It was a typically balmy and rainy Sunday on June 5 in the Finca San Isidro farming lands of the fertile Bajo Aguán area in Honduras. José Recinos, Genaro Cuestas and Joel Santamaría were off to an early start to buy some farming materials with some other campesinos. None of them ever arrived at their destination: they were ambushed by a sea of bullets resulting in the deaths of Recinos, Cuestas and Santamaría and severe injuries to three of their companions.
“All three of my compañeros were soft-spoken and modest farmers, dedicated to the social struggle here in Aguán and beyond,” said Cesar Rodriguez, a close friend and, like his fallen comrades, a member of the Autonomous Farmers Movement to Reclaim Aguán (MARCA). The three farmers were young, aged between 25 and 35 years old.
Killings such as these are far from unusual in Honduras, which has been described by leading human rights organizations as a country besieged by state-sponsored violence and repression. Further, many critics have pointed fingers at flawed US policies for exacerbating the deteriorating situation in a Central American nation long plagued by poverty and foreign resource extraction.
The three campesinos have backgrounds similar to many other victims, as not only farmers, but also teachers, journalists and activists in the opposition movement have been frequent targets of abuse. Politically motivated state-sponsored assassinations, however, are only one of many types of human rights violations occurring since the Honduran military executed a coup d’état in June 2009. Plaguing Honduras since that time has been a litany of abuses: excessive use of police and military force, individuals’ disappearances with governmental culpability, death threats at gunpoint against judges and sexual violence, especially against the LGBT community. These abuses have attracted condemnations from both Honduran-based and leading international organizations, including Amnesty International, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Foodfirst Information and Action Network (FIAN) and a number of popular organizations based in Aguán.
Honduras has been in the news lately, but not because of the ongoing state repression. Deposed former President of Honduras Manuel Zelaya made a triumphant return to the country for the first time since his September 2009 ouster. Opposition movement organizers claim as many as a million people poured into the streets to support Zelaya and his return.
Diplomatic Recognition Lamented by Honduran Civil Society
Zelaya’s return to Honduras was quickly followed by the country’s reinstatement to the Organization of American States (OAS). At the time of the coup, the OAS unanimously supported its decision to expel Honduras from the intercontinental diplomatic organization, with the US alone clamoring for reinstatement during the same time that internal abuses were peaking.
The forging of the Cartagena Accords completely changed matters, as only Ecuador dissented on the reinstatement of Honduras to the OAS. The Accords, which were brokered by Colombia and Venezuela, cleared the way for Zelaya’s return only with promises to drop all pending legal charges against him and former officials from his administration.
Some experts marveled at the uniqueness of a major accord being brokered – not by the US or by the OAS – but by two South American nations that have otherwise had a tenuous relationship. “A deeper reading of this has to do with the fact that Latin America has become more autonomous from the United States … [as the US] is no longer able to dictate what happens in the region” wrote Kevin Casas-Zamora, a senior fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. On the other hand, prominent organizations and members of civil society held deep reservations or downright opposed readmission. On May 16, twenty leading international and Honduran civil society organizations sent a letter to OAS ambassadors urging them to put off readmission until actual improvements had been realized with the human rights crisis (see here).
As Rafael Correa – president of Ecuador and himself a victim of a failed coup attempt – told Europa Press on May 26, “There is one requirement; anything else is impunity. What is the requirement? That those responsible for the coup be punished. Until this happens, Ecuador will never support the readmission of Honduras to the OAS” (see here).
While these diplomatic machinations have received much attention from leading public officials and the press alike, the ongoing human rights catastrophe has been eclipsed by news about power brokering.
Coup Precedes Human Rights Crisis
On June 28, 2009, about 100 soldiers conducted a pre-dawn raid on then-President Zelaya’s home and hauled him off to the airport in his pajamas with a one-way ticket to San José, Costa Rica. At that time, a coup regime took power (the Michelleti regime) and subsequently held a vote roundly criticized as having none of the conditions necessary for a free and fair election. The balloting resulted in the current Lobos administration, which received its harshest criticism and non-recognition from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela (see “Background on the 2009 Coup” for a succinct Truthout-published summary about leading political developments since the coup). Additionally, the Honduran people themselves have registered their own high levels of disapproval, as a recently released poll found that Lobos was the least popular head of state in all of Latin America on political and social issues (see here). A plethora of human rights abuses ensued during both the Michelleti and Lobo administrations.
Many of these widely condemned and detailed abuses are also addressed below. However, what has escaped the radar of much of the English-language press, including even leading international human rights organizations, has been the Bajo Aguán (also referred to as the Valle del Aguán) region. This extremely fertile and resource-rich valley is one of the most important (and underreported) elements of the ongoing Honduran human rights crisis.
Aguán at the Center of Abuses
As Secundino Ruis, who is 44 years old and a native Bajo Aguán campesino, told Truthout, “this valley is numero uno for agriculture in Central America; there’s corn here, beans, rice, fantastic African palms and everything that a human being would need.” The Aguán valley region in Honduras is indeed a leading center for cultivation of African palms, which produce oils for export.
Professor Adrienne Pine, an assistant professor of anthropology at American University, specializes in research on Honduras and has regularly visited the country since 1997. Pine lashed out at Miguel Facussé, whom she described as the main catalyst for abuses in the region:
Facussé is one of the wealthiest men in Honduras and owns a massive amount of land in Honduras and other regions as well, having acquired the land through illegal means by displacing farmers. Under Zelaya, occupying farmers had been promised titles to the land. Facussé has connections to the Honduran military, who is on his payroll, as well as his own armed private guards who regularly kill off campesinos. Facussé has admitted to this on national television. This impunity has a direct connection to the coup and the military has become a complete instrument to the coup.
Local human rights and agrarian organizations have reported at least 42 deaths in the last few months alone in Aguán, with 14 of those occurring within the last three weeks.
Gilberto Rios, the director of FIAN Honduras, agrees with Pine on the importance of the Aguán region and Facussé’s power: “This man is the richest man in the country and wields incredible power. Although it is almost never noted, one can connect the dots and point to him as being one of the factors and motivations for the coup.” In observations similar to those made by Pine, Rios also pointed out that Zelaya had set up a commission with the intention to go forward with land reform that would have distributed the land to the farmers. These plans fell through and instead of land reform, the Lobo administration promised this past April 12 to buy the land from Facussé himself and distribute the land back to the people who actually cultivate it through organizations like MARCA.
After months of violence, Facussé finally agreed to sell the land for $14.8 million and stated the following in a communiqué released on June 8: “We have accepted the offer of the Government to buy the African palm cultivations that belong to fincas Isla I, Isla II, Aurora and La Confianza.”
However, the buyout plan has been hampered by details and a lack of implementation, as Rios explained to Truthout: “there hasn’t been a solution to the agrarian conflict in Aguán. Facussé only agreed to sell and give over 3,205 of the 11,000+ hectares of land in dispute to MUCA and MARCA … but this obviously isn’t going to change the situation much.” Rios added, “I’ve been working with the farmer’s movement for 40 years, but I have never seen this much fear in Aguán.”
Given the importance of Aguán, one of the first visits that Zelaya himself undertook after his return was to the region, shortly after his return to the country (June 12). Zelaya proclaimed then that he would, “stand with the farmers of MUCA, MARCA and MCCA [leading farmer organizations of Aguán],” adding that he would try to use his, “knowledge to give support to finding a solution to the land problem, since the farmers have a right to the land and should not be assassinated simply because they want land, which they are entitled to and deserve.”
In addition to Facussé, several other wealthy plantation owners have been accused of employing private armed guards to kill off campesinos, including René Morales Carazo and Reinaldo Canales. According to MARCA, it was armed guards employed by Morales who killed Recinos, Cuestas and Santamaría.
The most recent killing was that of 89-year-old José Luis Rodríguez, in the agricultural community 28 de Mayo located in the municipality of Trujillo in the county of Colón (which is quite close to where Zelaya went to speak this past Sunday). Rodríguez died because of respiratory problems resulting from smoke ingestion, when some 40 Honduran police officers reportedly burned farmers’ homes, launched tear gas bombs and shot live ammunition near families who fled to neighboring hills.
The death reveals how it isn’t private armed guards only responsible for the violence in the region.
According to Jose Anibal Ordonez, a representative of the Coordinating Committee of Popular Organizations of Aguán (COPA), “I yelled at the policemen who were burning houses, trying to tell them there was an old man who could not run, but they knocked me down and I could not do anything.”
The killings and the impunity continue to take place alongside the failed deal between the Lobo administration and Facussé. Facussé has claimed he is “losing” thousands upon thousands of dollars every day from farmers occupying the multi-million-dollar valued land, while critics charge he never had a right to the land in the first place.
Other Elements of Honduran Civil Society Targets of Repression
The situation in Aguán is dire, but not unique in the sense that many other segments of civil society in Honduras have been abused as well. Just a few months ago, teachers on strike were dealt serious blows in the midst of their own protests against the Lobo administration.
The Lobo administration had proposed privatizing the entire Honduran public school system, a policy to which public school teachers did not take kindly. Over 61,000 teachers waged a strike, to which the Lobo administration responded by suspending hundreds of teachers, tear gassing their demonstrations for almost a month straight and then suspending another 5,000 more striking teachers in the aftermath of failed negotiations.
During the protests surrounding the teacher’s strike, Ilse Velasquez, a 59-year-old teacher, former principal of Tegucigalpa and long-time activist opposing the coup regime, fell to the ground after a tear-gas canister launched by Honduran police struck her in the head. Velasquez was unable to breath and was subsequently hit by a car. She died in an emergency room after being rushed to the hospital.
Zenaida Velasques, Ilse’s sister, described her as, “fun-loving, happy and always smiling; she loved to dance and was very easy-going.”
Ilse’s death has yet to garner any substantive investigation or judicial action. In this vein, Truthout spoke with the lead Amnesty International researcher on Honduras, Esther Major, who criticized a climate of near absolute impunity as a central factor in continuing the human rights crisis in Honduras:
In terms of the violations since 2009, absolutely none of them have been addressed in a way that we would like to see. There was an excessive use of force routinely used. I interviewed 75 people who were attacked during protests and detained, including many with baton marks across their backs and these were people who protested against the very conditions the government has brought about and that they have suffered from.
Politically motivated assassinations have become the norm in Honduras and were particularly frequent in the months that followed the coup. In July 2009 alone, an opposition party and former union leader was shot dead entering his home; a protester – his body riddled with 42 stab wounds – was killed while in police custody; a high school teacher was shot by Honduran security forces during protests; a 19-year-old was shot in the head and killed at the airport during a Zelaya attempt to return to the country; and a Radio America journalist was murdered near La Ceiba.
LGBT activists have released many reports of violence and abuse against their community. One of the leading abuse cases is that of the late Walter Trochez, who was murdered on December 12, 2010, having been shot in the chest by a drive-by gunman. Widely known as an LGBT activist, Trochez had already been kidnapped just eight days before his death, when he reportedly suffered through four hours worth of beatings and interrogation, including the following threat: “even if you give us the information, we’re going to kill you; we have orders to kill you.” During his interrogation, Trochez was asked about the many human rights reports and activities he had undertaken, as he had been reporting on abuses committed since the coup.
Journalists have also been among the most frequent targets of abuses, with ten having been killed in 2010 alone. Major, of Amnesty, told Truthout, “The context in which people are trying to investigate stories in relation to human rights violations, corruption and organized crime is extremely difficult and dangerous. The response by the state on attacks to journalists and human rights defenders, has been deeply troubling and shocking.”
Major described to Truthout the case of Nahum Palacios, a TV news director and host of a radio program based in the Aguán region. Palacios was driving home in Tocoa City as two men drove up to his car and fired automatic weapons up to 30 times, killing him. A prominent public critic of the coup, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had demanded the Honduran state adopt measures to ensure his safety, but none of the suggested measures were ever implemented.
US Role Singled Out by Critics
In light of the sordid record the Michelleti and Lobo regimes have on human rights, the question arises: what has US policy been throughout this ordeal? According to a number of leading foreign policy analysts and critics, the most generous of answers has been, “less than admirable.”
President Obama was slightly critical of the coup shortly after its outset, but nearly none of his criticism was ever followed up by substantive policies and actions, according to Alexander Main of the Center for Economic Policy and Research and Professor Pine of American University.
Pine described US policy as, “utterly abysmal and insulting to the people of Honduras, who are trying to actualize their rights to free speech and assembly, but whose efforts have been severely undermined by administrations which have received full support from the US government.”
Main addressed the kinds of support the US has given since the coup, by noting Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s refusal to describe the coup as a “military coup,” something that had “important legal ramifications, allowing them to be much more flexible in their policies toward the coup regimes.” Main added that to the extent that the US “suspended” aid, much of it continued to flow through the Millennium Corporation.
Main added, “Full throttle support for the regime began in November 2009, with the decision to support the election of the de-facto regime. Most other Latin American countries, however, were insisting there couldn’t be elections under a de-facto regime.”
By March of last year, as Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy noted to Truthout, the US had restored military aid to Honduras. Clinton justified the restoration of aid on two grounds: “[because] the election was … found to be free, fair and legitimate,” and also, “We believe that President Lobo and his administration have taken the steps necessary to restore democracy” (see here).
Naiman described these justifications as having garnered “widespread criticism,” along the following lines:
The election took place under the coup government and there was heavy repression. Lobo had not taken steps to end the repression when aid was restored. Even now, more than a year later, the readmission of Honduras to the OAS was not conditioned on “steps necessary to restore democracy,” but on an agreement to allow Zelaya to return, coupled with promises that democratic rights would be respected. But repression remains; that’s why Ecuador voted no on the OAS decision.
In terms of the immediate future, most attention is being paid on the readmission of Honduras into the OAS and what this important diplomatic recognition will portend.
Major, of Amnesty, sees readmission as a sign of potential progress: “We were hoping that Honduras would have made more progress before its admittance, but hope that they seize this opportunity to improve matters and likewise, that the OAS tracks matters so that this can be accomplished.”
Many Honduran activists, however, have criticized readmission and take a slightly different tact on the situation. Gerardo Torres, who is the international representative of the National Popular Resistance Front, told Truthout: “The fact of the matter is, nothing has changed at all to justify re-admission. The police and the military continue to terrorize the population with impunity. The regime has gained a legitimacy that it does not deserve and from our perspective, this will likely raise – not decrease – the level of violence.”
Zelaya and his impact on the movement looms large on the minds of Honduran activists as well. Many see Zelaya’s popularity being higher than ever, as some organizers claimed up to a million people showed their support upon his return to Honduras earlier in the month.
The infatuation with Zelaya, however, has not blinded farmers and activists alike to important and timely considerations. As Torres added, the movement is now adjusting to the new realities that Zelaya’s return has introduced and a mass popular assembly is meeting later in the month to decide what priorities to adopt, including considerations of prioritizing electoral options for a Zelaya campaign (or not). The “or not” part of the consideration is important, as the next presidential election is not scheduled until November 2013 and the situation on the ground in Honduras continues to be far from adequate for a free and fair election to occur.