Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Berta Caceres

Berta Caceres in the Rio Blanco region of western Honduras. Caceres was assassinated in 2016. (Photo:

Berta Caceres's Murder Trial Will Test Biden's Central America Policy

The Biden administration says it wants to counter the corruption that’s driving displacement. Does that apply to U.S. allies in Honduras?

On her recent trip to Guatemala and Mexico, Vice President Kamala Harris drove home two points: that potential immigrants to the U.S. should "stay home," and that the Biden administration will not tolerate corruption, which it sees as a major barrier to development in the region.

The U.S. government has generally been on the wrong side of history when it comes to combating corruption in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—the three Central American countries that currently account for most migration to the United States.

Harris made it clear that the two priorities are linked: "Part of giving people hope is having a very specific commitment to rooting out corruption in the region," she said. But U.S. promises to help root out corruption in the region has generated skepticism in the U.S. and in Central America.

The U.S. government has generally been on the wrong side of history when it comes to combating corruption in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador—the three Central American countries that currently account for most migration to the United States. It has backed powerful economic and political interests in the region, to the point of overturning elected governments and funding death squads.

And this isn't just the ancient past. Washington's continued promotion of private sector extractive industries that cause environmental destruction, resource depletion, displacement, and conflicts with local communities, as well as U.S. support for Central American security forces involved in extrajudicial executions and other egregious human rights violations, all still exacerbate the out-migration Biden seeks to stem.

Then there's the selective nature of how U.S. anti-corruption campaigns are applied. It's significant that Harris didn't make a stop in Honduras, despite the fact that Hondurans account for the majority of Central American migrants. The reason is simple: a photo-op with the Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez would be an embarrassing reflection of the administration's double standard on anti-corruption.

Hernandez has been implicated in drug trafficking and corruption cases in the United States, where his brother, Tony Hernandez, was sentenced to life in prison for trafficking cocaine and funneling the money into Juan Orlando's presidential campaign. In February of this year, the Southern District Court of New York revealed that President Hernandez himself is a target of investigation for using state security forces to protect drug traffickers who in turn have helped bolster his political control over the county.

There is also credible evidence that Hernandez stole Honduras's 2017 election, orchestrated a massive embezzlement scheme, and illegally packed the country's highest court.

A high-profile trial winding up in Tegucigalpa will be an important sign of Honduras' commitment to rule of law and whether or not that matters to the Biden administration.

David Castillo, a Honduran former military intelligence agent and CEO of Desarrollos Energéticos, SA (DESA), is accused of playing a central role in the 2016 murder of internationally renowned indigenous land defender Berta Cáceres.

DESA was building the Agua Zarca Hydroelectric Project that Cáceres opposed when she was assassinated in her home March 2, 2016. In November 2018, seven men, including DESA company employees and members of the Honduran military, were convicted of carrying out the crime. But the masterminds who hired the hitmen remained at large.

During Castillo's trial, the state prosecution and the victim's family presented damning evidence of his involvement, including tapes of phone conversations between Castillo and Douglas Bustillo, a former DESA security chief convicted for the murder in the 2018 trial. They also provided evidence that Castillo coordinated surveillance of Berta Caceres and discussed a previous aborted attempt on her life. He also faces corruption charges related to an alleged criminal network of economic interests with international ties behind the hydroelectric project.

Castillo's trial will likely be decided this month, amid a coordinated media and public relations campaign to undermine the prosecution. International organizations have called for a fair ruling and full investigation and cooperation from the state.

The trial of the feminist land defender exemplifies the challenges to Biden's Central America plan.

If the Honduran court fails to deliver an impartial verdict in the face of overwhelming evidence against Castillo, it would send a clear message of impunity and discredit the U.S. effort just days after its launch. And it would highlight the critical question facing the Biden administration: Will its anti-corruption campaign be bold enough to target corruption among economic and geopolitical allies at the very top of these governments, or will it back the deceit of the wolves guarding the sheep?

Actions speak louder than words. The anticorruption rhetoric will fail to convince migrants, human rights defenders, or Honduran and international civil society that Biden's plan is any different from "business as usual" in the region if the administration looks the other way as regional counterparts run roughshod over rule of law.

© 2021 Foreign Policy In Focus
Laura Carlsen

Laura Carlsen

Laura Carlsen is director of the Americas Policy Program in Mexico City, where she has been an analyst and writer for two decades. She is also a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

US Urged to End Drone Strikes After Pentagon Says Killing 10 Afghan Civilians Was 'Horrible Mistake'

"That was not a 'mistake,'" said journalist Anand Giridharadas. "War crimes are not oopsies."

Brett Wilkins ·

40+ NYC Activists Arrested for Protests Against Banks Fueling Climate Emergency

"We're sending a message loud and clear that the little action that politicians and greenwashing CEOs have taken so far does not begin to deal with the magnitude of this crisis."

Jessica Corbett ·

FDA Panel Recommends Pfizer Booster Shots for People 65+ and Especially Vulnerable

The scientific advisory committee voted down a recommendation for other adults.

Common Dreams staff ·

'What Betrayal Looks Like': UN Report Says World on Track for 2.7°C of Warming by 2100

"Whatever our so-called 'leaders' are doing," said Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, "they are doing it wrong."

Jake Johnson ·

Critics Warn Biden That 30% Methane Reduction by 2030 Not Good Enough

Following the new U.S.-E.U. pledge, climate campaigners called for an urgent end to fossil fuel extraction and major reforms of agricultural practices.

Jessica Corbett ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.

Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo