcotics than militarizing impoverished societies to gain access to resources.
A collection of US-trained ex-army officers, and the teenaged sicario they hired, carried out the killing, with links to DESA, the company building the dam. But they were not the only ones trying to kill Berta. A deserting soldier who spoke with Lakhani, implicated a Special Forces unit of the Honduran military that, according to the deserter’s testimony, functioned as a death squad. Even as it receives millions in U.S. funding to fight drugs, the Honduran government is, and has long been, suspected of trafficking drugs. As Lakhani documents, much of that money is instead funneled toward arming security forces engaged in repressing and killing activists.
By examining the political nature of Berta’s environmentalism, Lakhani adds to the legacy of political ecologists like Susanna Hecht—thinkers for whom environmental destruction should be seen as the ineluctable outgrowth of human conflict.
In her classic The Fate of the Forest, Hecht demonstrated how the ongoing destruction of the Brazilian Amazon, contrary to popular opinion, was not due to Malthusian hordes of peasants advancing on the “untamed” forest. The forest had long been home to people—Indigenous peoples, ex-slaves, and rubber tappers—who each, in their own ways, were sustainable stewards of the forest. The contemporary destruction hurt the forest just as much as its residents, beginning with designs of right-wing military generals. In power after the 1964, U.S.-backed coup and motivated by messianic ideological visions of “inundating the forest with civilization”—they set about creating massive, state-subsidized development projects, such as mining and cattle concessions. These efforts were protected by the military, just like the ones Berta died fighting against. The result of their efforts was massive forced displacement of people already living in the Amazon, the production of violent land conflicts, and deforestation and species kill offs so widespread that they could only be considered ecocide—what Hecht termed an “Environmental Holocaust.”
The 2009 coup, in a similar maneuver, augured environmental nightmares of unseen proportions. Lakhani illustrates how the policies of the post-coup government, which, alongside austerity that deepened poverty and mass militarization that inflamed urban violence—earmarked thirty percent of national territory for toxic mining concessions, accelerating ecocide on a massive scale. By locating Berta’s environmental struggles as battles against state militarization, U.S. imperialism, and capitalism, Lakhani rejects the dichotomy of environmentalism in Latin America as a fight between an uninhabited Earth and homogenous encroachments of people. Rather, it is a deeply political fight between those who live in relative harmony with their ecosystems—often Indigenous people already marginalized by their governments—and militarized states bent on the violent dispossession of those peoples for their land and resources.
Frank’s The Long Honduran Night was groundbreaking for breaking the silence over the violence following the coup in Honduras. Lakhani builds on Frank’s tradition, with supple, rhythmic prose and cinematic imagery that lend her book a unique appeal. The latter’s narrative thrust carries the reader along with novelistic force, the story racing towards a finale no less tragic because the ending is already known.
In November 2018, seven men were convicted in a Honduran court for carrying out the assassination. But many cynics argued that their conviction—an rare occurrence for a country where 91 percent of killings go unpunished, according to Human Rights Watch—was an attempt to create a false facade of justice in a narco-state marred by impunity.
The intellectual authors of her murder, those who ordered her dead, remain at-large. The battles she died fighting continue raging.
Violent Dispossesion Continues in Honduras
Late last year, I reported on an environmental conflict in Honduras’s Aguán Valley, where campesinos near the village of Guapinol are engaged in a brutal standoff with a mining corporation, seeking to construct an iron oxide mine on the cusp of poisoning their rivers. Eight people have been killed in the conflict. Eight environmentalists remain unjustly incarcerated. The various organizations fighting the mine are subjected to constant bogus accusations of being fronts for criminal organizations. The military acts like mercenaries for the corporation, almost indistinguishable from company guards, patrolling communities adjacent to mine infrastructure and harassing, some say torturing, those who resist.
Later, a representative for the mining corporation—whose co-owner Ana Facussé hails from one of the powerful families in the country linked to drug trafficking—told me I’d been duped. The anti-mine environmentalists, he wanted me to believe, were armed criminal subversives sent from outside the region to exploit the foreign press for economic gain and “keep development from reaching the Aguán.”
Around the same time of my absurd interchange, my fixer—a local environmentalist and TV journalist—began receiving death threats he believed were related to our reporting. He was forced to go into hiding and later flee the country.
In the four years since Cáceres's murder, and nowhere more visible than in Guapinol, the criminalization of Hondurans defending the Earth has continued, strong as ever.
Before his 1988 assassination at the hands of gunman associated with ranchers, Brazilian unionist-turned-environmentalist Chico Mendes said, “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”
In her vision for social justice that infused her environmentalism with anti-capitalist and feminist critiques, the same could be said for Berta Cáceres. She never identified as an environmentalist: she was a luchadora social, a social warrior. For her, to fight for the environment and to fight for the poor were one and the same, part of a singular struggle for a more just world.
For those engaged in the same struggle as her, her life offered an example of how to act. But her killing may have been a canary in the coal mine—a preview of the violence that has only begun.
Jared Olson is a writer, freelance journalist and Pulitzer Center grantee with a current focus on the struggle for justice in Central America. His writing has appeared in The Nation, Toward Freedom, and El Faro English.