Honduras: what’s behind the latest Aguán Valley violence?

Campesino leader Secundino Ruiz was shot dead as he was leaving a bank in Tocoa in the northern Honduran department of Colón on Aug. 20. Ruiz was president of the San Isidro Cooperative, part of the Authentic Claimant Movement of Aguán Campesinos (MARCA), and he had just withdrawn 195,000 lempiras (about $10,260) to pay MARCA workers; because of the money, police attributed the killing to common criminals. Eliseo Pavón, the treasurer of the cooperative, was wounded, according to Julio Espinal, the commander of a police contingent sent to the area earlier in the week. (FoodFirst Information and Action Network, FIAN, Aug. 20, via Vos el Soberano, Honduras; Prensa Latina, Aug. 21)

MARCA is one of several campesino groups claiming land in the Lower Aguán Valley, the scene of numerous and sometimes violent conflicts over land ownership. Three members of the organization were killed on June 5.

Ruiz’s murder followed an exceptionally bloody week in which 11 other people were killed in the valley. Six died on Aug. 14 at the Paso del Aguán estate (also described as the Panama estate) of Grupo Dinant, a major Honduran food product and cooking oil corporation headed by one of the country’s largest landowners, Miguel Facussé Barjum. Four of the victims were Dinant security personnel, and the other two have been described as campesinos, according to most accounts; one report said five guards were killed and one campesino.

Five more people were killed on Aug. 15, shot with automatic weapons as they rode in a Pepsi distribution company’s pickup truck on the highway between Sinaloa and the city of Sabá. The victims were four of the distributor’s contract employees–Bonifacio Dubón, Elvin Ortiz and Eleuterio Lara, and their supervisor, Karla Vanesa Cacho—and Migdalia Sarmiento, who had gotten a ride with them. Sarmiento ran a refreshment stand near the regional office of the government’s National Agrarian Institute (INA), where she worked as a cleaning person years before. The authorities found no evidence that the victims had been robbed.

Later on Aug. 15 Security Minister Oscar Alvarez announced that the government would respond to the violence by sending 600 soldiers and police agents to the area in an operation codenamed Xatruch II. The new deployment, which Alvarez said would search for the culprits and for illegal weapons, joins some 400 soldiers already in stationed in the region.

There are widely different accounts of what happened in the Aug. 14-15 incidents. Some sources say the Aug. 14 violence started with a peaceful land occupation by campesinos from the Rigores community, which was destroyed by police agents and private guards on June 24. Dinant guards, who are accused in a number of campesino deaths, tried to repel the invaders at Paso de Aguán, according to this account, and soldiers backing up the security group mistakenly shot at the guards. But Agrarian Reform Minister César Ham, leader of the center-left Democratic Unification (UD) party, denied that the Aug. 14 incident involved a land dispute. Other officials suggested guerrillas were involved, without giving any evidence, or pointed to narco-traffickers, who have been active in parts of Central America. There was also talk of gangs that have reportedly been robbing produce in the Aguán. Similar confusion surrounds the Aug. 15 attack on the Pepsi distributor’s truck; there have been suggestions that it was a case of mistaken identity.

Aguán campesino groups and other social movements have also given different interpretations of the events, although all seem agreed that the campesinos are not using violence. “Our movement is peaceful, but it’s about the struggle for the recovery of the earth in order to produce, and this is exactly what the Honduran campesinos are doing,” the Honduran branch of Vía Campesina, an international campesino order, wrote on Aug. 15. (Comunicaciones la Vía Campesina Honduras, Aug. 15, via Honduras Laboral; Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular-Colón, Aug. 15, via Vos el Soberano. Honduras; La Prensa, San Pedro Sula, Aug. 16; La Tribuna, Tegucigalpa, Aug. 16; Adital, Brazil, Aug. 17; Honduras Weekly, Aug. 17; Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña, OFRANEH, Aug. 17, via Vos el Soberano; Upside Down World, Aug. 19)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, August 21.

See our last post on Honduras .