Journalist Nina Lakhani reported on the murder of an environmental activist and discovered a high-reaching conspiracy.
Nina Lakhani was a staff reporter at The Independent in the UK when she decided to start over as a freelance journalist in Mexico in 2013. Over the past six years, she has reported on a number of stories throughout Latin America, but most notably the Berta Cáceres trial in Honduras.
Berta Cáceres was an indigenous environmental activist who was murdered in 2016 for her opposition to a dam project on the Gualcarque River. Lakhani’s reporting and the ensuing trial revealed that Cáceres’s murder was ordered by the company building the dam. Seven people—including an employee and former employee of the company—were found guilty in December, and sixteen officials, including the president of the company, are currently on trial for corruption related to the dam. Roads & Kingdoms’ Leo Schwartz spoke to Lakhani about the case of Berta Cáceres, why her murder helps explain the situation in Honduras, and the dangers of freelance reporting.
Lakhani’s book on Berta Cáceres is set to be released by Verso Books in early 2020.
Leo Schwartz: How did you start covering the Berta Cáceres story?
Nina Lakhani: I met Cáceres in 2013, the first time I went to Honduras to report on the elections. I met Cáceres at her house in La Esperanza. At that point, she was on the lam. She had an arrest warrant out against her linked to two trumped-up charges related to her opposition to the Agua Zarca Dam. That was the only time I met her in person, but I continued to follow her story. I was actually on holiday in Baja California when she was murdered, and I woke up to several missed calls from my editor at The Guardian. I sat down that day to write a first-person piece about meeting her, and then I went to La Esperanza a month later to start investigating her story and never stopped.
On that first trip I spoke to as many people as I could who had been with her—her family, friends, colleagues—and witnessed the repression and the threats that she and other colleagues had suffered as a result of the Agua Zarca Dam opposition. What I pieced together was that Cáceres knew her time was running out. Everyone around her knew she was under threat, but they thought that maybe there would be another arrest warrant. No one believed she would be killed. She’d won the Goldman Prize a year earlier, and she’d had an audience with the Pope in Rome. She was the most well-known environmental activist in Latin America at the time. Her friends and family thought that would protect her, but Cáceres knew that time was running out. She was making plans and saying goodbyes.
Schwartz: Can you talk about the background of the case?
Lakhani: There was a coup in Honduras in June 2009, which ousted the democratically elected president. On the back of that, Honduras turned into one of the most violent countries in the world. Murder rates soared and general violence increased. Within that, so did targeted violence, specifically against defenders of the environment.
Why was that? The underlying objective of the coup was to sell off the country’s natural resources and usher in energy projects, dams, and mono-cultivars of maize and sugar for so-called green energy. This was done without consulting communities.
Cáceres was from the indigenous Lenca community, which is the largest indigenous community in Honduras. A year after the coup, she denounced at least fifty environmentally destructive megaprojects that had been destined for Lenca territory, most of them with international investment. The Agua Zarca Dam on the Gualcarque River—which is considered sacred by the Lenca people because they rely on it for food, water, and medicines—was one of those projects. Cáceres, alongside the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), started working with the local community immediately to oppose the construction of this dam.
The river suddenly had signs on it that said, “Do not swim. Private property.” Starting April 1, 2013, the community was fed up, and they decided to install a roadblock to stop the machinery from getting down to the river. Cáceres was there the following day, and said to them, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
By that stage, she had 20 years of community activism under her belt, so she knew the consequences. She warned them it would mean violence, oppression, militarization, and false arrests, but she said if they wanted to do it, she would support them. That’s when the campaign started. A local leader named Tomás Garcia was killed in July 2013, and Cáceres faced criminal charges, but they eventually did stop the dam.
The court found that Cáceres was killed because her opposition was delaying the dam project.
However, the company had another plan. They moved the dam construction to the other side of the river, claiming it was not indigenous land. That was a complete farce because it was going to stop the flow of the river, and without the river, the community would die. That started around September and October 2015, and Berta was back in the thick of it. The threats started to increase again, and she was killed at the beginning of March 2016.
Schwartz: You unearthed during your reporting that the people behind Cáceres’s murder were part of a company called Desa, which has multinational ties. Can you talk about that and the ensuing trial?
Lakhani: Eight people were on trial for her murder at the end of last year, and seven were convicted. Two of them were employed or formerly employed by Desa, the company building the dam, and the court ruled the murder was ordered by Desa executives.
The majority shareholder in Desa is a company called Los Jacarandas, which is owned by one of the ten ruling oligarch families of the country. We don’t know all the international investors in the company, but there were several well-known development banks involved. The court found that Cáceres was killed because her opposition was delaying the project. It was causing Desa financial loss, so they hatched a plan to assassinate her.
Schwartz: Were you surprised by the conviction?
Lakhani: Yes and no. We were surprised because justice is so rare in Honduras. The seven people convicted should have been convicted. Still, I sat through the whole trial. I don’t necessarily think they proved the case against a couple of them, but that’s because the public prosecutors didn’t do their jobs properly, and because Berta’s family’s lawyers were all thrown out on the first day on spurious grounds. Despite that, the evidence was all there.
The president of Desa is still to face trial for masterminding the murder, and the trial against him and 15 other officials who have been accused of corruption related to licensing the dam is underway.
Berta’s murder was a grand finale of a well-planned operation, and the state was very much involved. There was a clear decision to keep all political actors out of the trial. Even though we saw phone data at the trial where top-ranking politicians were mentioned in relation to the repression of the community, there were no charges brought against them.
It’s an uphill battle. For example, the seven people convicted in December should have been sentenced at the beginning of January, and they still haven’t been. Who knows what will happen.
The political system is designed to steal money to benefit a few.
Schwartz: Why do you think it’s important for readers to learn about the case?
Lakhani: Readers need to see the violence in Honduras, and the murder of Berta Cáceres, in a larger context: the violence, chaos, and corruption in Honduras—that absolute, deep-seated corruption. The political system is designed to steal money to benefit a few. That system leads to massive levels of violence and people fleeing for their lives. There’s no food security. The minimum wage does not cover the basic necessities people need to survive. That’s why there is forced migration out of Honduras, and an increasing number of people seeking asylum in Mexico, the United States, and other countries in the region.
Schwartz: In September 2018, a press release was distributed accusing you of manipulating local populations. What challenges did you face reporting this story?
Lakhani: The threats started soon after her murder. In June 2016, I wrote a story for The Guardian about an army deserter from a U.S.-trained elite force who came to me and said he had been given a list with the names and photos of prominent community leaders. His unit had been instructed to monitor and kill them. Some of the people on that list had already been killed, and Cáceres’s name was on the list. As a result of the article, the minister of defense and armed forces accused The Guardian and me of trying to sully the good name of the Honduran Armed Forces. I received online threats, which included my picture, accusing me of being a media terrorist. The U.S. ambassador in Honduras gave off-the-record, background briefings about me, saying how I didn’t know what I was talking about.
Luckily I wasn’t in Honduras at that point. When I returned for the trial, though, I published several articles reminding readers of who Cáceres was and what the case was about, which resulted in two press releases against me. The first one, circulated on the first day of the trial, accused me of links to organized crime and of provoking violent insurgency in the Aguán region of Honduras. Aguán is one of the most dangerous regions, and I had previously reported from there, although not for a year. The second press release was circulated ten days later, further accusing me and an American human rights investigator of having links to Hezbollah.
The main objective was to frighten me into leaving, since I was the only international journalist reporting on the case.
Those press releases had a military intelligence footprint all over them. The main objective was to frighten me into leaving, since I was the only international journalist reporting on the case. They also wanted to create conditions so that if something happened to me, they would be able to say that I was actually a violent insurgent.
Honduras is not an easy place to be for anyone, which is especially true if you’re a woman and a journalist. I felt really vulnerable. The trial was suspended on that first day and I stayed for ten more days, partly because I didn’t want to give in to the intimidation.
Schwartz: The modern media reality means that reporters often don’t have the institutional support of a publication, so they have to go into these dangerous situations without real support networks. Do you have any other recommendations for how to approach this as a freelancer?
Lakhani: My main reason for being there was for my book, but I was also reporting for The Guardian. I did have support from them, but as a freelancer you have to take charge of your own safety. To stay safe, I made sure I had a plan: I had a lawyer, I had conversations with diplomats, and I talked with lots of local and international organizations who hugely helpful in spreading the word and raising my profile. It kept my spirits high.
I had the British ambassador communicate with his counterpart in the foreign office of Honduras that I was there as a bona fide journalist, and that in a country purported to be a supporter of the free press, I should be allowed to talk to anyone and do my job in peace.
The threats in the Aguán region in Honduras are very different than the threats in Tegucigalpa, the capital. Whenever you’re going on a reporting trip, wherever you’re going, make sure to build alliances with local reporters, because they know the threats best. And if you’ve been commissioned to do a story by a media company, get them to put you on their insurance. They all have insurance, and if they don’t, they can buy insurance for a week in case they need to get you out.
That’s not just for security reasons. The Guardian puts me on their insurance every time I do a story for them. When I went on that trip to Honduras after Cáceres was killed, I had a really horrible fall and ended up with my leg in plaster. I stayed and did the reporting, but I still had hospital bills. The insurance paid for that.
Schwartz: What are you working on now?
Lakhani: I’m currently working on a book about Cáceres’s life and death for Verso. It uses her life and death as an arc to tell the modern-day story of Honduras. Right now, I’m getting back into journalism. The book was a challenge because the thing I like least about reporting is the writing. I like being out finding stories. The book involved a lot of time on my own writing, so I’m glad to be back out on the streets doing what I like best.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Header photo: Relatives of Cáceres mourn at the family home. Photo by: Nina Lakhani