Honduras: Dying for the Land

(IPS) – The deployment of large numbers of troops in the Bajo Aguán region of Honduras is reviving the age-old conflict over land in an area torn between organised crime groups capable of undertaking armed actions, wealthy landowners and peasants demanding further land reform.

Violence grew in the second half of August in the fertile Bajo Aguán valley, in the country’s northeastern Caribbean region. Fourteen people were killed, including the leader of the Authentic Movement for Peasant Resistance (MARCA) and a leader of the United Campesino Movement of Aguán (MUCA).

The first victim was MARCA president Secundino Ruiz, murdered Saturday Aug. 20 after withdrawing money from the bank to pay MARCA cooperative workers their week’s wages. A day later, MUCA vice president Pedro Salgado and his wife, Reyna Mejía, were murdered in their home.

Apparently carried out by hired killers, the murders were committed days after the authorities had mounted a military and police operation called Xatruch II that involved about 1,000 soldiers and police carrying out strict road checkpoint controls, among other actions.

The authorities are treating the killing of Ruiz as a robbery, although there is little evidence to support this motive, while in the case of Salgado they have no leads.

According to the Platform for Human Rights, a coalition that includes several Honduran human rights organisations, the problem in Bajo Aguán is so complex that “the state itself could fall into a trap if a structure of death squads in the service of the landowners is created, as seems to be the trend,” one of the activists, Andrés Pavón, told IPS.

Pavón’s fears are shared by sociologist Eugenio Sosa, who visited the conflict zone and reckons that, while there is no evidence to prove paramilitary groups are acting on behalf of the state, as they did in the 1980s, “there is evidence that drug trafficking mafias are being used, as these groups will make deals with anyone if it suits their business interests.” 

Sosa told IPS that land conflicts in Honduras are nothing new; they simply recur every so often, and this time the violence is greater because of the presence of outside agents unrelated to the local conflict.

The Aguán region, like the rest of the northern department (province) of Colón, is a “zone where democratic institutions have not worked and the state has always been weak in regard to solving problems,” he said.

In the view of retired colonel Agustín Avelar, the military and police presence “by itself cannot solve this conflict, because what is needed is for the state to provide comprehensive solutions.

“The conflict in this zone is escalating into a full-blown crisis, and if it is not controlled, there will be no turning back. Anything could happen,” Avelar told IPS.

Land problems in Honduras have a long and violent history. The agrarian reform half a century ago, which distributed over 409,000 hectares of land, temporarily pacified the situation but did not halt the process of concentration of land ownership that has intensified in the past two decades. An estimated 126,000 campesino (peasant) families have access neither to land, nor to permanent employment.

The government of rightwing President Porfirio Lobo, who took office in January 2010, presented an opportunity to negotiate a new agrarian reform, but the recent events “could complicate everything, because the landowners show no signs of giving way,” Sosa said.

Violence is recurring in Bajo Aguán just as the government was on the brink of handing over to MARCA, MUCA and the Movimiento Campesino de Rigores (MCR), a campesino movement in the village of Rigores in Colón province, nearly 4,000 hectares of land under purchase contract after difficult negotiations lasting 18 months with Miguel Facussé, the chief landowner in the area and head of Corporación Dinant, a palm oil and food company.

Facussé reneged on the agreement, causing the land handover to be suspended, after accusing the campesinos of murdering six of his company’s private security guards and a crop production expert.

In the Bajo Aguán area, campesinos have been clashing with landowners since 2009. Corporate business owners Facussé and René Morales are the biggest landowners in the district, but the campesinos allege their lands were illegally appropriated.

However, lawsuits accusing Facussé, who owns 20,000 hectares on Honduras’ northern Caribbean coast alone, of obtaining his lands by violence have not prospered in the courts.

In the context of the latest killings, Facussé has managed to muster support from the economic elites in the entire country to support his demand for “an end” to the violence in rural areas and respect for his, Facussé’s, “rights.”

Using his influential support base, the business magnate was able to have hints dropped Aug. 17 that the campesino organisations are being trained by foreigners from Venezuela and Nicaragua, in an attempt to implicate leftwing governments and give the land conflict an ideological twist.

But Gilberto López of the MCR denied these accusations, and confidently stated that “it is ‘Tío Mike’ (Uncle Mike – Miguel Facussé) who has alliances – with the drug traffickers who operate in the area, for the purpose of exterminating campesinos.”

“I say this without fear, because death follows us closely around here. The authorities know what we are talking about,” said López. “Where would we get weapons from? It’s Facussé who is hiring killers to commit the murders,” he told IPS.

In López’s view, the militarisation of the zone “will not lessen the conflict; it may make things worse. What we need is a new agrarian reform in which landowners like Facussé and the others return the land they stole from the campesinos by trickery.”