The Bajo Aguán region of Honduras is a rich, fertile valley that comprises land that is worth nothing less than millions upon millions of dollars. It was not even two months ago that Secundino Ruiz, 44, proudly boasted to Truthout: "this valley is numero uno for agriculture in Central America; there's corn here, beans, rice, fantastic African palms and everything that a human being would need."
Hospitable and friendly, Ruiz extended a personal invitation to Truthout: "I'm going to propose you something, I would like for your colegas and you to all come to Bajo Aguán to see for yourselves just how beautiful it is here."
Several masked men prevented Ruiz's offer from ever being realized, as they shot him to death on August 20, and also seriously injured Eliseo Pavon, who suffered head wounds. Ruiz's killers approached the taxi that he and Pavon occupied shortly after they had exited a bank with $10,260 of organizational funds in their possession.
The government and authorities have painted the event as nothing more than a robbery, but local farmers, researchers and activists do not agree with that perspective. Given Ruiz's position as the vice president of the Authentic Peasant Protest Movement of Aguán (MARCA) and Pavon's role as its treasurer, they argue that the killing was just one of many politically motivated killings that have been occurring on a regular basis in the region throughout the year.
Marcelino Lopez, a fellow MARCA activist and friend of Ruiz's, described the loss: "He was a very accessible and dedicated activist filled with solidarity, who was a fantastic representative of the movement, who is going to be a tremendous loss to the movement."
While 2011 has been a year filled with killings of activist farmers in the conflict-ridden region, August was an exceptionally violent month during what has been an exceptionally violent year.
Just one day following Ruiz's murder, Pedro Salgado of the Unified Movement of Campesinos of Aguán (MUCA) and his wife were both shot and killed in their own home. Teenagers have been among the August victims as well: 17-year-old Javier Melgar was killed in the Rigores community on August 15, while 15- year-old Roldin Marel Villeda and 18-year-old Sergio Magdiel Amaya were slain just three days later in the municipality of Trujillo. Marel's and Magdiel's deaths occurred in the same incident that brought an end to the life of Victor Manuel Mata Oliva, aged 40. All were part of the Campesino Corporation of San Esteban, one of the two dozen cooperatives that form the base of MUCA. Examples of more teenager victimization included 17-year-old Lenikin Lemos Martinez and 18-year-old Denis Israel Castro, who were beaten by police, arrested and charged with murder (which residents claim were trumped-up charges). The beating occurred in the community Guadalupe Carney, which is home to the Campesino Movement of the Aguán and located near the eviction-riddled Rigores community (earlier this past summer, police evicted Rigores farmers by burning down well over 100 homes, as reported by Honduras-based journalist, Jesse Freeston and confirmed by international human rights observers).
Why is this violence occurring? What is the root of the conflict? Is the depiction of the situation in Aguán given by the Honduran government - only recently recognized internationally by the Organization of American States - an accurate reflection of what is going on? Bajo Aguán campesinos, as well as researchers and activists who have been visiting the region for decades worth of collective time, provided Truthout first-hand testimony in an effort to shed light on an otherwise largely overlooked, underreported and ongoing human and land rights catastrophe.
Plantation-Like State of Affairs Long Existent in Bajo Aguán
Annie Bird has been visiting Honduras for the last dozen years and is the co-director of Rights Action, a nonprofit and non-governmental organization, which funds community efforts in Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador. Bird explained to Truthout that the campesinos first started organizing farming collectives and cooperatives back in the 1960s and '70s. Those same groupings form the bedrock of most of the organized collectives in the region today.
By the 1990s, however, a temporary change to a previous law preventing land purchases of over 300 hectares devastated the farming cooperatives of the region. Among those that pounced on the opportunity to take advantage of the law was one of the wealthiest businessmen of Honduras, Miguel Farcusse, owner of Exportadores del Atlantico (Atlantic Exporters).
The 1990s land grab was shrouded in corruption and violence, according to Bird: "literally through kidnappings, at gunpoint and through corrupt methods and practices, much of the land was 'sold' to wealthy individuals."
Those wealthy individuals were at the heart of an initiative by former President Zelaya. His administration had forged ahead with a decree announced on June 12, 2009, which contained the intention to return much of land to the campesino groups via a commission formed to do so. The process of investigating land titles to determine authenticity and validity had just begun when the coup which overthrew Zelaya occurred, completely interrupting the process.
As a result, the plantation-like land distribution and labor arrangements continued. The Oxford Committee for Famine Relief found that some one-third of the most desirable agricultural lands in Honduras are owned by just 1 percent of its populace.
MUCA first started issuing demands for a return to its land and eventually resorted to occupying lands (from December 2009 to February 2010).
Many of the landowners hired armed security guards, with Farcusse being the most prominent among them. The impunity enjoyed by the armed guards is what is chiefly responsible for the continuing violence in the region, Bird has argued, as no less than four dozen farmers have been killed by the guards since the latter's training first began in January 2010.
While the government has accused the farmer collectives of using foreign firepower, there is little evidence to support such allegations - which have been roundly denied by the groups themselves. Further, some reports have indicated that it was Farcusse himself who had resorted to hiring 150 Colombian paramilitaries as the basis for his private army.
"We can assume that the recent violence is a means of terrorizing the farmers. After all, the people who have died are important farmer activists and not just random people; clearly, they have been targeted," explained Gilberto Ríos, the director of the Food First Information and Action Network (FIAN) Honduras, an organization that has been following the situation closely.
Negotiations Continue to Flounder, Related Frustrations Lead to Increased Violence
The violence in the region has been a continuing source of embarrassment and concern to state authorities, who finally managed to broker a deal in April 2010. In the agreement, some 11,000 hectares of land would have been returned and distributed to the MUCA and MARCA farming collectives. Further, the arrangement included provisions for additional social services, such as additional education and health care facilities, as FIAN's Claudia Pinera pointed out to Truthout.
The agreement's implementation, however, was marred by violence, evictions, arrests and a general lack of follow-through. When Farcusse and other wealthy landowners got in on the act and negotiated their own arrangement with select MUCA representatives, the resulting June 2011 agreement had reduced the land to be distributed down to 4,000 hectares, not even half the total included in the April accords.
The farming representatives who negotiated the more recent agreement, however, were limited to farmers hailing from the northern bank. According to Bird, Farcusse and his landowner colleagues took on a divide-and-conquer strategy: "Since most of the leadership is comprised by northern bank representatives, the perception is that the landowners have been deliberately dividing the movement by favoring them in negotiations."
Of the 28 most important farming collectives in the region, some 24 belong to MUCA, with about four associated with MARCA. Of those two dozen MUCA collectives, around two-thirds belong to the southern bank region of Aguán. None of their representatives, however, were present during the talks which led up to the June accord.
At the end of July, the southern bank representatives of MUCA re-emphasized its opposition to these arrangements.
Marcelino Lopez of MARCA revealed to Truthout that some breakaway farming collectives were retaking land above and beyond the June agreements, out of frustration from their exclusion and in opposition to the trajectory of the talks: "there are some unaffiliated farmers who are starting to recover lands that are outside of the scope of the agreements, as they are completely opposed to the way matters have developed."
Lopez speculated that these breakaway groupings and their respective attempts to recover and reclaim land may have provoked the additional violence from the landowners' security guards in August.
Nevertheless, Lopez expressed hope about forthcoming unity: "There is a little division in the MUCA, because of misunderstandings, but there are some indications that there is growing unity between the two wings [the northern and southern banks] and talks between them are ongoing."
In the meantime, the armed guards employed by Farcusse and other landowners, continue to operate at will, a situation which has only worsened with the passage of time.
"There have been paramilitaries and death squads operating since January 2010 and the army started moving in around March 2011," remarked Bird.
Organization of American States Recognition Pointed to as Exacerbating Factor, as Campesinos Continue to be Killed in September
Back in June, the lead Amnesty International researcher on Honduras, Esther Major, expressed some hope and cautious optimism to Truthout about the Organization of American States' (OAS) decision - long lobbied for and supported by the US - to finally officially recognize Honduras: "We were hoping that Honduras would have made more progress before its admittance, but hope that they seize this opportunity to improve matters and likewise, that the OAS tracks matters so that this can be accomplished."
Gerrardo Torres, who is the international representative of the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP), offered a contradicting prediction to Truthout: "The Honduran regime has gained a legitimacy that it does not deserve and from our perspective, this will likely raise - not decrease - the level of violence present both in Aguán and beyond."
As the month of September begins after a bloody August, the prediction by Torres is largely being borne out, as yet another killing was announced by MUCA and relayed by FIAN on Friday, September 2: "Olvin David González Godoy, a young 24-year man - married and with an eight-month-old baby girl - was assassinated today in the early morning hours. He was a member of the July 21st Cooperative, affiliated with MUCA ... the organizers of the cooperative don't have any doubt that his death was related to the agrarian conflict that continues without a solution."
The cooperative also expressed its opposition to a continually escalating military and police presence in the region, as 600 more soldiers and 400 more police were dispatched to Aguán in the wake of August's violence.
Adrienne Pine, an assistant professor of anthropology at American University who specializes in research on Honduras, and has regularly visited the country since 1997, criticized the OAS and US policy on Honduras, linking the stances taken to the continuing abuses:
The State Department's lobbying efforts to bring Honduras back into the fold and recognized in the international community were successful. But the Cartagena Accords, which re-inserted Honduras into the global community as a legitimate state, means that there's less pressure from international institutions such as the OAS. The implicit and explicit agreement was that the State would be recognizing human rights. But any of us who was following this with a critical eye, didn't believe a word of it. Now, we're seeing the results of that.
Elaborating on US support for the regime and non-action on internal abuses, Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy told Truthout that the March 2010 restoration of military aid by the US to Honduras prompted "widespread criticism." Alexander Main of the Center for Economic Policy and Research echoed such sentiments, pointing out that "full throttle support for the regime" dated back all the way to November 2009, with the decision to support the election which elected the Lobos regime, an election that was not recognized by most of Latin America.
Will impunity for hired "security" agents of wealthy landowners against the long-running struggle of Aguán's farming collectives continue to reign? Whatever the outcome, Aguán will certainly continue to be a central part of crafting the future of a country still reeling from the effects of the July 2009 coup and the subsequent coup-supported Lobos regime. For the time being and as Torres told Truthout, "the police and the military continue to terrorize the population with impunity."