The Deadly Battle Over Land and Water in HondurasFeb 17, 2023 The new Honduran government was supposed to mark a break from the country’s corrupt past. So why are land and water defenders still being killed?
Reinaldo Domínguez hadn’t expected that his weekend would end with a funeral. On the afternoon of Saturday, Jan. 6, Domínguez, a resident of Guapinol, in northern Honduras, left a church meeting. A few minutes later, he was tending to his cows on a family-owned parcel of a palm plantation when he heard the news: Two men had been murdered by unknown assassins. One of them, Aly Domínguez, was his younger brother.
Reinaldo Domínguez is one of the most visible faces of the Guapinol water defenders movement, in which rural Honduran campesinos have been organizing against the construction of an open-pit mine above their villages. The construction, directed by powerful business interests, threatens their water sources. Less than 24 hours after he received news of his brother’s murder, Domínguez joined the crowd of mourners that flooded the muddy, rain-drenched streets to follow the funeral procession of close to a thousand people, stepping over stagnant puddles of rainwater and singing melancholic songs. The caskets held the bodies of the 10th and 11th people murdered in the conflict over the mine. The procession turned into the cemetery as clouds flared with pink evening sunlight and the caskets were opened for a final viewing. The hysterical sobbing of women cut through the scratchy, microphone orations of a priest in a purple tunic. And then they lowered the men’s caskets into the earth.
“Aly was one of the founders of the movement,” Domínguez said the day after the funeral, at his shack in Guapinol, a sad, indignant look in his eyes. It was a tragic dénouement to over a year of intimidations that led to disappointment with Honduras’s new government. “They’re just saying they care about these murders.”
What led to this devastating disappointment? A year ago, in January 2022, an ostensibly left-leaning Honduran president, Xiomara Castro, had come to power with the promise to undo 12 years of corruption under right-wing rule following a 2009 coup that ousted her then-president husband, Mel Zelaya. The coup was followed by years of U.S.-sponsored militarization, as the country became one of the most dangerous in the world, outside a war-zone. Embedded in Castro’s inaugural speech was the promise to end violence against land and water defenders, many of whom are Indigenous or Afro-Indigenous, and who had been systematically incarcerated or gunned down while organizing their communities against the encroachments of transnational mining, tourism and agribusiness conglomerates. Castro had made a point of releasing eight members of the Guapinol water defenders movement who had been arbitrarily detained for over two years. How did a year that began with such sweeping hope end in devastating murders?
Over the past two decades, Honduras has gained a macabre notoriety as one of the most dangerous places in the world to be an environmentalist. But the word “environmentalist” tends to be a term foisted onto the country from the outside. In rural areas, where campesinos, or rural folk — as well as Indigenous Lenca and Afro-Indigenous Garifuna people — are defending collectively held natural spaces, the environmentalists in question are more inclined to refer to themselves as land or water defenders. Their organizing puts them at odds with corrupt domestic elites invested in the expansion of open-pit mining, agribusiness and tourism. Beyond alleged links to drug traffickers, elites benefit from copious loans by way of institutions like the World Bank, as well as protection from U.S.-trained security forces.
Castro promised to limit the power of these corrupt business interests. But over the last year, social movements that had supported Castro — such as the Consejo Civico de Organizaciones Populares e Indigenas de Honduras (COPINH), the Indigenous Lenca organization founded by the Goldman Environmental Prize winner Berta Cáceres (who herself was murdered in 2016), the Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña (OFRANEH, an organization of Afro-Indigenous Garifuna people), and the water defenders in Guapinol — have become steadily disillusioned with the government’s failure to uphold that promise.
Castro’s presidency had been replete with powerful imagery. On the day of her inauguration, the new president received an Indigenous totem from the daughter of Berta Cáceres, who had been gunned down by a hit squad connected to Honduran military elements and a dam corporation connected to one of the wealthiest families in the country. But support gave way to bitterness in October of last year after Castro held private meetings with Jacobo Atala Zablah, the banking magnate accused by the family Berta Cáceres and COPINH of being an intellectual author of her murder (an accusation the Atala Zablah family has denied). On Dec. 14, Nery Alexander Gonzalez, an Indigenous Lenca leader organizing his La Paz mountain village of Achiotal against displacement by wealthy local landowners and military elements, survived an apparent assassination attempt with a gunshot wound to the head — a crime for which there have been no subsequent arrests.
Bertha Zúniga Cáceres, the daughter of the murdered activist and current head of COPINH, told Truthdig that the government has failed on its promises to land and water defenders. “They made agreements that have gone without being implemented,” she said. “It’s urgent to advance in carrying out the delivery of lands and the annulment of the illegal titles of the landowners who are the criminal mafias at the heart of these conflicts.”
The bitterness runs deeper with OFRANEH. On Nov. 7, on the island of Roatán, soldiers and police violently evicted Afro-Indigenous Garifuna people from their ancestral beachfront village of Punta Gorda. Images of the burning ruins of buildings from the partially demolished village filtered through social media. “I really thought that under this government of Xiomara Castro, I would never see this scene,” tweeted Miriam Miranda, the leader of OFRANEH, under the image of soldiers and police closing in on the village with riot shields, clouds of smoke rising in the background.
On Jan. 28, a Garifuna land defender and member of OFRANEH, Raul Arnaúl Montero, was assassinated at the coastal village of Triunfo de la Cruz, where residents have been fighting powerful tourism interests — the same village where, in July 2020, five Garifuna were “disappeared” by masked men in police uniforms.
In late December, in his office in Tegucigalpa, human rights lawyer Edy Tábora spoke to Truthdig about continued violence against land and water defenders under Castro. Tábora was one of the main lawyers for the Guapinol Eight, who had been arbitrarily imprisoned in pre-trial detention before their release in February of last year — a gesture that seemed to augur change under the new Castro government.
The argument that the government is unable to intervene doesn’t hold up, he says, because there are several actions that it has so far failed to take up. They could undertake “an accountability process [with the] national police and the armed forces. That implies analyzing every one of the cases of criminalization in which the police and military have been complicit, whether that’s a violent displacement, creating cases of criminalization, planting false evidence against movements or generating campaigns against land and water defenders.” To date, no such process has been carried out.
Just days after we spoke, a wave of what appeared to be politically motivated murders of land and water defenders occurred in one of Honduras’ most conflict-heavy regions: the Bajo Aguán Valley.
Mauricio Esquivel had last been seen on the afternoon of Tuesday, Dec. 20. Esquivel was a member of Tranvío Cooperative, a group of farmers who’d retaken a palm oil plantation in Honduras’s Bajo Aguán Valley in early 2022. The plantation had been formerly managed by Dinant, a transnational palm oil conglomerate implicated in human rights abuses and alleged connections to paramilitary groups — accusations they’ve repeatedly denied — and which residents allege seized the land from them under dubious circumstances in the mid-1990s.
Esquivel was remembered as a kind, passionate member of the cooperative. He was the father of nine children. The last that was heard of him was that he was going out to get medicine.
Residents of Tranvío had been receiving death threats ever since they retook the Tranvío plantation at the beginning of 2022. Speaking to Truthdig on Jan. 8 under strict anonymity out of fears for their safety, they described an armed cell of independent sicarios (assassins) called Los Salinas, a breakoff from a previous group called Los Cachos, that was known to exist in the village of Quebrada de Arena. In February 2022, they reported being approached and verbally threatened by armed, masked members of the group. Later that summer, one member described being accosted by armed group members outside his home in Quebrada de Arena, where they sat him down and told him the cooperative should leave the land. Over the course of 2022, residents began to see the group armed not with the usual pistols — the standard armament of assassins for hire — but military-grade assault rifles.
(Investigations conducted by myself and others have suggested that the military has armed paramilitary groups in the Aguan Valley — co-opting sicarios, giving them larger weaponry and bulletproof vests, and allowing them to operate with impunity under the condition they threaten and attack opponents of the regional agro-elite. But Truthdig was incapable of independently verifying where Los Salinas would have obtained their weapons, or if they have any connections to outside groups).
It’s unclear what happened to Esquivel after leaving the cooperative the afternoon of Dec. 20. What is known was that his body was found, with a single shot to the head, in front of the Pollolandia fast food restaurant in Quebrada de Arena, a quarter mile down the road, at 5 a.m. the next day. Though several men from the cooperative rushed to guard the body, it took until 9 a.m. for the police to arrive at the crime scene — just two officers, they said. According to the men, the police failed to do a thorough forensic investigation, and showed no interest in taking the camera fixed to Pollolandia to identify who brought the body there. No arrests have been made in relation to Esquivel’s murder.
The second blow came less than three weeks later. The last that was heard of Aly Domínguez and Jairo Bonilla — before their dead bodies were found at the entrance to Guapinol, in what appeared to be an execution-style murder — was that they had been returning home from work. The police would say that it was a robbery gone wrong, in spite of the fact that the family recalled explicit threats against them for their participation in the water defense movement, which had intensified in the subsequent months, not to mention that their belongings hadn’t been stolen.
The killings touched a nerve. The U.N. called for an independent investigation, admonishing investigators to take into consideration the possibility they were killed for their environmental activism. The Honduran government denounced the killing, with Castro’s secretary of human rights “calling for an independent investigation.” There have been no arrests for the murders of Domínguez and Bonilla.
“We need action, not words,” Reinaldo Domínguez told Truthdig. Domínguez still feels himself to be at great risk: as we finished our interview, his shack was circled three times by an unmarked Hilux pickup truck with tinted windows.
Later that afternoon, Truthdig was alerted to a violent displacement attempt underway at another cooperative named La Chile, a palm plantation formerly operated by Dinant and allegedly seized under similar circumstances, across the road from Tranvío.
Upon arrival we could still hear the frightening crack of gunfire. Several dozen SEC private security guards contracted by Dinant — who, over the last months, have begun to be seen armed with assault rifles and shotguns — were accompanied by Honduran military police and national police. The apparent goal of their mission was using an excavator to upend the metal gate set up by the campesinos at the entrance to the finca. When the campesinos showed up, throwing insults and then rocks, they shot rubber bullets. After the rubber bullets came rubber canisters loaded with tear gas. Then, towards the end, they opened fire with birdshot from shotguns.
Truthdig followed several people wounded in the attack on La Chile to Tocoa’s public hospital that afternoon, a crowded space strewn with bloody gauzes, where dirty needles were disposed of in a plastic Coke bottle, which had been cut open and taped to the wall. One girl from the cooperative was hooked to oxygen, struggling to breath after getting tear-gassed. A young man from La Chile, his body riddled with bloody holes where he’d been hit with a spray of unidentified projectiles, lay immobilized on a hospital bed.
President Castro has argued that the military forces have changed for the better since her predecessor Juan Orlando Hernández. Little seemed to have changed here, however, where Truthdig witnessed military and police elements assisting what is, in essence, an armed mercenary force, as it carried out a violent attack against a campesino cooperative.
Oligarchic forces invested in mining and agribusiness can still depend on support from police and military forces under the Castro administration, according to Esly Banegas, a longtime activist in the Aguan Valley. “They still get the support from the military, the police — all of them implicated in narco-trafficking, all of them part of this narco-dictatorship that still hasn’t gone away.”
Those security forces continue to benefit from U.S. training. The lack of accountability for death squad structures exists to this day. The irony isn’t small: during the first years of Juan Orlando Hernandez’s presidency, the hard-on-crime conservative had been a consistent U.S. ally before drug and weapons charges landed him in a New York jail cell last April. In response, the Pentagon vastly reduced publicity regarding its collaboration with the Honduran military, as well as the frequency of trainings themselves.
The lack of drug trafficking scandals under Castro’s ostensibly left-wing government appears to have resulted in the resumption of business-as-usual between the U.S. and Honduran militaries. Honduras hosted a region-wide Special Forces skills competition sponsored by U.S. Southern Command in June, while Honduran troops received training from National Guard advisors in October. Close collaboration between the two militaries is evident on the Honduran military’s Instagram account, which shows Honduran officers being invited to train at WHINSEC, theWestern Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, in November.
An April 2022 document released by the State Department regarding foreign policy in Honduras emphasized that “Honduran security forces continue to improve, with assistance from the United States… but additional training would strengthen security forces’ investigative capabilities and operations.” In 2021, sixty five Congressmembers co-sponsored legislation, currently still in limbo, to cut off U.S. military aid to Honduras due to acts of torture, rape, illegal detention and murder.
Less than a week after the attack on La Chile, on Jan. 15, the campesino leader Omar Cruz was walking home from a meeting at the Los Laureles palm plantation, twenty five minutes down the road from La Chile, on the outskirts of Tocoa. Cruz was the president of the cooperative at Los Laureles, which they’d retaken from Dinant since early 2021.
Cruz had been reporting threats made to him by two sicarios, who’d been showing up outside his home late at night and who he’d seen following him around town. The police had “said to stop bothering them about it,” according to Abraham León, the treasurer of the Laureles cooperative.
On one of the last days before Jan. 15, Cruz was stopped at a joint checkpoint near Los Laureles manned by Honduran national police and SEC security operatives. (The first time I reported on Los Laureles, in summer 2021, SEC operatives were flying surveillance drones over the occupied plantation.) The operatives allegedly took photos of Cruz’s face and license plate before letting him go, according to León.
The assassins were waiting for him as he returned home that night. According to both León, who remained at their meeting, as well as neighbors at the hospital interviewed by Truthdig less than half an hour after the killing, a sudden blitz of what sounded like automatic gunfire resounded across the dirt-roaded colonia abutting the plantation. Cruz and his brother-in-law had been ambushed and assassinated.
In a statement for Truthdig, a Dinant representative said that the company “categorically denies and rejects allegations linking us to the murder of Mr. Omar Cruz Tome and his father-in-law [sic]…. We reject all other such preposterous accusations, allegations, and outright lies.”
The Dinant representative did not respond to detailed questions regarding the legality of the Jan. 9 attack on La Chile by Dinant-contracted guards, witnessed by Truthdig; the alleged use of live ammunition in the process of that attack; and the alleged photos of Cruz’s face and license plate that SEC operatives took in the days before his assassination.
Though the police had not closed off the crime scene or seized any of the bullets that were used, the family reported that over 15 bullets ripped into Cruz’s body. As the campesinos from the cooperatives amassed at the plantation that night to go to the house where Cruz’s body had been taken, multiple residents told Truthdig they could hear a surveillance drone floating in the darkness overhead.
The procession to the cemetery and the final burial were acts of protest as much as mourning. Hundreds of campesinos from farmers’ cooperatives around the Aguán Valley arrived on motorcycles to follow the casket through Tocoa, revving their engines and holding signs demanding an end to murders of land defenders in the region. And then there was a government envoy from President Castro’s LIBRE party sent in light of the wave of killings.
“The secretary of human rights is 100% on the side of the victims,” Natalie Roque, the LIBRE head of the secretary of human rights, told me in the shade of a tree after the crowd from the funeral dispersed. Roque added that she would remain in the Aguán region of the country until Jan. 25.
“The government says that they want to resolve conflict between campesinos and corrupt business interests,” León told Truthdig with tears in his eyes at the entrance to the Laureles finca, the day after the murder. “This government doesn’t care about our struggles.”
Postscript: days after the final edits were finished on this piece, another land defender from a cooperative contesting land with Dinant, Hipolito Rivas, was assassinated alongside his 26-year-old son after years of threats from a paramilitary group, which community members allege was supported by the Honduran military. Hipolito or “Polo,” a friend of the author, was generous and kind, taking pride in building a self-sustainable community where, as he put it, kids wouldn’t have to migrate to the U.S. to flee violence and poverty.