More Assassinations and Bloodshed in Honduras Land Occupation

Kari Lydersen

Army soldiers check bus passengers' IDs and search for weapon in the Bajo Aguan valley, 600 km northeast of Tegucigalpa, on August 19, 2011. The government is deploying more than 600 policemen and soldiers in an attempt to stop violence related to the dispute for ownership of land in the region.

In Honduras, an increasingly violent campesino land struggle against one of the country’s largest private landowners has turned into a mini-civil war, with the murder of two prominent campesino leaders and several other campesinos in the past two weeks. The right-wing post-coup government has stationed 600 soldiers and 400 police in the Bajo Aguan area.

Campesino resistance leader Secundino Ruiz was shot dead by masked gunmen on motorbikes on August 20 as he left a bank with about $10,000. The treasurer of his group, Marca, was also wounded. The next day Pedro Salgado, a leader of the Unified Movement of Campesinos of Aguan (MUCA), and his wife were killed in their home.

As is often the case with apparently political killings in the ongoing repression and violence that has wracked the country since the coup against populist President Manuel Zelaya two years ago, government officials described Ruiz’s murder as a simple robbery.

On August 14, six private security guards working for landowner Miguel Facusse were killed in Bajo Aguan, where hundreds of campesinos have for several years been occupying land claimed by the oligarch family for industrial oil palm plantations. The next day, three deliverymen and two women with them were killed, apparently in retribution by guards who erroneously believed they were part of the campesino movement. (It is not clear if the six guards were in fact killed by campesinos). 

Several other campesinos were also killed, attacked and falsely arrested in connection to the palm plantation land occupations in recent days.

A communiqué published by Upside Down World noted that:

With great grief we are informing you that today at 1pm our compañeros Victor Manuel Mata Oliva, 40, Sergio Magdiel Amaya, 18, and a child Roldin Marel Villeda, 15 were massacred in the area between El Bridge and the Panama Cooperative in the municipality of Trujillo, department of Colon…

The assassination was an ambush from the side of the highway, it has been relayed that AK-47s were used and that the assassins are Miguel Faccusé’s guards, who were driving a blue vehicle with a double cabin.

Also on Aug. 14 campesinos were killed in a community called Rigores that is surrounded by Facusse plantations, and that the landowner reportedly plans to buy. Earlier this summer police burned down the homes of 114 families who had been occupying the land for 12 years. As Jesse Freeston explains in a video for Real News Network, former president Zelaya was in the process of granting the campesinos land titles before he was overthrown. Freeston interviews a woman who suffered a miscarriage after being badly beaten by police, apparently acting at the behest of Facusse or the current landowner who hopes to sell to him. 

The blog Honduras Resiste, maintained by the Chicago group La Voz de los de Abajo, reported the Rigores deaths;

Early this morning, Sunday August 14, campesinos from the Movimiento Campesino Colonia Nueva Vida de Rigores, occupied the Empresa Palmera Panama, ten minutes from the community Rigores in Trujillo, Colon.

Shortly afterwards palm company security forces and the military launched an attack, opening fire on the campesinos, killing 17-year-old Javier Melgar. Authorities in Colon have refused to recover the body and the palm company security forces refuse to allow Melgar’s family to recover the body. On Saturday, August 13, palm security forces and military, believed to be the same forces responsible for today’s attack, opened fire in the Rigores community.

The same day in the nearby community of Guadalupe Carney, home to the Campesino Movement of the Aguan, 17-year-old Lenikin Lemos Martinez and 18-year-old Denis Israel Castro were beaten by police, arrested and charged with murder in what their neighbors claim are false, politically motivated charges.

President Porfirio Lobo’s government has been in talks with the Aguan campesinos on and off since taking office, and his administration had promised to buy 4,000 acres to distribute to the campesinos. But campesinos have grown increasingly frustrated with a lack of action, and the deal was reportedly called off before the recent violence. 

Reporting from Honduras for In These Times, Jeremy Kryt last fall described the situation in Bajo Aguan:

On November 15, five peasants were killed by Facussé’s security contractors near a palm plantation in Aguán…A few weeks after that shooting, President Porfirio Lobo — a wealthy landowner who backed the coup against Zelaya — sent soldiers and police to occupy the Aguán Valley, ostensibly to look for weapons among the campesinos.

According to government reports, no arms have been found. So far, the coup-installed government has sided with the corporate powers. No investigations have been made into the November killings, and on January 18, 2011, the Honduran Supreme Court ruled that Decree 18-2008 — the land reforms sponsored by [deposed president Manuel] Zelaya and the Honduran Congress — were unconstitutional.”

The plaintiff in the case was The National Federation of Farmers and Ranchers of Honduras (FENAGH), a group thought to have close ties to Miguel Facussé and Grupo Dinant. FENAGH does not want the state giving away public lands for free,” Marvin Ponce, vice president of the Congress, told In These Times. They feel that if the campesinos want land, then they must pay for it.”

For decades campesinos in Honduras have suffered violence and assassinations in the course of land occupations that are legal under the country’s agrarian reform laws but often resisted by private landowners and government officials or police. Zelaya had been relatively sympathetic to the campesino movement, one of the reasons – along with his support for labor unions – that experts believe powerful businessmen and landowners including the Facusse family orchestrated his overthrow in June 2009.

NACLA reported on a paper by Adolfo Facusse saying, President Zelaya and his acolytes in the union movement are obliging the business sector to defend themselves and without wanting to, will awaken the tiger.”

Officials in Lobo’s administration have tried to discredit the Bajo Aguan land occupation by saying it is the work of drug traffickers and leftist radicals from Venezuela or Colombia, gang members from El Salvador or other outsiders.

The Christian Science Monitor countered that:

The evidence for these multi-national conspiracy theories is at best sketchy. Drug traffickers are certainly a powerful presence in Colon, but other reports have tied them to palm oil plantation owners, rather than to the peasant movements…the palm oil landowners have themselves been accused of using foreign firepower, with allegations after a series of killings in November 2010 that Facusse had hired 150 Colombian paramilitaries to form a private army and attack the peasant movements.

In February, Kryt reported for In These Times about the kidnapping and torture of Aguan campesino leader Juan Chinchilla, apparently by men connected with or hired by Facusse.

Chinchilla was taken to a remote storage shed by hooded and armed men, some of whom wore the uniforms of Grupo Dinant, one of the largest agro-businesses in the country. After a day of being tortured and questioned about campesino (peasant) groups and their leaders, a disfigured and traumatized Chinchilla escaped while being moved to another site by throwing himself down a hillside in the dark.

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.

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