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The Political Anatomy of a Crime

Alice Stevens

Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet, by Nina Lakhani, Verso Books, 336 pp, £23, ISBN: 978-1788733069

Berta Cáceres was forty-four years old when she was shot in her bedroom on March 2nd, 2016. While her murder attracted international attention, she is far from the only environmental activist in Honduras to have been killed for their activism. In the decade preceding her death, Honduras was the most dangerous country per capita in the world for land and environmental defenders (Global Witness). The first official suspect was Berta’s ex-partner, but the initial details of her murder suggested a larger conspiracy. An unmanned police checkpoint. A Toyota without licence plates outside Berta’s mother’s house on the day she was killed. And perhaps most pertinently, as an activist opposing the construction of large-scale energy projects, she had been receiving death threats for years.

If you follow the thread through history, Berta’s murder was no accident. It is a consequence of the same conditions that see families risk the perilous journey through Central America and Mexico to arrive at a country so determined to deter entry that it locks up children and sends asylum seekers back across the border to wait out their case. The US has become such a hostile destination that it almost feels like an afterthought. Anywhere but here.

Words like “violence” and “poverty” tell us part of the story, but they also detract from understanding the interests that underlie the conditions that cause people to flee. The countries of the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America ‑ Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador ‑ are not failed states. They are more like captive states, held hostage by an economic and political elite that benefits from organised crime, insecurity, exclusion, discrimination and economic inequality.

In her new book, Nina Lakhani, The Guardian’s reporter on environmental justice, explores the method to this madness in Honduras; the interests that prop up a regime that is both corrupt and insecure, authoritarian and anarchic. Her point of departure is the murder of Berta Cáceres, an environmental defender who was also an indigenous rights proponent, a vocal feminist and a community leader. Lakhani’s painstaking research and reporting paint a country in the midst of social and political breakdown, a place where it can be hard to discern fact from fiction, the present from the past. It is also the story of Berta.

Lakhani describes Berta’s life and death against the larger backdrop of Honduran and Central American twentieth century history. During the Cold War, Honduras was fortunate in avoiding a series of proxy wars that ravaged Central America, with violence peaking in the 1980s under President Ronald Reagan. In Guatemala and El Salvador, Marxist-Leninist guerrilla groups tried to topple a series of US-backed governments and dictatorships and were met with inconceivably savage repression by militaries that failed to distinguish between guerrillas and the wider population. In Guatemala, two hundred thousand, mostly indigenous, people died in what was the bloodiest twentieth century civil conflict in the Western hemisphere. It is a conflict you scarcely hear of outside Latin America.

Nicaragua became a Cold War battleground after a violent leftist revolution in 1978-1979. The country grappled with a civil war in the 1980s, with a left-wing government pitched against right-wing rebel groups, collectively known as the Contras, who were partly financed and trained with US tax dollars in what was a major scandal of the Reagan administration. Honduras may not have suffered on the scale of its neighbours, but its population got its own raw deal. The game-changing Military Assistance Agreement with the United States in 1954 meant the country operated as a training ground for groups like the Contras, while the Honduran military benefited from the creation of specialised intelligence and counterinsurgency units. Meanwhile, a mix of modest reforms and strategic violence against emerging guerrilla groups, social leaders and political opponents kept opposition in check.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, a series of peace accords in the 1990s, and a shift towards greater democratisation and civilian-led governments, the region moved towards peace. Of course the difference between war and peace may not mean much to a population that has since experienced some of the highest murder rates in the world. Wartime narratives and tactics have proven persistent. One of Lakhani’s most compelling arguments is how counterinsurgency tactics, structures and discourses created during the Cold War have been harnessed to intimidate and neutralise those like Berta and other social leaders who threaten powerful interests. She writes:

After the Cold War ended, repressive security structures were not dismantled. Instead, they morphed into powerful criminal networks linked to corruption and the trafficking of arms and drugs, with clandestine parallel security structures that as part of their remit would target social justice activists labelled anti-development or terrorists. Modern enemies for modern times.

Berta grew up in this fractious time, in a family of organisers and activists in the predominantly indigenous Lenca region, Intibucá. At eighteen, she joined the guerrilla movement in El Salvador alongside her husband. They returned to Honduras and, committed to peaceful struggle, together founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH) in 1993 to advocate for the rights and recognition of the Lenca people. Berta would spend the next twenty plus years engaged in water and land struggles, gaining widespread recognition for her leadership. Internationally, she is credited for her environmental activism, winning the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2016, also known as the “Green Nobel”, but her brand of environmentalism is not in the Western vein. In fact, much of her activism has been directed against “green energy” projects that are contested by the communities that are impacted by their construction. Berta’s rhetoric was more about land, who has it and who decides how it’s used.

Land ownership has always been highly contentious in Latin America. The region has the most unequal land distribution in the world according to the Gini coefficient (which measures inequality). The region is resource-rich and the production of metals, rubber, agricultural products and oil have created massive wealth for Latin American nations, their colonial powers or international corporations at different points in history. (The term “Banana Republic” was coined in 1901 to describe the exploitation of Central America by the US corporation the United Fruit Company). The return of peace to Central America in the early 1990s opened up new opportunities to embrace free-market conditions, including free trade, deregulation and privatisation. Like many other countries, Honduras introduced market-based land reforms that were at odds with indigenous rights guaranteed under international conventions. These reforms ushered in an age of land grabs and megaprojects like mines, dams, logging and agribusiness. And inevitably, conflict over land. As Lakhani puts it: “ ... as always, it’s about the land.”

Every conflict in Latin America is, at the heart of it, about land. Why? Because the distribution of land is directly linked to the distribution of wealth. In Honduras, both are scandalously unequal. This is the most unequal country in Latin America, with the most regressive tax system, and the gap between the richest few and the poor majority keeps growing.

Reminiscent of Ireland in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, in Honduras, the most fertile land is controlled by a small minority. “Approximately 70 percent of farmers hold only 10 per cent of land in small plots, while 1 percent of farmers hold 25 per cent in massive estates” (Lakhani). Land tenure is vital in a region where such a large portion of the population is comprised of small farmers or campesinos. Without much of a social safety net, land ownership is often the only security against starvation. But the conflict goes deeper than that, touching ideas of identity and self-determination. Between 1993 and 2015, titles issued to indigenous communities covered over 10 per cent of the total national land mass. International standards on human rights stipulate that indigenous communities have a right to participation in and approval of decisions affecting their territory, a right which has been repeatedly violated in Honduras.

The indigenous world view often sees land and place as an integral part of identity, conflicting with European understandings of ownership, possession and culture. The scripture of the Mayan K’iche’ people in Guatemala, the Popol Vuh, recounts how human beings were created by the gods out of maize. Corn is not just the sustenance of the Mayan people, it has spiritual significance and is woven into their mythology and art. Just as corn is sacred to the Maya, rivers and mountains are sacred to the Lenca. The construction of hydroelectric dams on Lenca territory has thus created a spiritual as well as an environmental crisis.

The magic realism of Latin American literature has been one means to convey the bewildering way in which absurdity and myth create political and social realities in the region. In El Señor Presidente (Mr President), Guatemalan Nobel prizewinner Miguel Ángel Asturias’s iconic “dictator novel”, truth is constructed through the dictates of the president, even if it contradicts what you’ve seen with your own eyes. The novel continues to be relevant in a country where the last president, Jimmy Morales, was an ex-comedian who campaigned with the slogan “Neither corrupt, nor a thief”. Morales was later investigated on corruption charges.

Reading Lakhani, it’s clear that fact is a malleable concept in Honduras too. In 2009, the country experienced a shock that it has yet to recover from: democratically-elected Manuel Zelaya was ousted after instigating some minor reforms around transparency, energy and the environment. When warned of the imminent coup, Zelaya responded: “You’re living in the Jurassic period. This is the twenty-first century, the world wouldn’t allow it.” Though US president Barack Obama initially condemned what had occurred, then secretary of state Hillary Clinton commented vaguely that “we do not think that this has evolved into a coup” (despite it having all the markings of an old-fashioned military coup).

Regardless of how the US and the Honduran government want to categorise the changes, Honduras has deteriorated since 2009. Corruption is rampant, women’s groups and LGBTI+ communities have faced a new backlash, while organised crime has taken advantage of endemic impunity to consolidate its position in the country. Juan Orlando Hernández, president of Honduras since 2014, has been tied on multiple fronts to cartel activity. In US courts, evidence has emerged that the notorious Mexican kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán contributed $1 million to the election campaign of Hernández. Hernández’s brother, a former congressman, was found guilty by a New York court of drug trafficking just in 2019.

Violence has also surged in the wake of the coup and street gangs like M-13 and Barrio 18 have proven a convenient scapegoat, not to mention the perfect villains to capture the imagination of the international community. Not only do they provide a way to relegate responsibility away from the state, they actually justify state violence and remilitarisation, a common trend in the region. But violence can often be traced back to the state. Lakhani observes that in 2015 the US State Department reported that “unlawful and arbitrary killings and other criminal activities by members of the security forces” continued to be one of the most serious problems in Honduras. And even gang-related violence is often rooted in decisions and behaviours at a state level. Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argues that processes of “decivilisation” arise when a state is deliberately weakened by privileged elites: “Privilege violence begins with an economic and political elite who run the state for their benefit ... By the end, violence that began with the state saturates society.”

Lakhani deftly explores this fallout, mapping the winners in this new political reality and how their interests overlap. The coup was a boon for developers. With few political barriers to big projects, permissions and licences have been rushed through the Honduran congress without environmental impact studies or consultation with communities for indigenous lands, a violation of international treaties. Many of these projects are feeding a demand for green energy in the West ‑ hydroelectric dams, biofuels and wind farms ‑ and receiving funding from international development banks. 

Those like Berta who protest at these projects are individuals or communities that are standing in the way of massive profits. It is a dangerous position to be in. Berta’s last big fight, the one that eventually got her killed, was against the development of a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River, in the community of Río Blanco. The contract for the dam was awarded in 2010 to a private company, DESA, which had not obtained the consent of the local Lenca community on whose land the dam was being built. The project had powerful backers and some of its funding has been tied to the World Bank Group. In response to local resistance backed by COPINH, the town of Río Blanco was militarised and community leaders opposing the dam were threatened, arrested, intimidated and shot.

Berta had no illusions about the risks she faced. Her prescient comments leading up to her murder are haunting. She asked a researcher for the Goldman Prize what would happen if she died before receiving the prize money. And the day before she was killed, she told her daughter: “This country is fucked, but if anything happens to me, don’t be afraid.”

Who killed Berta Caceres? chronicles Lakhani’s own journalistic investigation into the murder as well as the official investigation by the prosecutor’s office up to the conclusion of the first trial of eight suspects in 2018. Murder is rarely successfully prosecuted in Honduras but the international furore around Berta’s assassination meant that a case that could have, like so many others, been ignored, had a light shone on it. However, Lakhani leaves us with more questions than answers. Gaps in the official investigation, red herrings and a lack of transparency in judicial processes make it hard to understand who in fact was responsible for Berta’s assasination. On occasion, the book, like the investigation itself, leaves the reader puzzled by the connections between actors or how events unravelled. But Lakhani’s description of the investigation is also when she is at her most compelling, offering a powerful indictment of the Honduran justice system and peeling back the mask on how power operates in the country.

In one such revelation, Lakhani reveals the bizarre and violent underbelly of the Honduran military establishment. Lakhani made headlines in 2016 when she revealed that Berta’s name was on a military hit list prior to her assassination. Her source was a young military police officer, Rodrigo Cruz (name changed for anonymity), who had gone to human rights groups with the information and then fled the country. His revelations went beyond the hit list; Cruz’s descriptions of the terrible things he had done and that had been done to him provide insight into how a culture of violence creates villains; it illustrates the dehumanisation that must precede transgressive violence:

Cruz showed me his back, scarred by beatings with plaited boot laces, a treatment designed, he said, to build physical and mental strength. The final phase in La Mosquitia included lying on an ants’ nest and explosives training. Only eight of the 200 graduated; the rest were withdrawn sick, exhausted, starving, or mentally broken. The graduation ceremony included killing a dog, eating the raw meat, and getting a hug from the commander.

Lakhani’s investigation leads to further revelations as she interviews seven of the eight men arrested for Berta’s murder and tried in late 2018. The suspects included a melange of DESA managers, ex-military men, and hired hitmen (sicarios). Strangely, two twin brothers were among the accused. Lakhani also interviewed David Castillo, DESA’s president and the accused intellectual author of the murder, who is still awaiting trial.

Lakhani was the only foreign reporter to attend the trial in late 2018. The process deepens the mystery surrounding Berta’s death. The court rejects a number of key witnesses and excludes Berta’s family’s legal representatives from the proceedings. Lakhani recounts how lawyers from the international observer mission are reassured by high-ranking justice officials: “Don’t worry, people will be convicted”, suggesting that the perception of justice is more important than justice itself. While seven of the eight suspects were convicted, the victory rings hollow. Berta’s family (and Lakhani) believe that the chain of responsibility goes much further than the official narrative claims. Lakhani writes:

An independent investigator told me that Berta’s murder had “all the characteristics of a well-planned operation designed by military intelligence, where it is absolutely normal to contract civilians as assassins.” This well-placed anonymous source said it was inconceivable that someone with Berta’s profile could be murdered without at least implicit authorisation from military high command.

David Castillo’s preliminary hearings continue to be delayed. No one else from DESA’s board of directors has been charged or compelled to testify.

In Pedro Páramo, Mexican writer Juan Rulfo describes a community in Mexico undone by the exploitation and violence of the titular character, a landowner. A once vibrant community is reduced to a purgatory, inhabited by the dead and those left behind. “This town is filled with echoes. It’s like they were trapped behind the walls, or beneath the cobblestones. When you walk you feel like someone’s behind you, stepping in your footsteps.” The novel explores the psychological impact on a community of the concentration of power and resources, and the subjugation of communal wellbeing to private gain.

Who Killed Berta Cáceres? illustrates that this cycle of dispossession backed by violence is familiar in Honduras today. It is a cycle that creates both villains and victims, though they are often one and the same. Berta’s death was representative of Honduras’s culture of violence and exploitation, but her life can offer us a respite from it. Her persistence, her sense of justice and her defence of the disenfranchised provides us with a very different vision of her country.

1/7/2020

Alice Stevens has spent over six years working in Latin America in the fields of international development and human rights.

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