Nina Lakhani is a freelance reporter covering Mexico and Central America. Her book on the life and death of Berta Cáceres will be published by Verso Books in late 2019.
Berta Caceres was shot dead at her home in La Esperanza in western Honduras on Mar. 2, 2016, one year after she won the prestigious Goldman Prize for leading the charge against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the river Gualcarque, considered sacred to the Indigenous Lenca people.
We now know the murder was linked to Desa, the firm behind the dam. On Nov. 29, seven people – a Desa manager, the company’s former security chief, an active special-forces major and four people described by the courts as hired assassins – were convicted for their involvement in her murder. Desa’s executive president faces his own charges in a later trial for allegedly masterminding the slaying.
Her murder was brazen, brutal and tragic – but in a way, unsurprising. By the time of her murder, Honduras was already the most dangerous country in the world to defend land and natural resources.
By 2016, hundreds of community leaders, journalists, lawyers, activists and political critics in Honduras had been criminalized, harassed and murdered after a 2009 military-backed ousting of the democratically elected president, which ushered in a pro-business government representing the country’s economic elites.
The violence unleashed by the coup was both targeted and generalized, and allowed drug traffickers, street gangs, security forces and paramilitary groups to operate with almost total impunity. In the aftermath of the coup, about 80 per cent of all suspected drug flights departing from South America first landed in Honduras, while investigations linked U.S.-trained special forces to a bloody crackdown on peasant farmers in the fertile Lower Aguan Valley who were involved in a long-standing land conflict with African palm conglomerates.
As violence soared, so did corruption. At least US$350-million was stolen from the public health system (IHSS) and President Juan Orlando Hernandez acknowledged companies linked to the scandal had contributed to his 2013 election campaign. On Nov. 26, his younger brother Tony was charged for drug trafficking and related arms possession in New York. More than $15-million that had been earmarked for agricultural projects was also embezzled through an NGO. And then as corruption soared, so did poverty; as of 2016, more than two-thirds of Hondurans live below the poverty line.
As a result, tens of thousands of Hondurans have fled the country in search of safety and jobs, their despair deepened by presidential elections dogged by allegations of fraud last year, as well as the subsequent security crackdown on protesters, which left more than 30 people dead and scores more detained.
The caravan of migrants and refugees stuck in Tijuana seeking asylum in the U.S. dramatically showcases Honduras’s dire realities: a bankrupt health system, threats of violence, polluted rivers, no land and rising daily costs that have become inaccessible on meagre wages.
I interviewed Ms. Caceres in 2013, and it pained her to see so many people abandon the country. She couldn’t – she wouldn’t – accept a world in which the poor majority are oppressed so the rich minority can thrive. The fight to stop Agua Zarca was, for her, a battle in a much bigger war against the neo-liberal model. She was a compelling orator and a smart political analyst determined to challenge the status quo – which led to threats, harassment, smear campaigns and fake criminal charges.
Her murder triggered international outrage and demands for justice in a country where impunity is king and corruption is queen. Initially, authorities claimed the murder was a crime of passion. When that didn’t stick, attention shifted to her organization COPINH, and then to Gustavo Castro, her Mexican environmentalist friend who was shot in the attack but survived by playing dead.
The crime scene was contaminated, and evidence was allegedly tampered with. But amid strong international pressure, seven of the eight men tried were convicted, in a case that was perhaps the most emblematic of Honduras’s broader troubles.
Still, the ruling only raised more questions than answers about who ordered, paid and benefited from her death. Without truth, there is no justice; without justice, there is no peace. People will continue to flee.
In her home, three years before she was killed, Ms. Caceres told me her name was on a military hit list of social leaders. “I want to live, there are many things I still want to do … but when they want to kill me, they will do it.”
Military trucks circled the house as we spoke. Still, despite the warning signs, no one expected her to be killed. When I got the call that she was dead, I remember thinking: If they can kill Berta Caceres, they can kill anyone.