A review of Who Killed Berta Caceres by Nina Lakhani (Verso, 2020). Listen to my WOLA podcast with the author.
Why did 1 in every 37 citizens of Honduras end up detained at the US-Mexico border in 2019, after fleeing all the way across Mexico? Why did 30,000 more Hondurans petition for asylum in Mexico that same year?
During the 2010s, as a correspondent for The Guardian, Nina Lakhani covered the brutal drivers of this migration out of Central America. Her reporting was essential reading. Now she has published a book, Who Killed Berta Caceres, that digs into the pathology of Honduras: a nation that, while never prosperous nor just, has suffered accelerated rot during the 21st century, under the dominion of a kleptocratic and organized crime-tied—but stolidly U.S.-supported—regime.
Berta Cáceres was a prominent indigenous and environmental leader, winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. She was murdered in March 2016, in her home in the town of La Esperanza. Her death poignantly anchors Lakhani’s story of a country badly out of control. Though she only talked to her once—an hourlong interview in 2013—Lakhani puts together a vivid biographical portrait of the co-founder of COPINH, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. Cáceres was a rarely dynamic individual with great energy and creativity, a natural leader. Who Killed Berta Cáceres makes clear how much Honduras’s vibrant but beleaguered social movements lost upon her death.
In telling Cáceres’s life story, Lakhani is also telling the story of how activism in defense of marginalized people has changed, in Honduras and elsewhere, since the Cold War. The old narrative of class conflict, with radicals opting for violent struggle while elites’ enforcers massacre thousands in the name of “anti-communism,” has faded. Now, social movement work is non-violent, in countries that mostly maintain at least a facade of democracy. People organize around identity—as indigenous communities, as women—more than they do around socioeconomic class, though there is strong overlap. Ethnic and environmental struggles are now paramount, particularly opposition to outside elites’ “projects,” like roads, dams, agribusiness, and mines, that threaten to dispossess people, destroy natural wealth, and shatter longstanding ways of life.
In telling Berta Cáceres’ story, Lakhani explores the strategies to which a group like COPINH recurs in this 21st century context, the extent to which these “work”, and how the organizing and media landscape have changed. Lakhani’s account also places in sharp relief what the threats from those in power have come to look like, and how social leaders are kept off balance by relentless intimidation, attacks, and manipulation of the legal system.
Lakhani cogently discusses the challenges Cáceres faced as a woman leading a Latin American social movement. She faced opprobrium for perceptions of neglecting her children. Meetings were tense. “It was uncomfortable. At times, men stormed out, others insulted her, but this motivated her to do more.”
Everything got worse in Honduras, the book forcefully argues, after Honduras’s 2009 coup, in which business elites and the military deposed a left-leaning elected president. Not enough analysts and policymakers realize what a turning point this was not just for Honduras, but for Latin America. Elected leftists have since been had their terms cut short, with tacit military support, in Paraguay, Brazil, and Bolivia (the latter amid allegations of electoral fraud). After Honduras’s coup came a deluge of land grabs, an acceleration of infrastructure projects like the Agua Zarca dam that Berta Cáceres lost her life trying to oppose. Had the coup and the subsequent orgy of corruption and repression not happened, it’s possible that the flow of migrants from Honduras would be far smaller today.
Lakhani is sharply critical of the United States’ role. The Obama administration, then in its first year, initially opposed the 2009 coup, but quickly lost its resolve. Lakhani puts much of the blame on then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, quoting passages from Clinton’s later book. The blame, of course, is more widely spread: the coup plotters spent lavishly on a lobbying campaign that convinced far-right senators to hold up key diplomatic nominations, a form of pressure that proved effective. U.S. NGOs, unable or unwilling to drop everything else on their agendas, couldn’t match that lobbying effort’s energy. While Clinton is clearly a main character for so quickly acquiescing to the coup, neither her book nor Lakhani’s explores the role of Lanny Davis, the Clinton family friend (he was Bill Clinton’s special counsel during his presidency) whom the coup government hired to lead its Washington lobby campaign.
We meet a lot of dreadful characters in Lakhani’s story, most of them men with past military experience who serve as enforcers for DESA, the company seeking the build the dam that would destroy an entire indigenous community’s way of life. Some of them are defendants when Cáceres’s murder finally goes to court. We also meet paramilitary figures in the Bajo Aguán region near the Caribbean coast, doing the dirty work for large estate owners making land grabs to plant oil palms for biodiesel projects. These men are rough, cruel, and corrupt. They are employed by Honduras’s elite, but they aren’t of the elite. They’re on the make, and have found a rare path to social mobility in Honduras, beyond gang membership and drug trafficking.
Peripheral characters in this book are gangs and narcotraffickers, the “badguys” that get the most focus from U.S. policymakers, think tanks, and Pentagon strategists when they make plans for Honduras. In Who Killed Berta Cáceres, the gangs appear mainly as a symptom of the country’s misrule, and the narcotraffickers overlap so completely with the state and the “legitimate” economy that it’s hard to tell them apart.
In one of the world’s most economically unequal countries, Lakhani presents the elite in a nuanced way. Unlike its Central American neighbors, Honduras didn’t inherit its most powerful families from the colonial period or the 19th century coffee boom. The lack of a singularly murderous elite explains in part why human rights abuses in the country during the Cold War, though shocking, were comparatively modest. Those who run Honduras today arose more recently; many are the descendants of emigrants from Christian Palestine. With some key exceptions, they don’t profit from large-scale agricultural landholdings as much as from capital-intensive projects, collusion with organized crime, and corruption. They tend to have a super-capitalist, almost libertarian mindset—the construction of autonomous Ayn Randian “model cities” keeps getting proposed—which endears them to many U.S. policymakers despite their symbiotic relationship with criminality.
This elite functions in close collaboration with Honduras’s U.S.-backed military. Lakhani profiles some of the specialized units that get deployed in social conflicts like COPINH’s struggle. Her portrait of an institution entirely given over to the country’s elites, at the expense of a vast population with few options other than to migrate, shows how infuriatingly little progress Honduran civil-military relations have made since the 1980s transition to formal democracy. It is particularly galling when one sees U.S. diplomatic and military officials heap praise on top Honduran military leaders.
Who Killed Berta Cáceres especially shines in its discussion of the investigation and trial of Cáceres’s murder. Though the reader may need a “dramatis personae” list to keep track of the various middlemen and thugs involved in the murder plot, Lakhani’s narrative is an unflinching look at how impunity works, in Honduras and in much of Latin America. The process drags on. Key witnesses don’t get called. Evidence pointing to higher-ups goes unexplored. Lakhani has difficulty accessing supposedly public documents.
Lakhani meets nearly all of the crime’s material authors in prison, and concludes that they, for the most part, are just trigger-pullers, mid-level planners, or scapegoats. Most of these individuals get sentenced. But who actually ordered Cáceres’s killing, and who were they benefiting? We still don’t know.
“The judges curtailed evidence which threatened to expose a wider conspiracy and criminal network,” Lakhani writes. In the end, even when an internationally renowned social leader is killed, the crime’s masterminds or “intellectual authors” remain, at least for now, out of reach.
“They tried but couldn’t jail her, so they killed her,” Cáceres’s daughter says. “We know it was [the dam-building company] DESA but the question is, who in DESA? It’s going to be down to us to find out.”
Today, in Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández is a paragon of elite impunity. He won re-election in 2017, which used to be unconstitutional: the president’s consideration of the mere possibility of re-election was a pretext behind the 2009 coup. The 2017 election results occurred under very credible allegations of fraud: the OAS couldn’t certify the result. Hernández’s military, including a newly created military police branch, has systematically put down dissent; Honduras is one of the most dangerous places on the planet to be a journalist, a human rights defender, or an environmental activist. The president’s brother, an ex-congressman, is in U.S. prison for narcotrafficking. Even as U.S. Justice Department documents in the case name President Hernández as a co-conspirator, the Trump administration lavishes praise on him as a partner against migration. The State Department said hardly a word when Honduras ejected an OAS anti-corruption mission last year. Meanwhile, the movement of which Berta Cáceres was a key part remains very active, but is under constant threat and is arguably weaker than it was in 2016.
Who Killed Berta Cáceres tells an old story, but updates it for a 21st century context. It’s the story of a leader who makes the ultimate sacrifice after being branded an “internal enemy” for struggling, nonviolently, to defend her people. “If Berta had been killed in the 1980s,” Lakhani writes, “it would have been considered a political murder mandated by state policy. Today, security forces are still deployed to protect foreign and national business interests, but belligerent community leaders are tarnished as anti-development criminals and terrorists, rather than as leftist guerillas.”
It’s not called counter-insurgency anymore—at least not in Honduras—but it’s the same fight, only the battlefield has shifted. Those who fight nonviolently are the heroes here, and that’s why getting at the masterminds of Berta’s killing is so important. Who Killed Berta Cáceres makes apparent that, if one pulls hard enough on that particular thread of the “intellectual authors,” one might just unravel the entire political-criminal apparatus that has overtaken Honduras.
Until that happens, though, the United States, Mexico, and other countries can expect more waves of Honduran migrants. They’ll be fleeing a country that has become unlivable for all who aren’t part of that apparatus.