A new investigation reveals further ties between the killing of renowned environmental activist Berta Cáceres, Honduran military intelligence and the United States. Cáceres was assassinated one year ago in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras, just before midnight on March 2, 2016. She was the co-founder of COPINH, the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. In 2015, she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her decade-long fight against the Agua Zarca Dam, a project planned along a river sacred to the indigenous Lenca people. Eight men have been arrested as suspects in Cáceres’s killing — including one active army major and two retired military members. Two of these suspects reportedly received military training in the United States. We are joined by Nina Lakhani, a freelance journalist who has been based in Mexico and Central America for the last four years. Her recent piece for The Guardian is, “Berta Cáceres court papers show murder suspects’ links to US-trained elite troops.”
See Part 1 of this interview: Revealed–Environmental Activist Berta Cáceres’ Suspected Killers Received U.S. Military Training
AMY GOODMAN: With part two of our report on this first anniversary of the assassination of the renown Honduran environmental activist, Berta Cáceres, killed in her home in La Esperanza, just before midnight, March 2, 2016. Berta was cofounder of COPINH, the Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations of Honduras. In 2015, she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her decade long fight against the Agua Zarca Dam, a project planned along a river sacred to the indigenous Lenca people. Well, a new investigation has just come out in The Guardian newspaper that reveals further ties between Berta Cáceres’ assassins, the Honduran military intelligence, as well as the United States, a U.S. trained elite force. Our guest, right now, is Nina Lakhani. She’s the freelance journalist who wrote the piece in The Guardian, which is headlined, “Berta Cáceres’ Court Papers Show Murder Suspects’ Links to U.S.-trained Elite Troops.” And she has been reporting on Honduras for years. Nina, thanks for joining us for part two of this discussion. You are highlighting this links to a U.S.-trained elite troops in Honduras. We ended part one by talking about why the Honduran government would want Berta Cáceres dead, the leading environmentalist of Honduras, well known also throughout the world. If you could pick it up from there.
NINA LAKHANI: Sure. Berta was a major problem for the state. She wasn’t going away. She had, not just national, but, international attention for her campaign. It was mentioned that she won the Goldman Prize, but she, you know, she’d become a celebrated activist, not just in the Americas, but in Europe, all over the world. And we now know that DESA, the company that has a concession to build the dam —- we now know that there are military political and business elites who sit on that board. The president of DESA is an ex-military intelligence officer and worked for the state electricity company. The vice president is an ex-justice minister. Another of the directors is the owner of one of the Honduran’s natio—- Honduras’ national banks. We now — really what we know from all the extractive industries in Honduras that there is a revolving door of business, political, and military elites, who have money, who have interests in these really environmentally destructive projects.
And she was a problem. She wasn’t going away. Her campaign had got huge attention internationally. And so she — that would be the reason. But, I don’t think — like I said earlier that — killing Berta, it’s highly improbable it would be the idea, or would be planned by anyone at low level. We have two people connected with the company, are currently accused; Bustillo, who was head of security until 2015, and Sergio Rodríguez, who was a mid-ranking — he’s an engineer, a mid-ranking — he was the communications and environmental manager, but, who had nothing personally to gain. He doesn’t have any — neither of them have financial interest in the company. So, they would kill — organize and kill Berta in what was probably the highest profile murder to take place in Honduras in years. It’s just, to me, highly improbable.
AMY GOODMAN: So, how is the investigation of Berta Cáceres’ assassination going right now, in Honduras? I mean, you have how many people arrested? Eight?
NINA LAKHANI: Eight men arrested. Like I say, three with military ties, two tied to the companies, and two were tied to the company. Then we have four who were pro— prosecutors believe were hit-men, who were low-level criminals working and were hired to do that. I mean, I think there’s no doubt that some, at least of the material authors are among that group that have been arrested. But, I think the family are very concerned about procedural sort of errors and procedural sort of inaccuracies or things that haven’t quite been right with the investigation. They’ve not been given information that they should be given. That even some of the — that they fear that even some of the material authors are likely to escape justice, that they haven’t all been arrested, or that the case may not stand up in court against some of them.
But, I don’t see any evidence — I haven’t seen any evidence thus far that there’s a strategy by prosecutors to look for the intellectual authors. Phone records show that there was a hit being planned. It’s likely that a hit was being planned. There’s phone records —- messages between the three ex—- current —- ex-military officers. But, where was that money coming from? Who’s idea was this? There doesn’t seem to be a strategy to look higher up. Who were the intellectual authors of this murder? Where does the evidence take us? Because the eight men who are currently in jail, I don’t think there’s evidence that suggest—- any evidence that suggests that the assassination and attempted murder of Gustavo Castro was planned by them.
AMY GOODMAN: The legislation that’s been reintroduced by Congressman Johnson to cut U.S. military aid to Honduras, what effect wold that have?
NINA LAKHANI: It’s difficult to know. There’s so much secrecy about where — at what is spent on. I think last year Congress approved $18 — $17 or $18 million for police and military aid. It’s difficult to know what effect it would have, ’cause I’m just no exactly sure on what the money is spent. For example, the special forces training that takes place, or the support that the U.S. gives to special forces training, it’s just — there’s no information. It’s classified. There’s no public information about how that money is spent, who the money is spent on, what units, what exactly it goes to. So, I think it’s hard to know. I think the — certainly the U.S. Embassy in Honduras will say that what they’re trying to do in support — the moment is the purging of the police which has been, for years a link to horrendous human rights violations, and they’re working hard on that. To withdraw completely —- Honduras is a militar—- it feels and smells like a militarized state. And every year I go back it feels more like that. So, how much $18 million —- extra money that we don’t know about would make on that I’m not really sure. I think the argument from the U.S. -—
AMY GOODMAN: Finally the issue of the number of environmental activists who’ve been killed in this last year in Honduras, what do you know about this, Nina?
NINA LAKHANI: Since Berta was murdered a year ago, at least seven other activists — and land — just specifically and environment activists have been murdered. We know that. We know that a few days after she was killed, one of her Code Pink colleagues, Nelson Garcia was murdered. Other campesino leaders have been murdered. But, seven that we are absolutely sure have been — who campaign as activists working in the same area as Berta. So, that’s 124 that we know of since the 2009 military backed coup. That’s — it’s just incredible number. Her murder has not stopped — the outrage and condemnation that followed her murder has not stopped the killing, because impunity reigns.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, when you look at the links to this U.S. trained, elite force in Honduras, what you think the U.S. has to account for now in its relationship with Honduras, even going back to her assassination as you were the one who exposed the kill list with her at the top?
NINA LAKHANI: Yeah. My — the army deserter who is —- who I’ve been working with, is absolutely adamant that on two specialist training courses, which sound horrendous, really tough training courses where he reports being tortured, suffering, was hospitalized three times after the training courses, that there were American trainers present, that they would train the trainers, almost. There were American, Colombian, Panamanian trainers present in those training courses. And he was part of an elite force. And I think, just generally, in terms of the special forces, yes, I unders—- conditionality and having checks and balances in place regarding who gets training — it’s a much wider — it’s a bigger problem, that. These are systematic allegations of human rights violations against security forces in Honduras. Major Diaz has an absolutely pristine military record. There is nothing on his military record which would make him perfectly eligible for U.S. training. And yet, at the time of Berta’s murder, he was studying to become a lieutenant colonel at the same time that he was being investigated for drug trafficking and kidnap. You know, the system isn’t working. Whatever checks and balances that are in place just isn’t working. It’s bigger — it’s a systematic problem of human rights violations and extrajudicial killings; all really serious crimes. There is a systematic problem in the security forces, in the army, and in the police in Honduras. And I think trying to weed out bad apples is not effective. It doesn’t work. The checks and balances are not working.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Nina Lakhani, we want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to end with the words of Berta Cáseres, herself. Berta Cáseres is the leading environmental activist in Honduras, killed, assassinated a year ago.
BERTA CÁCERES: [translated] The population today, those who have been in resistance who are from the LIBRE party, are challenging the repressive apparatus, with the absence of the construction of real power from the communities, but now these people are voting enthusiastically for the LIBRE party, that we hope will be distinct from the other political parties. This scenario is playing out in all the regions of Honduras—in Zacate Grande, Garifuna communities, campesino sectors, women, feminists, artists, journalists and indigenous communities. We all know how these people have been hard hit, especially the journalists, LGBTQ community and indigenous communities. This is all part of what they’ve done to create a climate of fear. Here, there’s a policy of the state to instill terror and political persecution. This is to punish the Honduran people so that people don’t opt for the other way and look for changes to the political economic situation and the militarization.