A defender’s death: Who Killed Berta Cáceres? by Nina Lakhani
In March 2016 Berta Cáceres was murdered, shot multiple times in her own bedroom by a squad of armed hitmen. The Honduran Indigenous leader had only a year previously won the prestigious Goldman Environmental prize for her work opposing dams forced on Lenca communities. But this international attention did little to keep her safe. Berta died as the hit squad fled, while her ally Gustavo Castro, himself only narrowly avoiding murder, attempted to get help. It was the culmination of a campaign of harassment and threats to the Indigenous leader. In the end, Cáceres knew she had a target painted on her back by powerful figures in Honduras and beyond. Given these many enemies – just who killed Berta Cáceres?
In this book, Nina Lakhani, a journalist who crossed paths with Cáceres and regularly covers Indigenous land defenders in Honduras, aims to answer this question. Who Killed Berta Cáceres? provides not only an introduction to this exceptional leader’s life and death, but the structural problems which Indigenous land defenders face in Honduras. For Lakhani, to pose the question of who killed Cáceres also opens the pandoras box of colonial capitalism and its violent reproduction.
Following the facts
Who Killed Berta Cáceres? is, without a doubt, the most comprehensive account of the events which led up to and followed Cáceres murder. As a result of this, it’s possible to gain an insight into Cáceres’s varied life.
Born in 1971, Cáceres’ childhood included helping her mother as a community midwife, walking miles to help treat pregnant women in impoverished conditions. Afterwards becoming a teacher and trade unionist, she gave birth to her first child at 18 and within three weeks had travelled to neighbouring El Salvador to join its guerrilla war. Seeing the damage this war did to fighters and civilians alike, Cáceres became convinced that any social movement in Honduras must not engage in such military tactics. Instead, Cáceres leapt headfirst into organising popular movements for change.
Over the next few decades, Cáceres was a key figure in many different campaigns for justice in Honduras. In particular, she was a co-founder of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) in 1993. COPINH campaigned on many issues from then on, including opposing illegal logging, demanding Indigenous sovereignty, and seeking an end to violence against Indigenous people. Of these many struggles, it was COPINH’s opposition to the Agua Zarca dam which was to provide the impetus for Berta’s death.
The project, supported by a complex web of government, businesses, and international finance, saw a dam being built on the Gualcarque river without the prior consent of Lenca people. Cáceres helped mobilise opposition to the project through COPINH, particularly against DESA – the business seemingly committed to delivering the project by any means necessary. In response there were violent attacks on protestors from the military, police, and private security forces. These dam supporters created complex networks of informants, harassed organisers, and acted as a kind of occupying force. Despite all this, and her name appearing on a government hit list, Cáceres did not back down. Sadly, this saw the dam supports respond by planning her murder.
The book’s coverage of all these events, Cáceres murder, and the subsequent trial sees pages stuffed with the extensive information Lakhani has gathered over the years. Every few pages new individuals, organisations, and events are discussed as Lakhani moves deeper into the rabbit hole of this murder. What may appear from the title as a simple whodunit, instead reflects an investigation likely more robust than the Honduran justice system’s efforts. Revealed in this book is a struggle against colonial capitalism which manifests in any everyday filled with intrigue, violence, and entangled lives.
Between coups and concessions
This book does not simply focus on the life of Cáceres alone. It also discusses much of Honduras’ political and economic history. This is crucial for a full understanding of the struggle at against the Agua Zarca dam. This murder was not an aberrant blot in an otherwise peaceful time but represents wider structural violence facilitated in Honduras. The long legacies of US interference in Central America under the banner of anti-communism, rampant inequality, and increased militarization of life have created a fundamentally harmful system for land defenders.
A key change in recent years for Honduras was the 2009 military coup against President Manuel Zelaya. Once deposed, Zelaya attempted on numerous occasions to return to Honduras and its politics. Despite popular movements supporting Zelaya’s return to Honduras, it became clear that following elections, a more militarised and unequal Honduras would result. Cáceres was an active figure in the opposition against the coup. However, these efforts failed, particularly as the US, through then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, accepted this new state of affairs.
In the years following the coup, judicial independence was curtailed, and land rights were sold at an ever-increasing rate. It was in this context that DESA, the business behind the dam project whose management figures were allegedly deeply involved in Cáceres’ murder, grew in power. As Lakhani makes clear, the Agua Zarca dam is only one of many recently started extractive and violent projects masked with the ‘veneer’ of development. At its core, Who Killed Berta Cáceres? shows we cannot separate this murder from the legacies of US anti-communism and colonial capitalism in Honduras.
The long fight for land defender justice
The harassment and violence that Cáceres received is obviously central to this book. Despite this, her murder is only one of many violent acts found on these pages. In 2013, during a demonstration where soldiers shot at dam protesters, land defender Tomás Garcia was shot and killed. In 2014 longstanding organiser Margarita Murillo was shot dead while tending her crops. The same year, Juan Galindo, another seasoned COPINH organiser, was shot dead. To comprehend the violence Indigenous land defenders face each year, in Honduras and beyond, would demand thousands of similar investigations to Lakhani’s. Systems of violence have robbed the world of figures like Cáceres, Murillo, and more. They each deserve works like Lakhani’s – ones demanding justice and action in the face of systemic violence.
Despite a botched case, which seems at every stage to have undermined Cáceres’ family, seven men were found guilty of Cáceres’s murder. All held different roles in orchestrating the act, but it is clear from the end of the book that these figures are only the tip of the iceberg of those complicit. The fight for justice will be long and tough. There remains a case against David Castillo, the CEO of DESA alleged to be the ‘intellectual author’ of the murder. But beyond Cáceres, there are the many Indigenous land defenders whose deaths have been left unanswered.
Lakhani’s work speaks for itself. It lays bare the facts of the Berta Cáceres case and demands they are faced. In the long struggle against colonial extraction and systematic violence, Who Killed Berta Cáceres? points to the rough road ahead. I shall leave the last word to Cáceres herself. From her 2015 acceptance of the Goldman Prize, this rallying cry stands out:
‘Let us wake up! Let us wake up, humankind! We’re out of time. We must shake our conscience free of the rapacious capitalism, racism and patriarchy that will only assure our own self-destruction. The Gualcarque River has called upon us, as have other gravely threatened rivers. We must answer their call. Our Mother Earth – militarized, fenced-in, poisoned, a place where basic rights are systematically violated – demands that we take action. Let us build societies that are able to coexist in a dignified way, in a way that protects life. Let us come together and remain hopeful as we defend and care for the blood of this Earth and of its spirits.’