Two military officers charged in the assassination of award-winning environmental activist Berta Cáceres attended the School of the Americas, an infamous U.S. institute that provides counterinsurgency training. A new investigation from the Guardian says her murder had all the markings of a “well-planned operation designed by military intelligence.”
HONDURAS — The Murder of environmental activists has reached unprecedented levels throughout Latin America – and nowhere is this more pronounced than in the Central American nation of Honduras. Since Honduras’ government was overthrown in 2009 in a coup backed by the Clinton-led State Department, the industry-friendly government that came to power is cracking down local activism by any means necessary.
Over 120 Honduran activists have been killed since 2010, making the small nation the world’s deadliest place to protect the environment. Berta Cáceres, one of the slain activists, was the winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. However, her international prestige and recognition did not prevent her from being gunned down in her own home last year.
While NGOs and analysts have largely pointed at the Honduran government and its political elite as having played a role in Cáceres’ death, a new investigation published by the Guardian has found that the nation’s U.S. trained special forces have been directly linked to her brutal murder. Citing leaked court documents, the investigation found that Cáceres’ assassination was an extrajudicial killing planned by military intelligence specialists.
Eight men have been arrested in connection with Cáceres’ death, including one active-duty and two retired military officers. Two of them – Maj. Mariano Díaz and Lt. Douglas Giovanny Bustillo – were trained at the infamous School of the Americas.
The School of the Americas (SOA) is a military training school for Latin American soldiers located at Fort Benning, Georgia. Initially founded in 1946 in Panama, the school soon grew into what former Panamanian President Jorge Illueca called the “biggest base for destabilization in Latin America.”
Since its establishment, the SOA has trained more than 64,000 Latino soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, psychological warfare, interrogation tactics and torture techniques. The school was expelled from Panama in 1984 and relocated to Georgia. In 2001, it underwent a “cosmetic” name change and is now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC).
Though the U.S. military insists that SOA/WHINSEC is dedicated to preserving human rights, the training manuals used at the facility tell a different story. In 1996, bowing to public pressure, the Pentagon reluctantly released training manuals that had been used at SOA. The manuals expressly advocated torture, extortion, blackmail, and the targeting of civilian populations.
The numerous crimes committed by SOA and WHINSEC graduates throughout Latin America are also well-documented. In Colombia alone, U.S. assistance was considered a factor in a total of 5,763 extrajudicial killings that took place in the nation from 2000 to 2010.
The decades-old saga of SOA alumni returning to their homelands to attack and suppress their own people is playing out again in Honduras. Most of the eight people detained in connection to Cáceres’ murder have ties to either the Honduran military or Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) – the company behind the Agua Zarca dam, which Cáceres opposed at the time of her death.
DESA itself has extensive military and government links. Its president, Roberto David Castillo Mejía, is a former military intelligence officer, while its secretary onced served as justice minister. Bustillo, one of the men trained at SOA and now suspected of murdering Cáceres, was DESA’s head of security from 2013 to 2015.
All of these factors, when considered together, strongly suggest that someone at DESA may very well have ordered Cáceres’ execution.