By Priya Shah, Kibret Yebetit, and Madeleine Bair
In early 2013, a worker on an oil palm plantation on Honduras’ Atlantic coast came across a clandestine grave among the African palm trees. When she dug, she discovered the body of a man. This video, by the activist organization SOA Watch, tells the story of the exhumation, carried out by the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation and witnessed by members of the Bajo Aguán community, where dozens of campesinos have gone dead or missing in the past three years. The body was identified by his wife as José Antonio López Lara, a campesino who had disappeared from the plantation one year earlier.
Human Rights Violations
“How many deaths have we had in the Aguán?” says one community member in the video. Since the coup that overthrew elected president Jose Manuel Zelaya in June 2009, close to 100 peasants, as well as journalists and a lawyer who defended campesino land rights have been killed in the Bajo Aguán Valley. The most recent deaths took place this month, when two campesinos were killed in one week.
The violence dates back decades, as land previously owned by worker cooperatives and Afro-indigenous communities were taken over by wealthy and politically connected landowners through corruption, fraud, intimidation, and violence. The most prominent of those landowners is Miguel Facusse, owner of Dinant Corporation, whose private militia often works with the Honduran army and is accused by human rights organizations and campesinos of targeted killings and other forms of violence against peasants and community leaders.
As a 2013 Rights Action report analyzing violence in the past year years finds, “the objective of the violence has been, and continues to be, limiting campesinos’ capacity to effectively negotiate. In this context approximately 89 campesinos and their supporters, neighbors and bystanders have been killed in three years mostly in death squad style killings, the vast majority of which have been standalone operations whose only objective was the execution.”
Challenges to filming
Due in part to the extreme violence in the Bajo Aguán Valley, particularly targeting human rights advocates and journalists, few independent media outlets or citizen journalists dare report on the situation. Karla Zelaya, a Honduran journalist of the Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MUCA), was arrested and tortured because she spoke out.
Reporters Without Borders has labeled Miguel Facusse a “predator,” linking his company and its support of the coup with the targeting of grassroots media and the assassination of 26 journalists in the past decade. Hence, the majority of videos and reports about human rights violations in the Bajo Aguán Valley are produced by or with the assistance of international advocacy organizations working in solidarity with the campesinos of the region.
In an interview with FrontLine Defenders, Karla Zelaya describes the intimidation campesinos face in the Bajo Aguán Valley. “In many occasions, security guards have dressed up as soldiers in order to repress and kill campesinos,” she says. In another video, a family displaced by violence shares their views on the disparity of wealth and power in the country. Other videos can be seen in this in-depth playlist on the Human Rights Channel.