Photo: CNN
Photo: CNN

The United States may have been involved in the murder of Berta Cáceres

"I'm on the list...", the Honduran social defender told journalist Nina Lakhani years before her death.


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Lenca indigenous leader Berta Cáceres was killed in her home one night in early March 2016. Several armed men broke in and shot her dead, also wounding Mexican activist Gustavo Castro. 

Two years later, there was a trial as a result of international pressure and seven people were convicted, including state security officials, employees of DESA, the company whose dam Cáceres was trying to prevent from being built, and several hitmen.

Nina Lakhani was the only foreign journalist to attend the trial. She had met the social justice defender and had spoken to her several times in the years before her death. 

The first time they met, Berta told her: "The army has a list of killings with my name on it at the beginning. I want to live, but in this country there is total impunity. When they want to kill me, they will."

Four years later, and as a result of an investigation that led her to receive threats, Lakhani puts together in her book Who killed Berta Cáceres (June 5, Verso Books) the pieces of a puzzle whose main culprits, the country's economic and shadowy elites in collusion, she assures, with the United States, remain unpunished. 

"When there is a death list, what we know about this type of list from other countries is that the plan is never to kill everyone, the plan is to neutralize them. In Berta's case, several people with previous and current ties to the armed forces did participate, and several of them were trained by U.S. military personnel," she told DW.

According to the journalist, there was a terror campaign against Cáceres, the organization she led — the COPINH (Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) — and the community, which considered the river where the dam was to be built sacred.

"There were threats, there was violence against other local leaders, there was sexual harassment, criminalization and defamation. The assassination was the last step, because with all the other tactics, Berta was not neutralized and silenced", she said, adding that since 2013, banks such as the Swedish development bank FMO were aware of the repression in the area, and even today are still looking for partners among the same Honduran elites that benefited from the 2009 coup d'état — the first of the 21st century — which was supported by the United States. 

The dam was the tip of the iceberg

"Honduras is open for business." That was the motto under which the coup government organized an international symposium in 2010 to attract foreign investment. The central point of their economic plan was renewable energy, with dozens of hydroelectric dams they planned to build all over Honduras to boost the economy.

"If Honduras was a place where these projects would have generated work and development, and we are talking about hundreds of these projects approved since the coup d'état, why do thousands of Hondurans continue to flee the country, looking for decent work and security," she pointed out.

One of the dams was intended to be installed on the Gualcarque River, which crosses the west of the country and where a small number of Lenca indigenous people live. They claimed that interrupting the flow of the river would not only degrade the land and their crops, but that El Gualcarque was sacred for them, "their life blood."

"For the country's elites, the fact that a woman, who is also an indigenous person, could stand up to them and block their plans and business was intolerable."

Berta Cáceres, who was already one of the most prominent social justice defenders in Honduras and even on the continent, led a campaign to stop the construction of the dam, which three years later, in 2013, was to become tremendously violent, even causing the Chinese company that took over the project to abandon it. 

The Honduran company in charge of the dam, DESA, moved it a couple of kilometers upstream, but Berta and the Lenca continued to contend that this was not enough and was going to devastate the community. A few years later, Cáceres, who had won a Goldman Prize in 2015 for her opposition to the construction of this dam, was killed, as were 14 other activists. The company targeted DESA, but it was some time before it got the attention and became the main suspect in her death. 

The culprits, however, are able to manipulate the judicial system as they please. The murder of Berta Cáceres was never tried as a political crime. 

"For the country's elites, the fact that a woman, who was also an indigenous person, could stand up to them and block their plans and businesses was intolerable. However, machismo and racism were never taken into account as important elements in the case brought by the state," said Nina Lakhani. 

American support

Before the coup d'état, Berta Cáceres was a candidate for the vice presidency on an independent list. 

The Zelaya government wanted to change the 1982 constitution; it had called a plebiscite to install a "fourth ballot box" for the November elections that was considered illegal, yet Zelaya decided to go ahead. 

The military revealed itself. The result was a coup d'état that took place on June 28, 2009, and President Manuel Zelaya was dragged out of the presidential residence and expelled to Costa Rica. The OAS suspended its support for Honduras until a democratic government was restored, the World Bank and numerous Latin American countries also did not support the coup either, and European Union ambassadors returned home.

But the United States did recognize the new government. 

"Backed and trained by the United States, the army is used to stifle, repress and terrorize communities."

"For the first time in the history of the country, there was going to be a true and just social contract between the people and the state," said Nina Lakhani, referring to the plebiscite for constitutional reform. "At this moment, the constitution represents the interests of a few and that's how it's designed."

The Agua Zarca dam — for which Cáceres was killed — was one of the mega-projects approved following the coup d'état. None of them had prior consultation. 

In Who Killed Berta Cáceres, the journalist reveals some of the consequences of U.S. support for a political system that today continues to be associated with militarization, drug trafficking and corruption:

"Post-coup regimes have been backed by the United States and other governments. At the same time, the Honduran military apparatus has been used as a repressive arm at great cost, and drug trafficking has continued apace. Backed and trained by the U.S., the military is used to suppress, repress and terrorize communities throughout the country. There is no way I can legitimately deny this. (...) A change in the U.S. government later this year could make a difference in a positive direction," she concluded.


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