The System That Killed Berta Cáceres

David Castillo, president of the DESA corporation, is on trial in Honduras for plotting the murder of the environmental activist.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images


When Berta Cáceres was murdered in 2016, she was the leading environmental activist in Honduras and, arguably, the world. A member of the Indigenous Lenca people and the founder of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH, Cáceres was the most formidable opponent of a powerful energy company called Desarrollos Energéticos Sociedad Anónima, or DESA. Their Agua Zarca dam project would have occupied Lenca land and interfered with waterways sacred to their community. Cáceres worked tirelessly to increase scrutiny of DESA and turn the people of Honduras against the dam, until the early hours of March 3, 2016, when someone had her killed.

At the time, David Castillo sat atop DESA’s executive ranks as president and CEO. He is now on trial in the Honduran Supreme Court, charged with ordering Cáceres’s death. Whoever plotted her killing likely underestimated the amount of attention it would bring, drawing Honduras into the international spotlight to a degree unseen since the country’s 2009 coup — but the high-profile case is far from the only one of its kind. Reporters Chiara Eisner and Danielle Mackey join The Intercept’s Maia Hibbett to discuss.

[Musical introduction.]

Zach Young: Hi there, everyone. This is Zach Young, producer of Deconstructed. Ryan Grim is off for the week, and we’re turning the show over to Intercept Associate Editor Maia Hibbett. Hi, Maia.

Maia Hibbett: Hi, Zach.

ZY: Last month a man named David Castillo, an executive at a company called DESA, went on trial in Honduras.

BBC Reporter: A senior official at a construction company in Honduras has been arrested on suspicion of ordering the murder of an environmental campaigner.

ZY: The trial was in connection with the murder of Berta Cáceres. Maia, a lot of people who listen to this show will already know that name, but many won’t. Who was Berta Cáceres?

MH: She was a member of the Lenca community which is an Indigenous people from the Southern part of the country.

Newscaster: They live along the Gualcarque River, which is sacred to their people.

MH: And she was also the founder of a group called the The Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH, and the recipient of a very prestigious environmental prize —

Newscaster: The prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize —

MH: — which is kind of like the Nobel for environmental activism. And then, in March 2016, she was murdered in her own home by armed intruders.

Newscaster: There was rioting in the streets of Honduras today over the murder of an environmentalist and human-rights champion.

Newscaster: It was one of the most high-profile murders of an environmental activist in recent memory. The death of 44 year-old Berta Cáceres sparked international condemnation.

ZY: And we know who killed her or why?

MH: It wasn’t hard to guess the broad reasons that somebody in Honduras would want to have Berta Cáceres killed. Her activism often created problems for business interests and for members of the ruling class.

Newscaster: Cáceres complained of death threats from police and the army in the past. Her daughter says her mother was killed because she refused to exploit natural resources at the expense of Native people.

MH: In the final years of her life she was leading an effort to construct a dam on the Gualcarque River by a company called Desarrollos Energéticos Sociedad Anónima, or DESA — that’s the company you mentioned a moment ago.

Newscaster: The dam had wealthy international investors, and the government was determined to push ahead.

MH: And they wanted to construct a dam over this river where the Lenca people have a lot of territories and use the water.

Newscaster: It would have cut off the water supply to the Lenca community and the land they live off.

MH: So for background on this case, in 2005, there was a presidential election in Honduras.

Zelaya political ad: ¡Honduras! El cambio está en marcha! [Honduras! Change is on the way

MH: The winner was a businessman named Manuel Zelaya, sometimes known by his nickname “Mel”.

Ad Voiceover: Urge Mel. Gana Honduras, ganas tú.

MH: Zelaya was elected on the liberal platform, but moved to the left during his presidency.

While he was president, he prioritized Honduras’ agricultural production to reduce reliance on imports and joined a Venezuelan-led regional trade group called Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America. And most crucially, he sought this constitutional change which would have facilitated the redistribution of wealth from the hands of 10 ruling families who, at the time, were said to control 90 percent of all Honduran capital. And it was that desire to alter the constitution that finally convinced the Honduran elite Zelaya had to go.

Newscaster: Business elites opposed reform, and feared Zelaya was orchestrating an illegal power grab to extend his presidency and set up a socialist regime.

MH: He was deposed in a military coup in 2009.

Newscaster: President Zelaya was forced out of Honduras in his pajamas in a military coup back on June 28.

Newscaster: Ten thousand people marching in support of the ousted leader.

MH: And then, a right-wing government was installed to replace him —

Newscaster: Roberto Micheletti, como presidente constitucional de la república [Roberto Micheletti as constitutional president of the republic] —

MH: That government, the coup regime was not internationally recognized.

Newscaster: Estamos ante un pais con dos presidentes [we’re looking at a country with two presidents] —

MH: But the elections that followed have kept power concentrated on the right-wing in Honduras. And the new leadership in the country has placed a strong emphasis on attracting investment —

Newscaster: Después de la crisis política de 2009, Honduras debía mostrarse ante el mundo como un lugar óptimo para la inversión. [After the political crisis of 2009, Honduras needed to present itself to the world as an ideal place to invest.]

MH: And kind of greasing the wheels of local development efforts. They even rolled out a new slogan:

Announcer: Honduras is open for business.

MH: So, pretty soon COPINH and their anti-dam-construction activism ended up in the government’s sights. And so did Berta Cáceres.

ZY: And so, beyond the implications of the murder for Honduras and what it means about violence and corruption in that country, why should this story be of interest to us here in the U.S.?

MH: There are a couple of reasons why U.S. listeners should care about this murder. One is that, while Barack Obama’s administration publicly condemned the overthrow of Zelaya —

President Barack H. Obama: The coup was not legal. President Zelaya remains the President of Honduras, the democratically elected president there.

MH: — they waffled on doing anything more committal than that. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly described what had happened as a coup, but the State Department never officially labelled it as such, which would have required them to cut off aid to Honduras.

Beyond that, the Honduran military has deep ties to the United States. Later reporting by The Intercept revealed that while the U.S. ambassador to Honduras scrambled to contain the coup, there were anti-Zelaya factions within the embassy and also in Washington. And even publicly, especially among the Republicans on Capitol Hill, there was active opposition to Zelaya and support for the replacement of his government.

Here’s Republican Congressman Connie Mack speaking at a hearing in 2009:

Rep. Connie Mack: This was not a military coup. If there’s any fault here, it is on Mr. Zelaya. He is the one that, at every turn, turned his back on the people of Honduras and his own constitution, which he pledged to uphold.

MH: The result was “an American government with no single policy, but rather, of bloated bureaucracies acting on competing interests.”

And as the reporting showed, the night before the coup, Honduran and U.S. military leaders attended a party together at a U.S. defense leader’s house. The day before that, a Pentagon communication acknowledged that Zelaya “could be forced to resign” because he lacked the support of his own military. David Castillo, the guy who is on trial as we speak, had been part of the military since 2006, when he started working as a military intelligence officer for the Honduran Armed Forces. Two years before that, he graduated from the foreign cadet program at West Point.

The general consensus is that the coup made existing conditions of inequality and violence significantly worse. The government, the military, and the wealthiest of the wealthy work pretty much in step with one another, which makes it materially difficult and dangerous to be an activist, a land defender, or, in many cases, just a regular person. This drives people to flee Honduras and migrate North among the waves of travelers from the so-called Northern Triangle countries that we hear so much about in mainstream news.

This consolidation of power leads to legal impunity for the very rich, which is why David Castillo’s trial has been received as kind of a shock and triumph among activists.

Newscaster: Led away in handcuffs, one of the men believed to have overseen plots to kill Berta Cáceres.

MH: In Honduras, the courts can essentially run out the clock on pretrial detention, and if they had held Castillo in jail for more than three years without a trial, they could have just let him out and abandoned his case. But even if there is a guilty verdict which, as we’re speaking, we don’t know if there will be, that won’t resolve the rampant corruption. Berta’s case is just one example of how the military and elites treat environmental and Indigenous activists as a disposable obstacle to their development.

Newscaster: Cases like these where activists are targeted and killed are quite common in Honduras. Human rights groups note the country has one of the highest rates of murders of environmental activists anywhere in the world.

ZY: Maia, you spoke on the phone recently with Berta Zuniga Carceres, who is the daughter of Berta Cáceres, the activist?

Bertha Zuñiga Cáceres: Bueno, decirles que, la defensa del Sr. David Castillo—

ZY: And she’s become a leadership figure in COPINH since her mother’s death. How does she feel about the way that David Castillo’s trial has been conducted so far?

MH: I think she seemed cautiously optimistic about the fact that there has been a trial at all, but she has not been very impressed with the proceedings.

Newscaster: The family of Berta Cáceres says the investigation has been full of irregularities and say they worry the trial won’t produce a just outcome.

MH: So when the trial started in April, and it was supposed to wrap up in just a couple of weeks, Berta’s younger sister Laura, who was attempting to represent the victims and kind of serve as a witness, was barred from entering the courtroom. And the victims eventually ended up convincing the court to allow her to enter and she’s been there keeping track of the proceedings every day. So there’s somebody on COPINH and on the family side always watching.

But beyond that, there was a pause of about a week shortly after the trial began because Castillo’s lawyers objected to some of the proceedings and argued that the court was not qualified to rule on the case. So overall, there have been some hiccups and the whole thing is taking longer than it was expected to.

ZY: And one concern that some observers have voiced is that this case will end up being too narrowly focused, and David Castillo will end up being just a fall guy, someone that the Honduran government can keep the blame on and then move on and not have to seriously shine any light on the structures of corruption that surround and enable someone like him, and are ultimately what makes someone in his position — I’m not saying he’s guilty, that’s still being adjudicated in court — but someone like him think that they can order the murder of a peaceful activist with impunity. Does that seem to be what’s happening?

MH: I think that’s a very real concern. And it’s something that Bertha alluded to when we spoke.

BZC: Pues, nos pueda abrir nuevas investigaciones a otras personas que estaban dentro de la junta directiva de la empresa—

MH: When we talked, a piece of evidence had just been presented, which were text messages from Daniel Atala, who is the CFO of DESA, and a member of this very powerful, extremely wealthy family, the Atala Zablah family. And in these text messages, Daniel had used extremely racist language, in which he expressed his hatred for the Lenca people and an attitude that they were truly disposable. He also alluded to ways he delegated responsibilities for his father and for people who Berta described as functionaries of the state.

Essentially, Castillo’s trial both shows that these folks have such deep ties to power in Honduras that they have long viewed themselves as somewhat untouchable. And I think there is validity to the concern that one high-profile trial will result in one conviction and then people will kind of look away the next time it’s somebody who’s less famous who becomes a victim.

And part of the frustration has to do with the fact that no one from the Atala Zablah family, who make up a lot of DESA’s Board of Directors, has been charged. Members of the family are also owners of Banco Ficohsa, one of the three major banks in the country. They had only recently acquired a significant stake in DESA when the company started pursuing the dam project. And, at the time, Daniel Castillo, who was then still a member of the Honduran Armed Forces, had also been employed by the National Electric Energy Company, Honduras’ electric utility, while DESA sought licensing for the dam.

Castillo has also been charged in a case known as fraud on the Gualcarque which implicated a total of 16 officials from the energy utility, the municipal government, and the private sector. It hasn’t resulted in any convictions and, in December, 10 of those 16 cases were dismissed and the other six are still awaiting trial.

At the same time, David Castillo’s trial is not the first in the Casitas murder case. A couple of years ago, there were actually eight other men who were sentenced for their roles in plotting and carrying out the crime. So it is indicative of the fact that this is a broad network that has been investigated for quite a long time.

ZY: And how does she feel about the situation that the Lenca are facing? It’s been five years since her mother was murdered. Does it seem like they are being recognized more by the government?

MH: No, she was fairly pessimistic about the treatment of the Lenca people. She said essentially that if it hasn’t held steady, it has gotten worse; that the government and big business interests, multilateral banks, both nationally in Honduras and with international cooperation, have continued to violate people’s human rights to pursue projects against the will of the local people.

But she was somewhat optimistic about the level of exposure that this case brought, and thanked people for their solidarity, and hopes that the more attention that is given to the Castillo’s trial and to COPINH’s work — the daughter Berta is now the director of COPINH — and that they will kind of continue to make progress.

ZY: Yeah.

Newscaster: Prosecutors believe that by uncovering who gave the order to kill Berta Cáceres, a precedent could be set that might help protect other environmental activists from suffering her same fate.

[The sounds of marching & chanting.]

[Musical interlude.]

MH: Next we’re going to speak with Chiara Eisner and Danielle Mackey, who reported on Berta’s murder together for The Intercept in 2019. Chiara is now a reporter at The State, a newspaper in South Carolina, and she recently produced a great episode of the NPR podcast Radio Ambulante about Berta’s killing and the Agua Zarca project, the dam that she was protesting.

Danielle is a journalist at The New Yorker and last year reported for Univisión on the ties between a U.S. steel producer and a mine in Honduras accused of persecuting local leaders and land defenders.

Chiara, Danielle, welcome to the show.

Danielle Mackey: Thank you, Maia.

Chiara Eisner: Thank you. Happy to be here.

MH: Both of you have reported on the murder of Berta Cáceres for The Intercept and for other outlets. In 2019, you co-wrote a piece about the plot to kill Berta and the construction of the Agua Zarca Dam. Just to start off, could you give us a little bit of background about the Agua Zarca Dam project, which Berta was fighting to stop when she was assassinated?

DM: Yeah. The dam was slated to be built by a Honduran company called DESA. That company is controlled by a family in Honduras that’s quite powerful called the Atala Zablah family. It’s a private development project. It was not a public dam, right? It was going to be held by private funds, which makes it a particular type of project as far as these go.

CE: It was planned to be along the Rio Gualcarque and activists that were part of the group COPINH, which is the group that Berta Cáceres co-founded, led a grassroots campaign against this dam because they believed that the authorized consent of the Indigenous people had not been obtained.

And in 2013, they successfully managed to basically kick out the largest builder of dams in the world from investing in the project, which was the Chinese company Sinohydro. But many other international financiers stayed. Berta, before she was murdered, sent letters to these different international organizations insisting that the members of DESA were assassins, that they had taken advantage of their contacts with paramilitary groups and politicians to threaten and to kill members of COPINH. And that they had presented charges against her and other grassroots members in their fight. So that was all leading up to 2016.

MH: Got it. So you mentioned the Sinohydro group; could you speak a little bit more about the role of international business and the World Bank and U.S. interests in the dam project?

DM: International funding is always key to these sorts of projects. That’s what makes them possible.

MH: Mhmm.

DM: And one reason why both large lending banks and institutions like the World Bank, or the Inter-American Development Bank, regional banks, the reason they have these stipulations around these projects, around making sure that they won’t damage the environment, making sure that they are in accordance with local community wishes, is because the point is that this money not go to something that is harmful. The whole — in theory — idea behind these sorts of extractivist projects is that they bring development to communities.

But so often, what we find, as we found in Berta’s case and in Honduras on a regular basis — systemic basis — is that these stipulations are overridden through, oftentimes, corrupt acts, direct access that private capital in Honduras has to political leaders in Honduras, and their capacity to use state security forces, oftentimes the police or the military, as their own private security guards or to intimidate protesters against what this private capital wishes to do to pad its bottom line.

And that’s something important that Chiara and I found in our investigation for The Intercept in which we used evidence that was produced in the course of the first trial of the people accused of murdering Berta Cáceres.

CE: We know that the Central American Bank for Economic Integration lent $24.4 million to build the Agua Zarca bank. We know that Jose Eduardo was on the board of directors of that bank and he is connected to this powerful family that Danielle was mentioning. We also know that the FMO, which is a bank that’s funded by the Dutch government, were involved until Berta Cáceres was murdered, and they were a recipient of one of the letters that she personally sent to them, informing them of the threats that she had received.

MH: I understand that the military was protecting the dam from protesters, and that the military and the police were pretty heavily invested in this project. I understand that in July 2013, they shot and killed a man named Tomás García. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about who he was, and how the fallout from his death played out?

DM: The state security, military, and the police are invested in these projects because they work on behalf of private capital. They rarely have any direct interest in these sorts of projects. But they do the bidding of the folks who hold the reins in much of Honduras, as Chiara mentioned earlier, which are powerful businessmen.

CE: Yes. And I’m happy to talk about what happened in July. I would just back up a little first, because I’m going to use some of the texts that we took advantage of in our reporting to kind of explain what happened that day, because I think they illustrate quite well what was going on.

And so these messages that we used in our reporting for The Intercept were obtained by the Honduran Public Prosecutor’s Office, in their trying of the hitmen who would later be charged and sentenced with the murder of Berta Cáceres. That call log wasn’t only looked at by us, it was first examined by an independent expert. And her analysis of those chats showed that the assassins had communicated through a compartmentalized chain that reached the highest ranks of leadership at the company.

And so we looked at those messages to show how they demonstrated a plot to kill Berta Cáceres. And they also demonstrated DESA’s involvement in other unethical activities, like bribing journalists covering the story, spying on activists in diplomatic meetings, and keeping tabs on Berta’s location. We can see that on July 15, 2013.

So that very day, one of the leaders, Atala Midence sent a message to Castillo who, at the time, was the president of DESA. And he texted him in Spanish, “the military killed an indio.” And he said, “It looks like another of them is dead.”

In response to that Castillo said, “Pay the reporter from HCH,” which is a Honduran news station. And he said how much they would pay him, he went as far as that. He said, “1,000 lempiras for last week … and right now we can give him another 1,000.” So that amounts to about $100 (USD).

And we know that when that television program ran the story, the broadcast was slanted in DESA’s favor. They mentioned that the child of someone working on the dam had been killed and indicated that members of COPINH were responsible. However, that has been widely disputed and it really is a talking point of the company.

And so we don’t have 100 percent clear understanding of what happened that day. But we do know that COPINH was likely not responsible, everything indicates that they were not responsible, but the media was led to believe that they were involved in this killing. And what we saw was really a campaign to turn public favor against COPINH, and against Berta Cáceres, and make them seem like the enemy here.

It’s not something that only happened in this situation. It’s also happened with other journalists who reported on this story; it’s a technique that’s used in Honduras and in other parts of Central America. So Nina Lakhani — again, I’m not sure whether I’m pronouncing her last name right — but Nina has been reporting on this story for The Guardian, and she was indicated as a terrorist in a letter that was put out, supposedly by this group of farmworkers. The group of farm workers was not real. And this is a strategy that’s just used consistently, trying to turn public opinion against activists, against journalists, trying to make them seem like the ones who are terrorizing, when actually, the evidence shows that the paramilitary groups, in this case, the ones defending the dams, were the ones initiating the violence and that in this case, COPINH and Berta casseras were, and to my knowledge always have been, peaceful protesters.

DM: I think the other thing that I would say is that the idea sold through corruption in the press, and even through the way that these people who protest these sorts of projects are taken seriously or not, by international funding institutions and by media is all part of a pretty white supremacist idea of who they are: That they are anti-modernity, that they aren’t interested in progress, that they are backwards. There’s a lot of racist and classist ideas deeply embedded in the now generations of protest that campesinos and Indigenous communities like the Lenca, who Berta Cáceres was a part of, embedded in not taking their protests seriously.

And we are now talking about the problems inherent in this idea of development, this very neoliberal, wealth concentrating, plugging Honduras into the world economy-centric idea of development, we’re talking about the problems inherent in it, because it has been elevated to a level of proof according to that systems language, right? Now we can point to the punitive justice system that has carried out law enforcement investigations, which have extracted data from cell phones.

But from the time that the idea, for instance, of hydroelectric dams that are owned by private capital, that idea of that equaling development, from the time it was introduced campesino and Indigenous communities in Honduras and in surrounding countries in Central America have protested that and have said: That is not good for people. That is good for companies, for certain families. We reject that.

And now that Berta Cáceres has been elevated to this level in which it’s hard to write off her vision and her critique, which is good that this has been taken seriously, but it’s far too late.

MH: Right. Chiara ,you also recently reported for an episode of Radio Ambulante that detailed the case and some of the environmental claims that Sinohydro and DESA were making, which also drew heavily on the work of a group called GAIPE. And in the episode, there was an interview with a lawyer named Liliana Uribe, who had investigated the Cáceres killing. So could you just tell us briefly, what GAIPE is and what they found?

CE: Yeah, GAIPE was an international team that investigated the murder. They had lawyers that were student lawyers that were working out of University of California, Berkeley. And basically they went through the texts, as we did, and they interviewed experts on the ground; they talked to ethical experts, I believe; and basically compiled a report with their conclusions. And I would say that they concluded this was a group that had been involved in corruption.

MH: And how does that relate to David Castillo, the man who is currently on trial for ordering Berta’s murder?

CE: There was a report that was published in 2019 by various human rights groups in Guatemala and the United States. I talked to one of the women who helped write that report and helped research it. She told me it took six to eight months for them to complete, and it’s extremely well supported. Almost half of the document, the 44-page document or so, is footnotes and citations. And I can tell you that when I talked to that author, she told me that her conclusion from her time spent looking into Castillo’s time spent in government and in the military was that, “this is a person that has been taking advantage of everything he could to advance his own economic interests.” They found that he had an important role in eight different companies and in each one the investigators found cause for concern, she told me.

And basically Castillo’s time in the military and in the government progressed naturally from his experience in the United States, actually, when he attended West Point from 2000 to 2004. And when he attended there was an obligation at the end of that to then serve in his home country’s military. And so in 2006, he worked for the Honduran Armed Forces. He was a military intelligence second lieutenant.

From there, he transitioned to working with the ENEE, which is the electrical agency of Honduras, and there, he negotiated hydroelectric projects: one of them was with the Brazilian company, Odebrecht, which was at the center of one of the largest massive corruption scandals in Latin America. The company was charged by the U.S. Department of Justice for making approximately $439 million in corrupt payments, and Castillo was there, and visited Brazil on behalf of the Honduran government.

While Castillo was working for that agency, that was when DESA was founded. And on March 4, 2019, the prosecutors’ unit against the impunity of corruption, a unit of the public prosecutor’s office, actually charged Castillo with fraud, use of false documents, charges related to the authorization of contracts and permits for DESA to build and manage the hydroelectric dam, the Agua Zarca Dam — and they said it is clear that the founding partners were only front men who were used to establish the company, but Castillo had real and material control of the company at the same time that he was an official member of the government.

Their report showed that Castillo was taking double government salaries, that he had started a company that was selling the government different office supplies while working for the government, which he wasn’t supposed to be doing, and he was made to pay the government back for that. So, all in all, I think that report really helped us understand that this was not somebody who is a victim, as his defense is really trying to paint him; this is somebody who had a history of corruption from the very start of his time working for the government and working for the military.

MH: You mentioned his work with the U.S. military before he went back to serve in the Honduran military, even before the U.S.-backed coup in 2009, which deposed then-President Manuel Zelaya and since then, the U.S. military, I understand, has been supporting the Honduran military. So briefly, could you just discuss how the coup changed things in terms of the violent conditions and environmental abuses and kind of the permissiveness toward business in Honduras?

CE: I can speak briefly to that. I think Danielle likely knows more about that. But one thing that I remember from speaking to Berta Cáceres’ daughters in Honduras, I was in their offices in COPINH, just a couple of paces away from where Berta worked before she died, and I remember clearly that one of her daughters just kept repeating to me that after the coup, there was a new slogan that was: “Honduras is open for business.” And it was really important for her that I realized that and that that had perceptively changed how the government looked at the natural resources as an opportunity for new business, and how they really felt like that excluded them from the conversation, and led to what happened to their mother.

DM: I mean, what the coup ushered into Honduras was not the beginning of corruption or the beginning of necessarily even the drug trade. The coup just concentrated, to an enormous amount, the power of people who were involved in corruption, and a lot of economic and physical violence, including the drug trade. It opened the doors of a government to what looks like, based on what we see coming out of investigations, both by independent bodies, and local Honduran authorities, and the Southern District of New York, the federal court here in the United States, just a really well-oiled corruption machine that’s in charge of all levels of the Honduran government.

I think that connects to a takeaway that I would hope readers would have of the investigation that Chiara and I did. First of all, there is evidence to suggest that what the Cáceres family has been saying since the murder is true, which is that the murder of Berta Cáceres was the last act in a long list of years of corrupt and other types of economic and physical violence acts perpetrated against peoples like the Lenca, individuals like Berta Cáceres. And it would be a shame if the understanding of everything that has come out of the exhaustive investigation into this murder, if the takeaway is that this company, or these individuals, or this family is particularly bad, and was engaged in particularly illegal or immoral things, because that’s not the case. They’re, in fact, representative of the really concerning and very deep-rooted problems of corruption and institutional violence that make life difficult, if not impossible, for a great many Hondurans. And that goes to the very top. And we know that in large part because of proclamations that are coming out of, as I mentioned, the Federal Court in New York not far from where I’m sitting right now.

CE: This is not a rarity in any way, shape, or form. This case is not a rarity. It is not rare that there was corruption from the very beginning in the forming of this company, to the end. It’s not rare that hitmen were paid to kill an Indigenous person. Honduras is one of the countries where more Indigenous people are killed in the world. It’s not rare that a woman was murdered, even a famous woman. It’s not rare that the government was slow to respond. It’s 2021and Berta Cáceres was killed in 2016. And we are only now seeing the trial of just one person who has been accused of masterminding her murder. And it’s not rare that this country continued to receive government aid from the U.S..

What’s rare in this situation is that the Honduran Supreme Court took the time to actually investigate this case; most murders in Honduras are not investigated. The rare aspect of this is the international attention that’s been paid because of Berta Cáceres’ celebrity. And it’s rare that we get to see this kind of window into how, despite all of the evidence being laid bare already, and multiple U.S. senators voicing their dissent with what’s happening, but yet the U.S. government continues to finance the Honduran government and the Honduran military because it jives well with their interests.

DM: And what’s obvious in the end is that this is not good for people. It is not making a dignified life possible for most Hondurans, and it prompts things like flight from Honduras to seek survival in other countries like the U.S. and it’s a cycle that will continue until people who have power in places like the United States and in places like Honduras recognize that cracking down on crime by the poor, while shaking hands with the wealthy who are carrying out what we now know a bit more about, that doesn’t make for a dignified life for people.

MH: Right, I was about to ask how these conditions drive migration patterns and contribute to the kind of border panic that the U.S. media engages in without really contextualizing the situation in the countries people are leaving.

CE: Yeah, what really comes to mind is what this woman who worked on that report about Castillo told me when I was speaking with her last year. She mentioned that, at a massive scale, people in Honduras are feeling impotent against the unavoidable corrupt structures at every level of power in Honduras, and how that feeling of impotence motivates the constant violence in which people live in in Honduras, and which we see a little bit in the story of Berta Cáceres.

Because of this deep-seated corruption that we see in Castillo, and in his trajectory through the armed forces and through the government, and then because of this constant violence that we see in what happened to Berta, that she was murdered in her own apartment after just organizing a grassroots protest, that’s all really Berta was, quote-unquote, guilty of. She was peacefully protesting. And, for that, she was killed. Regardless of her celebrity, regardless of the fact that she had won an international award, she was still seen as dispensable, it was still possible to kill her. And you can imagine if it’s possible to kill someone like Berta Cáceres, who has won an international award for her efforts, how easy it is to kill just an average person who doesn’t have international celebrity.

This author of the report really highlighted that this violence, paired together with this feeling of impotence against corruption, that’s the reason why there are so many people trying to leave Honduras, because it’s impossible to just simply have a peaceful life, I think many people feel, to have what many of us take for granted in the United States, just the ability to have a job and mind your own business, I think she was pointing out that a lot of people feel either compelled to participate in those corrupt structures and become part of the problem or become a victim of them. And if you don’t want to do either, then I think a lot of people feel like their only option is to leave.

MH: Yeah, that. That makes sense. This was great. Thank you so much for coming on.

DM: Thank you so much, Maia.

CE: Thank you, Maia.

[End credits theme.]

MH: That was Danielle Mackey and Chiara Eisner, and that’s our show. Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. Laura Flynn is our supervising producer. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

And I’m Maia Hibbett, associate editor for the Intercept. If you’d like to support our work, go to — your donation, no matter what the amount, makes a real difference.

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