Friday marked the first anniversary of the death of Berta Cáceres at the hands of Honduran military officers and corporate hired guns. A fearless Indigenous and environmental activist, Cáceres made enemies of Chinese and Honduran hydroelectric companies—and their World Bank financiers—with her campaign against the construction of massive dams on Lenca land. She lived defending a communal agricultural way of life that is thousands of years old. Cáceres harbored no illusions about the danger she faced. Years of death threats against her and her comrades contributed to the climate of fear in which Honduran activists operate—it’s the single deadliest country for environmental activists.
According to a recent report by international anti-corruption watchdog Global Witness, the sharp increase in violence against Honduran environmentalists since the 2009 coup against leftist president Manuel Zelaya demonstrates “how political and business elites . . . are enlisting the support of state forces to murder and terrorise the communities who dare to stand in their way.” Cáceres was killed for opposing a company—DESA—whose upper echelons include members of the Honduran military intelligence, political, and financial sectors.
Further complicating this assassination are leaked court documents that demonstrate not only that intelligence officials planned the deed but also that two of the accused murderers received military training in the United States. Major Mariano Diaz and Lieutenant Douglas Giovanny Bustillo both spent time in Fort Benning, Georgia, home to the notorious School of the Americas—known now by its neutered name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation—a Department of Defense training institute whose graduates include every Latin American Cold War commie-killer worth their salt: the men behind the death squads, military coups, and dictatorships of the second half of the 20th century.
The killing of Cáceres must thus be contextualized within the decades-long history of brutal repression in the Western Hemisphere condoned, facilitated, and at times even conducted by American military-intelligence forces in service of American corporate interests. Motivated by its Cold War capitalist crusade, the CIA targeted for elimination democratically elected leaders from Jacopo Árbenz of Guatemala, who was deposed at the behest of United Fruit (now known as Chiquita), to Salvador Allende of Chile, who was assassinated for opposing American copper and communications conglomerates. American military officials sponsored death squads in Nicaragua, Argentina, and El Salvador to combat the scourge of communism, enlisting a decentralized global army of mafiosos, drug dealers, and terrorists to construct its nefarious geopolitical order.
Contrary to its own mythology, neoliberalism spread not through the irresistible allure of free market capitalism but rather by the deliberate destabilization of emerging nations through covertly funded criminal proxies around the globe. The United States government not only ignores black market trafficking, assassination, terrorism, and mass slaughter but also relies on these tactics to create political opportunities for pro-corporate intervention in any country that veers too close to genuinely liberatory populism.
The Deep State
Canadian academic Peter Dale Scott first coined the term “deep politics” in his book Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, which was a comprehensive examination of the criminal forces he saw at play behind the Kennedy assassination and Warren Commission investigation. Scott characterized it as political processes “emanating from plural power sources and all only occasionally visible, all usually repressed rather than recognized.” Former Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren, a 28-year veteran of Capitol Hill, uses the slightly adjusted terminology of “the deep state” to refer to much the same concept:
“Yes, there is another government concealed behind the one that is visible at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, a hybrid entity of public and private institutions ruling the country according to consistent patterns in season and out, connected to, but only intermittently controlled by, the visible state whose leaders we choose. My analysis of this phenomenon is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day . . . The institution is not so much sinister (although it has highly sinister aspects) as it is relentlessly well entrenched. Far from being invincible, its failures, such as those in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, are routine enough that it is only the Deep State’s protectiveness towards its higher-ranking personnel that allows them to escape the consequences of their frequent ineptitude.”
Included among the nodes of this covert network are military and security institutions such as the Departments of Defense, State, and Homeland Security, the National Security Agency, and the Central Intelligence Agency; economic institutions like the Department of the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and Wall Street; and non-governmental entities like the hundreds of thousands of private contractors employed by the federal government or the think tanks and consulting firms connected via revolving door to high-level deep state officials.
Lofgren cites the existence of the deep state to explain the unhindered progress of lofty American geopolitical goals even at moments of peak domestic dysfunction—intervention in Libya despite the looming government shutdown or hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to the war in Syria during a budget crisis. The deep state, Lofgren writes, is “the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of a plutocratic social structure and political dysfunction.” The emergence of this shadow government parallels the propagation of American military and economic power around the globe.
Perhaps the prototypical American deep state structures were the postwar NATO “stay-behind networks” of Operation Gladio. Established with the intent of warding off a potential Soviet incursion into Western Europe, Gladio recruited terrorists and former Nazis who exploited their American military training and equipment to pursue domestic political agendas. Observers accuse Gladio agents of terrorist attacks and false-flag operations with motives ranging from right-wing infighting to targeting leftist radicals. The existence of stay-behind networks has been confirmed in nearly every NATO country and many friendly nations not included in the treaty, as validated by revelations from British and Italian military intelligence officials.
Gladio demonstrates several fundamental methods of the deep state—paramilitary contingencies, right-wing alliances, surveillance, and terrorism. The so-called “strategy of tension” of the CIA—which is intended, writes Nafeez Ahmed, to “galvanize public opinion against leftwing policies and parties, and ultimately to mobilize popular support for purportedly anti-Soviet policies at home and abroad”—succeeded, and the prospect of Western European communization dwindled. But the efficacy of these covert networks in solidifying the NATO alliance around an Anglo-American ideology of free markets and representative democracy did not go unnoticed by the American deep state. The evolution of this brand of shadow politics in the decades to follow exported this same neoliberal agenda around the globe and left millions of bodies in its wake.
Motivated by “the twin idols of national security and corporate power,” the deep state violently and unaccountably pushes American interests on unwilling nations. The aforementioned CIA operations in Latin America remained highly classified for decades, as did similar covert actions in the Middle East and Africa, but evidence grows year by year of the role played by American intelligence services in some of the 20th century’s most heinous crimes. The brutality of the Iranian Shah following the joint CIA-MI6 ouster of the democratically elected President Mossadeq at the behest of British Petroleum was implemented by SAVAK, the Iranian secret police founded and funded by the CIA and Mossad that was responsible for the surveillance, torture, and murderous characteristic of the regime.
Meanwhile, Patrice Lumumba, the charismatic revolutionary murdered mere months into his term as the first democratically elected Congolese president, was targeted for his radical views by a cabal of Belgian monarchists, Western governments, and multinational mining interests. Together with Joseph Mobutu, the army leader these interests would later install for a 32-year reign that was among the most corrupt and dictatorial in modern history, “they worked to foment rebellion in the army, stoke unrest, exploit attacks on whites, create an economic crisis—and eventually kidnap and execute Lumumba,” writes Dr. Sean Jacobs of The New School international affairs department.
Undoubtedly the most coordinated and comprehensive program of deep state geopolitics was Operation Condor, a network of collaboration, through ideological cover and military aid, between multiple South America autocrats and the United States government. Chile is a stark example of the motivations behind deep state support for murder and torture throughout the Western Hemisphere, including the Pinochet-ordered and Kissinger-approved car-bomb assassination of Chilean exile Orlando Letelier in Washington D.C. Augusto Pinochet, the U.S.-backed military dictator installed after the 1973 assassination of democratically elected Allende, spent the final years of his life under house arrest after being indicted for crimes against humanity by a bevy of international courts.
One Chilean government reconciliation report found evidence of over 2,000 murders by the Pinochet regime while another discovered nearly 30,000 cases of torture by security forces. This violence was overwhelmingly directed at left-wing political dissidents, with mass murder around the continent often concealing the major political restructuring these regimes achieved.
The Chilean horrors of the ‘70s and ‘80s are a case study in the methods of the American deep state. By subverting democracy, installing autocrats, and giving them the power and the license to murder and torture, American intelligence agencies cleared the way for political elites and multinational corporate interests to export neoliberalism—concealed in anti-Communist fervor aimed at arousing reactionary populism at home and abroad—across the globe while fully cognizant of the brutality demanded by this ideological crusade. However, it is only through this constant crisis and violence that a neoliberal world order could be built. We see this in the life, death, and legacy of Berta Cáceres.
The Legacy of Berta Cáceres
Berta Cáceres did not die alone. With her was her comrade Gustavo Castro Soto, who only survived his bullet wounds by playing dead. A Mexican national and the sole witness to Cáceres’s assassination, Soto spent a month after the attack detained in Honduras fearing for his life before he was permitted to leave.
Cáceres killers were also present when she died. They were not only the fingers on the triggers but also the masterminds behind the plan, the suits who demanded her death, the bulldozers and smokestacks of the industrial invaders. Soto maintains that police investigators tampered with the crime scene and left documentation that could be readily manipulated at a later date. The corporate-military-security complex that conspired to kill Cáceres had been by her side from the moment she began her quest for justice. Such is the reality of impeding the entrenched interests protected by the murderous and unaccountable deep state.
But so, too, by Cáceres’s side were countless thousands standing in solidarity with her struggle. Her fellow indigenous organizers fighting to protect their lands and their cultures. Militant environmentalists around the globe dedicated to resisting corporate degradation of nature and humanity. People everywhere who are committed to the ideals of liberty and equality on which the contemporary Pax Americana was supposedly founded. Berta Cáceres will die time and again before her struggle is won. To honor her life and the countless others lost in these gang wars across oceans, let us leave our astonishment at the brutality of the deep state forever in the past and let our awareness spell its end.