This is the winning entry from the 2016 Escribir sin Miedo competition for investigative/public interest journalism in Honduras. The competition was established in 2015 as a joint initiative by PEN Canada and PEN Honduras.
Researched and Written by Ariel Torres Funes
Research Assistant: Claudia Sevilla Ardón
Photography: Dany Barrientos
Layout and Design: Bricelda Contreras Torres
Translator Rosalind Gill is a Senior Scholar, Glendon College, York University (Translation and French Studies). She has served as a human rights translator for the last 13 years, with a focus on Latin America.
THE BAJO AGUAN RIVER VALLEY
With 125 000 hectares of agricultural land in an area three times smaller than Germany, Honduras is the third biggest producer and exporter of African palm oil in Latin America, and the eighth biggest in the world.2
Crops exported to Europe, Mexico and the United States to be turned into edible, industrial or biodiesel products, are mostly concentrated in the north of the country, specifically in the Lower Aguan river valley (Bajo Aguan) located within the departments of Colón and Yoro. According to experts, the soil and climate of this area are ideal for cultivating palm oil trees.
Along the road from Tocoa (which, paradoxically, means “land of corn”) to the main commercial centre, Colón, and on to Trujillo, the capital of the department, the agricultural landscape bears witness to a monoculture economy. Market demands have dictated which crops are cultivated in the region, fluctuating between bananas, coconuts, pineapples and citrus fruits, until more recently, when most of the area has been was given over to palm oil trees.
But international markets require that the palm oil agro-industry (grouped into various federations) obtain certification, a “green seal”, from the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) which verifies that production meets international standards of sustainability.
Palm oil growers say that the process will take time yet certification is indispensable if they are to access new buyers and keep the ones they have. To be certified, growers must be “environmentally friendly.”
However, in the past five years, there have been 129 assassinations related to land conflicts in the Bajo Aguan.3
In a situation in which extreme poverty stands in marked contrast to the fertility of the region, the campesinos of this valley are demanding another kind of “certification” – justice and effective governance.
While palm oil cultivation contributes to the Honduran economy,4 it makes no contribution to social development in the country. In the Bajo Aguan, a few agri-businesses, backed by state sectors, compete for control of most of the means of production in the area. In response to this situation, the campesino population has started its own movement to demand basic survival rights. As a case in point, while 88% of campesinos hold no land titles, not even to a rocky hillside, it is estimated that the Dinant Corporation, owned by Miguel Facussé (1924-2015), who was one of the most powerful men in Honduras, holds a fifth of the agricultural land of the Aguan.5
Over the years, the campesinos of the Bajo Aguan have been made victims of a tragic state of affairs resulting from a number of factors, each of which contributes to the duress of the situation: incomplete agrarian reforms, forced evictions, persecution, intimidation, criminalization, stigmatization, destabilisation of community groups, systemic violation of human rights, structural violence, militarization, corruption, impunity, implementation of the neoliberal model, alliances between the State and agro-industry, internal conflict in campesino movements, the incapacity of public institutions to oversee the agrarian sector, the domination of agro-industrial groups, hurricanes, the effects of the Cold War, and more recently, the economic and social consequences of the expansion of drug trafficking. The poorest campesinos, the most vulnerable sector of society, clearly suffer the greatest consequences, waking up every day to the uncertainty of whether they will have food to eat.
The poorest campesinos wake up uncertain whether they will have food to eat.
“This conflict has to do with the struggle of the campesinos, their tenacity and resistance, their refusal to succumb to pressure and negligence and to threats from the State and the Honduran oligarchy,” says Ismael Moreno, a Jesuit priest and Director of Radio Progreso and the research group, Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación (ERIC-SJ), which is part of the Observatorio de Derechos Humanos del Bajo Aguán (ODHBA) – a human rights observation group.
The violence unleashed over land disputes in the Bajo Aguan indicates that there is serious systemic structural conflict in this sector. “The campesinos have been ground down by their struggles. The whole process is designed to take away their desire to live. They have had to confront the State, landowners, ranch owners, and the military as well. Their only strength is that their people have a profound desire to organize and keep up the struggle,” said Juan José Colato, priest of the San Isidro Labrador de Tocoa Parish since May 14, 2001.
The massacre at the El Tumbador plantation (November 15, 2010) in which 5 campesinos of the community of Guadalupe Carney were assassinated was an outcome of all these conflicts in the Aguan. This massacre was a tipping point on which either the status quo of power relationships in the area could be maintained or there could be a break with the status quo. According to Berta Oliva, Coordinator of the Committee of the Family and Disappeared of Honduras (COFADEH), the massacre was emblematic of the existing paradigm in Honduras, displaying all the characteristics of manipulation, corruption and impunity that form part of a pattern of repression against campesinos. There is nothing here that could qualify for a “green seal.”
THE “EL TUMBADOR” PLANTATION
To fully understand the case of the El Tumbador plantation and its community (which could have been called James Francis Carney but was named Guadalupe Carney, due to the vicissitudes of circumstances) we need to give a brief overview of its history.
The Bajo Aguan had been set aside as a banana growing area in the first half of the twentieth century but at the beginning of the 70’s, the Honduran State focused its agrarian reform on this area, promising changes to the production system, providing incentives for cultivation of African palm oil trees and promoting formation of campesino cooperatives to work on the plantations.
The State brought in campesinos from the south and west to colonize the Bajo Aguan in the north of Honduras, promising financing, technical assistance and land to rural cooperatives if they would agree to plant African palms.
The massacre was emblematic of the manipulation, corruption and impunity that form a pattern of repression against campesinos.
Explains Father Colato: “The process of agrarian reform was limited to providing land and financing and excluded any training or education for farm workers. This partially explains why the cooperatives did not realize their potential as groups.” As a Jesuit, Father Colato is an active defender of life, land and respect for human dignity in the Bajo Aguan, a position not always taken by other clerical orders.
In 1983, in the flurry of new policies introduced by agrarian reform, the Honduran government ceded 5 274 hectares to the US military, including the El Tumbador plantation, which became the location of the Regional Military Training Centre (CREM).
It is on this land on the Laguna de Guaimoreto that the US military trained Salvadoran and Honduran soldiers, as well as Nicaraguan Contras. This initiative formed part of the so-called “National Security Doctrine,” which was designed to combat ideologies, organizations and movements in each of the Central American countries that might foster or support communism in the context of the Cold War.
As was to be expected, the presence of these four armies in the area immobilized local communities’ capacity for denouncement or protest. For a decade, the CREM controlled the campesinos of the Bajo Aguan, “The whole region was paralysed by the presence of the CREM. There was no social movement. The community was very passive,” says Pedro Ulloa, a local historian who is also a representative on the Observatorio de Derechos Humanos de Aguán and director of the Asociación de Padres de Familia del Centro Básico de la Guadalupe Carney.
LAND TITLE DISPUTES
Soon after the Regional Military Base was constructed, there were legal lawsuits over the land on which it stood. American rancher Temístocles Ramírez sued the State of Honduras for $17 000 000 for unlawful use of his land, which he confirmed he had bought for $75 000 in 1975. Under pressure from the US House of Representatives, the Honduran government purchased the land for the requested amount.
With the decline of the Cold War at the international level, the end of the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala and the Frente Sandinista’s electoral loss in Nicaragua, in 1990, the Regional Military Base closed its operations, leaving the Honduran government to use the land as they wished.
In the early 90’s the municipality of Trujillo sold the lands to corporations, policemen, politicians, ranchers and other large land owners.
Then, on June 14, 1991, the Office of the Attorney General transferred title to these lands to the National Agrarian Institute (INA). The land was to form part of agrarian reform and as such, be allocated to campesino cooperatives that had no access to land.
However, between 1990 and 1993, the municipality of Trujillo (located 15 kilometres from this site) sold the lands that had been bought by the State of Honduras to corporations, policemen, politicians, ranchers and other large land owners.
“This means that the lands that were to be used exclusively for agrarian reform were put up for sale on the market to be purchased by large landowners and agribusinesses. There was also incentive for campesino cooperatives to sell their land. In allowing this to happen, the State was negligent and in direct violation of Honduran law,” says Ismael Moreno.
The Law for Modernization and Development of the Agricultural Sector (1992) introduced neoliberal economic modifications that allowed for buying and selling of lands destined for agrarian reform purposes. As a result, ranchers and agribusiness people such as René Morales, Henry Osorto, Reynaldo Canales and Miguel Facussé took over most of the fertile lands on the former CREM site. The El Tumbador plantation, covering an area of 800 hectares, passed into the hands of the Dinant Corporation, one of the biggest agribusinesses in the country.
For the campesinos, the commercialization of lands slated for agrarian reform marked the beginning of a bitter dispute between campesinos and the new “owners” of the lands.
THE COMMUNITY OF “GUADALUPE CARNEY”
This is probably the only community in Honduras named after a person who was disappeared by the military in the 1980’s. But Guadalupe Carney is more than a name – it is a historical symbol, a political stance, paying homage to a US born priest who came to the Bajo Aguan and put into practice the concept of a church that is there to serve and protect the people.
“After hurricane Mitch left us destitute we had no choice but to move to Guadalupe Carney”
Originally from Chicago, Carney personified the Honduran peasant in his praxis. In Carney’s interpretation of Catholicism, campesinos could find both a representation of their culture and consciousness of their rural way of life. Carney’s humanistic thinking helped campesinos gain access to agricultural resources and create a more just life for themselves. His story is one of a man in constant transformation. The campesinos of Bajo Aguan tell Carney’s story through their memories and as well, his stories appear in the books that James Francis Carney wrote himself, by candle light, signed by the author, using the name “Guadalupe Carney” or simply “Lupe.”
Initially, the community was to be named “San Isidro,” because the day the campesinos came to settle here (May 15, 2000) is the feast day of that saint. “But afterwards, we thought it would be better to name the village after a martyr in the struggle to acquire land for landless campesinos. We chose Guadalupe Carney, a Jesuit priest who was a leader in the struggle for land and preached the Gospel in our community. This is why they killed him and disappeared him,” explains one of the founders of the community.
The population of Guadalupe Carney is made up of migrants and destitute people, families that arrived in the 70’s and 80’s and others from neighbouring areas that lost their homes in Hurricane Mitch in 1998.
When these campesinos joined the Campesino Movement of the Aguan, they found out that the unoccupied CREM lands belonged to the State and should, thus, be slated for agrarian reform. They started to pressure the State to compensate the large landowners to gave up those properties in order to give campesinos access to the lands.
Guadalupe Carney was born at a time in Honduras when there was no indication that campesino organizations would once again take up the defence of the land.
“After Mitch left us destitute, as poor campesinos, we had no choice but to move to Guadalupe Carney. We had nowhere to build a house or even work. We are Hondurans and must therefore find land to live on in Honduras. We organized because we need to get a piece of land and a place to live,” said Francisco Ramírez, a campesino from Guadalupe Carney. Ten years after being re-located there, Ramírez survived the impact of being shot in the face during the El Tumbador massacre.
When the re-located campesinos came to settle on the former CREM lands, the landowners who had been compensated by the State to vacate the site were still occupying 5,724 hectares of land. “The rural cooperatives were confronted with a State that was allied with the oligarchs and that did not act accordingly to enforce the law or effectively defend and protect the land and the campesinos, who were fully within their right to live and work on that land,” says Ismael Moreno, usually known as Father “Melo.”
Guadalupe Carney was born at a time in Honduras when there was no indication that campesino organizations would once again take up the defence of the land. “However, in 2000, they demonstrated not only that the agrarian struggle was alive but also that it was even more urgent than ever that they move forward and resolve the huge problems of inequality in the country. This movement was a decisive factor in ensuring respect for campesino dignity,” says Father “Melo,” who is director of Radio Progreso.
The village currently has a population of some 3000 inhabitants and boasts a General Council, a Water Board and a Parents’ Association. “We have structures in place to bring the community forward,” says the Chair of the Council, Guadalupe Vásquez, enthusiastically. Vásquez worked for eight years for the Dinant corporation. His brother-in-law was one of the campesinos killed in the El Tumbador massacre.
The community was initially set up on an abandoned camp site on the former CREM lands. Later the community moved to its present site. The population is made up of campesinos who were excluded from receiving loans and technical help from the State during the agrarian reform because they were not part of the African palm cooperatives. “They were groups of basic grain growers, so they did not have any support and in the end, they had no choice but to leave the valley,” added Ismael Moreno.
REPOSSESSING THE LANDS
Once the campesinos had settled in the area, the MCA started the process of repossessing the 5, 724 hectares of former CREM land. “If the State does not come forward with proposals, it’s time for the community to start making decisions,” says Guadalupe Vásquez, remembering events of earlier days that years later continue to cause trauma for the inhabitants of the village.
The community was frustrated, discouraged, broken, despondent
During the first few years, the campesinos made substantial advances, recuperating various lands with little incident. “I have an investment here and if they pay me, there is no problem,” was the response of a number of the “owners” of former CREM lands. A 2001 law allowed for 30,000,000 lempiras to buy back the lands from these owners. But after that, not all the landowners responded in the same way.
After a little more than 3000 hectares had been recovered, there were a number of lands left to repossess, including the El Tumbador plantation site. “In 2003, we thought about occupying this plantation but a priest advised us to wait because we were exhausted and sleep-deprived, and our food supplies were low. He said we should take time to rest because this property was the most dangerous,” said Ulloa. Ulloa had hidden in a bush during the 2010 massacre to avoid being killed like five of his fellow MCA members.
Land re-possessions slowed down after 2003. The 800 hectare El Tumbador plantation remained unrecovered as it had been planted with African palms by the Dinant Corporation. People from Guadalupe Carney worked on the plantation to bring in an income, no matter how meagre (150 lempiras: $6, a day).
Years later, legal proceedings started up again when the MCA and the INA demanded that Miguel Facussé hand over the title of ownership of the property. When this did not happen, the matter was put before the Agricultural Board (Consejo Agrario). “They ruled in his favour because obviously, they support big business,” says Ulloa. But the dispute did not end there.
2008 was marked by violent confrontations, causing deaths on both sides. That year, both landowners and campesinos had to bury people close to them. For a time, the conflict was reported by the national news media but as journalists stopped coming to the area, it soon disappeared from the news.
“Protected and defended by the State, the landowners were able to publish a number of reports in the media that portrayed the campesinos as victimizing the landowners and being responsible for the conflict,” explains Father Ismael Moreno who, along with researchers of the ERIC-SJ (Team for Community Reflection and Investigation) analyses media reporting on the agricultural sector.
Uncertainty increased on both sides, given that there was no legal entity in the region to follow up on the confrontations. However, MCA leaders, unlike their opponents, soon faced charges from the Public Ministry.
Despite the fact that their members had faced prosecution, after the 2009 coup d’etat, the MCA joined up with other campesino and social organizations to re-establish itself and begin the process of recovering five properties for which negotiations had broken down and that urgently required title clearance.
In a national political context that was ideologically polarized, the MCA and its fellow organizations proclaimed that their resistance would involve not only protests in the streets but also repossession of lands. One year later, the community of Guadalupe Carney would be left in mourning, proving that the plantation Miguel Facussé had claimed as his own property, El Tumbador, was indeed the most dangerous place.
REPOSSESSING “EL TUMBADOR”
On April 6, 2010, the MCA decided to go onto the El Tumbador plantation for the first time. At that time, conditions seemed favourable for repossessing the land. “The situation seemed very passive. When our representatives sat down with the security guards, they said, ‘The boss has always said that this land would be for the campesinos, we recognize that, but we will have to ask him about it,'” reports Pedro Ulloa. After several telephone calls, the guards allowed access to the land and the campesinos worked there from April to August of that year.
However, in other areas of Bajo Aguan, members of the Authentic Revindicative Campesino Movement of the Aguan (MARCA) and The Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguan (MUCA) were involved in their own land repossessions. Once again, tensions rose and the government increased military presence at various points in the region.
“We also found out that Dinant was training and organizing 300 men to reinforce security. They started evicting large numbers of campesinos involved in MARCA and MUCA from the lands. Then, on August 30, 2010, we decided to leave El Tumbador,” says Ulloa. An amateur historian, he records dates and details of events in a diary that he keeps with him. But he does not record everything, he says, for fear he will be searched and his diary found.
After retreating for security reasons from the plantation, the MCA began new deliberations with the INA. The campesinos remember what the minister at the time, César Ham, told them. “The process is in place. I will ensure the process is legal. But unless you keep up the pressure, we will not continue with it. Go ahead and repossess the plantation. I will not let you down. You know very well that when it comes to taking over land, force has to be used.”
Despite their mistrust of the authorities, the statement made by César Ham (nicknamed the “black bear by Miguel Facussé) encouraged the MCA to rethink their repossession strategies.
In MCA meetings, some members, such as Pedro Ulloa, warned of the dangers of returning to El Tumbador under these conditions. “I told them that at that time we didn’t have logistics in place. We were not well organized, needed to be better prepared, and should therefore wait. But one of the members said to me, ‘Anyone who is afraid can stay home but hunger won’t wait.’ They thought I didn’t want to go but that was not the case. I just thought we should be better prepared. But I understand them. The community was frustrated, discouraged, broken, despondent…”
The day before, MCA members had held a plenary meeting and taken the decision to enter El Tumbador on November 15, 2010. The plan they put in place was that 180 people would leave Guadalupe Carney at 4AM to get to the plantation at 6.30AM, at which point they would speak to the security guards on duty, as they had done in April.
In the early morning of November 15, formed into three groups, they set out, some on bicycles, those who could in cars, while others were on foot, carrying their work tools, “because we were sure that on that very day we would be working on the land… but before we reached the entrance to Miguel Facussé’s property, we were ambushed and shot at,” says Francisco Ramírez, who was one of the first of the group to come under gunfire. The attack destroyed his upper jawbone.
According to testimonials from the campesinos, at approximately 6.30AM, they were approaching the entrance gate of El Tumbador when security guards situated less than half a kilometre away, shot at them. The guards worked for a private security company called “Orión.”
Two campesinos who were on guard duty in another area warned the others that seven vehicles transporting armed men had just taken the turnoff to “El Tumbador.”
“When we saw the five bodies and held a wake, we didn’t know what to think. We had no way out, no resolution for the uncertainty we felt. We started looking for a way to have those responsible prosecuted. We couldn’t find an answer.”
One survivor said that “in those cars there were men dressed in security guard uniforms and as well men in military uniform. In one of the vehicles, you could see a 0.50 machine gun, like the ones used by the 15th Battalion, as well as other long-range weapons.”
Other campesinos said they saw two “commando type” trucks bring in military units from the 15th Battalion from Río Claro, Trujillo, Colón. The campesinos said they saw the soldiers change out of military uniform into civilian clothing.
According to survivors, the men were bearing different types of arms – AK 47, an M-60 machine gun, M-16 and AR-15, and a number of sub-machine guns.
Arcadia Ramos had not been able to attend the meeting the day before but had been told about the land repossession. At 5.30 AM on that day, she was ready to travel the five kilometres from Guadalupe Carney to El Tumbador. She had been given the job of carrying the food that, if everything went well, the campesinos would eat in the shade of the African palms. But instead, at 6AM she ended up helping fellow campesinos who had been wounded.
“We were afraid and stayed up on the hill. We could hear gunshots. There were a lot of guns going off and men were shouting. They were saying, ‘Is this what you wanted? Let’s go ahead and kill them. Don’t be afraid of them.’ Then we went to the road and they grabbed our hair and took off our boots and our underwear. They went through our bags and threw out our food. They gave us water to drink from a puddle and said, ‘Look at those dead men over there. Do you know who they are?’ We said we didn’t know them and that we were just on our way to work. They threatened us with knives and kicked some of the women. Then the boss came and they asked him, ‘What are you going to do with these women? Are you going to kill them, or what?’ He said no, that he had to interview us and take a photo. Then he threatened us, saying that if we opened our mouths and divulged information they would kill us,” said Arcadia, who had formerly worked at a Dinant Corporation palm oil mill. She says that on that day she recognized one of the attackers as a guard who worked for that corporation.
After the attack, which lasted for several hours, the following men were dead: Ciriaco de Jésus Muñoz (50), Ignacio Reyes García (53), Raûl Castillo (48), Teodoro Acosta (39) and José Luis Sauceda Pastrana (26).
“The community was frustrated. When we saw the five bodies, and then held a wake, we didn’t know what to think. ‘We’ve failed. What are we going to do now?’ we said. We had no way out, no resolution for the uncertainty we felt. We started looking for a way to have those responsible prosecuted. We couldn’t find an answer,” said Pedro Ulloa.
Francisco Ramírez, who runs a kindergarten in Guadalupe Carney, touches the scar on his face. He is one of the four men who were wounded but survived the attack. Sighing, he says, “It was hard. It affected us deeply. The community is afraid that Miguel Facussé will attack again. I almost never go out. I stay close to my house and I stay within the community. Everybody is still really scared since the attack.”
A STATEMENT BECOMES A CONFESSION
The day after the massacre, the newspapers published photographs of the murdered men holding AK-47 weapons. Community members and human rights organizations following the case have stated that these weapons were deliberately planted on the bodies of the men by their murderers.
A few days later, the Secretary of Security was “investigating links between campesino groups in the Bajo Aguan and terrorist groups in the south, specifically the Colombian guerrilla group, FARC.”
Various points of view concerning the massacre appeared in the media. Lawyers for the Dinant Corporation said that the campesinos had invaded the plantation “in the name of INA.” César Ham’s response was that they had done everything they could to resolve the situation legally, but that “proceedings have not been brought against this company because former government authorities were complicit with the owners.” Ham held up the land title deed issued by Attorney General’s Office. “Miguel Facussé will be responsible for anything that happens to himself, his family or anyone working at the INA.” The Secretary of Security stated that a contingent of policemen and soldiers had taken control of the area to “ensure that no more blood is spilled.”
President Porfirio Lobo Sosa sent instructions from Taiwan for a general disarmament in the Bajo Aguan. In the meantime, the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise stated that “Hugo Chavez, is using his organized groups in Honduras to create chaos so he can manage the problems of the Honduran people.” The President of the Supreme Court of Justice, Jorge Rivera Avilés, recommended that the two parties enter into dialogue because “the image of the country is being tainted internationally and is affecting foreign investments.” A few days later, the Secretary of Security said that they were “investigating links between campesino groups in the Bajo Aguan and terrorist groups in the south, specifically the Colombian guerrilla group, FARC.”
The statement on the massacre that caught the most attention was referred to as a “confession from the perpetrator” by Berta Oliva, Coordinator of the COFADEH. It was a written statement from Miguel Facussé, read out on the television show, “Frente a Frente” and published in the “Nacionales” section of the newspaper, La Tribuna, on Wednesday, November 17, 2010 with the headline ” I challenge the Minister to put the land title to test in the courts: Facussé”: “Mr. Ham is still a bear, not a white one, he’s more like one of those killer black bears (…) You are the one who killed these people (referring to the INA minister). The campesinos turned up saying that you had told them these lands were theirs and they gave my people five minutes to vacate. That’s when the shooting began (…). They came armed, but you sent them, knowing that we have security guards in place and in that way, you are the one who killed them. (…) So Ham, you should calm down, we are going to court, stop politicking, you turned yourself into a killer, because you sent those poor men to their deaths. You knew that we were armed and ready to defend our lands.”
“Our armed forces were used as the private sector’s hired assassins.”
According to Pedro Ulloa, these statements compromised Miguel Facussé, especially the admission that “they had armed men in place.” Father Ismael Moreno thinks this admission makes the El Tumbador massacre even more emblematic: “A citizen stated publicly that he had used firearms to kill campesinos and accused them of invading and usurping lands. This is clearly a case where our armed forces were used as hired assassins to defend groups in the private sector. We also have to mention the absolute failure of the Public Ministry to respond appropriately, given that a person has confessed that he used arms and sent his private security guards to kill campesinos.”
Father Moreno explained that, by not responding, the Public Ministry sanctioned illegality and gave the large landowners the right to commit a crime. “This is a very serious agricultural conflict. By not resolving this problem, the State allowed the conflict with the landowners to increase to this level. Now the landowners are saying the massacre was caused by the campesinos themselves.”
Berta Oliva’s response to Facussé’s statement was that responsibility for what happened falls to Dinant Corporation. “This is what we are talking about when we call for strengthening the rule of law. The law should not be based on ‘I have money and therefore what I say goes’, while campesinos are subjugated and sacrificed.”
On January 13, 2013, the lawyer for COFADEH, Carol Cárdenas, appeared at the initial hearing of the El Tumbador case. A request for indictment had been submitted for the crime of the homicide of five campesino men. As well as four security guards, the document seeks indictment of an engineer who was head of logistics on the plantation that day.
“The law should not be based on ‘I have money and therefore what I say goes.'”
“But we were not allowed to attend the initial hearing, on the grounds that there was no legal representation, despite the fact that we were there with the widows,” said the lawyer. The judge also said that the women could not be termed to be widows, given that they had no legal relationship with the dead men, and as such could not be recognized as widows by Honduran law.
Despite clear statements from witnesses, there was no prison sentence for the material authors of the murders. “The judge issued a provisional acquittal, arguing that although it had been confirmed that the incident did take place, there was no evidence to prove that the accused had been involved,” explains Cárdenas. “The judge completely ignored the fact that witnesses had provided names of the alleged accused.”
Cárdenas thought there was enough evidence to present an appeal but the Public Ministry did not appeal the decision within the required three day period. Not only did the Public Ministry fail to act at that time, they still have made no effort to re-open the case. “We have met and talked with the coordinator of the UNVIBA but they tell us they cannot speak out publically. They know where the witnesses are but these people are afraid because they already have other charges against them.” The lawyer thinks the investigation is intimidating witnesses as a means of obstructing the process.
Carol Cárdenas believes that the case is not going forward because of the economic and political power of the intellectual author of the crime. “He was a very well-known, powerful businessman. As well, the people involved are key employees of the plantation and of course, there is the influence of the Facussé family in judicial circles.”
More than five years after the massacre, the investigation is still on hold. There are no concrete results except for written requests from CODAFEH’s legal representation. Every time, they receive the same response, that the process must be carried out in secrecy. ” But it is clear what this coded message means” says Cárdenas,” “The case is kept secret from the general public but not from the accused. As representatives of the victims, we cannot work under these circumstances.”
Berta Oliva reports that the authorities are taking the stance that they are “concerned that now is not the time to resolve cases like this. It is better to wait until there is an authority that wishes to press charges through the national justice system.” But Oliva claims that the whole approach to this case has been one of contempt.
“In a country where there is almost no application of the law, when you run out of ways of proceeding internally, you have to go elsewhere.”
CODAFEH has no response for the families and the community of Guadalupe Carney, who are seeking some resolution to this shocking incident at El Tumbador. Furthermore, Oliva has denounced the fact that the bodies of the victims were exhumed and evidence destroyed, and that other evidence gathered to support the landowners bears no scientific value. All of this has emotional and psychological effects on the families of the victims.
“I think that these cases are examples of impunity and corruption in the application of the law. As well there is bias in the way the whole subject of the campesinos is treated. This is not the only case we have seen that involves a plan to exterminate and intimidate the campesino population. The case is being played out in a context of repression, and this makes it emblematic,” she added.
However, the organization that works with the bereaved, survivors and families of victims plans to bring the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, “because in a country where there is almost no application of the law, when you run out of ways of proceeding internally, you have to go elsewhere,” says Oliva. She hopes that this initiative will force the State to think about its incapacity to carry out justice.
“It’s embarrassing for a country to have to be told by an international court that it “committed an error, was indifferent and did not act on the case.” This does not seem like a country that is democratizing and strengthening its institutions. On the contrary, when a case has to be heard outside the country, it means that the established institutions are not doing what they were created to do,” said Oliva.
Without being totally fatalistic, Father Colato has little hope for “good news” for the Bajo Aguan in the near future. He is concerned about drug trafficking conflicts, which have further added to difficulties in the area and also worries that local institutions are in the hands of a small elite. In his opinion, in the short term, things will not improve but he confesses that he believes that the campesinos are “determined to get training and defend their struggles with dignity. This is a form of hope.”
“The State has been complicit with the oligarchy and has abandoned the campesino.”
Colato thinks change in the balance of power in the region requires a struggle at the national level, “with demands and concrete proposals to insist on a due process of agrarian reform. Campesinos seeking reform need support from experts in production, administration, training and marketing.”
Pedro Ulloa believes that people must work together as a group to bring about change. “We should not work individually – we need to plan together and find out what reinforces us as a group and what doesn’t. People are still emotional so we should shore up their political vision and help them think and act more effectively. He says that people have tried to convince him to join the “opposition” but he explains that he is thinking mainly about “prevention.”
Father “Melo” emphasizes the role of the State, “that has been deeply complicit with the Honduran oligarchy and has abandoned the Honduran campesino.”
“The State bears sole responsibility for the deaths that occurred in Guadalupe Carney in the Bajo Aguan. This is because over the last 80 years, it has not fulfilled its duty to protect the people. Not only has the State been neglectful, it has protected illegality along with those who appropriate land illegally. The State should have to account for what happened in the Aguan and what will continue happening if agrarian conflict continues in the region.”
Campesina Arcadia Ramos has a clear vision of the situation and her thinking reflects that of most of the community. They will keep trying to repossess this plantation because “it is ours and we still want it, for all those families that were left with no father, we can’t leave it at that.”
1. In the well-loved Honduran novel Prisión verde (1945) by Ramón Amaya Amador, banana fields are described as a green prison. The book was banned in Honduras for many years. Back
2. http://www.laprensa.hn/economia/laeconomia/562444-98/hon duras-se-acerca-a-colombia-en-cultivo-de-palma-africana Back
3. https://www.diakonia.se/globalassets/documents/diakonia/where-we-work/latinamerica/honduras—informe-estadistico-de-muertes-violentas-relacionadas-al-conflicto-de-tierras-en-el-bajo-aguan-2008-2013.pdf Back
4. http://www.latribuna.hn/2015/07/15/l-160-millones-en-divisas-dejara-produccion-de-palma-africana-en-honduras/ Back
5. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/16/world/americas/honduras-land-conflicts-highlight-polarization.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 Back