The new book “Who Killed Berta Cáceres?” by journalist Nina Lakhani documents the murder of environmental defender Berta Cáceres and the investigation and trial of her assassins. Cáceres was an indigenous woman in Honduras and the leader of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH. Both she and her organization were involved in a dispute over the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque river in the community of Rio Blanco. Cáceres was shot three times in her home by an assassin in March 2016 — a year after winning the Goldman Environmental Prize for her activism in stopping the dam’s construction.
Lakhani’s book not only covers the murder of Cáceres, but also her history of activism, the tremendous corruption in Honduras and U.S. intervention in the country’s domestic affairs. While a whole article could be devoted to the latter, I want to focus on the corporate and government-led attacks on Cáceres, her organization and the many other people in Honduras who opposed the dam.
Before she was murdered Cáceres suffered years of harassment, and the struggles she faced serve as a useful case study, documenting the extreme measures corporations and governments are willing to take in order to silence those that get in their way.
Honduras is a signatory of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, which establishes that corporations and or governments are required to seek “free, prior, and informed consent” from indigenous groups before development projects are allowed to go forward on their lands. In the case of Honduras, domestic law does not precisely establish how this process should work, so those seeking to implement such projects have opted for a model of “socialization.” Lakhani quotes an industry spokesperson stating that socialization is “educating communities about the benefits of an energy project, such as jobs and company-funded roads, classrooms and water tanks, as well as disproving the ‘myths’ circulated by opposition groups.”
While this may seem non-controversial, it can also mask a more nefarious agenda of buying off a certain level of community support to give enough cover to go ahead with the project while denying or denigrating those who still persist in their opposition as “anti-development.” In this case those who still oppose the project after “socialization” are deemed illegitimate and become vulnerable to more repressive tactics.
As the movement towards building the Agua Zarca dam continued, COPINH and community members who opposed it became targets of Desarrollos Energéticos S.A., or DESA — the company building the dam, their private security forces, and the Honduran police and military. After machinery owned by DESA was set on fire, arrest warrants were issued for leaders of COPINH, including Cáceres. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International dismissed these warrants as politically motivated.
Nevertheless, the property destruction and criminalization of COPINH leadership led to the militarization of the Agua Zarca project. According to Lakhani, “Private security guards, police and soldiers from the 1st Battalion of Engineers arrived to patrol, intimidate, and sometimes terrorize the campesino communities.” COPINH leadership, including Cáceres, were charged with criminal activity they did not commit, which nevertheless served the purpose of delegitimizing their opposition to the Agua Zarca dam, as well as hindered their ability to continue to speak out against it.
Meanwhile, the process of socialization described above failed to follow the process for real informed consent because it does not allow for the possibility of the community to say no. This left the community and COPINH with the option of supporting the project or have their opposition delegitimized.
Harassment and surveillance
The militarization of the Agua Zarca project entailed the creation of checkpoints around the project and surrounding communities. Additionally, DESA created a network of paid informants and employees in the communities at the center of the Agua Zarca dam project. According to Lakhani, “The best eyes and ears belonged to spies within families opposed to the dam, as they could freely attend COPINH meetings and pick up intelligence useful to the company.”
DESA had someone on the payroll to surveil Cáceres specifically. This inside information gave DESA advanced warnings about mobilizations and protests organized by COPIHN — which DESA could then send private security forces to counteract. In addition to surveillance and the use of private security contractors, DESA also contracted out hired “thugs” to harass community members opposed to the dam. Lakhani tells the story of a particularly notorious hired thug: Olvin Gustavo Garcia Mejia, whose family sold their land to DESA early in the development of the project and who frequently terrorized dam opponents. She quotes one local as saying “People are terrified of him, he’s capable of extreme violence and he’s protected.” The use of surveillance and thugs to harass compliance from the local population is just a prelude to more violent means up to an including murder
In the case of the Agua Zarca project Berta Cáceres was not the only person who was killed for her activism. Olvin Gustavo Garcia Mejia, the thug who terrorized the locals, was suspected of at least one murder in addition to arson and chopping off the fingers of another local who was opposed to the dam. Tomas Garcia, a father of seven, was killed by security forces guarding the DESC operation headquarters. Approximately 200 community members, including Garcia and one of his sons, marched to the compound to demand talks when members of the security forces opened fire, killing Garcia. DESA claimed that the security officer was acting in self-defense. The murder of Berta Cáceres was carried out by three hitman hired by the former DESA security chief.
After failing to stop the protests against the Agua Zarca project through delegitimization, surveillance and harassment, the next step up this latter of escalation was murder. However, it was not just DESA that was tied to the murder of Cáceres. As Lakhani outlines in her book, there is good evidence that Cáceres was on a Honduran military hitlist. This revelation shows how often large business interests and governments are intertwined and seek the same goals, which in this case were the elimination of critics.
The question mark in the title of Lakhani’s book is significant. The assassins that killed Berta Cáceres were arrested, tried and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences. So on the one hand the question of who killed Berta Cáceres has been answered. However, what Lakhani documents in her book is the systematic forces that coalesced to murder Berta Cáceres and repress many of the indigenous communities in Honduras.
Lakhani shows how corruption, U.S. foreign policy, neoliberalism, racism, and misogyny formed a toxic stew that left high-level decisions makers immune to the consequences of their actions. They may not have pulled the trigger, but they created the situations where the murder of indigenous people — who don’t want their sacred rivers dammed — can be murdered.
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