On the land, embattled defenders
Honduras has had 147 known COVID-19 deaths nationwide as of May 20. The Colón Department, on the country’s northeastern coast, has according to government statistics, registered forty two infections and one death from COVID-19—a low count in comparison to the Cortés department, surrounding San Pedro Sula, which, with 141 registered deaths as of this writing, has been hardest hit by the novel coronavirus.
But early death was an intractable presence in Colón, a soaking-wet lowland of African-palm plantations. Decades-long land struggles turned nightmarish in the decade since the 2009 military coup, with a systematic campaign of killings that turned the Bajo Aguán Valley into an abattoir.
Over a hundred and fifty campesinos—waging unarmed fights to protect their rivers from mining projects, or organizing to retake stolen farmlands—have been killed by soldiers, policemen, hitmen and paramilitaries. These armed groups have, according to a substantial body of investigations, worked in collusion on behalf of transnational corporations like Dinant and Pinares Investments.
Threats against activists continue to the present day. And though the virus still only has a small foothold in the region, a strictly enforced quarantine has trapped activists in their homes as armed groups roam the valley at will. Those who continue to wage a public fight for land rights have become sitting ducks.
Farmer and activist Jaime Cabrera had already weathered his fair share of threats in his role with the Plataforma Agraria, a campesino organization in Aguán. His organization pushes for the reclamation of lands taken by the African-palm producing Dinant corporation. In 2012 one of his compañeros was murdered as part of the land conflict with Dinant. Since then, many more have been shot.
But Cabrera says the threats never seemed as serious as the one he received earlier this month, while sheltering with his family in their natural built house with a corrugated tin roof. According to Cabrera, false rumor began circulating that he and his friend were offering 30,000 lempiras ($1206 USD) for two sicarios to murder a man named Santos Torres.
Torres leads the paramilitary group “Grupo de Santos” in the community of Panamá, implicated in land conflict going back to 2010. Feared by many in the community, Torres weaponized the rumor and made the false threats real. He offered to pay double for the sicarios to murder Jaime and his friend.
“Now Santos Torres has given the order to have [my friend and I] killed within the week,” said Cabrera, choking up during our interview via WhatApp. In the background, roosters cawed slow and steady in the yard.
Unable to seek refuge elsewhere, Cabrera says he fears he could be murdered in the immediate future.
“Defenders are complying with obligatory social isolation,” said Kelsey Jost-Creegan, a staff attorney at Earth Rights. She’s seen the conflict first hand, having worked with campesino organizations in the Aguán for two years. “So they’re staying in their homes, limiting their movements. But the armed groups that are persecuting them are not complying.”
These groups—according Jost-Creegan, as well as numerous land defenders in the Aguán interviewed via WhatsApp over the course of reporting this story—are taking advantage of the quarantine to go after social leaders whose activities threaten the regional power of corporations like Dinant.
The death threat against Cabrera came after a succession of false accusations and provocations preceding the national stay-at-home order.
The Grupo de Santos reportedly stole eight of Cabrera’s pigs between January 29 and March 3—a catastrophic blow for an economically precarious subsistence farmer.
Annie Bird, a human rights researcher and director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission who is an expert on the Aguán says the Grupo de Torres stole a motorcycle from a local family, rumored to be engaged in drug trafficking, and framed Cabrera for the theft.
Bird said the threats against Cabrera under quarantine are clearly part of a military strategy of laying the groundwork to criminalize land defenders before they are murdered, in order to drain their community support. “It’s exactly the same pattern of false, bizarre criminalization schemes.”
Yoní Rivas, of the Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MUCA), is another activist who is living out quarantine under threat.
Rivas fled from the Aguán in 2016 after two of his friends, José Angel Flores and Silmer George, were assassinated by the “Grupo de Celio” paramilitary organization in broad daylight during a MUCA meeting.
After relocating to Tegucigalpa, Rivas returned to the valley on a periodic basis to continue his organizing work. He happened to be in his home village of La Confianza when the national stay-at-home order was declared.
Since quarantine started, clear messages have been conveyed to him: masked and armed members of the Grupo de Celio have been posted on guard outside his new temporary home.
Both Cabrera and Rivas are supposed to benefit from protection measures from the Honduran government, under orders from the Inter American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States. To date, the Honduran government has failed to provide either defender with adequate protections.
This is perhaps best explained within the context of alleged links between the armed groups and the Honduran military.
According to Jost-Creegan, investigations by Earth Rights—carried out in collaboration with the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission and grassroots campesino movements—have found paramilitary groups in Panamá and La Confianza are composed of men from the communities who’ve been trained, at least in some measure, by the Honduran military.
Cabrera believes there are at least twenty members in the Grupo de Torres. According to Bird, the automatic assault rifles and bulletproof vests they use could have only been procured from the Honduran military.
Several members of the San Isidro Campesino Cooperative, a peasant group which farms collective land sought by Dinant—and which has been at the heart of the land conflict—have themselves been subject to arbitrary arrests and violent attacks since the stay-at-home order began.
The aggressions began on April 8, when Octavio Aguirre Santos, a member of the Cooperative, was hit by a truck belonging to the Dinant corporation while riding his bike.
“I didn’t see anything,” said Aguirre Santos in an interview with Toward Freedom. “I just got knocked off my bike.” He later had to go to hospital for his injuries, and is still recovering.
The offensive against the San Isidro Campesino Cooperative continued on May 2, when farmer and cooperative member Santo Rigoberto Cabrera was detained by the National Police in Tocoa. He was sent off in a police vehicle to the prison in Jutiapa, and held in solitary confinement for 24 hours.
“They captured me two blocks from my house, they took me to the police office here in Tocoa. The surprise was that it all came out of nowhere,” he says. “I wasn’t a criminal, I didn’t deserve to be arrested that way.”
On May 5th, another five members of the cooperative were apprehended by the military and national police at a checkpoint just outside of San Isidro. They were imprisoned in the Tocoa Stadium, but have since been released, according to local LIBRE party congressman Ramón ‘Moncho’ Soto.
Soto believes the arrests have resulted from genuine misunderstandings between security forces and campesinos amid the tense environment created by quarantine. But members of the cooperative believe local police, who are strongly associated with Dinant, made the arrests in order to the rattle the nerves of local activists.
Figueroa, Aguirre Santos, and Rigoberta Cabrera believe that the pandemic has served as a smokescreen to ratchet up an ongoing offensive to retake lands that campesinos have won back from Dinant since 2018.
It isn’t just the land defenders who are under attack. Eighteen water defenders from Guapinol, at the heart of the Bajo Aguán, were incarcerated on February 21, 2019 for resisting the construction of a mine adjacent to their communities that they say would poison both the Guapinol River and the Aguán River watershed.
Eight people have been killed since 2013 in the battle over the mine, and eight of the original eighteen imprisoned defenders remain in jail to this day. “They’re enduring an illegal imprisonment,” said Juan Cabrera, of the 18 Guapinol defenders. “But the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the situation to the extreme. Their family members and the committee can’t get supplies or medicine to them now.
Many activists found their continued incarceration especially outrageous considering rumors that Douglas Bustillo and Sergio Rodríguez, both accomplices in the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres, were slated for potential release under the pretext of health concerns in prisons due to the pandemic.
Whether in urban or rural areas, Hondurans continue to resist and organize, even under the militarized enforcement of quarantine.
“They have two sicarios set out to go after me,” says Juan Cabrera from his home in the embattled Aguán. “As defenders in Honduras, we’re continuously denounced and criminalized. So many of us get killed. In this pandemic, we’re living in especially high risk. I don’t have the resources to survive.”
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