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Book Review: Who Killed Berta Cáceres

Picture of Berta

July 2, 2020

By Ryan Mack

Berta Cáceres (Honduras, 2015) was one of Latin America’s foremost activists, championing indigenous rights, social justice, and environmental protection for decades. For Berta, these were never separate issues. Environmental, indigenous, and human rights were all interconnected. Her work encapsulated these values more than any other activist I have met.

On the night of March 2, 2016, Berta—an indigenous Lenca woman, mother, activist, and environmental and human rights defender—was shot dead in her sleep in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras. Except, this was no random act of violence or crime of passion, as Honduran officials first proclaimed. Berta was gunned down in cold blood, by hired killers. In her book, Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet, Nina Lakhani—a journalist with The Guardian—expertly delves into the complicated web of violence, corruption, and impunity that paved the way for the assassination of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize winner.

Picture of Who Killed Berta Caceras Book CoverLakhani’s account of the events leading to Berta’s murder takes us on a whirlwind tour of critical moments in the activist’s life, as well as the socio-political and historical context in Honduras. Starting with Berta’s childhood, the author tells us of the Lenca leader “running in and out of secretive, politically charged meetings” with her mother (also a lifelong activist, politician, and midwife). By 15, Berta was organizing local strikes. These snapshots of her childhood set the stage for the activist and leader she was to become.

Next, the book catapults the reader from the Cold War to the Honduran coup of 2009 and its aftermath. In Honduras, Lakhani writes, “powerful international entrepreneurs and criminal organizations with international ties have corrupted state institutions at various levels, with little resistance from public officials, who often benefit from…kickbacks or hush money.” The story is captivating and reads like a political thriller. If only it were fiction.

Lakhani tells us that “Berta’s actions caused Agua Zarca [a massive, destructive dam project] to be suspended. She refused to go away or be quiet despite the sexual harassment, death threats, and criminal charges. She didn’t cower and couldn’t be controlled.”

Perhaps less known at the time was that “the dam project was backed by members of one of the country’s most powerful clans, the Atala Zablah’s.” These powerful interests—and DESA, the company planning the dam—were not going to give up easily. Lakhani explains that they mounted “a systematic campaign to crush opposition to the Agua Zarca dam…using a classic sliding scale of counterinsurgency tactics.”

Berta’s assassination was the climax of a years-long campaign of intimidation, violence, and corruption. Her family and other experts feel that those who most wanted her dead remain free—and in positions of power in Honduras. Ultimately, a corrupt state fueled by violence and greed—and a powerful northern neighbor willing to look the other way—ensured the continued “power and privilege of the ruling elites and powerbrokers.”

Who Killed Berta Cáceres? Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet is a gripping investigation into the murky depths of power, corruption, and violence. Lakhani has a knack for digging deep into the subject and shining a light on the questions that remain unanswered surrounding Berta’s death. She interviews not only Berta’s friends and allies, but also corrupt politicians, prosecutors, and the assassins themselves in an attempt to uncover the truth. The result is a book that will open people’s eyes—and possibly even shock some experts on the region. It’s the attention that Berta, her family, and activists around the world deserve.

About the author:
Ryan Mack, a program officer with the Goldman Environmental Prize, is a passionate advocate for the environment and human rights. With over 15 years of experience, he has worked with grassroots organizers, local nonprofits, international NGOs, government agencies, and the private sector. Ryan has managed projects in the US and Latin America related to climate change, energy efficiency, zero waste and organic agriculture. He holds a MS in Environmental Management with a focus on energy and water resources. Ryan joined the Prize in 2013.


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