How a Journalist Came to Cover the Brutal Murder of Honduran Activist Berta Cáceres
Audrey Wilson / Foreign Policy
A conversation with Nina Lakhani, author of “Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet”
(June 27, 2020) — On March 2016, gunmen stormed into the home of Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres and murdered her in her bedroom. The killing came after years of threats against Cáceres and her powerful grassroots activism. Just a year earlier, she had been awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for leading a successful campaign against the construction of four large dams in Indigenous Lenca territory — a project involving the Chinese company Sinohydro and the International Finance Corp., in partnership with a Honduran company.
Honduras remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental activism. Most killings go unpunished, but seven men were convicted of Cáceres’s murder in November 2018. The hitmen included army officers, and two had received military training in the United States. Nina Lakhani, now the environmental justice correspondent for the Guardian US, covered Cáceres’s grassroots movement for years while based in the region and was the only foreign journalist present at the trial.
Lakhani puts Cáceres’s life and death at the center of her new book, Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet. She spoke with Foreign Policy about Cáceres’s activist education, the experience of covering her killers’ trial as a foreign reporter, and questions that remain about the case.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Foreign Policy: At what point during your reporting on Berta Cáceres did you realize this could be a book?
Nina Lakhani: I guess I was spending another Friday night fact-checking a story about Berta. It was a story that we were just about to publish about her name appearing on a [military] hit list, I think. I never wanted to write a book, but I thought, “Maybe I should. It’s one of those stories — someone else is going to come along and do it.”
As I wrote those stories, there was such a reaction. I started getting lots of harassment; there were lots of attempts to discredit me. The heat sort of turned up. As a journalist, that instantly makes you think, “There’s a whole load of people that don’t want any of this information to get out.” That’s really where the seed was planted. It started out as an idea of an investigation into her death, but I think quite quickly I realized that to understand why she was killed, you had to understand who she was and where she came from and the period that she grew up in and became a political adult in.
To understand her life and death, you have to understand the context: the geopolitical context, the global economic context, the military context, the social context, all of those things. Neither her life nor her death happened in a vacuum. I tried to use her story as an arc to try to tell this wider story of Honduras. There aren’t really very many books written about Honduras in English. It’s a difficult place to get a grip on. It’s complicated, it’s dangerous.
It’s not the complete story of Honduras by any means, but it provides some sort of historical context about what’s happening today.
FP: When did you first start reporting in Honduras?
NL: I went for the elections in November 2013. The idea was to go and cover these elections, which were really the first proper elections since the 2009 coup. I stayed for two weeks and that’s when I met Berta and interviewed her the one and only time. And then I went and did some stuff in the Aguán [River Valley], where at the time campesinos were being killed — involved in this land conflict with these palm barons. I remember thinking, I’d never really been scared before as a reporter. It’s just militarized to the hilt. I’d been told, don’t stay in the same hotel more than one night because there are spies for the military and police everywhere. After three nights, we’d run out of places to stay.
FP: How do you think the environment in which Cáceres grew up shaped her activism?
NL: She was born in 1971. She grew up as the proxy Cold War was kicking off in Latin America. The Guatemalan Civil War was up and running, and there were social uprisings in Guatemala and in neighboring El Salvador and Nicaragua. Her mom, her maternal grandmother, and her maternal grandfather were all involved in social struggles in Honduras. A lot of activists, guerilla fighters, and thinkers from the region would come to the family home. It became a real hot point for people to rest, to debate, to discuss tactics. She grew up in that environment, hearing people talk about local things but in a global context. I think that’s something that really defined her right to the end, what made her really extraordinary.
On a more personal level, her mother was a nurse and a midwife. She’d accompany her mom to rural outposts to help poor women — mainly Indigenous Lenca women — give birth. These were villages that had been utterly abandoned by the state. There were no basic services: no roads, no light, no running water, no health care, no education. I think that experience of just seeing the massive inequalities, and especially how the impact on women was especially harsh, was very important for her.
And then she went at a very young age to join the war effort in El Salvador — she and her then-partner, who later co-founded their organization [the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras]. She wasn’t a fighter, but she was there on and off for more than a year. It was clear to them that people were taking up arms not because of political ideology but because they were hungry, they were desperate. They were fighting against really deep-seated inequalities.
What they wanted to do when they got back to Honduras was [something that didn’t involve arms]. So they came back and formed their organization.
FP: After reporting on this for years, was there anything that surprised you once you started digging into your research for the book?
NL: This is true for all of my reporting in the region, but I guess just how in Honduras and the region — including the United States — political power is the second layer of power. It is the economic elites that control everything. In the case of Honduras, they control the banks, the media, retail, everything. And they control the courts, the justice system, the politicians — because they are the ones that give them good or bad press and put money into their campaigns or not. It’s so blatant in Honduras that the vast majority of laws have been written to favor this status quo. That can be said in many countries, but how blatant it was [surprised me]. As did the really deep-seated impunity and corruption.
And as a woman reporting somewhere like Honduras, the everyday misogyny, machismo, just walking down the street, that’s something that you have to think about. Honduras isn’t unique in this, but it is particularly difficult.
FP: How do you think that culture of machismo shaped what happened to Berta Cáceres — not only her murder but also her treatment leading up to it?
NL: I think that was a key part of the context in which she lived and in which she died: the machismo and the racism. You see in the phone evidence that was discovered in the murder investigation just the casual racism used to describe Indigenous people all the time. The idea for this economically powerful group that a woman, and an Indigenous woman, could interrupt their plan and project — never mind the allegations of corruption — was just unacceptable.
The fact that they chose to kill her in her home, in her bedroom, in her pajamas — it was a real, “We can do whatever we want to you. We are more powerful, and we can dominate you.” The state’s case should have been framed in the terms of a gender-based and a racist killing, but it wasn’t.
FP: What was the experience of attending the trial like as a foreign journalist?
NL: I attended the trial every day, and I worked closely with people involved in the trial. In Latin America, they have a legal system that is based largely on the Spanish legal system. There are no juries. You can have a private prosecution occurring at the same time as the state prosecution. Her family were recognized and identified as victims and were mounting a case that was going to be very different to the state’s case. At the very last minute, they were expelled from proceedings so that didn’t happen.
It was really difficult. The trial had been due to start in September 2018 and then was suspended on the very first day because the victim’s lawyers requested that the three judges be recused. As I was writing up that story, there was a press release shared on social networks from a false group that we believe strongly to have links to military intelligence claiming that I was a violent insurgent and linked to organize crime, that I wasn’t a journalist, and declaring me a persona non grata. And then another one was released maybe 10 days later calling me a terrorist.
I stayed in Honduras because we were wondering if the trial was going to be restarted. That period itself was incredibly difficult because the risk to me had gone up massively.
Trials without juries are not particularly interesting, because the prosecutors don’t have to make a compelling case. It’s very document-based. The state’s case was based on the phone data. The family’s lawyers had been expelled. [The family] had boycotted the trial. So sometimes it was about six of us in what was the most emblematic trial in Honduras’s modern history. I was the only foreign journalist that covered it.
I had interviewed seven of the eight accused in jail. They knew who I was. The attorney general’s office wouldn’t speak to me; the spokesman accused me of being involved with groups with a dark agenda. It was hostile. It was uncomfortable. And my security situation meant that I was going between the court and where I was staying, trying to change my route of transport every day. It was an intense experience. There was a sort of strategy in place to harass and intimidate.
FP: You mention several times in the book different parts of Berta Cáceres’s legacy. Four years on, what would you say her legacy is in Honduras and globally?
NL: There are definitely layers like that. I think her work to revendicate and recognize the Lenca people and the Indigenous peoples of Honduras, who until the mid-1990s were forgotten. I think the rights that she fought for and instilling again a sense of pride in her people is something that I think will last for generations.
We know Berta because she won the Goldman Prize and she was an international face. But she didn’t make decisions from the top. Wherever she went, she took people from her community and her group with her. It wasn’t about her going off to do this conference or that conference. All the knowledge that she absorbed, she would share it all and help everybody understand what was happening in their corner of the world in a regional and global context. There are very few people that have the capacity to do that.
Even when she won the Goldman Prize, she didn’t accept it straight away. No one had ever taken so long to accept it as she did because she consulted everybody. She wanted a consensus that the community felt that it would be something that would benefit the cause and the movement. This ability to really connect the dots, I think that sort of leadership is something that people did learn from and will continue to learn from.
FP: That really comes across in the book, that she was a unique leader.
NL: Her murder wasn’t exceptional, because many leaders were killed in Honduras before Berta and many have been killed since. But her life was extraordinary, and they killed her because of how extraordinary she was. Her ability to unite, her fierceness, her intelligence — she never fought a local battle without putting it into a bigger context. And that was dangerous. When you have all of these international interests in extractive projects — which is what Indigenous peoples around the world are facing — her ability to really understand that as an expression of the neoliberal model, I think that made her dangerous. She was targeted and she was killed because of how extraordinary she was.
FP: How does that leave you feeling about the future of environmental activism in Honduras and in the region?
NL: The title of my book, Who Killed Berta Cáceres? — it’s a question with many unanswered elements to it. I think the struggle for justice is going to be long and require political shifts both here in the US and in Honduras. The social movement has regrouped and is strengthening again. Her children and her community have reorganized. They’re not going to let this go, and we shouldn’t let it go.
By expelling the family’s prosecution, there was a decision made — I don’t know at what level — to only ever go so far. There is no one that can say hand on heart, looking at the evidence, that the prosecution followed the evidence fully. There are many other levels of this. The murder has to be thought about as the grand finale of several years of criminal and repressive actions against her and her community. There are many unanswered questions still.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, Section 107, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.