Honduras: Gangsters’ Paradise
Nearly five years after the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) first called on the Honduran government to protect Carlos Mejía Orellana, the Radio Progreso marketing manager was found stabbed to death in his home on April 11. “The IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur consider this a particularly serious crime given the precautionary measures granted,” the Commission stated, assuming Mejía really was being guarded. But since the 2009 coup, asking the Honduran state to defend journalists is as effective as entreating a spider to spare a web-ensnared fly.
The coup, which four School of the Americas (SOA) graduates oversaw, toppled elected president Manuel Zelaya, and was “a crime,” as even the military lawyer—another SOA alum—charged with giving the overthrow a veneer of legitimacy couldn’t deny. A pair of marred general elections followed. Journalist Michael Corcoran recognized widespread “state violence against dissidents” and “ballot irregularities” as hallmarks of the first, in November 2009, which Obama later hailed as the return of Honduran democracy. And there was little dispute that the subsequent contest, held last November, was equally flawed. The State Department, for example, admitted “inconsistencies” plagued the vote, the same charge Zelaya himself leveled and an echo of the SOA Watch delegation’s findings, which identified “numerous irregularities and problems during the elections and vote counting process[.]” But while grassroots and governmental observers described the election in similar terms, they drew dramatically different conclusions about its validity. Canadian activist Raul Burbano, for example, acknowledged that “corruption, fraud, violence, murder, and human rights violations” dominated the situation. For Secretary of State Kerry, “the election process was generally transparent, peaceful, and reflected the will of the Honduran people.”
Kerry, to be sure, was referring to the class of “worthy” Hondurans, whose will was indeed reflected in the contest. One might be “a policeman, a lumber magnate, an agro-industrialist, a congressman, a mayor, an owner of a national media outlet, a cattle rancher, a businessman, or a drug trafficker”—all belong to this sector, Radio Progreso director Rev. Ismael Moreno Coto, S.J., known as Padre Melo, points out, adding that these “worthy” Hondurans use the state as a tool to maintain, if not enhance, their power. The results for the rest of the population are what you’d expect. The government no longer pays many of its employees, for example; Peter J. Meyer’s Congressional Research Service report on “Honduran-U.S. Relations,” released last July, cites “misused government funds” and “weak tax collection” as two factors contributing to the current situation, a kind of wage slavery sans wages. Doctors, nurses and educators toil for free throughout the country, and the Center for Economic and Policy Research reported last fall that over 43% of Honduran workers labored full-time in 2012 without receiving the minimum wage. That same year, nearly half of the population was living in extreme poverty—the rate had dropped to 36% under Zelaya—and 13,000 inmates now crowd a prison system designed for 8,000. In San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city after Tegucigalpa, some 5,000 children try not to starve to death while living on the streets; this figure includes 3,000 girls, aged 12-17, who roam the roads as prostitutes.
Confronting this reality—asking fundamental questions, like whose interests dominant Honduran institutions serve—“means living with anxiety, insecurity, suspicion, distrust, demands, warnings, and threats. It also means having to come to grips with the idea of death,” Padre Melo emphasizes, explaining that a reporter in Honduras “only has to publish or disseminate some news that negatively affects the interests [of] a powerful person with money and influence…for the life of that news reporter to be endangered.” Melo was making these points in July 2012, well before Mejía’s recent murder, but when it was already obvious that open season had been declared on Honduran correspondents. It’s likely that “few observers could have foreseen the deluge of threats, attacks, and targeted killings that has swept through Honduras during the last five years,” PEN International noted in January, highlighting “the surge in violence directed against journalists following the ouster of President José Manuel Zelaya in June 2009.” A great deal “of the violence is produced by the state itself, perhaps most significantly by a corrupt police force,” and now over 32 Honduran journalists—the equivalent U.S. figure, as a percentage of the total population, would be well over 1,200—are dead.
These killings are part of a broader Honduran trend, namely what Reporters Without Borders calls “a murder rate comparable to that of a country at war—80 per 100,000 in a population of 7 million.” One crucial battlefield is the Bajo Aguán Valley, where at least 102 peasant farmers were killed between January 2010 and May 2013. The conflict there can be traced back to the ’90s, when a “paradigm promoted by the World Bank” spurred “a massive re-concentration of land in the Aguán into the hands of a few influential elites,” Tanya Kerssen writes in Grabbing Power, her excellent book. These land barons, particularly Dinant Corporation’s Miguel Facussé, thrived as “the Aguán cooperative sector was decimated,” some three-quarters of its land seized, Kerssen concludes. Campesinos, suddenly dispossessed, first sought legal recourse, which failed. They subsequently “protested and occupied disputed land,” Rights Action’s Annie Bird observes in an invaluable study (“Human Rights Violations Attributed to Military Forces in the Bajo Aguán Valley in Honduras,” February 2013), prompting government authorities to review the legitimacy of World Bank-promoted territorial transfer. But the June 2009 coup ended this appraisal, and since then Honduras’ 15th Battalion, Washington-aided “since at least 2008,” has “consistently been identified as initiating acts of violence against campesino movements,” with police forces and Dinant’s security guards getting in on the kills, Bird explains
After Brazil, Honduras is the most dangerous place on the planet for land-rights defenders, according to “Deadly Environment,” a new Global Witness investigation, which notes that “more and more ordinary people are finding themselves on the frontline of the battle to defend their environment from corporate or state abuse, and from unsustainable exploitation.” At least 908 worldwide died in this conflict from 2002-2013, and Washington’s “counterdrug” policies in the region have helped raise the stakes, Dr. Kendra McSweeney’s research suggests. “In Honduras, the level of large-scale deforestation per year more than quadrupled between 2007 and 2011, at the same time as cocaine movements in the country also showed a significant rise,” BBC correspondent Matt McGrath summarizes her findings. “Once you start fighting” the traffickers, McSweeney elaborates, “you scatter them into more remote locales and greater areas become impacted,” as smugglers clear forests to build airstrips and roads, and “worthy” Hondurans in, say, the palm oil and ranching sectors capitalize on booming drug profits.
“Today it’s the same” as it was in the 1980s, Honduran activist Bertha Oliva remarked a year ago, referring to the decade when “the presence of the U.S. in the country was extremely significant,” and “it was clear that political opponents were being eliminated.” Obama’s Honduras policy is Reagan’s redux, in other words. The thousands of child prostitutes and street children, the prisons teeming with inmates, the scores of slaughtered peasants and dozens of murdered journalists—all indicate the type of nation Washington helps build in a region where it’s free to operate unimpeded, revealing which “American values” really drive U.S. foreign policy.
Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC.
Dinant in Honduras
In his editorial, entitled “Honduras: Gangsters’ Paradise”, Nick Alexandrov admirably raises the important issues of violence and illegal activities that must be tackled in my country, Honduras. But he also makes some erroneous and unfair statements about Dinant Corporation and its owner, Miguel Facussé.
Land Conflicts in the Bajo Aguán Region
The history of the land conflicts of the Bajo Aguán region dates back as far as the agrarian reforms of Latin America in the late 1950s and includes a complex but reoccurring theme of financial failure and economic difficulties faced by Peasant Associations. It is not true that Dinant took advantage of a decimated Aguán peasant cooperative sector to “seize” the peasants’ land. In fact, Dinant – like many individuals as well as small, medium and large companies – saw the economic opportunities of regenerating land that was very often idle or in poor condition, and therefore legally purchased farmland during the 1990s. As well as revitalizing large tracts of run-down farmland and generating significant economic activity for local communities, the sale of land in the 1990s allowed many financially insolvent peasant cooperatives to pay off their debts and secure funding for alternative businesses in order to support their families. Like many others since then, Dinant’s African Palm plantations have supported thousands of jobs in the surrounding local communities from whom we source much of our raw materials and whom we employ to maintain and harvest our crops.
In his editorial, Mr. Alexandrov repeats Annie Bird’s false accusation that Dinant’s security forces have been involved in the murders of peasant protestors in the Bajo Aguán. We categorically deny all of the very serious allegations of murder and human rights violations that have been made by Rights Action and others against the Dinant Corporation, its owner and its employees. At no point in our history have we engaged in forced evictions of farmers from our land; such evictions have always been undertaken exclusively by Government security forces (without Dinant’s involvement), acting within the law and under direct instruction from the Honduran courts, whose rulings are based on evidence that proves beyond doubt that Dinant are the rightful owners of the lands in question.
It is a terrible but rarely reported fact that 17 Dinant employees have been killed, almost 30 have been injured and five remain missing as a result of the land conflict in the Bajo Aguán region. Dinant immediately welcomed the recent decision by the Honduras Attorney General to undertake a special investigation into the land conflict in the Bajo Aguán region, and we look forward to cooperating fully with this and all enquiries that seek to bring to justice those that are committing violent crimes against Dinant employees, our contractors and the local communities.
As a long-established family firm with agricultural operations in Honduras and throughout Central America, Dinant has never before confronted a situation like the problems in the Bajo Aguán region. Unfortunately, externally funded armed groups continue to use the land conflicts for their wider political ends by encouraging the illegal seizure of private lands that provide jobs and wages to those who need them most. However, Dinant remains committed to contributing in any way possible to finding a long-term solution to this conflict. That is why we have sold almost 4,000 hectares of land at below-half market prices as a goodwill gesture to the government and to peasant organizations. We are making every effort to ensure that employees responsible for the security of our facilities are trained to the highest standards by following the criteria laid out in the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, which govern how we vet, recruit and train our security guards, and how we engage with members of the community.
Furthermore, as part of our efforts to reduce violence in the region, Dinant recently removed all firearms from security guards at all of its plantation sites, locking them away under the supervision of a senior manager, to be used only as a last resort in order to protect their lives. We reserve the right to protect and secure our property, and defend our employees from attack, by proportionate and peaceful means. However, it is rightfully the role of the Honduran security forces – and not Dinant – to respond to the many acts of armed aggression that, during the land conflict, have resulted in damage to our property and, in some tragic cases, injury and death to our employees and security contractors.
Dinant’s Environmental and Social Initiatives
In his editorial, Mr. Alexandrov refers to the “corporate abuse…and exploitation” that occurs in Honduras. Dinant continues to look for ways to make improvements to the communities and environment in which we work. Our initiatives include:
* Providing technical and financial support for community development projects such as rural electrification, maintenance and access roads, water and sanitation.
* Our land titling program which, since 1994, has delivered nearly 600 land titles to low-income families, schools, health centers, sport fields, graveyards and other community uses.
* Supporting the sustainable harvesting of Corozo palm nuts in the Pech, Garífuna and Ladino ethnic communities.
* Providing assistance to smallholder farmers, including training and technical advice on finance, the appropriate use of cultivation and fertilization, improved farm infrastructure and efficient transportation of fresh fruit bunches.
* Extensive community health and education programs.
* Production and use of clean energy, organic compost and organic fertilizers.
Funding and managing endangered wildlife conservation programs at Farallones (jaguar and tapir breeding programs), Zacate Grande (red macaw and green iguana breeding programs), as well as tropical rainforest protection at Punta Izopo and Choloma.
We invite the NGO and human rights community to visit our African Palm plantations in the Bajo Aguán region, where they can see for themselves the extensive resources that Dinant is investing in community engagement, and environmental and social management.
Roger Pineda Pinel is Corporate Relations Director of Dinant.