June 2012. Tocoa and Tegucigalpa, Honduras
The beauty of the countryside in the Bajo Aguan region of Honduras makes it hard to believe it has been the site of some 45 assassinations related to land conflict over the past three years. Rafael Alegria, from the Via Campesina international farm workers network, explains the reasons that the farm workers are involved in the struggle for the right to work the land. “The central problem behind the violation of farm workers’ rights is land hoarding. The hoarding of land is the product of voracious national and international capital in our country. This capital has an interest in strengthening monoculture in our country, especially with African Palm trees and sugarcane, to make the infamous Ethanol and to feed into Agribusiness. It isn’t interested at all in the environment or workers’ rights…. We want to make it clear to the international community that the bloodbath in the Bajo Aguan is a direct product of land hoarding and savage Capitalism in this country.” Testimonies from survivors of human rights abuses in the Aguan cite that the private guards hired by the few large landowners of the region are the perpetrators of the assassinations, and that army and police officials who have been dispatched to the zone have also taken part in the abuse.
African Palms tower over a home in the community of La Confianza. The majority of the land in the Bajo Aguan is owned by fifteen men who bought it in 1992 when the Agricultural Modernization Law was introduced. Land policy in Honduras had previously followed a cooperative model, established by a wide-spread land reform in 1972. Cooperatives of between 80 and 150 farm families owned the land, cultivating and selling African Palm fruits with technical support from the government. Farm worker groups in the region, like the Unified Farm Worker Movement of the Aguan (MUCA), claim that this policy was successful and more equitable than that which succeeded it. They explain the 1992 legal shift as the government’s reaction to international pressure and large business interests–a land philosophy somersault from farm worker-led production for internal use, to corporate farm-led production for export. MUCA alleges multiple irregularities in the transition process, including that many farm workers were forced into selling their land in 1992. In 2009, former President Mel Zelaya set into motion a plan to recuperate and redistribute most of the land that the farm workers had lost in 1992, but those plans were stymied when other members of the Honduran government staged a coup that same year, ousting Zelaya from the presidency.
Children in La Confianza community school.
A truck stacked with the fruit of African Palm, which is used to produce palm oil. It has also recently garnered high value in international markets as an ingredient in renewable energy and fuel. However, the tree also causes substantial irreversible environmental damage in the regions where it is grown–a condition that is exacerbated under a monoculture system.
Of the fifteen landowners, three have legal titles to the vast majority of the contested land. One of them is Miguel Facusse, the owner of Dinant Corporation, Yummi Snacks Company, and the Exportadora del Atlantico exporting company. Here, Facusse spokesperson Roger Pineda explains that though they are willing to sell now, they have legal titles to the land which they bought in 1992. He also says that the accusations of violence against them are part of a campaign waged by human rights NGOs to discredit Facusse and his companies. He claims that only one of the deaths in the Bajo Aguan was carried out by Facusse security guards, and that it was in response to a mob of armed farm workers. “None of the other deaths are related to us,” he states. “We went to the courthouse just last month and asked for any current allegations against us. They have no records of human rights violations.” Pineda also states that ten of the people killed in the conflict have been private security guards employed by Facusse.
The Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. Since 2010, President Porfirio Lobo’s administration has been negotiating with Facusse and the farm worker groups to decide which lands can be sold and at what price. The government has agreed to pay Facusse up front and to receive payments from campesinos on a long-term basis. MUCA has rejected several proposals because of what they see to be high interest rates and an inflated price. (Facusse bought the lands at 1,000 Lempiras per hectare in 1992, and he now wants to sell it at L135,000 per hectare, citing inflation and an increase in value of the land and the fruit over the past 20 years.) Upon being unable to come to a solution, Facusse alerted the government that on June 1, 2012, he would forcibly remove the remainder of the communities from the land. On that date, the government found financing to buy a portion of the land from Facusse, but what will happen to the remaining communities remains to be seen in the coming days. Several communities have already been forcibly removed from the Bajo Aguan by a joint team of soldiers, police and private guards, during which residents claim their homes were burned or bulldozed, farm animals were shot and people were abused.
The Attorney General has the responsibility to ascertain guilt and enforce justice in the cases of violence in the Bajo Aguan. 17 of the 45 murder cases appear in their records; the State appears to be unaware of the remaining cases. “We have a serious deficit…. Impunity generates repeat offenses on the part of the offenders,” explains Special Prosecutor for Human Rights, German Enamorado. Enamorado later admits, “Some of our investigators come from the police, and they are sometimes involved in the very same abuses they’re investigating.”
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has classified Honduras as the country with the highest murder rate in the world: 82.1 per 100,000 residents. Honduran journalist Manuel Torres argues that, given the current statistics of violence, impunity and corruption, the country can be classified as a failed state. “While not 100% of the violence here is political violence, there is a political undertone in all cases. It has to do with impunity. About 5% of crimes are processed in Honduran courts. Government institutions are highly politicized, and there is no real interest on the part of the government—including police and security forces and the department of justice—in transparency.” When asked if he believes there to be a State policy supporting assassinations, he clarifies that it is not yet a policy, but does show clear complicity on the part of the State. “But how long it will take to convert into a policy—that I don’t know,” Torres adds.
Coronel Jeremias Arevalo Guifarro of the Honduran armed forces explains that the militarization of the Bajo Aguan region since the conflict began is to maintain order in the region. He holds in his hand the human rights manual that all members of the armed forces must carry, which is part of a training program conducted with United States military support. When asked about claims of abuses by soldiers in the Bajo Aguan region, he insists, “The whole world knows about human rights here…. We are not a repressive army in any way. We are very respectful of the law.”
The International Community
1. On May 28, a public hearing on the situation was hosted in the municipality of Tocoa, in the Bajo Aguan region. Salvadoran lawyer Maria Silvia Guillen, the current director of the Foundation for the Study of the Application of the Law (FESPAD) and past representative to the Interamerican Commission of Human Rights, served as the president of the hosting commission. “We’re here today to hear in first person from the victims of human rights violations that are currently happening in the Bajo Aguan,” she explained in the event’s opening. “With the coup, the international community has already seen how democracy is denied in Honduras. It is very clear that in Honduras if State institutions were working, we wouldn’t be here…. We make a call to the world, to governments, to international organisms, that they pay serious attention to the Bajo Aguan.”
Representatives of the organizations that called together the Public Hearing listen to testimonies. The nine organizing bodies included human rights and food security organizations from all over the world, and the international organizations present in the audience included the European Parliament, the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, and 26 experts in the field from 12 different countries across the Americas and Europe. Find the resulting press release in Spanish here.
The Survivors and the Victims
This woman, who has asked to be identified as “Maria,” is a resident of the community Guadalupe Carney, and is the survivor of an attack by private security guards employed by Miguel Facusse. On November 15, 2010, she was walking with three other women from the community near an area known as the Tumbador. They heard gunshots, which they later found out killed five of their community members from Guadalupe Carney who were working on the contested lands. “We heard Facusse’s guards approaching, and we were afraid, so we threw ourselves to the ground. We heard gunfire from high-caliber weapons and the bullets flew over our heads, cutting into the grass around us.” Some minutes later the guards approached, grabbed Maria and her companions by the hair, and led them to a wooded area with guns to their temples. “There they threatened us, told us they were going to kill us, they asked us where ‘the weapons’ were.” Maria continues, “They have abused us too much, and we have also been too patient. We are poor people, we have no weapons, we are just waiting to be killed. We ask international human rights defenders to support us; we don’t want more threats or assassinations, and we don’t want the assassinations of our five neighbors to remain in impunity.”
This woman lives in the community Guadalupe Carney, and her husband was one of the five men killed on November 15. He was killed ten days after their youngest son was born. On the day of his death, the man left early in the morning for the plantation, accompanied by their 6 year old son who carried their breakfast. He called his wife shortly thereafter to ensure that the boy had returned home, and to ask that no one else from the family return to the field that day. “Things are getting ugly here,” he told his wife. They hung up, and she was told later that afternoon that he had been shot to death.
Dominga Ramos Montoya is 45 years old and from the community La Confianza. Her husband, Matias, was assassinated on January 20 of this year. He had been receiving death threats but didn’t mention them to his wife, “so that I wouldn’t worry,” Ramos explains. Ramos says that she has been told that his killers were private guards, and that they are young men from the area who studied with her oldest son in school. She fears that her son, who lives in the United States, will want to return to Honduras to seek revenge on his peers. The Honduran courts have yet to give Ramos any answers in her case.
Matias Valle Cardenas’ grave. Ramos explained that Matias had served as a MUCA vice-president in the past and was among the original leaders of the farm worker movement to reclaim the lands in the Bajo Aguan. When asked if she plans to leave the area, she replied, “I am not going anywhere. He struggled for this movement, and I’m staying.” She laughs when she talks about her 3 year-old son, Jose, who complains when she is too strict with him. “He says, ‘I don’t know why dad left me alone with you. Let’s go to heaven to I can tell him about it.’”
25 year old Jose Danilo Pacheco works on the African Palm plantation where he lives with his family. Here, he holds the long machete-like tool used to cut the fruit from the Palm tree. He and his family are several of the thousands of people who will be forcibly removed in the coming days if Facusse’s Order for Removal is enforced.
The Drug Trade
The conflict in the Bajo Aguan is further complicated by the fact that the region lies in the drug trafficking corridor from South America to the United States. Multiple of the major landowners have been linked to trafficking. A 2003 US State Department cable released by Wikileaks implicates Miguel Facusse in the drug trade. Facusse’s spokesman Roger Pineda denies the accusation, claiming that drug traffickers were landing planes on Facusse property without the landowner’s knowledge. Another landowner who was also thought to be involved in trafficking, Erik Rivera, was murdered on June 2, just days after the public hearing concluded. His car was intercepted by an SUV full of men with high-caliber weapons. The Attorney General has yet to investigate the case.
Graffiti covers the buildings in the capital city, Tegucigalpa. Messages about the coup, corruption and violence silently communicate citizen resistance to Honduras’ status quo. This phrase says, “I come to sing for those who have fallen.”