Palm Oil and Blood In Honduras’ Ongoing Conflict

Though the roots of the country’s land battles go back decades, there is new hope that turmoil over disputed plantations — the cause of so many killings and enforced disappearances — could finally be settling down

Palm Oil and Blood In Honduras’ Ongoing Conflict
Honduran farmers protesting for land reform arrive in Tegucigalpa on May 15, 2014 / Orlando Sierra / AFP via Getty Images

The Tumbador “finca,” an African palm plantation, sits on a swampy low floodplain about a mile or so from the Caribbean. To get there, you have to turn off the deteriorating two-lane road to Trujillo — the last big town on Honduras’ north coast before the road gives way to the Moskitia rainforest — and then descend a rutted dirt road through tropical scrub, the ocean’s azure surface dazzling and bright under the burning afternoon sky. Once you arrive, you see towering, geometric rows of African palm surround a rough encampment of tents fashioned from black construction tarps and sunbaked palm fronds. Things are quiet here. Ocean wind blows with a hush in the treetops and the occasional motorcycle rattles past. The dull thudding of machetes resounds over muffled scraps of conversation. Nothing indicates the fact that, within the recent memory of most people camped out here, this farm was the site of a massacre.

Nothing, that is, except for the company guards.

Posted at the entrance of El Tumbador, about 100 feet from the ramshackle encampment of peasant farmers who are seeking to stake a claim to their land, is a truck and guard post for the Servicios Especiales de Colón (Colón Special Services or SEC), a private security company. Operatives from SEC, many of them ex-Honduran military officers, are contracted by Dinant Corporation, the largest palm oil corporation in Central America, to guard the sprawling palm plantations claimed by the company and carry out surveillance of those considered trespassers. They’re positioned at the same spot, residents say, where those same guards killed five of their farmers.

On Nov. 15, 2010, after a coup the previous year that threw an already violent country into further chaos, peasants engaged in escalating battles with Dinant were approaching El Tumbador when company guards, armed with automatic weapons and accompanied by the Honduran military, opened fire, killing five.

“Dinant is, and always has been, an honorable and reputable company, ready to provide a clear, transparent, and honest response to any allegation or accusation,” Roger Pineda Pinel, Dinant’s director of corporate responsibility and sustainability, told New Lines. “Furthermore, security staff who were present during that tragic event were acquitted in trial.”

The guards are unarmed nowadays (though it’s worth noting that new armed groups with connections to state and corporate authorities continue to threaten and kill peasant farmers). But the mere presence of the guards there — driving past with mirthful smirks to take photos and flying surveillance drones that float overhead at all hours of the day — still sends a chill through the encampment.

“Fear, lots of fear,” says María Pino López, whose partner (with whom she shares 10 children), Ignacio Reyes, was killed in the 2010 massacre. Being here, she says, makes them “afraid that they are still going to do the same [as] 12 years ago. But we’re still here, luchando [struggling].”

“We’ve had a lot of fear,” says Francisco Ramírez, a survivor of the massacre and part of the group now reoccupying the plantation. Sunken deep into his face is a scar, disfiguring his mustache, where a bullet blew away his entire top row of teeth. “We’ve been threatened.”

The Aguán Valley, where they live, has been home to some of the most intense campaigns of violence against peasant groups in this Central American country. But fear isn’t stopping them: 12 years later, in the same spot that, for many of them, was likely where the most traumatic moment of their lives took place, they are moving to retake the land. The election of the country’s first left-leaning president in years has raised hopes for some that violent land conflicts over disputed plantations — the source of so many killings and enforced disappearances — could finally be resolved.

For many, the reoccupations came as something of a surprise given recent events.

On Dec. 16, a local court ordered the Honduran military to forcibly evict several land occupations, starting with the San Isidro Cooperative, where peasant farmers had been occupying plantations they claimed Dinant and other palm oil corporations had taken from them years before. That day, military commanders informed local residents they would evict one new occupation each day for the next five days, without specifying which. Videos circulated on social media showing entire regiments of commandos called up from distant departments lining up at highway gas stations, their weapons at the ready as if they were going to war.

Everyone was waiting for a bloodbath. Instead, soldiers arrived at formerly occupied sites that had been hastily abandoned. There wasn’t a single shot fired.

The roots of Honduras’ land conflicts go back decades, a bloody constellation of armed actors — police and soldiers, corporate security forces, paramilitary groups and “sicarios,” or assassins-for-hire — that, since 2009, has left well over 150 dead in the Aguán Valley alone.

Conflicts first emerged here in the early 1990s, after economic restructuring pushed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund allowed the sale of collective farmlands, which had been parceled out to landless peasants as a part of a land redistribution program in the mid-1970s. Many of the subsequent purchases of land by the Dinant Corp. were carried out in an atmosphere of threats, unsolved killings and disappearances, while peasant groups and human rights workers deemed the dispossessions to have been, in many cases, illegal.

For the next two decades, groups of dispossessed peasant farmers organized, with some reoccupying their lands, but most remained locked in unending legal battles for the next decade, with little success. All of that changed with the 2009 coup.

On June 28, 2009, the Honduran military — bolstered by the Honduran oligarchy, which had grown extremely powerful since the era of structural adjustment in the early ‘90s, having grown rich off of industries like palm oil and maquiladoras, foreign-owned factories that assemble products for export — staged a coup against Manuel Zelaya, a president who had drifted toward liberal domestic policies and who strengthened relations with Venezuela. Any hope of legal redress was rendered null, causing most to up their game and reoccupy plantations.

The killing that followed was of a scale and intensity that had never been seen in this region of the country. Over the next four years, peasant groups that had retaken palm plantations and forced the new government into heated negotiations for land titling suffered a systematic campaign of targeted assassinations by Honduran state security forces, private guards or hired assassins. By 2014, the violence had become so blatant that international pressure — namely, on the World Bank, which funded Dinant, and on the U.S. government, which funded the Honduran military — put the brakes on the killing spree.

But the suspension in killings was followed by a macabre postscript. The Honduran military, still benefiting from U.S. military aid, created paramilitary groups embedded inside communities to continue their dirty work of killing and intimidating activists, allowing the military and corporate guards to take a less visible role. To this day, frequent killings, intimidation, surveillance, harassment, arbitrary detention and torture continue in the Aguán.

This was clear last October during a visit to the Camarones palm oil plantation to the east of the town of Tocoa. SEC guards contracted by Dinant, together with the National Police, had besieged the finca with multiple checkpoints. Police had stopped and detained several peasant farmers, preventing them from leaving with their cargo of harvested palm fruit. Drones constantly flew overhead, following peasant farmers as they walked around the area. To get their harvest out of the finca without harassment, the peasant farmers, sweating in the morning heat in an exhausting, elaborate operation, manually loaded mounds of palm fruit into dugout canoes to take across the Aguán River at the back of the plantation. That didn’t stop the intimidation or harassment: Multiple people spoke of how the National Police, coming upriver in their boats, trained the sights of their assault weapons on them — a message, they said, that was clear.

A meeting of a campesino (peasant farmer) organization at the Camarones land occupation, where groups have been occupying a palm plantation formerly run by the Dinant Corp / Jared Olson / New Lines

But the election last November of Xiomara Castro (the wife of Zelaya) raised hopes that violent land conflicts over disputed plantations could come to an end with the annulment of land titles that many say are fraudulent. After the anticlimactic eviction moves, more groups, hoping to finally have titles recognized in the less repressive atmosphere of a new government, retook their lands.

The eight years of rule under the conservative National Party government of Juán Orlando Hernández, from 2014 to 2022, have left Honduras with a dark legacy of institutionalized violence and corruption. Urban violence continued under elite military-police units, which were created by the Hernández government and implicated in human rights abuses; funds were stolen from the public coffer for political campaigns; toxic mining projects continued to be approved while land and water defenders were assassinated at staggering rates; outmigration grew. After Hernández’s 2017 reelection, which international observers suspected was fraudulent and which was followed with a murderous clampdown on mass protests, the Drug Enforcement Administration arrested Hernández’s brother, Honduran member of congress Antonio “Tony” Hernández, in Miami in 2018 on drugs and weapons charges. Prosecutors alleged Antonio and the president used their power in the Honduran government to create a “violent, state-sponsored drug trafficking conspiracy,” causing many Hondurans to refer to their government as a “narco-dictatorship.” The former president was arrested in February 2022, and on April 21, he was extradited to the United States.

Castro was slow at first to make public statements regarding the resolution of violent land conflicts, though a commission to resolve conflict in the region between palm oil companies and peasant groups, headed by the director of the National Police, was quietly created this spring, with preliminary accords signed on Feb. 22.

Peasant leaders interviewed by New Lines were hopeful about the prospect of change. But they expressed doubt as to how the process was going. There are questions as to why a police officer, Ramón Sabillón, is running a peace commission in a part of the country where state security forces have been implicated in major human rights violations in relation to that land conflict. Palm oil companies have allegedly stopped showing up for negotiations. And peasant groups are being squeezed financially as they are forced to pay for their own security to attend meetings in the highly volatile region.

“We have lots of expectations, lots of hope that things can change with her,” said Angel David Santos Ortíz, a lawyer for the Movimiento Campesino del Aguán (Campesino Movement of the Aguán or MCA).

As he spoke, several dozen peasant farmers, carrying machetes and wearing loose, sweat-stained jeans tucked into calf-high rubber boots, gathered in scraps of shade beneath the palms to listen to representatives of the Plataforma Agraria, a peasant union, who gave speeches on the legal rights of the peasant farmers should the authorities come to evict them.

“We hope that new authorities attend to our demands better than the previous ones,” said Alexí Morales, a member of the MCA at Tumbador. “We have documents that say, very clearly, that the 5,000 hectares that there are belong to the movimiento campesino. Because of that, we’re here now.”

There are some indicators that changes may be taking place. On May 17, police delivered court orders to 17 members of the Los Laureles farmer cooperative, who were charged with aggravated usurpation for having allegedly stolen the Laureles palm plantation from the Dinant corporation. Aggravated usurpation carries a penalty of 10 years jail time in Honduras, where legal charges have long been weaponized — a form of criminalization meant to suck land and water defenders into an endless nightmare of litigation, police harassment and prison. But, unusually, they were acquitted of those charges by a court in Tocoa on June 22. The move, human rights workers said, was unprecedented.

But a new government in the capital doesn’t necessarily change the entrenched, on-the-ground power dynamics in one of the country’s most remote and violent regions.

At about 5:30 a.m. on April 28, peasant farmers in the Auxiliadora cooperative who were occupying the Cuacú palm plantation at the far eastern end of the Aguán reported being jolted awake by the sound of gunshots. When they emerged from their tents, they reported seeing in the dim, predawn light an armed group closing in on their encampment from the east: roughly 30 masked men armed with AK-47s, AR-15s and shotguns. Residents told New Lines they believe the group is a private militia hired by Oscar Nájera, a former Honduran member of congress identified by the U.S. Justice Department to be a major drug trafficker and understood by locals in the Aguán to be a major power broker, even out of office.

Everyone ran. Two men who didn’t escape were kicked and beaten with the butts of AK-47s. The group, meanwhile, ransacked the camp, ripping apart the tents and stealing their agricultural supplies. If they returned again, the gunmen warned them, they would all be killed.

The group fearfully returned. But on May 5, a unit of COBRAs, Honduran police special forces, showed up again with an eviction notice signed Feb. 21 — the day before land titling negotiations began. It was only a tense standoff in which the members of the Auxiliadora showed what they said were the documents for the title to the land, ultimately forcing the police to leave. The residents believe that the police didn’t show up in an official capacity but at the orders of organized criminal interests — the same associated with Nájera.

“We can’t sleep well here anymore,” said Juana Jourdes Cantarero, a member of the Cuacú occupation who returned after the militia attack.

Daniel Murillo Chacón, a member of the Auxiliadora Peasant Cooperative, shows where a militia of 30 armed men attacked the group’s encampment at the Cuacú Plantation on the morning of April 28 / Jared Olson / New Lines

Continued hostilities throughout the region, like the attack at Cuacú, meant that, six months into her presidency, many felt that Castro’s government was failing to sufficiently address tensions in the region.

On July 20, nearly 2,000 campesinos traveled over eight hours across the country to block the street in front of the Presidential House, in the mountainous capital of Tegucigalpa, to demand the government uphold its promise of ending land conflicts. For much of the day the crowds sweated listlessly under the blistering hot sun, growing disillusioned with the government’s seeming indifference to their presence. But by the end of the day, “Mel” Zelaya, who, as the ousted ex-president and Castro’s husband, is still seen by many as a de facto power broker, spoke to a delegation from the groups, promising to create a new tripartite commission to reexamine land titles and investigate human rights abuses in the region. Whether it proves to be more effective than the previous commission in February remains to be seen.

In February I spoke with Juny Ordoña, whose husband, José Luis Alcedo, with whom she had two kids, was killed in the 2010 massacre. During our conversation, a SEC truck rolled past us slowly and beeped. The guard looked through the window and snapped photos of us. “They’re monitoring us all the time,” Ordoña said, noting that surveillance drones fly over the camp daily. “Ever since we decided to reoccupy the land, they’re here 24/7.”

There has never been justice for the killing of her husband, Ordoña added. The minimal recompensation would be to get final titling rights for the land for which her husband and numerous others have been killed.

“We have to be able to survive,” Ordoña says. “Since they killed the five people, our families have been helpless. So we decided, it’s only logical, now that our kids are grown, we need the land to work. They need the land that their parents died for, the land that they fought for with their own blood.”

It’s not just organized peasant groups with leftist roots and histories of unionizing targeted with violence and threats.

Almost all forms of communal agriculture are criminalized in the Aguán Valley, as in the rest of Honduras, where powerful business interests favored by the authorities, often intermixed with organized crime, have long had a vested interest in consolidating control of land to maximize profit. The systematic criminalization of the former by the latter — the patterns of false accusations and rumors disseminated through social media, TV and newspapers, as well as the statements of public officials, in narratives meant to defame peasant groups by painting them as inherently violent, savage and connected to organized crime — plants the idea that they deserved to be killed or forcibly, even bloodily, evicted by the authorities.

This was why the statements made on national television on Feb. 1 about the residents of Chapagua, a village in the Aguán Valley, were so alarming.

That day, Max Arias, a member of the palm-producing organization Association of Producers in the Aguán Valley, appeared on “Frente a Frente” (Face to Face), a talk show broadcast throughout Honduras, to announce that armed members of the rural community had illegally invaded a palm plantation next to Chapagua. The plantation had previously belonged to the Rivera Maradiagas, a violent clan of drug traffickers who brought drug planes from Colombia and Venezuela onto land they owned in the Aguán and northern Honduras. They abandoned Honduras in 2015 and became protected witnesses of the Drug Enforcement Administration — an act that later contributed to the downfall of the former president. Their land, including the parcel that lay wedged against the village of Chapagua, was seized by the Administrative Office of Seized Goods.

Residents of Chapagua, however, said that the plantation had lain unused ever since state authorities seized it and that there was a group of young men who had occupied the plantation, and could be heard discharging their weapons in a riot of gunfire at night. But residents themselves knew none of them, saying that they had come from outside the community. Beyond that, they had a video of Arias with those same men he alleged were the villagers of Chapagua at the entrance to the palm plantation.

“The whole population of the village can tell you that during the night, and sometimes during the day, you can hear gunshots from over there,” said Virgilio Rodríguez, a resident of Chapagua. “It provokes panic among us.”

Fearing the new intruders, the community members set up a roadblock at the entrance to the village to stop anyone coming in: a series of massive tarps strung up over logs with a rope strung across the road to stop incoming cars.

They have it, Rodríguez said, because “we don’t want [local business interests] to continue to criminalize us by saying that we’re complicit in allowing that theft of fruit. But we’re really worried about this group of armed people on the plantation. You can hear gunfire all night long. We have the guard posted 24 hours a day.”

It’s a weak defense against unknown armed men who’ve set up shop at the back of their community, but it’s better than doing nothing, they say.

Land conflicts aren’t dead in Honduras, and insecurity is still the norm for rural farmers, politicized or not, in regions such as the Aguán. But there is now hope that, under the new government of Castro, some progress toward resolution, however minimal, can be made.

Back at the Tumbador, José Héctor Palencia López, a survivor of the massacre, believes that the moment has come to resolve the land conflict.

“This land here belonged to the first campesino group in the Aguán, the MCA,” Palencia López says, gesturing to the expanse of fern-sheathed palms. “And we’re here today to finally take it back.”

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