Revealed: Environmental Activist Berta Cáceres' Suspected Killers Received U.S. Military Training
We discuss a new investigation that reveals further ties between the killing of renowned environmental activist Berta CÃ¡ceres, Honduran military intelligence and the United States. CÃ¡ceres 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 CÃ¡ceres’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 CÃ¡ceres court papers show murder suspects’ links to US-trained elite troops."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We end today’s show by remembering renown Honduran environmental activist Berta CÃ¡ceres, who was assassinated a year ago in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras, just before midnight, March 2, 2016. Berta CÃ¡ceres 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. On Thursday, hundreds rallied outside the Honduran Supreme Court building to demand justice for Berta CÃ¡ceres and for the license of the company behind the Agua Zarca Dam to be revoked. Eight men have been arrested as suspects in Berta’s killing, including one active army major and two retired military members. Two of the suspects reportedly received military training in the United States. Also Thursday here in Washington, D.C., Georgia Congressman Hank Johnson reintroduced the "Berta CÃ¡ceres Human Rights in Honduras Act," which seeks to withhold U.S. military aid to Honduras until the Honduran government addresses human rights violations by its police and security forces. We’re turning now to a new investigation that reveals further ties between Berta CÃ¡ceres’s killing, Honduran military intelligence, and the United States. Joining us from London is Nina Lakhani, a freelance journalist who has been based in Mexico and Central America for the last four years. Her piece in The Guardian is headlined, "Berta CÃ¡ceres’s Court Papers Show Murder Suspects’ Links to U.S.-trained Elite Troops." Nina, welcome to Democracy Now! What are those links?
NINA LAKHANI: The U.S., over the last decade or so, has really focused a lot of its military training in Central America on special forces. We know that over a period, I think, of five years, 2008-2014, the U.S. went 21 times to Honduras to train their special forces. Two of the military men who have been charged with her murder and the attempted murder of Gustavo Castro was special forces. So Major Mariano Diaz who was a veteran special forces officer, at least seven years according to his military records. And also Henry Hernandez, Sergeant Henry Hernandez, who had left the military in 2013, but he was special forces for three years and worked under the direct command of Major Diaz.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about Douglas Giovanni Bustillo?
NINA LAKHANI: Bustillo, he did receive some training as a cadet, I believe, just before he finished his initial military training. Both him and Diaz, who went into the military together, both went to the U.S. to receive training courses. Bustillo did some early training in the School of Americas I think back in 1997.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about the evidence that you’ve seen, from text messages to phone calls. And if you can re-create for us what you think took place.
NINA LAKHANI: The evidence really points to I think a very well-planned military operation that took place that night. What we know from witnesses is that there is a police and military checkpoint as you come into Esperanza. And that night, many witnesses have told me and other investigators that there was no one there that night. There was none at the base that night. We know from phone records and from testimony that Hernandez and Bustillo, who knew each other from working a private security, in the months leading up to Berta’s assassination, have working together in private security. We know that they were in La Esperanza at least three times in the weeks leading up to her murder. And so at least four people were there that night. Hernandez admits to being there. And at least three other civilians who have been accused of murder were placed at her house because of telephone analysis. They went in. They knew what they were doing. They knew where they were going. All of the evidence points to the house. Inside and out had been under surveillance. They’d been there several times. And her house was set back from the main gate. It was a guarded community. There was a guard there that night who—it’s very likely they had communication with him. I met with him before because they came in. It was very dark. It’s an isolated place. They knew were the door was. They knew where she would be sleeping. So the evidence points to her house and the area surrounding it had been surveyed, had been studied beforehand. All of that points to really like a military-type operation. Hernandez is the one military person that was placed there that night. Like I say, he was special forces. He worked under Diaz. He was a highly—he’d been a decorated sniper. It’s not clear whether he pulled the trigger that night, but it would appear that he was in charge of the operation on the night.
AMY GOODMAN: And why would they want—
NINA LAKHANI: He was a low-level military officer and rose to the rank of sergeant.
AMY GOODMAN: Nina, why would they want Berta CÃ¡ceres dead, in this last minuet we have?
NINA LAKHANI: I don’t think the people under arrest probably did. The context of her Berta’s death: she was the most well-known activist, not only in Honduras, but probably in America, at the time of her murder. None of the individuals who were under arrest, none of the eight, had anything personal to gain from her being killed. And the idea that someone as celebrated as her could be murdered without at least the implicit knowledge of people higher up in the Armed Forces or even the government and the company, I think is highly improbable. None of the eight who were under arrest had anything personal to gain.
AMY GOODMAN: But the government? And has the U.S. been held accountable?
NINA LAKHANI: I think the U.S.—I don’t think the U.S. government—they would not admit to bearing any responsibility to Berta’s assassination. I think it’s important to remember I interviewed her around 2013 just around the elections and she was publicly denouncing the fact she had been told and had been made aware that her name appeared at the top of a military hit-list in which I think there were 16. She was one of 16 activists. She was telling people, you know—
Watch part two of our discussion with the reporter behind a new investigation that reveals further ties between the killing of renowned environmental activist Berta CÃ¡ceres, Honduran military intelligence and the United States.