On Friday, July 26, policemen burst into the office of the CNTC (National Center of Rural Workers) in El Progreso, Yoro, and arrested Magdalena Morales, the CNTC Regional Secretary for the Honduran department of Yoro. They took her to a police station and then put her in a cell that smelled so horribly it caused her a strong allergic reaction. The day went by and still she was not released. She passed a sleepless night and finally, after 24 hours of being detained, was brought before a judge. The judge prohibited her from setting foot on land recuperated by campesinos (small farmers) in Agua Blanca Sur, ordered her to present herself and sign in every two weeks, and prohibited her from leaving the country. Magalena is charged with usurping land as part of the criminalization campaign against campesinos in the Sula Valley to the benefit of large sugar companies. She is just one of 52 campesinos with legal proceedings against them because the Agua Blanca Sur land struggle. A hearing in her case was set for Thursday, August 22, where a crowd gathered outside the courthouse in protest, but the hearing was suspended at the last minute and the date is currently pending. Magdalena and other campesino leaders in the Sula Valley are also facing intense persecution and death threats, on top of the murders that have already occurred. As Magdalena explains, «When we leave home, we don’t know if we will return alive.»
As Regional Secretary for the CNTC in the area, Magdalena has been supporting the 1600 campesino families of the Association for Campesino Development of Progreso (ADCP) and the CNTC who have been recuperating land in Agua Blanca Sur, located in the Sula Valley. According to Honduran land laws, no person or company can own more than 250 hectares of land in the Sula Valley unless they receive authorization to do so. Sugar company AZUNOSA operates on much more land than the limit and did not have authorization. As a result, in March 2012, the National Agrarian Institute (INA) ruled to expropriate 3,644 hectares from AZUNOSA for landless campesinos to live on and grow crops to survive. The Minster of the National Agrarian Institute reported that AZUNOSA “has been illegally operating [on this land] for more than 20 years.”i Despite illegally profiting from this land for so long, AZUNOSA was to be compensated approximately $10 million for the expropriation.
However, AZUNOSA, which is owned by powerful British multinational SAB Miller, refused to give up the land. AZUNOSA’s legal representative warned that “Honduras will have to answer to the European Union for lack of respect for the international investment protection convention between Honduras and the United Kingdom.”ii SAB Miller found willing partners in Honduras’ post-coup government, which is more than willing to give multinational corporations more rights than its own citizens and use force against small farmers struggling to survive.
Four months after the INA ruled that the land was theirs, the campesinos were tired of waiting and on July 29, 2012, they simply occupied the land to begin planting crops to feed their families. Within two hours, about 100 police and military appeared to pressure them to leave, threatening to arrest them.iii In August 2012, they were violently evicted again from land that had been determined to be theirs and 42 people were detained.
Subsequently, in November 2012, the British Ambassador reported that the National Agrarian Council had annulled INA’s expropriation, granting AZUNOSA’s appeal. However, campesino groups contend the convention between Honduras and the UK on which the appeal was based expired in 2005. The campesinos filed an appeal and the case is now before the Supreme Court. In February 2013, the campesinos returned to the land. As Fredy Membreño of the ADCP told journalist Giorgio Trucchi at the time, “We decided to return to recuperate this land because it should not be possible that foreign corporations keep taking our territory, while thousands of campesino families suffer misery and hunger.” On March 21, 2013, the military and police attempted another eviction which was halted that same day by a court order.
Then, early in the morning on June 19, 2013, the Honduran military and police in conjunction with the company’s private security guards arrived to evict the campesinos. Between soldiers, police, and guards, there were an estimated 400 armed men. As Magdalena explains, the 1600 campesino families had spent “months cultivating the land, working, working working” to plant corn, beans, and numerous crops for subsistence. Following the eviction, the AZUNOSA employees “destroyed 1,000 manzanas (1700 acres) of harvest, including corn, squash, beans, yuca, plantains…Everything.” They also are reported to have destroyed the houses the campesinos had built.
Earlier that month, on June 6, 2013, approximately 500 police, military, Cobras, and other state forces violently evicted the San Manuel Campesino Movement (MOCSAM) from another land recuperation in the Sula Valley, where the INA had also expropriated land in 2012, this time from sugar company CAHSA. The photo at right shows the tanks and agents in riot gear that were used. Comun Noticias reported «At least four live shots were fired agains the campesinos who were fleeing towards the community of Coowle, many tear gas bombs landed on people’s patios. Many of the indignant neighbors came out screaming that their small children were choking because of the tear gas.» During MOCSAM’s May recuperation of that same land, two campesinos were murdered by the sugar company’s security guards.
Honduras has been militarized under the pretext of fighting crime and drug trafficking. Yet, across Honduras the military — funded, aided, and trained by the US — is being used to repress social movements and protect corporate interests. In the Lower Aguan Valley, extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses by the SOA-graduate commanded 15th Battalion and the Xatruch III task force are well documented in a report by Rights Action. In Rio Blanco, where Indigenous Lenca communities are struggling to defend their land from an illegal hydroelectric dam, the SOA-graduate commanded First Battalion of Engineers protect the dam company and recently assassinated an Indigenous leader in the struggle agains the dam. The Sula Valley is yet another example of how military muscle is used to put resources in the hands of multinational corporations at the expense of thousands of people, who are pushed further into poverty and then face repression and persecution when they stand up for their rights. SAB Miller’s subsidiary in Honduras is reported to use the sugar it grows in the Sula Valley to produce Coca-Cola products. The 1600 families want to use the land to grow corn, beans, squash, bananas and other food to feed their children. This does not fit into the scheme of corporate profit so the military forcibly removes these families from the land, leaving them with no where to go and no way to survive.
According to Magdalena, the military’s role in Agua Blanca Sur is to “evict, intimidate, and threaten.” As she explains, “Here money is what rules. If you go to Agua Blanca right now, it is completely militarized. Who is the military guarding? The large landowner… When they evicted the people, soldiers from the Fourth Battalion were there.” The Fourth Battalion is commanded by School of Americas graduate Hector Orlando Espinal. Soldiers continue to patrol the land in question together with AZUNOSA’s private security guards, as documented in the photo at right by the Chicago-based La Voz de los de Abajo delegation on July 10, 2013.
The campesinos are also facing death threats and intense persecution by armed men and company security guards. On Friday, August 23, four armed men pursued a CNTC leader and her husband as they were driving home in El Progreso. They pulled over near a police post and waited until the armed men finally left.
As Magdalena explains, “In Agua Blanca, there are hitmen, there are soldiers, there are security guards, disguised security guards who are hitmen…. Another thing the company is doing is taking pictures of those who are at the front and criminalizing them…. It is very difficult now because there are death threats, persecution, a psychological war… There are 52 of us with legal proceedings against us only for Agua Blanca. What’s worrying for us is the pictures they take everyday because they can use those pictures to murder us…. When we leave home, we never know if we will return alive or not.»
«One of our members has already been murdered. Felix Correa was murdered on Saturday, August 10, and it was passed off as an accident, which it was not.” Eyewitnesses report that a vehicle they identified as belonging to AZUNOSA deliberately ran over Felix Correa. He was taken to the hospital but died the same day. “We women and the other leaders are suffering persecution. We have one member who is a prisoner in his own house, whose name is Felix Torres. He is a prisoner in his house and does not have permission to leave.”
“We are dying of hunger in this country because of lack of access to land. Does a foreign company have more rights than us as Hondurans?”