Can Xiomara Castro Make Honduras Safe for Activists?

Her election came on the heels of a major conviction in the murder of environmentalist Berta Cáceres, suggesting there is hope for the country’s civil society.

By , a writer based in Mexico City covering culture and social justice.
Honduran President-elect Xiomara Castro and her husband, former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya arrive at the National Stadium in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Jan. 27.
Honduran President-elect Xiomara Castro and her husband, former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya arrive at the National Stadium in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Jan. 27.
Honduran President-elect Xiomara Castro and her husband, former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya arrive at the National Stadium in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on Jan. 27. LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images

Last month, Xiomara Castro was sworn in as the first female president of Honduras. Her leadership ends the 12-year rule of the right-wing party that helped oust her husband, former president and now first gentleman Manuel Zelaya in a military coup in 2009. Castro, a longtime political activist, won a resounding victory in November on a left-of-center platform that could align with the Biden administration’s efforts in Central America. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who leads the White House’s efforts on immigration, headed the U.S. delegation to her inauguration.

Castro’s election came on the heels of the historic conviction of Robert David Castillo Mejía, the former head of hydroelectric company Desarrollos Energéticos, for his participation in the 2016 murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres. Until 2018, Castillo—an ex-military intelligence officer trained at West Point—oversaw the construction of the $50 million Agua Zarca dam. Cáceres and the Civil Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations campaigned against the dam for a decade because it threatened to displace the Lenca indigenous community. Castillo’s conviction represented a win in a system that rarely holds executives responsible for violence and corruption.

Viewed in tandem, Castro’s election and the Castillo verdict mark a hopeful turning point in Honduran politics, signaling that the country may hold corrupt actors accountable. Meanwhile, Washington has a chance to reset relations and support Castro, whose leftist policies it would traditionally consider threatening. These events also suggest the grassroots campaigns that began following the 2009 coup are having an impact on the political system. Castro has vowed to bring justice to Cáceres. There is some optimism that her election will bring about an environment that is marginally safer for reformists and activists.

Last month, Xiomara Castro was sworn in as the first female president of Honduras. Her leadership ends the 12-year rule of the right-wing party that helped oust her husband, former president and now first gentleman Manuel Zelaya in a military coup in 2009. Castro, a longtime political activist, won a resounding victory in November on a left-of-center platform that could align with the Biden administration’s efforts in Central America. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who leads the White House’s efforts on immigration, headed the U.S. delegation to her inauguration.

Castro’s election came on the heels of the historic conviction of Robert David Castillo Mejía, the former head of hydroelectric company Desarrollos Energéticos, for his participation in the 2016 murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres. Until 2018, Castillo—an ex-military intelligence officer trained at West Point—oversaw the construction of the $50 million Agua Zarca dam. Cáceres and the Civil Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations campaigned against the dam for a decade because it threatened to displace the Lenca indigenous community. Castillo’s conviction represented a win in a system that rarely holds executives responsible for violence and corruption.

Viewed in tandem, Castro’s election and the Castillo verdict mark a hopeful turning point in Honduran politics, signaling that the country may hold corrupt actors accountable. Meanwhile, Washington has a chance to reset relations and support Castro, whose leftist policies it would traditionally consider threatening. These events also suggest the grassroots campaigns that began following the 2009 coup are having an impact on the political system. Castro has vowed to bring justice to Cáceres. There is some optimism that her election will bring about an environment that is marginally safer for reformists and activists.


The murder of Cáceres, which came just a year after she was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her work, shocked her international admirers. On March 3, 2016, hired hitmen shot and killed Cáceres in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras, in the middle of the night. A Tegucigalpa court later found seven men, including two Desarrollos Energéticos employees, guilty of orchestrating the killing. To Hondurans, it was part of a pattern of violence against activists that had become a daily reality.

In 2020, Honduras had a shockingly high per capita murder rate of 38 per 100,000 people, even compared to its neighbors in Central America’s Northern Triangle, with El Salvador at 20 per 100,000 and Guatemala at 15 per 100,000. The 2009 coup, in which Zelaya was kidnapped by the army and replaced by right-wing politician Juan Orlando Hernández had lasting consequences for civil society.

Under Hernández’s rule—which was characterized by a military buildup—women, activists, journalists, and environmental defenders faced increasing intimidation and violence. According to feminist advocacy group Iniciativa Mesoamericana Defensoras, 48 percent of all violence against female activists in the Northern Triangle takes place in Honduras. Supaya Portillo Villeda, an associate professor of Latin American Studies at Pitzer College, said the “rule of law was thrown out the window” after the coup, along with the civic space for critics and journalists.

The 2009 coup also marked a new chapter in the decades-long story of U.S. intervention in Honduras. That year, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended a meeting in Honduras where Latin American leadersincluding Zelaya—demanded that Cuba be allowed to join the Organization of American States. Zelaya’s support for Cuba, alongside his relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, was a red flag for Washington, which viewed it as a possible “affront to U.S. power,” Portillo said. One month later, Zelaya was out. Although Latin American leaders and the United Nations General Assembly advocated his return to office, the United States chose not to offer its support.

Government concessions after the coup led to a massive surge in extractive industries that displaced local communities, cut off their access to natural resources, and criminalized them for using their own land. This displacement has contributed to the spike in migrants leaving Honduras to attempt to seek refuge in the United States. “Extractive industries provoke the displacement of people,” said Laura Zuñiga Cáceres, leader of the Civil Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations and daughter of Berta Cáceres. “That’s one of the factors that creates caravans of people who are leaving Honduras. The other is violence.”

U.S. influence contributed to the pipeline between the Honduran military elite and the private sector. It is no coincidence that Castillo studied at West Point. At the same time, Washington ensured the continuity of its own agenda, using Honduras as a laboratory for anti-communist U.S. foreign policy in the region, a strategy that began during the Cold War. Contras launched their raids into Nicaragua in the 1980s from Soto Cano, a U.S. military base that Honduran officials closed their eyes to.

“American support hasn’t just been economic, it’s also been in the formation of the Honduran military state,” Zúñiga said. Desarollos Energéticos emerged “from the jurisdictional framework and the paramilitary state that came out of 2009. It’s not a coincidence that the major was formed and trained in the U.S., and it was him who participated in the operation that assassinated my mother,” she added.


By failing to prioritize the well-being of ordinary Hondurans, U.S. foreign policy has undermined its own goals. For decades, Washington supported the Honduran elite at the expense of human rights. The Biden administration has now pivoted toward addressing the “root causes of migration” from the Northern Triangle. Portillo points to the hypocrisy of the White House rejecting migration waves that the U.S. government had a role in creating. “They’re in this catch-22 because it’s almost like there’s a burning house and Kamala Harris is saying, ‘Stay in the burning house and die.’ But the house has been burning for 30 years,” she said.

To reduce corruption and violence, what Honduras may need most now is U.S. assistance that helps foster a stable economy with job opportunities that keep Hondurans in Honduras. “We can’t abandon these countries,” said Adriana Beltran, an expert on democratic governance in Central America and the executive director of the Seattle International Foundation. “We should figure out a way, through our assistance and diplomatic efforts, to support those that are pushing for reforms and trying to improve conditions for everyone in their own communities.”

That includes supporting the return of a healthy civic space for activists and opposition leaders. The United States could support Castro’s vision for a “participatory democracy,” as well as her call to rewrite the Honduran constitution to do away with its Cold War-era influence. Castro, whose win was made possible by the organizing of local youth, feminist, indigenous, and Black coalitions, will hopefully be able to give the vision of the Civil Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations and other civic organizations real power.

Supporting local actors pushing for justice and transparency is one area where U.S. support could make a difference immediately. More broadly, Washington should condition the aid it gives to Honduras to prevent it from going toward “training and providing equipment to the security forces” that “end up going after environmental and indigenous activists like Cáceres,” Beltran said. She suggests the United States work with international institutions to ensure they do not grant loans to entities that have engaged or benefited from corruption.

There are signs that the United States may finally turn its focus to endemic corruption in efforts to curb the number of migrants at its southern border. Last year, the United States named 21 Hondurans—including former President Porfirio Lobo Sosa and former first lady Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo—on a list of corrupt Central American actors denied entry into the United States. U.S. President Joe Biden also appointed Honduran-born Ricardo Zúñiga as a State Department special envoy for the Northern Triangle, tasked with implementing a $4 billion assistance package aimed at addressing the root causes of migration from the region.

This moment presents an opportunity for Washington to rewrite the U.S.-Honduras relationship. The Biden administration and Castro ultimately possess a shared set of interests. Castro needs Biden’s support to strengthen the integrity of Honduran civil society, and Biden needs Castro to end the corruption and impunity that forces locals to leave their country. She has already pledged to come up with a plan to target drivers of migration in the first 100 days of her administration.

A successful long-term approach would allow Hondurans to write their own future without conforming to an U.S. agenda. With a revolt in the Honduran Congress a few days into her first term, Castro already faces a major challenge to pushing through policy changes. The Castillo trial shows that Honduras possesses the right tools for reform. It just needs help using them. “There’s a glimmer of hope right there for all of us Hondurans,” Portillo said. “This is really a system that can work.”

Nili Blanck is a writer based in Mexico City covering culture and social justice. She has a J.D. from the University of Michigan Law School.

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