We found Carlos Martinez’ body lying in several inches of water in a far corner of the La Lempira palm oil cooperative that he and other peasants had seized from a wealthy landowner that they believed stole it from them. I had come to the cooperative early that Sunday morning, sitting for two hours with three of the coop leaders as they told me their history. It’s a common story in the Aguan Valley of northern Honduras, a fertile slice of Central America where the right combination of soil, sun and humidity means you can grow just about anything. In this case, they cultivate African palm trees, which produce the cooking oil your doctor tells you to avoid. Pineapple fields provide visual relief to the miles of African palms. The main highway through the valley runs to the port city of Trujillo (where the classic imperialist William Walker was executed and buried), and the Dole 18-wheelers carrying pineapples share the road with clunky old trucks carrying piles of palm fruits to the processing plants where the oil is extracted.
In the last few weeks the region has been militarized, and soldiers are everywhere. Some of their jefes were staying in the hotel where I stayed in nearby Tocoa, so I didn’t have to worry about my rental car being robbed from the parking lot; there were guys with assault rifles leaning on it when I got up that morning.
The troops were ordered into the Aguan because the government has ostensibly lost control of the region to narcotraffickers who have installed landing strips amidst the palm oil trees as part of their enterprise of shipping drugs northward to the U.S. Yet who’s a narcotrafficker and who isn’t is not exactly clear these days. The country’s richest man, Miguel Facussé, who happens to “own” about one-fifth of the Aguan’s farm land, has long been rumored to benefit from letting the planes land and take off from his properties. According to cables to the State Department from the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa, U.S. diplomats knew about actual cases beginning in 2004 (thanks, Wikileaks), yet did nothing about it other than pass the intel on to Washington.
Yet if you read the Honduran press these days, the narcotraffickers aren’t mentioned very much. There’s a reason for that: talk too much about drug trafficking and you get killed. Honduras is one of the worst places to be a journalist these days. Even some of the most outspoken people I interviewed, when I asked a question about drugs, their voice went soft and many preferred to only speak off the record.
What the media does cover is the land “invasions” by the valley’s poor. They are painted as robatierras–people who have stolen land. And they’re always breathlessly referred to as “armed peasants.” That’s true. The people on the La Lempira cooperative have armed guards posted at the entry to their squatters’ camp. Their weapons are old, rusty rifles. I wouldn’t want to actually fire one because I’d be afraid that saldria el tiro por la culata.
Yet the image of the people on the farm, when seen up close, is not what the Honduran media paints. After the interview, I walked around the coop for a while capturing the daily life of these dangerous subversives.
Long before the palm oil forests became ubiquitous, the valley was once covered with banana plantations of the Trujillo Railroad Company, a subsidiary of the infamous United Fruit Company, but the company returned the lands to the government in 1935 after losing most of its plantations to Panama disease. During the years that followed, cattle ranchers illegally took over and fenced most of the land. In the 1970s, the government evicted the cattle ranchers (often compensating them financially despite the fact they had no legal title, a common scam in these parts) in order to make room for a massive colonization project. The National Agrarian Institute brought tens of thousands of landless peasants to the Lower Aguán Valley, what the government disingenuously began to tout as the “Capital of the Agrarian Reform.” The bulk of the program was carried out during the 1972-75 government of Col. Osvaldo López Arellano, one of the “on” periods of an on-again, off-again land reform that began with President Ramon Villeda Morales’ Alliance for Progress-inspired Agrarian Reform Law in 1962, designed to buy off Honduras’ rural population with enough “reform” to make real revolutionary change – brewing in all three of Honduras’ neighbors – less attractive.
The Lower Aguán program wasn’t genuine land reform, however; it was an agricultural colonization program. The peasants – brought from all over the country – were grouped together in some 80 cooperatives, which were told what they had to plant. It was usually African Palm – some 25,000 hectares were planted with the trees – and the coops were initially required to sell their harvest to local subsidiaries of U.S. companies.
Father James “Guadalupe” Carney, a Jesuit priest from the United States who served the parish in Tocoa at that time, tried to cultivate real change and organized cooperatives for the Asociación Nacional de Campesinos de Honduras. Carney was highly critical of the government program, which was financed by the Interamerican Development Bank. “We asked the coop members who are the real beneficiaries of agrarian reform in Honduras. It is the gringos. They have the biggest business in the world lending us the money for agrarian reform. With this money we buy machinery, petroleum, and many other things from them. When the coops finally are producing the fruit of the palm tree, who will have the biggest part of the profit from its final product, the margarine? The gringos of the U.S. Standard Fruit Company,” Carney wrote in his autobiography To Be a Revolutionary.
The 1970s were a time of accelerating revolutionary conflict in the region, and the Lower Aguán project was a critical component of a process in which local landowners and the country’s wealthy elite could block real land reform by carrying out “artificial transformations in which everything nonetheless remained the same with regard to land tenure and social justice. . .the primary intention was to diminish the tensions in the countryside and take strength away from whatever social movement might emerge,” wrote Miguel Alonzo Macías in the definitive work in Spanish on the region’s history, La Capital de la Contrarreforma Agraria: El Bajo Aguán de Honduras.
Even that didn’t last long. When López Arellano was overthrown by Col. Juan Alberto Melgar Castro in 1975, the government’s commitment to the colonization plan waned, and the technical assistance and credit needed by the peasant cooperatives was even less forthcoming. While a few coops were relatively successful, many struggled along, plagued by mismanagement and government corruption. Most coops were also bound to the monoculture of an export crop whose prices fluctuated and where producers earned relatively little compared to those who processed, transported, and sold the final product.
With an end to revolutionary movements in the region in the early 1990s, the timid agrarian reform of three decades was no longer needed, and in 1992 the Honduran Congress passed the Law to Modernize and Develop the Agricultural Sector. By prioritizing export-oriented agriculture, the new law was designed to help produce hard currency to pay the country’s mounting foreign debt which the U.S.-basked military governments had run up in prior years. Many larger farms that were subject to expropriation under earlier laws were now exempted from agrarian reform, and the country’s 2,800 agricultural cooperatives were given the right to individually parcel or sell off their collectively-owned properties. In the Lower Aguán Valley, the new law encouraged several of the coops to sell their lands to foreign corporations or local elites, most noticeably to Miguel Facussé, who was more than happy to pay under the table to corrupt peasant leaders willing to sell out their comrades (a process Alonzo Macias documents well).
The sale of the coops had a devastating effect in the region. Many former coop members quickly spent their proceeds and were left landless and penniless as before. Secondary economic activity in Tocoa took a dramatic downturn, and emigration from the region to the U.S. accelerated. (Contrast this to the restrictions placed on cooperatives in neighboring Nicaragua in the 1980s. The Sandinistas simply didn’t allow government-supported coops to sell the land. The Reagan administration considered this blatant evidence of communism, but it avoided the inevitable pressure to sell when farmers suffer a bleak harvest. The Biblical Jubilee Year wouldn’t have been necessary had Yahweh not allowed people to sell their land in the first place.)
While the reasons for the disintegration and sale of the Lower Aguan cooperatives were many, some argue that the lack of women’s participation in coop decision-making was one critical factor. “If the peasant women had enjoyed a say in the matter, they wouldn’t have sold the land,” Peter Marchetti told me in an interview several years ago. He was a Jesuit priest from the U.S. who served the Tocoa parish until death threats drove him out of the country. “For a traditional peasant man, the temptation is always there to sell the land because then you can buy your own gun, you can have another woman, and you can buy a car which will break down in six months because you don’t know how to drive it or how to take care of it. When the men in this area sold their land to Facussé, the women were against it, but their vote didn’t count back then.”
The conflict continued to simmer over the years, until 2009 when President Mel Zelaya stepped in to get negotiations going between the wealthy landowners and militant peasant groups. He said the government might help finance the repurchase of some of the farmland by peasant groups, a prospect which made the wealthy instantly raise the valuations of what they considered their properties. Nonetheless, many of the poor in the Aguan began to feel hope that something could be worked out. Yet it also represented an overreach by Zelaya; within days he was overthrown in a military coup and flown out of the country. Within months, peasant groups in the Aguan, having seen peaceful change thrown out of the country with Zelaya, seized several plantations by force. And the region has spiraled into even greater violence since, with dozens of people killed in recent weeks. The country’s Congress, ironically, has approved a proposal to provide funds to do much of what Zelaya wanted to do back in 2009. Yet President Porfirio Lobo, just blessed by a White House visit with President Obama – who along with Hillary Clinton bumbled the U.S. response to the coup, has sent in the troops. It’s only made the violence worse. “The government says the solution is more troops, more weapons, but that’s like firefighters who want to put out a fire by throwing gasoline rather than water on the flames,” Father Fausto Milla told me. He’s a member of an alternative truth commission which is investigating the events behind the 2009 coup.
As I was walking around La Lempira taking photos, the coop leaders came to say they’d just gotten word that one of their members had been shot and killed. They invited me to come along as they took the man’s family to find the body. We jumped in the back of a truck and sped off through the palm oil trees to where a small group of people had gather around Carlos’ body. The police arrived, but didn’t do much except ask people to wait til the fiscales came – those are the government officials charged with investigating crimes. There’s not much affection for the police, so the family eventually decided to load the body on the truck and take it back to their settlement, where family members wept over the young man’s corpse.
Eventually the fiscales showed up, and the cooperative let them enter (though the cooperative guards refused to let the police enter). Yet the examination was cursory, and the questions brief. “Did you find him face up or face down?” I was struck by how superficial the investigators’ questions were, but this is a country where fiscales are regularly assassinated for asking real questions. Since Carlos was poor, there would be no real investigation into who killed him, despite the fact that one of his sisters told me that she knew the killer was a guy named Jorge who worked as a guard at one of Facussé’s plantations.
I stuck around for most of the day, talking with the family and others in the coop. For part of the day, Juan Guerrero, a United Methodist missionary pastor in Honduras, remained with me. He maintained a quiet pastoral presence with the community and prayed over the body before the family took off Carlos’ blood-stained clothing and dressed him in a clean shirt and pants.
Later that day a contingent of activists came from a meeting in Tocoa and held vigil around the coffin. Their arrival at the squatters’ settlement seemed intrusive in some ways. And their leaders quickly seized on the opportunity to declare Carlos a martyr for the cause, calling out presente! every time someone called out his name. Yet what was unclear at the moment was whether he had been killed for political reasons. Perhaps he and “Jorge” had gotten in a spat about a woman. The Honduran left, which some days seems more dedicated to arguing among themselves about what name to call their movement, wasn’t interested in waiting for clarification; in the highly polarized environment in the Aguan today, for them any killing is a political act. Yet what’s indisputable is that because of the impunity manufactured by the wealthy landowners and the narcotraffickers (who in some cases may be the same people), any killing of a peasant is indeed a political act because the murderers know it won’t be investigated. As long as the wealthy can do what they want with the land and the people who work it, there will be no justice, for Carlos Martinez or anyone else.