Last week, the Honduran Public Ministry finished presenting its case against energy executive and former military intelligence officer David Castillo for the murder of Lenca Indigenous leader Berta Cáceres. The trial is one of many important steps towards securing justice for Berta, the coordinator of the Honduran Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations (COPINH). The Biden administration should pay close attention because Berta’s life and death reveal essential lessons that it should heed as it develops its new comprehensive approach to Central America.

 Dangerous Work of Earth Rights Defenders

At the time that Berta was murdered, she was supporting Indigenous farmers who opposed the construction of the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque River, which is sacred to the Lenca people. Castillo worked with members of the Atala Zablah family, who play a central role in Honduran banking and business, to establish the company Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA) to implement the Agua Zarca project. Honduran prosecutors charge that while Castillo was still working at the Honduran national energy company—which he and other military officers seized control of in 2007—he played a key role in fraudulently obtaining licenses and contracts for the dam.

Berta helped bring international attention to the conflict caused by the project, prompting two international development banks to withdraw their financial support for it. Evidence in the Honduran criminal proceedings demonstrates that as pressure on the remaining development banks continued to mount, Castillo and his superiors hired assassins to kill Berta.

How U.S. Policy Impacts Safety in Central America

As the Biden administration fast-tracks its approach to Central America, it must consider how U.S. foreign policies and assistance have acted as a root cause of forced migration from the area. The U.S. legitimized the 2009 coup in Honduras—and the fraudulent elections that followed—and has donated over $119 million in security aid to Juan Orlando Hernández’s regime over the past decade, despite an avalanche of evidence linking the regime to human rights violations and drug trafficking.

Meanwhile, the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC) committed to providing $1 billion of private sector funding to Honduras. The agreement specifically commits to financing the country’s energy sector, a source of socio-environmental conflicts in Honduras.

Emboldened by the military coup and enriched by aid from the U.S government and international financial institutions, corrupt corporate and government actors in Honduras have employed security forces to intimidate, criminalize, and harm those who stand in the way of projects such as the Agua Zarca dam. Berta is one of the hundreds of human rights defenders in Honduras whose lives have been cut short for trying to protect their communities from destructive development projects. For example, in the Bajo Aguán region, over 140 Campesino movement leaders and members have been assassinated for trying to reclaim lands that palm oil corporations violently seized. A 2020 report by Global Witness notes that Honduras saw a more significant increase in attacks against defenders from 2018 to 2019 than any other nation.

Follow the Money

In 2017, EarthRights International filed a lawsuit on behalf of Honduran farmers charging two World Bank Group members with aiding and abetting human rights violations in the Bajo Aguán connected to an environmentally disastrous proposed palm oil plantation. The International Finance Corporation lent the Dinant Corporation $15 million for the project. Dinant then employed assassins, military forces, and private security guards to intimidate and kill local farmers in the Bajo Aguán, who contested the company’s claims to the land.

We see similar corporate-sponsored violence in the murder of Berta Cáceres. COPINH and Berta’s family have presented evidence to Honduran prosecutors that other high-ranking DESA officials, such as Daniel Atala Midence, were involved in Berta’s murder. Last Friday, Daniel Atala appeared in court where he had been called to testify, but invoked his right against self-incrimination. The court accepted his refusal to testify based on the fact that the state prosecutors confirmed that Atala is under investigation; however, those same prosecutors have not even attempted to interview Daniel Atala or David Castillo’s other superiors and peers.

Castillo’s trial sheds light on the collaboration between extractive industries, financial institutions, and organized crime that has decimated Central American communities and driven forced migration from the area. Historically, U.S. policies have permitted and even emboldened corrupt actors to wage violence with impunity. U.S. officials have consistently promoted a false narrative that frames violence in Honduras as the sole result of community violence and drug trafficking, downplaying the role of corporations and financial institutions, thereby distorting international perceptions of the region’s actual challenges. Thus far, the Biden Administration has continued to prioritize mobilizing private investment in the region without sufficiently addressing how it will ensure that such finance does not continue to fuel these same violent networks.

Shifting Policy to Prioritize Communities’ Rights

The Biden Administration should change course and respect communities’ rights to have a say in the development decisions that affect them while holding corporate and financial actors accountable for their role in fueling violence in the region. The administration’s decision last week to withdraw financial support from the Jilamito Hydroelectric Project — where many patterns of violence from the Agua Zarca have been repeated — is commendable and should set the course for policy in the region moving forward. The U.S. DFC must recognize that the problems around Agua Zarca and Jilamito are the norm rather than the exception, and rehaul the approach to investment in the region rather than addressing cases piecemeal. The newly announced USAID Northern Triangle Task Force should also closely study these and other cases of violence against communities in the context of development projects in order to develop initiatives that decrease violence rather than contributing to it.  Otherwise, our intervention in the area will only enrich the local political and economic elite–at the expense of frontline communities, whose traditional, environmentally synergistic ways of living and farming are being replaced by development projects that contribute to the climate crisis.

Ultimately, the crisis in Honduras is what happens when profits are prioritized over people and the planet: Bad actors like David Castillo are legitimized, violence continues, the climate crisis intensifies, and mass forced migration persists. It’s time for a new era in U.S. foreign policy that supports human rights, environmental defenders like Berta Cáceres, and the needs of communities–not corporate interests. Otherwise, we are doomed to repeat these cycles of violence.

Kelsey Jost-Creegan is a staff attorney at EarthRights International, a climate justice and human rights organization. Kelsey holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School and is an expert on corporate accountability, paramilitary violence, and forced migration in the Americas. She works closely with rural communities in Honduras and Colombia to build strategies for accountability, safety, and resiliency in the context of socio-environmental conflicts. 

Camilo Bermúdez is a spokesperson for the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), the indigenous grassroots organization that was co-founded and directed by Berta Cáceres before her murder. He is an expert on indigenous rights, organizing, and community consultation in Honduras. COPINH works to defend the territory and rights of Lenca indigenous communities and the environment.