Narco-cattle ranchers in the Petén

The following is a brief summary of an article published in September 2008 in NotiCen which offers news and analysis of international political matters as they manifest themselves in Central America and the Caribbean.

A tourism project of astounding proportions is rising up out of the ashes of the grandiose but defunct Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), replaced by Plan Mesoamerica – see Chapter 7. The tourism project was proposed for the Petén, Guatemala’s largest and most remote department. President Alvaro Colóm proposed an archeological park extending some 22,500 sq km across this, Central America’s largest, forested wilderness. The park would include both El Mirador, a giant ruins considered the cradle of the Mayan civilisation, and Tikal, the gem of the Mayan classic period.

Some of this vast area has been raped, turned into cattle ranches, denuded of the forests that could not be seen for the trees whose value as illegally felled timber has spelled their doom. It also necessitates the eviction of subsistence campesino families and would include a large area of the Petén which is lawless and in which forest is clear-felled with impunity for cattle grazing. Additionally, the area is used as a major trans-shipment route by drug smugglers. The Guatemalan NGO Trópico Verde refers to those responsible for the illegal felling as ‘narco-cattle ranchers’.

Carlos Albacete, Co-Director of Trópico Verde, said that the organisation first denounced the situation in 2006 and has documentation showing that, in at least five cases, lands within the Laguna del Tigre park were illegally deeded to persons linked to narco-trafficking. In the Mirador area of the central zone of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, the group has documentary evidence of state lands taken over by drug traffickers that were subsequently robbed of their timber and turned to grazing. After Trópico Verde made its charges, authorities nullified the titles, but they did not act against the drug traffickers. “They don’t mention that, to get the deeds issued, they had to bribe lawyers and officials, or that in Laguna del Tigre so far 40 small planes used to transport cocaine from Colombia to Guatemala have been found,” added Albacete.

The full article on which this summary is based is accessible on the ENCA website

Honduras most dangerous country for environmental activists

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Honduras is the deadliest place for environmental activists with scores of Hondurans killed defending land rights and the environment from mining, dam projects and logging, a campaign group said on Monday.

Between 2010 and 2014, 101 activists were murdered in Honduras, the highest rate per capita of any country surveyed in a report by Global Witness, although the overall number was greatest in Brazil.

Globally, killings of environmental activists reached an average of more than two per week in 2014, up 20 percent from the previous year, the report said.

A man looks for usable items in a dumpsite on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, April 17, 2015. | Reuters/Jorge Cabrera.

A man looks for usable items in a dumpsite on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, April 17, 2015. | Reuters/Jorge Cabrera.

Latin America fared worst, accounting for nearly three quarters of the murders – with 29 deaths reported in Brazil, 25 in Colombia and 12 in Honduras.

“Historically there has been very unequal land distribution in Latin America which has caused conflict between local and foreign companies and communities,” Billy Kyte, campaigner at Global Witness, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Governments in Latin America are by no means taking this problem seriously. Impunity levels are also very high so perpetrators of crime get away with it,” he said.

The report found 40 percent of environmental defenders killed last year were indigenous people caught on the frontline as they tried to defend land and water sources from companies in an escalating scramble for natural resources and land.

“Many indigenous groups lack clear land titles to their land and suffer land grabs by powerful business interests,” the report said.

Honduran activist, Martin Fernandez, said he was forced to flee for safety to Brazil for three months in 2012 after he received telephone death threats and was followed by cars with black tinted windows near his work and home.

“We live in fear, in fear of constant attack. I and many colleagues have had to live in exile,” Fernandez, head of the Movement for Dignity and Justice, a Honduran land rights group, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

He said Honduran and foreign companies were exploiting indigenous lands and clearing forests, particularly in the northern Yoro province where the Tolupan indigenous group live, to make way for dam construction and mining projects.

In its report, Global Witness said the Honduran government hoped to attract $4 billion in mining investments and recently freed up 250,000 hectares of land for new mining projects.

With the world’s highest murder rate, Honduras is struggling to contain drug-fuelled gang violence and organized crime. The government did not respond to requests for comment on the Global Witness report.

Heightened dangers faced by environmental activists in Honduras are likely to be raised next month at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council when the country’s rights record comes under review.

(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Rosalind Russell)

2016 assassinations of environmental rights defenders in Guatemala


2016 has witnessed an increase in fatal attacks on human rights defenders in Guatemala. From January 1st to October 31st, eleven human rights defenders were killed and since October 31st, the killings have escalated, and by November 18th the total number of defenders killed came to 16. (The total for 2015 was 13.)

Environmental defenders

screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-12-13-14On 16th March, Walter Méndez Barrios (shown left) was shot and killed outside his home in Las Cruces. He was a well-known environmental rights defender, who tried to protect natural resources in communities in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. He was a founding member of the FPCR (Petenero Front Against Dams), formed in 2005 to defend land rights, water rights and other natural resources.
screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-12-13-44On 13th April, Benedicto de Jesús Gutiérrez Rosa, Juan Mateo Pop Cholom (shown left) and Héctor Joel Saquil Choc, all forestry engineers with the National Institute of Forests, were ambushed and shot to death by gunmen in a car around 2 pm as they were driving in Carcha, Alta Verapaz. They were returning home from a finca where they had been working for the day.
screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-12-13-46On 8th June, human rights defender Daniel Choc Pop (shown left) was killed by unknown individuals who shot him numerous times. He was an indigenous and campesino human rights defender from the community of San Juan Tres Ríos in Cobán, which he represented at the General Assembly of the Highlands Campesino Committee (CCDA). The CCDA is a national organisation committed to defending local water sources used by indigenous communities. There had been recent disputes over land ownership with owners of the Rancho Alegre estate
screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-12-14-15On 12th November, Jeremy Abraham Barrios (shown left) was shot to death. He worked as the Assistant to the General Director of CALAS (Centre for Environmental and Social Legal Action in Guatemala). CALAS is a human rights organisation based in Guatemala City and has been active in denouncing abuses committed by mining companies as well as in the protection of environmental rights. There was no prior indication that he had received any threats, although the organisation had received warnings.


A variety of sources have been used in the compilation of the lists above. These include: Prensa Libre, Aquitodito, Cerigua, Radio La Franja, Front Line Defenders, Committee to Protect Journalists, NISGUA, UNESCO, Reporteros Sin Fronteras, Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA (GHRC).

The GHRC’s ‘Preliminary 2016 Human Rights Review’ has been particularly helpful and this was the work of Imogene Caird and Pat Davis, to whom I am especially grateful. The GHRC’s website is:

Activists are Dying for Your Food: Environmental Defenders Murdered in Record Numbers Last Year

I am grateful to Sandra Cuffe and to the progressive organisation Toward Freedom for permission to reproduce this article here. Although the article refers to environmental defenders in many parts of the world, it is also relevant to Central America where the abuses and threats suffered by environmental defenders are as bad as or worse than those suffered elsewhere in the world.

By Sandra Cuffe, July 25, 2018

It could be your morning coffee, your bananas, your sugar, or the palm oil found in approximately half of all packaged products at your grocery store, including breakfast cereals. Land and environmental defenders were killed in record numbers last year, and for the first time, agribusiness is tied to more killings than any other sector, according to a report published Tuesday by Global Witness, a London-based NGO (

The organisation documented 207 killings of land and environmental defenders in 22 countries around the world in 2017, a slight increase from 2016. However, the number of people killed while protesting large-scale agriculture in 2017 more than doubled.

“For the first time, agribusiness surpassed mining as the most dangerous sector to oppose, as 46 defenders who protested against palm oil, coffee, tropical fruit and sugar cane plantations, as well as cattle ranching, were murdered in 2017,” noted the authors of ‘At What Cost?’, the Global Witness report.

Last year also saw a rise in massacres, many of which were linked to agribusiness conflicts. Global Witness documented seven cases in which more than four land and environmental defenders were killed. In Brazil, three massacres had a combined death toll of 25, more than 40 percent of the total 57 defenders killed last year – the most killings Global Witness has ever recorded in any country.

In the Philippines, killings of activists and community leaders skyrocketed. “President Duterte’s aggressively anti-human-rights stance and a renewed military presence in resource-rich regions are fuelling the violence. Almost half of the [48] killings in the Philippines were linked to struggles against agribusiness,” according to the report.

On the southern island of Mindanao, an indigenous village leader engaged in a heated struggle against the expansion of a coffee plantation, and four of his relatives, and two other residents were all killed by soldiers on December 3. The government claimed the deaths were the outcome of fighting between the army and leftist guerrilla forces, but there was little evidence to support the claim. Between the government’s announcement that it would earmark more lands for industrial plantations and the increased militarization of Mindanao, killings of locals opposing land grabs are unlikely to cease.

Global Witness identified several root causes underlying threats to defenders, regardless of whether cases are tied to agribusiness, mining, logging, or other activities. Corruption and impunity are on the list, but so is the failure to recognise customary or collective land rights and secure land tenure. Failure to seek the free, prior and informed consent of affected communities also underpins the violence, according to the organisation.

“Local activists are being murdered as governments and businesses value quick profit over human life. Many of the products emerging from this bloodshed are on the shelves of our supermarkets,” said Ben Leather, a Senior Campaigner at Global Witness.

A United Nations intergovernmental working group continued to work on its draft of a binding international instrument concerning transnational corporations, but at the moment, most international guidelines concerning business and human rights are just that: guidelines. They’re voluntary. Products are sometimes labelled ‘sustainable’ by industry-led groups regardless of the facts on the ground.

Sugar and palm oil linked to violence and killings can be ingredients in all kinds of everyday products. Amnesty International traced palm oil from Indonesian plantations with reported human rights abuses to nine multinational food and household corporations with dozens of brands.

“We invite consumers to join us in campaigning alongside defenders, taking their fight to the corridors of power and the boardrooms of corporations. We will make sure their voices are heard,” said Leather.

Whether they are linked to conflicts over agribusiness or extractive industries, killings are at the extreme end of the spectrum of violence and harassment against land and environmental defenders.

A banner highlighting the legitimacy of resistance hangs along the road in Casillas, Guatemala, where a regional resistance movement has shut down traffic to Tahoe Resources’ Escobal mine for more than a year. (Photo: Sandra Cuffe)

Criminalization, death threats, sexual assault, and intimidation are everyday occurrences in many parts of the world.

Franklin Almendares is all too familiar with targeted intimidation. The head of the National Centre for Rural Workers (CNTC), he had been meeting with representatives from other Honduran land rights organisations this past February to discuss land struggles and the ongoing political crisis in the country, and there was much to talk about.

It was after midnight by the time he left the meeting. There was almost no traffic in Tegucigalpa at that time of night, but Almendares did not make it more than three blocks from the meeting when a vehicle suddenly crashed into his. Due to past attacks against him, Almendares opted to keep driving, but the other vehicle maneuvered around to the front of his, blocking his path. Two of the four men got out, pulled Almendares from his vehicle, frisked him for a weapon, and searched his bag.

“The only thing they robbed was my agenda,” Almendares told Toward Freedom. It was not the first time this had happened to him. “I’ve had my agenda stolen four times,” he said.

A police patrol truck had suddenly appeared a few minutes after the incident and officers tried to convince Almendares to get in and accompany them to search for the perpetrators. He declined, and the police officers did not bother to take notes, ask for details, or even inspect vehicle damage before leaving.

Almendares decided to go to the police station downtown to file a formal report, but he was intercepted along the way by a different police patrol truck, this time with both police and military personnel aboard. They knew who he was and what had happened. Fearing for his safety, Almendares declined their offer to accompany him and quickly took off for home, making sure he wasn’t followed. Regional CNTC leaders also face frequent intimidation, threats, and attacks.

“At CNTC we’re in a permanent state of crisis,” said Almendares. “Lands are being handed over for monoculture crops, dams and mining.”

Thousands of campesinos have been criminalized, and both public security forces and paramilitary groups have been attacking communities defending their lands, he said. Between the increasing concentration of power since the 2009 coup d’état and the fiercely contested re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernández last November, Almendares expects things to get even worse, and he is not alone.

The new Global Witness report addressed Honduras in its review of trends in 2017. The group documented four killings of land and environmental defenders in the country, a sharp drop from the 14 in 2016. However, Honduras still had the second most killings per capita in 2017, after seven consecutive years with the notorious distinction of holding the lead. Despite a drop in killings, repression of human rights defenders in general increased, as did attacks, the report authors noted.

In neighbouring Guatemala, killings have shot up drastically this year. To date in 2018, at least a dozen land and environmental defenders have been killed, and most of them were indigenous. According to the Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit of Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), the first eleven killings this year included five Campesino Development Committee (CODECA) members, three members of the Campesino Committee of the Highlands (CCDA), a Maya Chorti community leader, a Quetzaltenango social pastoral land group affiliate, and a member of the Coordination of Communities Affected by Sugar Cane Agribusiness.

“In 2018, it’s possible to predict a greater risk, not just due to the political and social context but also because the cost of attacking a defender has greatly dropped due to the inaction, tolerance, complicity and behaviour of the state, opening the door for state and non-state actors to consider that impunity will be guaranteed if they act against [defenders],” UDEFEGUA noted in a report published earlier this year.

This month, on July 12, another Guatemalan defender was killed. Ángel Estuardo Quevedo, a community leader from Casillas, Santa Rosa, was shot several times in broad daylight. He was an active participant in the powerful regional resistance movement to Tahoe Resources’ Escobal mine, and was involved in coordinating the rotation of residents participating in protest actions.

Locals from several municipalities in the area have been working together for more than a year to maintain an ongoing roadside protest in Casillas to block mine traffic and stop mine production. The movement also maintains a round-the-clock presence outside the Constitutional Court in Guatemala City pending a ruling concerning the mine.

For years, community leaders, activists and residents organised in opposition to the Escobal mine have been killed, attacked, jailed, and threatened. Miguel Ángel Payeras is one of the countless Casillas residents who experienced repression last year, when police attempted to violently evict the roadside protest camp in order to escort fuel to the mining project.

“They came with the intention of fighting with us,” Payeras told Toward Freedom in an interview last year. “They shot tear gas at people running away.”

A diabetic with vision and leg issues, Payeras uses a wheelchair and was unable to flee. Police dragged him away in his chair, and the foot in which he has no feeling was dragged along underneath the footrest, hitting his ankle over and over. Despite the repression, people regrouped and others poured in from nearby communities and other municipalities to maintain the protest camp and the selective roadblock to prevent mining operations. The resistance has continued every single day since.

If the first half of this year is any indication, the next annual Global Witness report could very well reveal that Guatemala took over as the country with the most per capita killings of land and environmental defenders in 2018. Despite the life-and-death stakes, defenders are not backing down.

“We’ll be here until the mine is shut down,” said Payeras. “If they kill me, I’ll die in the struggle.”

Sandra Cuffe is a freelance journalist based in Honduras. You can find her on twitter at @Sandra_Cuffe or read more of her work on her website at

Toward Freedom ( is an organisation that has been offering a progressive perspective on world affairs since 1952.

Guatemala: teleSUR Correspondent Attacked By Men With Machetes

The report on the need for Mayan resistance to the Oxec (and other) hydroelectric projects – also reported in this month’s additions to The Violence of Development website – is supported here by a teleSUR report on violence suffered by one of its journalists investigating the illegal logging and other damages done by the Oxec hydroelectric project. 

teleSUR, 24 August 2018 

Rolanda de Jesús García Hernández was filming the consequences of alleged illegal logging by a hydroelectric company when men threatened her with machetes. A teleSUR correspondent in Guatemala, the Indigenous Mayan K’iche journalist Rolanda de Jesús García Hernández, was attacked and robbed of her equipment while reporting on a hydroelectric project and illegal logging by unknown attackers who threatened to kill her.

García and another teleSUR correspondent, Santiago Botón, were summoned by the Q’eqchi’ community authorities of Sacta, on Cahabón’s riverside, to investigate illegal logging believed to be connected to the Oxec hydroelectric project. García travelled there to meet with local authorities, who accompanied her investigation on August 21 [2018].

García, with community leader Francisco Tec, walked for an hour to reach a community on Sacte mountain which has been severely affected by logging. Once there, they interviewed locals and filmed some of the affected areas for a T.V. reportage.

“The people were very worried; we interviewed them on the stop, as part of my job,” García told a press conference on Friday. “I managed to film some images, some shots with the locals. At the other side we saw there were some employees from the Oxec company. After a few minutes, they started yelling at us.”

The employees then approached the reporting team and tried to take the cameras. They then shouted sexually suggestive threats at García in Spanish.

The reporting team decided to leave the area, but got separated. García stopped at a small river, where she was surrounded by six men who threatened her with machetes.

“Employees of the Oxec Hydroelectric detained the journalist Rolanda de Jesús García, along with community members of Sacte in the Cahabón municipality, Alta Verapaz. The journalist was doing her journalism work when detained.”

García sent a text message just after 3 p.m. local time, saying: “In Cahabón, just informing you I’m in an ugly place, they want to take the camera away.” The attackers then seized the camera and threw it into the river.

“Our boss gets mad when someone enters his private property,” one of the men told García, stressing that the group knew who she was and where to find her. After threatening to rape and kill her then throw her body into the river, the men finally released García when she promised never to return. The incident has been reported to police.

People living on the Cahabón river say erosion and flooding have increased dramatically with the illegal logging allegedly related to the Oxec hydroelectric company, but the government is ignoring their plight.

“We can’t remain silent, it’s important to denounce this truth,” García said. “We’ve been the witnesses of several arrests and criminalization against the leaders, and now the press is being persecuted.”

“I fear for my life. I was warned they know who I am and took pictures and video of me. I was threatened and I was told their boss would have the files” – Rolanda García Hernández, teleSUR correspondent.

Guatemala’s social leaders, especially those involved in human rights and environmental issues, are often criminalized by the government and private companies whose economic interests are at stake, occasionally resulting in murder.

García said: “It would seem like it’s a confrontation between brothers and sisters, but we know this persecution comes from groups that are behind all these actions because when the communities try to speak to the cameras, the radios, to denounce, what they immediately receive is persecution. We’re also at risk.”

Several Guatemalan and international alternative media outlets and human rights groups are standing in solidarity with García, condemning the attack and demanding the Public Ministry prevent such assaults on freedom of speech.

The Oxec Hyodroelectric has denied any responsibility for the incident or having knowledge of García’s journalistic work.

The Escazú Agreement: Defending Front Line Defenders

The following report from the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL, outlines the importance of the use of law in the struggle to defend those who defend their land, environment and rights. We are grateful to CIEL for allowing reproduction of this summary through their Creative Commons License.

Last month, the landmark Escazú Agreement entered into full force. It’s the first regional environmental agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the first-ever agreement to include specific provisions for the protection of environmental human rights defenders.

It specifies the rights of defenders, including their right to freedom of expression, free movement, and peaceful assembly. It includes transformational measures that obligate States to ensure every person can access information on environmental matters, while guaranteeing public participation in decision-making and access to justice.

These provisions are especially critical now, because the number of defenders killed in the region and worldwide has steadily increased over the last few years. According to a report by Front Line Defenders, 264 human rights defenders were killed in the Americas in 2020. That’s an average of five people killed every week.

The pandemic has only made matters worse: criminalisation, harassment, and reprisals against human rights defenders intensified last year. A Colombian organisation, Programa Somos Defensores, reported that in the first six months of 2020, there was a 61% increase in the number of defenders killed in Colombia compared to the same period the previous year. And the current situation of fragility and conflict in the country has intensified the violence against all residents. The Escazú Agreement has the power to reverse this trend and save lives.

But a game-changing milestone like this doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen in isolation. Together with partners, CIEL has been an advocate for environmental democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean for three decades. Now that the Agreement has come into force, we must make sure it is meaningfully implemented. For the treaty to work, governments and companies must recognise the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities to be properly informed and consulted about development projects that will impact them and participate in decisions about what happens to their environment. CIEL has been advocating for this through monitoring and community accompaniment for decades, and with partners, we’re ready to put this new treaty to work for people and the planet.


Costa Rica: land of natural wonders and threats to those who defend them

This is an extended version of Box 9.3 which appears in the book (page 182).

A small selection of the threats suffered by Costa Rican environmentalists follows:

1989 – the death in suspicious circumstances of the indigenous Antonio Zúñiga, who opposed illegal hunting in the Ujarrás Indigenous Reserve.

1992 – the death from shooting of Oscar Quirós, a leader in the fight against deforestation in Sarapiquí.

1994 – the death in a fire, whose cause was never satisfactorily explained, of Oscar Fallas, Jaime Bustamente and María del Mar Cordero, leaders of the Costa Rican Ecologists Association (AECO) who had run a strong campaign against the Stone Forestal company, then a subsidiary of Stone Container, a US company.

1995 – the death of David Maradiaga, a poet, ecologist and leader of AECO, after a mysterious disappearance for three weeks.

1995 – simultaneous house fires of the homes of Wilfredo Rojas (a geologist) and Elizabeth González, both professional members of the Campaign Against the Landfill Dump in Cordel de Mora.

1990s – constant threats received by members of the country’s ecological movement after denouncing environmental damage; cases include Ana Cristina Rossi (writer), Patricia Sánchez (journalist) and León González (forestry engineer).

1999 – repression and arrest of ecologists on a peaceful march to demand a moratorium on deforestation in the Osa Peninsula.

2005 – Didier Leitón Valverde – see Box 2.1 (page 35) in the book.

2007 – the lawsuit intervening against a programme on the University of Costa Rica Channel 15 made by ecologists Marielena Fournier and Fredy Pacheco.

2000s – intimidation against Alcides Parajeles, a campesino who opposes illegal hunting and felling in the Osa Peninsula; threats include the destruction of his stock fencing and firearms pointed at his family.

2008 – threats to the residents of the Perla de Guácimo as a result of their complaints against the contamination of their water by pineapple cultivation.

2009 – Aquiles Rivera – see Box 2.1 (page 35) in the book.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, other Costa Ricans who have been the subject of threats and intimidation as a result of their defence of the environment and rights include: Carlos Arguedas, Abel Sánchez, Marco Tulio Araya, Orlando Barrantes, Marta Blanco, Era Verde, Cristino Lázaro, Yamileth Astorga, Marielena Fournier, Fredy Pacheco, Ronald Vargas and Santos Coronado – amongst others.

Honduran environmentalists under threat

The following article was included in the January 2008 ENCA Newsletter (no.44) as a report on a summer 2007 ENCA study tour of Honduras.

By Martin Mowforth

ENCA’s 2007 environmental study tour of Honduras met with our Honduran counterparts who work in a range of grassroots socio-environmental organisations there. We met and spent several days with members of the Fundación Prolansate, the Olancho Environmental Movement (MAO), the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH) and the International Centre for Information on Cover Crops (CIDICCO). With several members of these organisations we also attended the launch of an Amnesty International report on ‘Persecution and Resistance: The experience of human rights defenders in Guatemala and Honduras’.

Even before our involvement with Amnesty International, it is no exaggeration to say that we had been shocked by the level of danger suffered by our Honduran counterparts in these organisations. Had we been aware of this beforehand, we would have allowed ourselves at least a couple of days after each of our visits to these organisations to absorb the reality of the threats they have to live with. A little background may be helpful to explain the situation our partner organisations face, along with a few details of some of the assassinations which have already occurred and the threats currently faced.

In the 1980s, whilst wars raged around Honduras, the country became known as USS Honduras for its role in harbouring, training and supplying the contras in Nicaragua. In that decade it developed its own death squads – like most of the death squads in Latin America, they were inspired and trained, overtly and covertly, by branches of the US government – to snuff out dissent and opposition within its own borders.

The peace accords and the end of the wars fought in the territories of its three neighbours (Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua) did not exactly bring an end to the activities of the death squads in Honduras. The political targets were replaced by those deemed appropriate for a spot of social cleansing – street children and vagrants. Casa Alianza (a street childrens’ organisation which works in a number of Central American capital cities) reports the violent deaths and arbitrary executions of 3,395 children and youths from 1998 to 2006 (inclusive)[1] – a systematic form of genocide, or as Casa Alianza calls it “a selective policy of extermination”.

But the death squads also began to make themselves available for other targets, one of which was provided by environmentalists and social activists who were leading protests against the indifference, disruption, dislocation and contamination caused by commercial activities and so-called development projects. Since the assassination of Jeannette Kawas in 1995, environmentalists in Honduras have been a major target for the death squads.

Jeannette-Kawas-300x297Jeannette Kawas (pictured) was the President of Fundación Prolansate, an environmental and conservation organisation which has the responsibility for the care of a number of protected areas on the northern coast of Honduras around Tela Bay. It was as a result of her work that these areas were granted stronger protection by the Honduran state and that a large area around Punta Sal was awarded the status of a National Park. But this work did not please everyone, and the advances made during her presidency of Prolansate were seen as obstacles to the development of a number of business projects. The organisation was involved in campaigns against transnational companies which were deforesting and polluting the local environment. It was also involved in a local controversy which approved the movement of landless campesinos (supported by the Honduran Ministries of Agriculture and Tourism) into areas under Prolansate’s protection. Moreover, the area was seen as ripe for tourism investment, and land purchases by interested companies and individuals (even without the construction of tourism infrastructure) had already forced up land values and converted the area into a source of capital accumulation.

Jeannette Kawas was assassinated in February 1995, and still nobody has been brought to justice for the crime. Despite all the possible sources of violence given above, it is currently believed that the intellectual author of the crime was Jorge Montoya who had sold land for logging, the permit for which was cancelled by AFE-COHDEFOR, the state Forestry Commission, under Jeannette Kawas’ prompting and local management.

Carlos-Escaleras-r-220x300Carlos Escaleras (pictured) was assassinated in October 1997. Throughout the 1990s Carlos coordinated the efforts and campaigns of COPA, the Coordinating Body of Popular Organisations of Aguán, and in this role he often found himself and the organisation protesting about the contamination caused by a palm oil extraction plant owned by Miguel Facussé, a rich and powerful businessman and nephew of a former President of Honduras. Amongst others, Facussé has been accused of the intellectual authorship of the assassination of Carlos, but “the parliamentary immunity of some, the economic, political and military power of others and the complicity of judges and magistrates have been the obstacles to justice; as a result of these, the intellectual authors and material assassins have remained wrapped in impunity”[2].

Carlos Antonio Luna (pictured left) was assassinated in May 1998 at the age of 42. He fought against illegal timber felling in the region of Catacamas in the department of Olancho and exposed those responsible for it. In April he received death threats, and he left with COFADEH (the Honduran Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared) a note to say that if anything happened to him, the intellectual authors of the threats were Lincoln Figueroa, a nationalist deputy who, it was known, had already remarked that only killing Carlos Luna would solve thCarlos-Antonio-Luna-pictured-left-256x300eir problems; Jorge Chávez, a timber merchant; José Angel Rosa, another timber merchant who had repeatedly threatened Carlos with death; and the Soto family who were involved in the illegal exploitation and trafficking of timber. Jorge Chávez was captured in 2002 and served four years in jail, gaining his freedom in 2006. The other intellectual authors remain free. The material assassin Oscar Rodríguez is currently serving a 27 year sentence for the crime.

Carlos Roberto Flores (pictured right) was 28 when he was assassinated in June 2001. He paid with his life for his opposition to the Babilonia hydroelectric project. Six security guards of Energisa, the company responsible for the project, are accused as material perpetrators of the crime – three of them have been detained and three have fled. Accused as intellectual authors of the crime is Héctor Julián Borjas Rivera, President of the Energisa company, which had received a $270 million loan from the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (BCIE) for the project. He has not been arrested.

José Mauricio Hernández Cáceres was assassinated in November 2002. He was killed because of his public opposition to illegal logging in Olancho. In 2004, Alexis Días Cáceres was sentenced to 20 years in prison for committing the crime with two accomplices who were given lesser sentences. Within the communities in Olancho in which José was known, it is widely believed that the intellectual authors of the assassination are Rúben Antúnez (a cattle rancher), Francisco Zúñiga (mayor of the communCarlos-Roberto-Flores-pictured-right-203x300ity of Jano and an exploiter of the local forest timber) and Juan Lanza (a timber merchant).

Carlos Arturo Reyes (pictured below left)Carlos Arturo Reyes (pictured right) was 23 years old when he was assassinated in July 2003. After the March For Life in 2003, his name appeared on a death list of environmentalists to be assassinated. Carlos’s brother, Francisco Nahín Reyes Méndez, is believed to be responsible for the assassination. Francisco is known for his violent character and is also believed to have killed his girlfriend. It is thought that he was used by the logging companies to carry out this crime, after which he fled to the USA. But he returned several months later and is still at large in Honduras.

In December 2006, two members of the Environmental Movement of Olancho (MAO by its Spanish initials), Heraldo Zúñiga and Roger Iván Cartagena, were shot dead in the town of Guarizama, in Olancho. They were killed in execution style bCarlos-Arturo-Reyes-pictured-right-216x300y four members of the national police who are now in custody. The MAO has consistently campaigned against illegal logging in Olancho department since the year 2000 and has not been afraid to name the names of those responsible and to denounce corrupt officials of COHDEFOR, the Honduran Forestry Development Commission, which issues permits for felling. In May 2006 Heraldo Zúñiga stated that he had received several death threats after publicly exposing cases of illegal logging in the west of the department. That same month the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) requested information about this case from the Honduran government, which implemented protective measures for Padre Andres Tamayo, leader of the MAO. No protective measures for other members of the MAO were implemented. After the executions of the two MAO members in December 2006, the IACHR ordered the Honduran government to provide protection for other members of the MAO, but as ENCA members discovered during their visit in August 2007, no such protection has yet been provided.

The litany of assassinations could continue, but space prevents it. Today’s most pressing concern is the list of those currently living under threat of death or of persecution and prosecution by the authorities acting upon accusations made by the illegal loggers and companies whose operations they oppose. Those under threat of death include those listed after the first March For Life in June 2003, when thousands of people walked more than 170 km from Juticalpa in Olancho department to Tegucigalpa to demand an end to the illegal timber operations in Olancho. The march was headed by Padre Andres Tamayo, the priest in the town of Salamá, who now has a permanent bodyguard of Honduran soldiers because of the death threats he has received. Padre Andres drove us around various parts of Olancho to show us the deforestation, the areas where the MAO and local communities have blockaded roads to stop the loggers, the places where unarmed local residents have experienced tense stand-offs against hired gangs armed with AK-47s and Uzis. But what disturbs members of the MAO most is the threats faced by other members of the MAO who have no bodyguards and no protection despite the IACHR’s instructions to the Honduran government. Recent history shows that the threats are not idle. The logging companies and all those who profit from the operation will stop at nothing to ensure the profits they gain from selling their timber to the USA and Europe[3].

[1] Casa Alianza UK Newsletter, February 2007. 35 per cent (1,193) of these were children under the age of 18.
[2] Comité de Familiares de Detenidos-Desaparecidos en Honduras (COFADEH) (2006) Erguidos Como Pinos: Memoria sobre la construcción de la conciencia ambientalista, Tegucigalpa, page 48.
[3] Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) (2005) ‘The Illegal Logging Crisis in Honduras: How US and EU imports of illegal Honduran wood increase poverty, fuel corruption and devastate forests and communities’. The report is available from the EIA’s website: