Honduras: army seeks “arms cache” in Aguán Valley

Some 500 Honduran soldiers and police agents reportedly occupied the regional office of the National Agrarian Institute (INA) in Sinaloa community, Tocoa municipality, Colón department, on the morning of Nov. 23. Apparently the security forces were searching for arms in the office, which is located in northern Honduras’ Lower Aguán Valley, the site of protracted and often violent disputes over land ownership. The INA is a semi-autonomous government agency charged with implementing agrarian reform; no arms were found in the office.

Security Minister Oscar Alvarez has charged that some 1,000 AK-47 and M-16 rifles are hidden in the Lower Aguán Valley. President Porfirio Lobo Sosa seconded Alvarez’s claims on Nov. 24, saying groups were being trained in the region to attack the government. “We have traces of the people who have been voyaging outside of Honduras to receive training, we have them all located, including the places where they are being trained outside of here, of Honduras; it’s a large quantity of arms they have, and we’re going after them,” he said. Lobo Sosa did not present evidence for the accusations. (Adital, Brazil, Nov. 23; Honduras Culture and Politics blog, Nov. 25)

The hunt for rifles began after a Nov. 15 incident in which five private guards killed at least five campesinos from the Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MCA) at the El Tumbador African palm plantation, in Trujillo, Colón. According to initial police reports, the guards were trying to stop some 200 campesinos from occupying the plantation, which is claimed by wealthy landowner Miguel Facussé Barjum. Roger Pineda, a lawyer for the Facussé family’s Grupo Dinant food product company, told a radio program that the 200 campesinos were armed with AK-47s. Photos were also taken of campesinos’ dead bodies supposedly holding rifles. Available reports didn’t indicate that any of the five guards were injured in the alleged gun battle, which was said to last an hour. (La Prensa, San Pedro Sula, Nov. 15, some from EFE; Honduras Culture and Politics blog, Nov. 25)

Miguel Facussé and Grupo Dinant have been seeking land in the region for growing African palms, which can be used both for cooking oil and for biofuels. In 2009 Dinant got a $7 million loan from the Inter-American Investment Corporation (IIC) and a $30 million loan from the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC), in part for increased cultivation of the palms. (Vos el Soberano, Nov. 26 from Red Morazánica de Información) The acquisition of land has involved Facussé in a longstanding dispute over farmlands claimed by thousands of campesino families in the Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MUCA).

The dispute with the MCA over the El Tumbador plantation is separate, however. The director of the INA, César Ham, says Facussé has no right to the land, which is part of an old military base, the Regional Military Training Center (CREM), and therefore is government property which is available to be apportioned to campesinos under land reform. (La Tribuna, Tegucigalpa, Nov. 17) Ham was the 2009 presidential candidate of the small leftist Democratic Unification (UD). He accepted the cabinet-level agrarian reform post from President Lobo even though most left and grassroots organizations refuse to recognize the Lobo government as legitimate.

For campesino organizations and other grassroots and human rights groups there is no question that the El Tumbador incident was a massacre by the armed guards.

The National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP) coalition condemned the “terrible crime,” which it said was the “responsibility of the oligarch Miguel Facussé.” Andrés Pavón, president of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (Codeh), called for support from international groups. “We have to tell the international community that there’s impunity here, that we’ve exhausted the internal justice system here.” He noted that Facussé had received loans from such international institutions as the World Bank. On Nov. 25 the Canada-based organization Rights Watch charged that by lending money to Dinant, the World Bank “sent a very clear message, to the company and its owners, that they could enjoy absolute impunity for their actions.” (Vos el Soberano, Honduras, Nov. 16, Nov. 26, from Red Morazánica de Información; Prensa Latina, Nov. 18)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Nov. 28.

See our last posts on Honduras and Central America.