SEPTEMBER 3, 2020
SINCE THE ASSASSINATION of opposition leader Berta Cáceres’s in the early hours of March 3, 2016, popular dissent in Honduras has swelled, serving as an ongoing indictment of the Honduran state’s role in the murder. This permanent social outcry has mobilized a multisectoral resistance against long-standing corruption and public divestment, today focused on the presidency of Juan Orlando Hernández, known by his initials JOH, a key figure in the present devolution of Honduran society. But as Guardian journalist Nina Lakhani’s new book, Who Killed Berta Cáceres?, expertly shows, JOH is only the current iteration of a deliberate, elite-led process that has made Honduras into a place of rampant impunity and politically motivated, extrajudicial violence.
Public demonstrations have drawn global attention to the ongoing corrupt practices that have structured Honduras’s deep-rooted dysfunction, laying bare how the power elite deploy coercion to squash and discourage attempts that may interrupt business as usual. In today’s Honduras, despite indiscriminate killings and enveloping criminalization, activists remain resolute in pushing for collective well-being. Upholding the values of Cáceres, these enduring mobilizations of the Honduran underclasses articulate the human right to healthy community, the right to live free of terror and insecurity.
Nina Lakhani’s Who Killed Berta Cáceres is, at its core, a story of aggressions against the Lenca people, the ravaging of the Bajo Aguán for profit, and the impunity that reigns supreme in a place wholly surrendered to global capital, the United States, and to institutions like the World Bank. Adding to a growing literature on contemporary Honduras like Dana Frank’s The Long Honduran Night, Lakhani’s text highlights the country’s role as a counterrevolutionary base of US power, one whose legacies continue to be of lethal consequence. Historically, Honduran power has been the inheritance of a few families that are representative of deep political and transnational business interests — all aligned with US regional aims. Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA), for example, the very dam builder who ordered hired guns to murder Cáceres, is both a continuation of the country’s captured reality and of wider development patterns in Central America. DESA’s Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, like similar megaprojects, effectively reconfigures communities into sacrifice zones for insatiable energy needs. In the end, these development schemes all end identically: they destroy indigenous ways of living by seizing territory, defacing sacred entities like the Río Gualcarque — in short, alienating people from ancestral land.
Examining how Honduras’s political classes came to be allied with US and global capitalist needs, Lakhani captures the insatiate growth of a decrepit politico-economic system — a plutocracy by definition — where as long as US objectives are met, commerce stays active and elites are given free rein. To ensure smoothness to this corrupted form of order that allows for limitless impunity, the Honduran state engages in intimidation, executions, bribes, forced disappearances, and arbitrary jailing, much of which directly affected Cáceres and her colleagues. Her visibility with the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), which she co-founded, made Berta and her colleagues impediments for projects like DESA, defined as the opposition to business as usual. Alongside sister groups like the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras anchored by the Garifuna leader Miriam Miranda, the two mounted an impressive resistance, generating collective power across indigenous and Black communities to push against energy and land grabbing. Thus, beyond an exposé of the state, corporate, and US power that shaped Honduras into one of the most violent places on earth, there is an important subtext here about popular power, a blueprint on how resistance was forged with allied groups such as the Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán Valley (MUCA) to secure victories in the most hostile of conditions.
While the book focuses on the state-corporate apparatus that led to Cáceres’s murder, there is an important core to the text that underscores her activism and organizational strategy — her family and colleagues, noting their capacities to engage in politics in adverse climates. This aspect makes Lakhani’s account read like an activist travelogue as we move through the varied environs of a crumbling Honduras, vigilant to threats against COPINH, reminded of others who fell in defense of their lands, like Lenca leader Tomás García in 2013. Lakhani captures the stress of midnight moves from safehouse to safehouse, the overwhelming conditions that kept Cáceres away from her children, and through it all, a foreboding dread.
Lakhani paints a gripping “versus Goliath” story, highlighting the workings of oligarchic and military rule (e.g., featuring Honduras’s Atala Zablah, Facussé, Násser, and Kafie clans, routinely aligned with armed forces and corporations) pitted against community organizers who oppose the extractive logics that depend on their very immiseration. The text effectively tracks the connections between families and business interests that often reveal deep alliances between the US and traditional Honduran elites long sown via envoys like John Negroponte, as well as cooperation and military training through the infamous School of the Americas.
Land defense and community well-being make up the life politics of racial groups considered to be standing in the way of development, specifically indigenous and Afro-descendant communities, of which Cáceres was an integral part. Rallying around life-affirming projects such as the protection of the Aguán, Cáceres’s work reactivated hope and possibility among varied groups including traditional campesinos, defying state and capital’s efforts to restructure the lives of indigenous people for plunder on this energy frontier. Cáceres’s story is then, at least in spirit, a testament to the joys of social and political struggle for a prized indigenous world, a refusal to relinquish ancestral territory for extractive, neoliberal imagineering. This lifeworld is, despite Cáceres’s absence, still sustained by popular networks of social warriors, friendships, and enduring camaraderie: the very bonds that helped sprout COPINH and that marked Berta’s early formation, reminding us of, for example, her auxiliary role in the neighboring Salvadoran revolution. This is a text of recent history, a political thriller of sorts, that benefits from its embedded style; the book links what are usually consumed as dispatches into an engrossing narrative about the Honduran narco-state: that vicious political economy that ceaselessly produces precarity and fatal marginality.
Unflinchingly, Lakhani confirms how the 2009 coup d’état against then-president Manuel Zelaya defined modern Honduras, inaugurating a permissive political climate driven by elite arrogance and, of course, profound racial and class enmity. Elite arrogance, the book makes clear, led to a decomposition of political rule, where elites like JOH (and his convicted brother, Tony) established ties with narco-trafficking and transformed the state into an instrument for illicit accumulation that went alongside the state’s abandoning of society itself, forcefully displacing many through the much covered migrant caravans. This distorted Honduras into a country characterized by violence, corporate enclaves, and drug corridors. As society further deteriorated, massive security investments would arrive to combat gangs and drug trafficking by equipping police and military to contain social disorder and deliver US-desired migratory control.
Berta’s murder at the hands of corporate goons is a watershed moment for Honduras and for Central America, an unambiguous example of a new kind of development warfare against traditional communities and evidence of an uptick in the brazenness of corporations now leveraging paramilitary units to ensure ecosystem extractions. The Río Gualcarque struggle against the Agua Zarca hydroelectricity complex can stand in for numerous projects taking place in Honduras that are poised to destroy the life systems of other communities much like Cáceres’s. The Aguán experience is not isolated; it echoes struggles from Guatemala to Panamá — from the Maya to the Bribrí, and the Ngäbe-Buglé. When Cáceres resisted the dam alongside her comrades, it’s clear that she had many struggles and political terrains in mind.
Rendering Berta Cáceres’s formation as a political thinker, activist, feminist, and indigenous leader casts an intimate light on the networks of people and the environments that produced who we now simply refer to as “Berta” — the shaping of a sensibility, of generosity, of selflessness as life philosophy: the cardinal directions to her social vision. For me, Cáceres’s life is a metaphor, a stand-in for Honduras and for much of Central America.
Corporate interests, as backed by corrupt states, continue to be the main vectors of displacement, dehumanization, and elimination of communities. This book is a grim reminder of the exhausted development pogroms pushed in peripheral nations like Honduras, only to benefit capitalist actors and their local vassals, all while the all-powerful elites remain obedient to their US overlords. For as long as Honduras is governed as a fiefdom, trampling over the self-determination of its people, Cáceres’s work remains unfinished and worth the struggle.
Jorge E. Cuéllar is Mellon Faculty Fellow and assistant professor of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies at Dartmouth College. He is an interdisciplinary scholar of politics, culture, and daily life in modern Central America.