Honduras: killings continue as Aguán becomes “new Colombia”

Honduran campesino leader Pedro Salgado and his wife, Reina Mejía, were murdered on the evening of Aug. 21 at their home in the La Concepción cooperative, in Tocoa municipality in the northern department of Colón. Salgado was the president of the cooperative and a vice president of the Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MUCA), a leading organization in a decade-old struggle for land in Honduras’ Lower Aguán Valley.

The murders came just one day after the shooting death of Secundino Ruiz, who is president of the nearby San Isidro cooperative and of another campesino organization, the Authentic Claimant Movement of Aguán Campesinos (MARCA). Both MUCA and MARCA won land for their members under an agreement they signed with Honduran president Porfirio (“Pepe”) Lobo Sosa in April 2010. The killing of Salgado and Mejía brought the number of people killed in the Lower Aguán in two weeks to 14 or more, including Ruiz, six private guards (previously reported as five), four people working for a Pepsi distributor and a food vendor riding with them. (Comité de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras, Aug. 21, via Vos el Soberano, Honduras; FoodFirst Information and Action Network, FIAN, Aug. 22, via Adital, Brazil)

Campesino groups trace the Aguán struggle back to the 1992 Agricultural Modernization Law, which changed restrictions on the size of land holdings to allow businesses to own more than 300 hectares. Campesinos feel that land which should have been theirs through agrarian reform has gone to big businesses like Grupo Dinant, a food product and cooking oil company founded by Miguel Facussé Barjum. There are 40,000 campesinos living “in extreme poverty” in the valley “who need a piece of land to farm,” MUCA general secretary Johnny Rivas told the Spanish wire service EFE. Groups like MUCA started forming about 11 years ago and have relied on a strategy of peaceful occupations of large estates—although Rivas didn’t discount the possibility that some sectors of the campesino movement might have arms.

African oil palms have replaced bananas as the main commercial crop in the valley, and tensions increased as landowners like Facussé saw the potential for the palms in the biofuel business, which could attract carbon credits and international financing. To maintain their estates, the landowners have hired private guards and supplied them with arms. Campesino groups consider the guards paramilitaries and blame them for most of the 51 killings of campesinos that they say have taken place in the past two years. Meanwhile, narco traffickers and other criminals have reportedly moved into the area.

President Lobo’s government has negotiated some land transfers under the agrarian reform policy, but the government’s main response to the violence in the Aguán has been to send in soldiers and police agents. There are now about 1,000 police and military personnel stationed in the valley in an operation codenamed Xatruch II, but the violence continues. Juan Almendárez, a former rector of the National Autonomous University of Honduras who has mediated in talks between campesino groups and the government, told EFE that the military and police presence isn’t meant to maintain order but “to weaken the campesino leadership.” He adds that the authorities can’t control the narco traffickers “because of inability” and because the security forces themselves are corrupt. The only way to resolve the valley’s problems is “by giving land to the campesinos, along with credits and technical assistance so that they can cultivate the land.”

With soldiers, paramilitaries and drug traffickers now operating in the valley, Honduran activists fear the Aguán is becoming a “new Colombia.” The right wing charges that there are also guerrilla groups, allegedly trained by Nicaraguans and Venezuelans; an Aug. 25 article in La Prensa, the Honduran daily with the largest circulation, claimed a man known as “The Commander” was leading a band of at least 300 rebels. Campesino and activist groups, which deny the stories about guerrillas, charge that some of the private guards have been trained by the US and that the landowners have been recruiting paramilitaries from Colombia.

“We’re experiencing an extremely difficult situation in the region,” Wilfredo Paz Zúniga, the local coordinator of the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP), told Argentine journalist Claudia Korol. He asked her to tell “international human rights organizations [and] friendly international journalists” that “we urgently need the presence of an international commission, even if just for weeks or days… Maybe this way the terrible murders of campesino leaders in the region could be stopped.” (EFE, Aug. 23, via Que.es, Spain; La Prensa, Honduras, Aug. 25; Vos el Soberano, Aug. 27)

The Boston-based organization Grassroots International has set up a web page with a letter on the situation that activists can send to Honduran and US officials.

Secondary students continue to occupy schools around the country to protest what they say is an effort to privatize the public education system. Nahúm Alexander Guerra, a student at the Pompilio Ortega Agricultural School in Macuelizo in the northwestern department of Santa Bárbara, was killed the night of Aug. 22 as he stood by the door of the school, which the students had occupied. An unidentified man yelled “strikers,” and shot the teenager in the chest and in the arm. (El Tiempo, San Pedro Sula, Aug. 23)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, August 28.

See our last posts on Honduras and Central America.