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Honduras- Report from the Aguan Region's Campesino Struggle

From September 8 - 19, 2011 a delegation of nine people from five states and 7 organizations participated in a human rights accompaniment delegation to Honduras coordinated by Witness for Peace Southwest; La Voz de los de Abajo-Chicago and Task Force on the Americas; all members of the Honduras Solidarity Network (HSN) a national network formed in the U.S. after the June 28, 2009 coup d’état in Honduras. Below is an article by Vicki Cervantes from La Voz de los de Abajo focusing on the situation in the campesino communities the delegation visited.

Three Days in Aguan
Our delegation was in the Lower Aguan River Valley , on the northern coast in the province of Colon , from September 11 - September 14. We visited four campesino communities and in each community we spoke with community members, families of assassinated campesinos, survivors of the violence and with community leaders. We interviewed soldier s and police in the communities, at the road blocks and at the Battalion Headquarters and National Police headquarters in the region about their mission in Aguan. We also visited 3 campesino prisoners being held in the region.

The region of Aguan has long been a center of conflict between organized landless or poor farmers and some of the most powerful wealthy landowners (and coup-plotters) in the country such as the bio-fuel magnate, Miguel Facusse. Since the coup in 2009, there has been an alarming escalation of violence against the campesinos with more than fifty persons murdered in two years. We found communities traumatized by the constant violence and pressure from the land owners’ private armed guards, the national police and the military. The communities are terrorized but also angry at what they call, “open season on campesinos” and frustrated by the continued impunity for violence against their leaders and community members with a complete lack of police investigations or follow-up on any of the deaths of campesinos.

The other theme that dominates discussion is that of the increasing militarization bringing more violence and instability to the region. At the end of our visit to Honduras , the situation was taking an even more ugly turn. On September 16th a soldier and policeman died in what was reported to be an accident with a grenade inside a police vehicle, although the military and police command along with the most conservative pro-coup press prefer the explanation that, “foreign guerrillas have infiltrated the campesino movement and ambushed the military”.  While the details of the event remain unpublished, the response of the government has been to suspend constitutional guarantees, give more power to the military and unleash an even  bigger military response against civilian agricultural communities in the Aguan.

Aguan Day One - Police Threats
Our first full day in Aguan, we visited the community of Guadalupe Carney but at about 4:30 pm we got an urgent phone call reporting that the national police were threatening the MUCA (Unified Campesino Movement of Aguan) Left Bank community of Los Marañones and asking that the delegation go to that community. {Note: There are two MUCA organizations, one on the left bank of the Aguan River and one on the right bank}. We rushed there and, after an hour’s trip on dirt roads, we arrived at nightfall. The police were gone but community members told us that numerous patrol trucks with soldiers and police in them had arrived at the community gate, threatening to enter. Many families had hidden themselves in the surrounding fields and hills, most had returned when we arrived, but some of the leaders - who are under constant death threats - had gone deeper into hiding. We waited for some time for them to arrive so that we could confirm they were alright. We returned the next day to talk some more and community members explained that the agreement they signed in 2010 with the Lobo government that was to turn over 11,000 hectares of land to the campesinos has never been fulfilled.  They have only been given around 3, 000 hectares while Miguel Facusse’s private guards, the national police and the army continually threaten them. According to MUCA members we spoke with there are at least 20 open arrest orders for leaders of MUCA, thy receive constant death threats and the assassinations continue. On August 23, Pedro Delgado, the Vice President of MUCA-Left Bank and his wife were gunned down and then decapitated in their home and on September 2 the body of MUCA member Olvin David Gonzalez Godoy, 24 years old, married and father of an 8-month-old girl was found on the road to Marañones. Since January 2010, 20 or more MUCA members have been killed.*  Because of this situation, the MUCA-Left Bank members are very skeptical of the newest negotiations the government is carrying out with the other MUCA-Right Bank communities and another organization, MARCA.  The MUCA-Left Bank members told the delegation that the original agreement should be fulfilled by the government and agri-business landowners. The community continues to work to improve the lands that they are on and we saw that the campesinos are building a new cinder block school building for their children despite the threat of further evictions and raids. We were able to spend only a short time with MARCA members; we spoke to the widow and family of the most recent victim of assasinations in Aguan, Secundino Ruiz. Ruiz who was president of one of the MARCA cooperatives, was gunned down in Tocoa while he and the coop’s Treasurer were riding in a car on coop business. The family said that although there were witnesses they were unaware of any follow-up on the case after the initial police interviews.

Guadalupe Carney
Guadalupe Carney is the most established of the communities under attack in Aguan. Their organization the Campesino Movement of Aguan (MCA) has gained legal title to large amount of the land they recuperated in March of 2000 on what used to be the Regional Military Training Center (CREM) but they are still fighting to receive title to the rest of the lands that belong to them. Their longevity and incontrovertible legal claims have not kept them from being attacked by the government’s repressive forces and the private hired guns of the big landowners.

At Guadalupe Carney we met with members of the widow’s group (families of the murdered MCA members). This group includes the widows of the victims of the massacre by Miguel Facusse’s guards on November 15, 2010 which left 5 MCA members dead on their land at a plantation called El Tumbador.  We also spoke with survivors of that massacre.  The widows, one of whom has 5 small children, receive help from other members of the MCA and the community and do things like cook food to sell in order to survive. The widows and the survivors of the attack told us that the campesinos have returned to work part of the land that belongs to them but that Miguel Facusse has stationed even more private guards on the land that he has taken and that it is very dangerous for the campesinos. They thought that it was so dangerous that they didn’t feel that they could take the delegation to the area. One of the survivors of the massacre, who was shot in the face, told us that the guards opened fire directly at them that day, and as he and some others fled the area they saw as many as 80 more armed gunmen coming down the road towards El Tumbador. The victims said there had not been any serious police investigation and no arrests of any of Facusse’s men for the murders.

We visited the community radio station, Radio Orquedia where a team of mostly young campesinos do their own programming and daily broadcasting. After the Tumbador massacre the first large scale military operation into Aguan, “Operation Xantruch I” brought hundreds of combined military and national police troops into the area. The radio team told us that the troops entered Guadalupe Carney and threatened to destroy the radio station, but the radio was on the air broadcasting the alarm and hundreds of community members came to the station - and the troops withdrew. The army has set up a continuous encampment of soldiers (4-6 at a time) right across from the elementary school in the community. When we asked one of the soldiers why the army was there he told us that it was to protect the community from crime, when he was asked if there was a problem with crime in Guadalupe Carney, he said “no”. At the Battalion Headquarters we were told that the continuous presence at Guadalupe Carney is to “avoid the occurrence of conflicts and to prevent crime”. Community members told us that they don’t believe the soldiers are there to protect the community from anything but see it as an ongoing military occupation. While we were there, soldiers began conducting a class in marching for the older elementary school students getting ready for the official Independence Day school parades. Some of the community members objected and began a heated debate with the school director.

There are close to 30 open arrest orders for members of the MCA and there are currently 3 members being held in jail on spurious charges. During the delegation we met with all three campesino prisoners. While we were at the community we met with the prisoners’ families who asked for continued pressure from human rights groups on the cases for which the police and prosecutors have not been able to present any evidence that can stand up in court. One of the prisoners, Isabel “Chavelo” Morales has been held almost three years without having been convicted of any crime - Honduran law states that two years is the maximum time a person can be held without going to trial. The other two prisoners are young campesinos, Deny Israel Castro (20) and Lelis Lemus Martinez (17) arrested on August 15 - the same day that there were attacks on a nearby community in  Los Rigores and a few days after solidarity delegation of women from Guadalupe Carney visited another cooperative in  Los Rigores.  MCA leaders told us that they feel that the open arrest orders and the arrests are more forms of pressure against the whole community to try to get them to give up and give in to the big landowners.

Los Rigores - Bulldozers, Fire and Helicopters

On June 23 this year the National Police and Army violently evicted 100 families from land they were living on for 10 years, bulldozing and burning homes and churches.  Twenty campesinos were detained and released and 13 arrest orders issued and left open. When we arrived in Rigores on September 13th many community members were back on the land and had already begun rebuilding their homes and other buildings. School classes are being held in the part of the school left standing after it was bulldozed in June.  Honduran flag bunting was hung around the classroom for Honduran Independence Day decorations on Sept. 15th. Besides the homes, churches and the school, the eviction in June also destroyed most access to potable water. We were shown some small pools of water that the community is using for drinking water to which they have added some “purification powder” that was donated to them. People explained to us that their community and organization, the Campesino Movement of Rigores (MCR), were recognized as having a right to the land under Honduran land law and that the National Agrarian Institute negotiated terms with the family of a now deceased land owner who contested ownership, but that suddenly the man’s heirs want a bigger amount of money. They worry that larger interests are involved.

On September 16th, as the delegation was leaving the Aguan on the way to Tegucigalpa , we received a phone call reporting that a violent raid by troops from Operation Xantruch II was going on in Rigores.  The police and army were reported to be smashing belongings, damaging houses and beating the community members. By the end of the evening 21 campesinos were detained at the main police station in Tocoa.  Our delegation together with human rights groups in and outside of Honduras began sending out appeals for urgent actions to protect the detainees and making calls to the police station about the safety of the detainees. The campesinos were held for twenty four hours; they were beaten, threatened and told by police that they are going to kill the human rights people “so there is no one to help you”.   All 21 were finally released with no charges filed against any of them.

Then, on September 19th, while we were visiting the offices of the Honduran human rights organization, the Committee of the Families of the Disappeared Detainees (COFADEH) a call came in reporting that a helicopter was flying low over Rigores and soldiers were taking pictures.  A few hours later, the calls started reporting that police and army troops were attacking the settlement.

I spoke with one of the leaders from Rigores on the phone who described what was going on, “there is a big helicopter with soldiers with heavy caliber rifles hanging out of it; it seems to be landing or trying to land but then it stops and goes up and then comes back down again and again.  The soldiers and police came in and took kids and other people and are beating them, dragging them into the palm field s; we don’t know what is happening to them.”  Meanwhile the President of the MCR,  Rodolfo Cruz reported on another call to a human rights defender that his 16 year son had been grabbed by the soldiers and dragged into the palm fields and when he tried to follow the troops fired their weapons; he didn’t know if his son was being detained or being disappeared.

Later in the evening, human rights representatives arrived at the jail in the town of Tocoa and confirmed that the boy was being held - after hours of pressure, with phone calls coming into the station from international and Honduran human rights groups, he was released at midnight. The next evening he and his father were interviewed on Radio Globo in Tegucigalpa and he confirmed that he had been beaten, tortured, had gasoline thrown on him and been threatened with being set on fire.

As our delegation was ending, the pro-coup newspapers the daily La Prensa (September 17, 20) and La Tribuna (September 20,21,23, 25) had articles with quotes from the Security and Defense Ministries, military command and national police command talking about “armed campesinos”, “foreign guerrillas infiltrating the campesinos” and calling for the suspension of constitutional guarantees for the residents in Aguan, and for a possible extension of judicial powers to the military in the region to issue warrants and court orders to raid communities.  The papers tied it to the deaths of the policeman and soldier on the 16th, but there are plenty of indications that a plan an extensive military occupation of Aguan on behalf of the agri-business oligarchy has little to do with that incident. Indeed, when our delegation interviewed a first sergeant who seemed to be in charge of security at the 15th Battalion headquarters and the Officer in charge of the command at the National Police in Aguan, many days prior to the 16th, they spoke of the problem in Aguan being caused by the campesinos, armed groups of campesinos and/or foreigners.  Another of the proposals from the government is to use the immigration service to better control foreigners entering the region. This seems more likely to be aimed at human rights observers, international press and accompaniment delegations than at any “armed guerrillas from Nicaragua ”.  The need for more accompaniment, delegations and observers is growing as the violence continues  - two more campesinos (a woman from COAPALMA in Prieta and a young man from MUCA-Right Bank) were murdered this week and the husband of the woman was seriously wounded -

An important issue is the role of the U.S. government and military in Honduras and specifically in the Aguan. When we talked to Honduran special forces soldiers in the Aguan who are a part of the joint military/police Operation Xantuch II they told us that they are receiving training from the U.S. in Honduras . It has also been confirmed that the U.S. has provided vehicles to the Honduran National Police and Military that have been used in raids against campesino communities. U.S. training and aid to the military and police in the name of “security” is being used against civilian communities on behalf of the landed oligarchy who  are  themselves implicated in narcotics trade (Wikileaks August 30, 2011 release of 2004 cable from U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa regarding Miguel Facusse’s links to narcotics trafficking ).

The situation in Aguan has its own history and dynamic but is part of the national politics as well. As the FNRP continues to organize and mobilize resistance and the majority of the Frente organizations are moving forward with the formation of a political party for the elections in 2013, the targeted assassinations, threats and legal persecution are  being applied in the cities and in the countryside by a desperate oligarchy, supported by U.S. State Department policy.

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