Traveling Across Honduras’ Killing Fields

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
July 25 2014 3:10 PM

Honduras’ Killing Fields

In these rural lands, poverty, murder, and injustice fuel a battle between farmers and rich landowners.

Honduras1.
A campesino on recently flooded land in Bajo Aguán. Land disputes have been ongoing in Honduras since the late ’60s. Today Bajo Aguán is known as the Honduran Killing Fields.

Photo by Dominic Bracco II/Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

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TAUJICA, Honduras—Our fixer pulls the car to the side of the dirt road, a short distance from a small store selling snacks and soda. Groups of men sit in the shade; others lean against poles. They look away from the mounted LCD TV screening Will Smith’s Ali to stare at us. The store is essentially the center of town. A large man in a pressed shirt walks over to the car. Leaning down to the car’s window, he asks what we’re doing. He wears a cowboy hat, a mustache, and a guarded look; a black pistol is in the waistband of his jeans.

We’ve come to report on the continuing conflict between poor farmers and rich landowners around Taujica, a small town in Honduras’ Bajo Aguán region, a five-hour drive from the world’s murder capital, San Pedro Sula. The roads we drove to get here, lined with lush vegetation, cut through mountains and hug the Caribbean Sea. They’re stuttered by pop-up towns and police checkpoints. The checkpoints continue on in Bajo Aguán, but there they are manned by campesinos, or small-scale farmers. Lawlessness has long been the rule in Honduras. Just since October, some 16,000 children have left Honduras for the United States—so many that Washington is now considering granting refugee status to some before they flee. They’ve run away from poverty and murder—the country’s two biggest cities, San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, have the most and fourth-most murders per capita in the world.

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They have also fled injustice in rural Honduras. These days Bajo Aguán is virtually off-limits to the country’s army and police. Campesinos have been the victims of private security and government forces, and the Honduran government has done little to halt it. The ruling right-wing National Party protects rich landowners. They’ve focused on maintaining security and addressing violence with force. The left paints the campesinos as victims and pacifists. At stake is fertile land, and massive profits.

Bajo Aguán is the rural center for palm oil production and land rights battles. Palm oil is in everything from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to Johnson’s baby shampoo to Pringles. During the last decade, large energy companies like BP have begun heralding palm oil as the next green biofuel. Across Africa the spread of plantations has threatened chimpanzees with extinction. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s leading producers, its extraction is linked to human rights abuse. Honduras is no different.

The recent Human Rights Watch report seems to have moved the government to create a special investigation unit for Bajo Aguán crimes. What they’ll uncover and prosecute remains to be seen. Rights groups report at least 77 campesinos have been killed in targeted attacks since January 2010, months after the country’s last coup. The ousted president, José Manuel Zelaya Rosales, of the Liberal Party, had previously agreed to review the campesinos’ land title claims. The coup was backed by wealthy landowners as well as Miguel Facussé, owner of Dinant Corp., the country’s largest palm oil manufacturer.

Shortly after, Facussé received a $30 million loan from the World Bank’s International Finance Corp. to expand his African palm plantations. The World Bank stalled on the second half of the loan after reports of human rights violations. But the actual story may be more complicated. According to local media reports, campesinos are increasingly a threat to other campesinos.

Nowhere is this more true than in the Taujica community, home to two leading campesino movements, MUCA (Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán) and MOCRA (Peasant Movement for the Recovery of the Aguán). The two groups are fighting for the same thing—land, which in Honduras means power. In the process, the groups are believed to be committing crimes against one another and contributing to the continued lawlessness—but neither acknowledges doing so. Instead, all violence in Taujica is blamed on Dinant’s security force. 

The recent violence is the latest phase in a decades-long battle over land rights that’s been made worse by bad record keeping and deep poverty. “The country has a remarkably skewed landholding system, and the land title system is remarkable low,” says Larry Birns, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “Ten percent of the population holds 80 percent of the land. What you have in the country is an oligarchy, largely today an agricultural oligarchy. Landholding families like the Facussés are in a position to exercise enormous influence not only over the military but over the political apparatus.”

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