By Annie Bird, Rights Action, April 2010, (firstname.lastname@example.org)
On Saturday April 10, 2010 a minimum of 3,000 military troops and police were mobilized into the area of the Bajo Aguan on Honduras’ north coast, especially the town of Tocoa, and press reports claim the US Drug Enforcement Agency is participating in the operation.
This massive mobilization occurred just three days before the April 13 negotiations which could determine the fate of 20,000 hectares (almost 50,000 acres) of land whose ownership is contested between 3,500 poor farming families organized in the Movimiento Unificado Campesino del Aguan (MUCA) and three powerful businessmen.
It is feared that if the MUCA farmers do not accept the businessmen’s proposal, represented in negotiations by Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, a proposal which has remained firm in the three prior meetings, forced evictions of twenty eight communities and hundreds of arrests may occur.
Evictions in the area have a history of extreme violence, resulting in extrajudicial executions and even massacres.
In March, as the negotiations were getting off the ground, extensive media coverage was given to police and military sources that claimed that the MUCA farmers were supported by Cubans, Venezuelans, and the FARC (Colombian rebel group) and that they were associated with terrorism and drug trafficking.
Human rights organizations closely following the situation found these charges not only to be baseless but to have the intention of criminalizing the farmers. These reports came following a generalized silence in the press regarding the October 2009 report of the UN Special Raporteur on Mercenaries that warned that Honduran landowners had hired 40 members of the Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), classified as a terrorist organization by the US government.
Over the past two months widespread reports in the region describe the training of paramilitary forces in military bases and police stations. There has also been a campaign of military and paramilitary violence against MUCA members since December which has resulted in reports of between four and twelve assassinations.
The ongoing presence of international human rights observers is urgently needed to further document the ongoing violence is urgently needed.
Paramilitary forces have a long history of close association with area landholders. Approximately ten years ago the farmers that belong to the MUCA were forced off of their lands by acts of paramilitary violence and fraudulent land registry processes; ever since they have been attempting to reclaim their land rights by filing complaints within the Honduran judicial system.
During the administration of deposed president Manuel Zelaya, the legal complaints that were lodged were beginning to be addressed, and on June 12, 2009 agreements were signed to initiate investigation into the legitimacy of the land titles held by the three businessmen. Following the June 28, 2009 coup, completion of the agreements came to an abrupt halt. As a result, on December 9, 2009 farmers began resettling lands from which they had been dispossessed.
Since December 2009 dozens of eviction orders and hundreds of arrest warrants have been issued against MUCA members without the necessary investigations or civil suits to establish land rights as required by Honduran law.
“NEGOTIATIONS” UNDER THREAT
The April 13 meeting is the forth negotiation table between regime leader Pepe Lobo and the MUCA farmers. The proposal of the government is to sell six thousand of the twenty thousand contested hectares of land to the farmers, but the farmers would be obligated to farm half of that land with African Palm and sell its fruits to the processing plants owned by the three businessmen, denying them access to better marketing options. Farmers estimate that were both hectares planted with African Palm and produced good harvests, they would expect to earn approximately $150 per month after land payments.
The eviction orders and arrest warrants have been in place since the “negotiations” were established in January, and new arrest warrants are constantly being issued. In February Lobo ordered that while “negotiations” occur the evictions and arrests could not be carried out. In March a campaign of defamation against the farmers was launched in Honduran press.
Though journalists cite police sources to support the claim that farmers are aided by Venezuelans, Cubans and Nicaraguans and that they are involved in drug trafficking and the FARC, no evidence has been supplied to substantiate these accusations.
The troop and police mobilization before tomorrow’s negotiation session has generated fear among Honduran human rights organizations that if the farmers refuse to accept the government’s proposal the president will allow troops to violently evict and arrest farmers.
It is also feared that the media’s criminalization campaign has laid the groundwork for operations intended to falsely implicate the farmers in acts of violence, generating the specter of an armed movement with ties to Venezuela in opposition to the coup government at a time when lobbyists in Washington are pushing the US government to put Venezuela on the list of nations that support terrorism.
However findings of the UN Special Raporteur on Mercenaries went largely unreported in Honduran press. Last October the Working Group Reported to the UN General Council that Honduran landowners had hired 40 members of the Self Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), classified as a terrorist organization by the US government. The UN report also documented that a force of 120 paramilitary mercenaries was assembled from various nations to support the coup.
Some observers attribute the bias in the Honduran press to the practice of paying journalists and news outlets to run stories. It is also important to note that the owner of two principal Honduran newspapers, Jorge Canahuati, along with a Honduran business association, paid $210,000 plus costs from July to September 2009 to Washington DC lobbyists who defended the coup.
FARMERS TARGETED BY PARAMILITARY VIOLENCE
The October report of AUC and other transnational paramilitary/ mercenary presence in Honduras is again timely as widespread reports are surfacing of paramilitary presence and training in the Bajo Aguan in the months leading up to this weekend’s military occupation.
During March and April 2010 various credible sources report sightings of Mr. Billy Joya Amendola in Tocoa, operating out of the Fourth Battalion Infantry based in the city of La Ceiba, Atlántida.
Mr. Joya is well known in Honduras as a member of the 316 Batallion, a paramilitary force then linked to the Honduran and US militaries, that was implicated in kidnappings, torture and extrajudicial executions in the 1980s. He also owns private security companies that operate in Honduras.
Reports claim that Joya is training paramilitary forces based out of the Fourth Battalion Infantry and the Fifteenth Infantry Battalion based in the town of Rio Claro, Trujillo, Colón. The Fifteenth Battalion has been consistently implicated in providing direct support to the businessmen implicated in a land conflict with 28 communities in the Aguan. The commander of the military battalion is reported to hire reservists and paramilitaries, and supervise the private security forces on the African Palm plantations. Verification of these reports is urgent.
On Friday, March 26, 2010 Honduran human rights organization CODEH received a phone call from a woman claiming to be the wife of one of 30 police officers who had been locked up for two weeks in the premises of the Regional Police Command of Tocoa, Colon. Recruited from regions across the country, the group was being “trained to commit acts that are against the law” and subjected to physical duress, such as hunger, procedures which have been widely documented as elements of preparation for material authors of grave human rights violations.
Following CODEH’s denouncement on national television of the situation, the Human Rights procurator from the city of Tocoa, Colon attempted to visit the named police station in Tocoa but was denied entry.
Since January elements of the Tocoa Police, the Fifteenth Army Battalion, private security forces and unidentified armed men have been implicated in illegal detentions, extrajudicial executions, and shooting resulting in grave injuries. Four extrajudicial executions of MUCA members and supporters have been well documented, but reports indicate that there may be as many as twelve. Further documentation of this violence is urgently needed.
It is worth noting that police and military forces in this region have a long history of paramilitary activities in collaboration with banana companies that have historically maintained a strong presence in the area. Lawsuits being advanced against banana companies in Colombia document long standing relationships between Colombian AUC paramilitaries and banana companies. The Washington lobbyist paid by Jorge Canahuati to defend the coup also represents Chiquita.
POWERFUL BUSINESSMEN USURP COOPERATIVES LANDS
In 1992 changes to Honduras’ agrarian reform legislation made it possible for land acquired through the agrarian reform program to be resold. This allowed politically powerful businessmen Miguel Facusse, Rene Morales and Reinaldo Canales, beginning in 1998, to acquire control of lands which had pertained to 28 African Palm oil producing cooperatives of the Aguan region.
These land sales by the cooperatives were apparently illegal. Since the land was collectively held in cooperatives, in order to sell the land the majority of the assembly had to vote to sell. In many cases the majority of the cooperatives membership did not want to sell, so paramilitary assassins killed those who opposed sale, in this way intimidating the rest of the members into selling against their will. When cooperatives did not sell, even faced with the threat of assassination, some cooperative members or leaders received bribes to falsify acts by the assembly agreeing to sell.
In this way between 1997 and 1999 the African palm oil businessmen acquired control of 20,000 hectares of land which had belonged to 28 cooperatives. It is worth noting that the same methods have been used in Guatemala by drug traffickers in Izabal, Alta Verapaz and the Peten from approximately the late 1990s until today, and a widespread practice in Colombia.
HONDURAN STATE PERPETRATES LAND RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
Agrarian legislation in Honduras stipulates that no person can hold lands in excess of a stipulated extension without fulfilling a series of requirements. MUCA legal advisors claim that though the lands the businessmen obtained surpassed these extensions, and they did not meet those legal requirements, they were nonetheless granted permission to retain title of excess lands in their names in a concession that expired in 2005. Under the presidency of Manuel Zelaya that concession was not renewed.
In 2001, the now landless families from the cooperatives, destroyed in this process, formed the MUCA, through which they continued to document the illegalities in the manner in which the Aguan cooperatives had been forced to sell.
In 2004 the MUCA presented the first of many law suits. Unfortunately as is the standard practice in Honduran justice administration, the suits simply have not been reviewed despite legally established time limits for judicial review. This kind of judicial inaction was denounced as corruption in hunger strikes by Honduran justice operators in 2008.
This forced the farmers, beginning in 2006, to undertake a series of peaceful protests, and to begin resettling lands. These actions culminated in a negotiation process. The negotiations advanced to the point of signing an important agreement with then president Manuel Zelaya on June 12, 2009.
The agreement obligated the businessmen to demonstrate documentation to support their land rights, and established the investigation of the allegations of coercion and fraud in the land sales. If illegalities were discovered in the sales process, the sales would be deemed null and void, and title returned to the cooperatives. As a demonstration of good faith the families temporarily left the farms while investigations took place.
Following the June 28, 2009 military coup in Honduras, the steps agreed upon in the June 12, 2009 accords were not implemented.
Thus, on December 9, 2009, during the de facto regime headed by Roberto Micheletti, the MUCA began resettling the farms which they had been forced to abandon a decade before.
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Annie Bird is co-director of Rights Action, a US and Canada based not-for-profit organization that supports community development and environmental and human rights defense work in Honduras (as well as Guatemala, and elsewhere).