Campesino Leaders Assassinated in Honduras as Fourth Mesoamerican Forum Convenes to Oppose Mega-Development Scheme

by Bill Weinberg

On July 21, leaders of indigenous, campesino and grassroots organizations from throughout the Central American nations and Mexico gathered in Tegucigalpa, capital of Honduras, for the Mesoamerican Forum, fourth in a series of meetings aimed at defending ecological culture throughout the isthmus–and opposing the Peubla-Panama Plan (PPP), an isthmus-wide mega-development scheme aggressively promoted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). Meanwhile, in the Honduran countryside, three peasant ecologist leaders were assassinated just days before the Forumopened–casting the issues addressed at the meeting in a stark light.

In the southern province of La Paz, two Lenca Indian campesinos involved in an occupation of contested lands were killed in a dawn attack by presumed hired gunmen of a local landlord. In northern and remote Olancho province, a peasant leader who had been opposing illegal timberexploitation on communal lands was cut down at his home by an unknown pistolero. A banner above the check-in desk at the Forum read REMEMBER THE MARTYRS OF LA PAZ AND OLANCHO.

There was an irony that the Forum was held in a city dominated by the ubiquitous icons of corporate culture–Burger King, McDonalds, Pizza Hut. In contrast, the banner above the stage at Tegucigalpa┬┤s Universidad Pedagogica, where the Forum was held, pictured a traditional Maya Indian design of a maize god.

The first Mesoamerican Forum was held in Spring 2001 in Tapachula,Chiapas, after the IDB and Mexican President Vicente Fox announced the PPP, which calls for new hydro-electric projects, trans-isthmus trade routes and industrial zones. The Forum convened again in Fall 2001 in Quetzaltenango,Guatemala; and in July 2002 Managua, Nicaragua. At the Tegucigalpa meeting, the agenda was topped by the issues of breakneck resource exploitation privatization of national resources and infastructure–especially water. A water privatization law currently pending in the Honduran national legislature would mandate that local municipalities allow private contracts to run their water systems. Honduras┬┤second city, San Pedro Sula, already has such a contract with an Italian firm.

Such privatization moves are IDB and World Bank prescriptions–but, as representatives from throughout the Mesoamerican subcontinent pointed out, they are taking place in atmosphere of lawlessness, in which publicoversight is meaningless and opponents are targetted for assassination.


A featured speaker at the Forum was Mexican writer Armando Batra, author of The Heirs of Zapata, a study of post-revolutionary Mexican campesino movements, who called the PPP an example of "savage capitalism," and claimed that it is dividing Mexico. "It serves the interests of the northern, white part of the country which is a neighbor to the US, and condemns to poverty the southern, indigenous part which is a neighbor to Guatemala." But, echoing a frequent slogan at the Forum, he asserted that "another Mesoamerica is possible." As an alternative development model, he called for "rebuilding the links between rural and urban sectors, with agricultural production for internal consumption based on localcooperatives."

Indigenous representatives from Guatemala at the Forum included opponentsof the planned massive hydro-electic project on the Usumacinta River, which forms the border between Guatemala and Mexico. Juan Ixbalan ofGuatemala┬┤s National Indigenous and Campesino Coordinator (CONIC) called the IDB-backed project, which would flood vast areas of rainforest, "a newconquest of Maya territory."

Even as technocrats portray privatization and mega-development proposals as part of an inevitable march towards democracy and modernization, ghosts from Central America┬┤s violent recent past are returning to haunt the isthmus. Guatemalan indigenous leaders are currently preparing a case against former military dictator–and current presidential candidate–Rios Montt on genocide charges for his 1980s "scorched-earth" campaign against Maya Indians. The indigenous-led Justice & Reconcilation Association (AJR) is coordinating witnesses to 1980s massacres from 24 communities in the departments of Quiche, Huehuetenango, Chimaltenango and Alta Verapaz. Said Neela Ghoshal, a New York City shcoolteacher who recently served as ahuman rights observer with the AJR and attended the Forum: "The Guatemalan courts probably won┬┤t hear the case, so they will have to go to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. But they are really committed to seeking justice."

On July 25, just days after the Forum ended, violent riots rocked Guatemala City as supporters of Rios Montt–mostly former members of his paramilitary "civil patrols"–took to the streets to protest a court ruling that barred his candidacy under a law blocking former coup leaders from the presidency. The protesters erected barricades of burning tires and attacked random pedestrians, leaving one television reporter dead of heart failure. Five days after the riots, Guatemala┬┤s top Constitutional Court would overturn the ruling, allowing the ex-dictator┬┤s presidential campaign to proceed. US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher quickly assured that US relations with Guatemala would not be disrupted if Rios Montt is elected.

Another speaker at the Forum, Raul Moreno of El Salvador, representing the rural development group Sinti Techan (Nahuatl for "maize for the people"), condemned the pending Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and CentralAmerican Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), asserting that these agreementswould "modify the judicial order, subordinating the labor code,environmental laws and human rights. The PPP is not neutral–it benefits the US and its giant corporations. The PPP is not reformable." Nor, he asserted, is it inevitable. "We can resist. Electricity and the national health system remain public in Costa Rica, despite the desire of thegovernment and the World Trade Organization to privatize, because thepeople don┬┤t want it."

Magda Lanuza of Nicaragua┬┤s International Study Center noted that plansf or water privatization are even more advanced in her country than inHonduras. Several Nicaraguan departments–including Leon, Chinandega, Jinotega and Matagalpa–already have private contracts to manage their water systems with such firms as the French water giant Suez (whosecontracts with local governments in South Africa have won international criticism as soaring water rates have left many poor communities without access). Now, as in Honduras, the water privatization program is to beinstated nationwide–as a condition of a loan from the IDB. But Magdapredicts a political battle. "Local communities are prepared to defendtheir water resources," she says. "They understand that water is life."

Hydro-energy is also being privatized in Nicaragua. The private firmHydrogesa has won a contract to manage the Apenas dam in Jinotega, and the scandal-ridden Enron actually bid on it in 2002. But following public protest, the contract now suspended pending a national law on water privatization. Local Matagalpa Indians were relocated when the project was first built in 1960s, and now oppose its privatiztion.


The two Lenca Indians killed at La Paz, Fabian Gonzalez and SantosCarrillo, were part of a land occupation led by the National Center of Rural Workers (CNTC), one of the largest campesino unions in Honduras.

The killers opened fire with AK-47 rifles in dawn attack on their encampmentJuly 19. In an eerie coincidence, the very next day, July 20, is Dia deLempira, a national holiday commemorating the death in 1536 of the Lencawarrior who resisted the conquistador Francisco Montejo. The land inquestion had been first occupied in 1985, under a provision of the Honduran agrarian reform law allowing peasants to move on to unused private lands, and begin a process for their eventual expropriation andtitle transfer to the campesinos. But the agrarian reform law has now been almost completely repealed in Honduras.

Lenca leader Berta Caceres notes an irony that Lempira has become a symbol of national pride even as Lenca land rights and culture have been lost to modernization. "The indigenous context has been invisible in Honduras for too long," she says. "But there has been a new process of struggle since the 500 Years of Resistance campaign in 1992 and the Zapatista revolt in Chiapas in 1994. We are organzing to defend Lenca territory."

Caceres is the coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and IndigenousOrganizations of Honduras (COPINH), representing 47 communities in theLenca heartland of La Paz, Intibuca and Lempira departments. It was founded in 1993, and has been at the forefront of a Lenca cultural and political renaissance. After the Forum, I visited COPINH┬┤s modest officein the village of Itibuca.

The Lenca are among the northern most Chibcha Indian groups, whose cultural sphere begins just south of that of the Maya and extends into South America. Their language only survives in some 45 words–mostly referring to animals and places, such as the local Sierra de Puca Opalaca, which means "high mountain" in Lenca. They have also adopted Nahuatl, the lingua franca of the Aztec-Maya cultural sphere, to communicate with neighboring peoples.

Since 1993, COPINH has organized a series of 4,000-strong "indigneous pilgrimages" to local sacred sites associated with saints and virgins (and, earlier, with Lenca deities and earth-spirits)–such as the Virgin of Lourdes in Ilama, Santa Barbara department, and the Virgin of Remediosin Tomala, Lempira. Caceres says these pilgrimages "linked the spiritualand cultural traditions of the Lenca with our political demands." COPINH has also resorted to more militant tactics, such the 1993 occupation oflocal timber mills to protest deforestation.

COPINH┬┤s demands have won some results–such as the redrawing of municpalborders to give local Lenca communities legal contol over their territories. In 1994, the first new municipality was created, San Francisco Opalaca in Intibua department–the only municipality in the country where all land is collectively owned and managed by an indigenous land council. Six other new municipalities followed in the ensuing years.

Under the Honduran agrarian reform, some national lands were transfred to peasant collectives, which held them privately, but not for resale. Under the 1992 Agrarian Modernization Law–known as the "contra-reforma"–they can now be resold. The "contra-reforma" also overturned provisions forexpropriation of unused private lands for redistribution to peasant squatters. In addittion, the National Agrarian Institute (INA) started privatizing national lands and even "ejidos," the traditional communallands accruing to municipalities that had been protected since thecolonial era.

Salvador Zuniga, a member of COPINH┬┤s executive committee, notes the shift from the "populist" policy of the 1960s, when the agragian reform wasinitiated, to the "neoliberal" policy of today, which is supported by the US, World Bank and IDB, and calls for a return to the 19th-century Liberal ideology of privatization of public or collective lands and resources.

In between was the harsh repression of th 1980s, which–if less severe than that in neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala–still saw the assassinationand "disappearance" of hundreds of peasant leaders, and the decapitation of peasant cooperatives. "The neoliberal policy of today is the fruit of the low-intensity war of the 1980s," says Zuniga.

And that war continues, as indigenous leaders are still marked for death.On May 17 of this year, Teodoro Martinez, a Tolupan Indian leader in the central department of Fracisco Morazan who had been leading a campaign against illegal timber operations, was assassinated. Martinez had been aleader of another indigenous alliance, the Confederation of Autochthonous Peoples of Honduras (CONPAH)–whose founder, Vicente Matute, was assassinated in 1989, the same year the organization was launched.


In another trip into the Honduran countryside after the Forum, I joined adelegation to Olancho, organized by the county┬┤s foremost human rights group, the Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared ofHonduras (COFADEH), founded during the repression of the 1980s. The largest department in Honduras by territory, Olancho is largely inhabited by mestizo settlers from the central and southern zones of the country who were encouraged by the government to colonize the wild fronteir to thenorth in the 1960s and ┬┤70s. But, as always, economic interests followedthe settlers, and today the pine-clad mountains of Olancho are beingrapidly denuded by local timber barons. On the road, we pass numerous trucks loaded with huge pine logs, heading south towards the Panamerican Highway and foreign markets. We also pass several timber mills cutting the big logs into boards.

On the night of July 18, Carlos Arturo Reyes was shot down by an unknown pistolero at his home in Olancho┬┤s El Rosario municipality. Reyes had founded the local Olancho Environmental Movement (MAO) in 2001, and had led a cross-country March for Life in June 2003, in which 30,000 marched fromOlancho to Tegucigalpa to demand a crackdown on outlaw timber operations. MAO used marches, community meetings and finally–in February of this year–physical blockades of logging roads to press thier demands for community participation in drafting what the group calls a "rational plan of exploitation." Twenty other MAO members are now said to be targetted for death.

Other peasant ecologists have likewise been assassinated in Olancho inrecent years. On June 30, 2001, Carlos Flores of La Venta, a village in Gualaco municipality, was gunned down in front of his home by AK-47 fire.As a leader of the local Heritage Center of La Venta, Gualaco (CEPAVEG), he had opposed a hydro-dam being built on the nearby Rio Babilonia by theprivate firm Energisa under contract to the Honduran government. Two of Energisa┬┤s guards were eventually arrested in the case, but Gilberto Flores, Carlos┬┤ cousin, says "the intellectual authors remain free."

Gilberto, still involved in opposition to the hydro project, is now facingdeath threats himself, has a National Police officer assigned to protect him in La Venta. Gilberto reports that on June 14 he had a an AK-47 levelled at him from a passing car in Juticalpa, capital of Olanchodepartment.

Gilberto emphasizes the necessity of halting Olancho┬┤s deforestation and fighting to maintain public control over water resources: "In many municipalities in Olancho, there is no water. We dig wells and we find none. The department is going dry. This has happened over the last 20 years, along with the exaggerated exoploitation of our forests. There arearound 100 trucks full of timber leaving Olancho each day for Trujillo,"the northern Caribbean port.

Also apparently targetted for death is Rafael Ulloa, former mayor ofGualaco. Ulloa protests that the appropriation of the Rio Babilonia forthe hydro-dam represents a reversal of national priorities. "Officially, water is to go first for muncipal use, then for irrigation, and then forelectrical generation. But downstream communities will lose thier accessto the river by this project."

The small Rio Babilonia plunges down from the mountain of that same name in a series of cascades, and eventually joins the Rio Tinto Negro that drains to the Caribbean to the north. The site of the dam is officiallywithin the Sierra de Agalta National Park, and but for the constructionactivity the forest-cloaked mountain is indeed beautiful. From La Venta,we set out on horses and mules up the steep and muddy trail which is alsoused by the Energisa workers. This area is too rugged and inaccessible forheavy equipment, and the workers carry the plastic tubing up the mountainon their backs, or slung between makeshift wooden poles. The trail followsthe ditch cut in the mountainside which will re-route the river throughthe plastic pipes to the power station below, still yet to be built. Atthe top, the dam itself is alrady intact, standing astride the first cataract, but the gates have yet to be closed and flood plain which has been dug off to the side yet to be filled. An Energisa guard with ashotgun stands on duty.

The campesinos at La Venta also take us to nearby Las Delicias in neighboring San Estaban municipality–where national police and private gunmen evicted some 20 families from 83 manzanas of land on July 23. Across the barbed-wire fence we can see the remains of recently-razed homes. The families, settlers from Choluteca department in the south, hadbeen on the land for over 20 years. They are now living in an overcrowded one-room schoolhouse and makeshift bivuoacs on adjacent municipal land.They say that the courts ruled for the local Calderon ranching family inthe land dispute despite the campesinos┬┤ title to the land. The case ispending before INA, but the families, who worked their land as a peasantcollective, have little hope the decision will be reversed. They say their meager cattle were stolen in the eviction as well, and probably wound upon the already-expansive lands of the Calderon family. Says evicted grandmother Heribeta Aguilar: "We came here for a better life–now everything is gone." Added evicted farmer Silverio Molina: "We will die fighting for land and water."

The evicted campesinos show us a beat-up Toyota pick-up truck parked near thier bivouacs. It is riddled on the driver┬┤s side with bullets from an AK-47 attack in the prelude to the eviction–allegedly by Calderon gunmen.The driver, Candido Cruz, lost his leg in the attack, and now hobbles on crutches.

Another environmental crusader facing death threats in Olancho is Padre Jose Andres Tamayo, a Salvadoran-born priest who now leads the parish thatcovers both Salama and El Rosario, where Carlos Reyes was killed. He too notes a dramatically declining productivity in Olancho┬┤s land as a result of erosion and aridification related to destruction of the region┬┤s forests. "Just five years ago, the campesinos here got 30 sacks of maize for every manzana," he says. "Now they usually get twelve."

On the road between Salama and El Rosario, Padre Tamayo points out a large expanse of mountainous and forested land owned by a local "cacique"–a land baron and political boss favored by the corrupt bureaucracy. He says trucks leave the cacique┬┤s land hauling out timber frequently, and the mountainsides are rapidly being denuded. Across the road, more forested slopes form the opposite wall of the valley. These, Tamayo says, are the communal lands of local peasant communities. But they are also beingdenuded by the local timber barons, as campesino leaders are bought offwith cash or alcohol. Tamayo asserts that 80% of the wood cut in Honduras is felled illegally.

On March 2, 2002, the Honduran daily El Heraldo reported that ex-head of the national forestry agency, COHDEFOR, Marco Vinicio Arias, faces corruption charges for illegally allowing the felling of trees in the RioPlatano Biosphere Reserve, which stretches north from Olancho into the extremely remote lowland tropical rainforests of the Miskito Coast.

Tamayo says that six companies control the Olancho timber trade in a shady network that overlaps with that of the narco-gangs who use Olancho as an artery for US-bound cocaine between clandestine ports on the Miskito Coastand the Panamerican Highway. Timber revenues are used to laundernarco-profits, and both go to arming paramilitary-style mafia enforcement gangs. Tamayo refers to the timber gangs as "narco-madereros."

Tamayo claims that the timber is largely resold to US-based companies forexport, and much of it is off-loaded in New Orleans and other US ports.Once again, corporate power appears to have an incestuous relationship with the criminal and paramilitary gangs that terrorize the isthmus. "Thisis the second conquest of Mesoamerica," says Tamayo.

Our delegation to Olancho ended with an ominous coda. On July 29, the day after our return to Tegucigalpa, the daily La Prensa ran a front-page photo of masked men carrying rifles in a dense pine grove, claiming they were a group of radical environmentalists who were arming themselves to defend Olancho┬┤s forests. Their supposed leader, "Comandante Pepe,"claimed to have 10,000 men under his command. In an accompanying article, Honduran President Ricardo Maduro was pictured looking in dismay at photos of "Pepe" from the same newspaper. He was quoted as saying, "They are doing a great damage to the country," noting that the presumedeco-guerillas look like "Zapatistas or members of Sendero Luminoso." Hewas also quoted pledging a crackdown: "I am not going to permit the exitsence of any armed groups that generate violence. I don┬┤t care whose side they┬┤re on, because in this case there is no justified reason."

PadreTamayo was also quoted, saying that the mysterious Pepe and his followers were actually a creation of the timber gangs "to discredit the movement."