Catacamas is the largest municipality in Central America, home to thousands of square kilometers of pristine forest. Political elites in this remote part of Honduras have maintained a profitable relationship with timber traffickers for decades. Their power, cemented by allowing corporations to pillage Catacamas’ natural wealth and their government connections, has allowed them to murder those who speak out against them, grow rich off the deforestation of cedar, mahogany and pine trees, and even possibly assist drug traffickers.

César Luna’s three bodyguards have left the room. He wants to speak freely. Sitting in the dining room of his house alone, Luna takes out his phone and prepares to play an audio clip that changes his life. Luna returned to the town in 2016 after going into self-imposed exile to protect his family. But while the Honduran government has assigned him protection, Luna remains under threat: He does not stay more than a week in the same place. He visits his family only occasionally, and he is always armed.

Prior to sitting down in the dining room, Luna started to make coffee and placed his 9mm pistol in the next room. While he waits for the water to boil, he puts his cellular phone on the table and searches for an audio file that is over 20 years old. The audio is a central part of the story of why his father was killed. After a minute or so, Luna finally finds it and presses the play button.

*This is the second chapter of a four-part series on timber trafficking across Latin America, carried out over two years by InSight Crime in collaboration with American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies. This investigation involved extensive fieldwork in Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Peru, during which we interviewed dozens of government officials, members of security forces, academics, smugglers, landowners and local residents, among others. Read the entire series here.

“It is dangerous that, in Catacamas, we have not put up a barrier to defend our ecological reserves,” the faint voice of Carlos Luna can be heard telling the local Radio América. “This is the main entrance for groups of ranchers who have the habit of saying they are going to build a farm. Building a farm for them involves carrying a dozen chainsaws, clearing hectares of land and setting fire to them. Many of these people, and here we must speak clearly — there have been army colonels, there have been deputies from the National Congress … There is no hope they will make any laws to protect the forest because they themselves are predators.”

It was a bold, death-defying assertion. But Carlos Luna continued. Specifically, he denounced two people who he said were profiting from the Olancho forest around Catacamas: Freddy Salgado, then the mayor of Catacamas; and Lincoln Figueroa, a farmer who became wealthy off timber trafficking in the northern mountains of Honduras before becoming a congressman with the National Party (Partido Nacional — PN) in 1998.

By then, the logging mafia led by Salgado and Figueroa had usurped numerous properties that border Olancho’s pine, cedar and mahogany forests. This was, according to a 2013 report by the United Kingdom, a typical way for these traffickers to expand their holdings. “Many large property owners were able to increase the size of their properties through economic, political and even coercive pressure,” it read, without making direct reference to Figueroa and Salgado.

Carlos Luna, a Honduran environmental activist murdered in 1998 (Photo: Luna family)

Days later, César went to his father’s office to bring him lunch. Minutes later, two gunmen killed Carlos Luna as he walked out Catacamas mayor’s office.

“I was a witness to the murder,” César says as the audio of his father goes silent.

The investigation into the murder was handled by the Honduran justice system and then by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Both investigations zeroed in on Figueroa and Salgado, who they believed had ordered the hit. In 1999, Figueroa was named as a suspect by the Honduran Attorney General’s Office. And in 2004, a hitman was sentenced to 20 years in prison for killing Luna, but not before naming former mayor Freddy Salgado as one of those responsible.

But the inquiry was, in the end, a tragic farce, a report by the IAHCR showed. Prosecutors and judges assigned to the case were frequently swapped. The witness who named Salgado was shot dead in 2008. Political pressure and threats abounded. And Figueroa and Salgado never formally faced any charges.

Catacamas – A Logging Mecca

Catacamas is pivotal to the country’s illegal logging industry. The town of 45,000 people in the department of Olancho serves as a transport hub, a political power base and an access point to the vast forest reserve bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and Nicaragua.

All goods, both legal and illegal, produced inside the Río Plátano Biosphere, the Tawahka Reserve and the Patuca River National Park — the principal hubs of forest reserves in Honduras — pass through Catacamas. Highway RN83 connects the town to Dulce Nombre de Culmí, an enclave of the protected areas where prized trees grow. This road has become a major avenue for the moving of illegal timber, as the particularly coveted pines grow just 15 kilometers outside of town.

Jorge Yánez, an environmental activist and formr councilman in Catacamas, was an ally of Carlos Luna and has taken up much of his fight. He says Figueroa and other members of the ruling National Party are closely connected to illegal logging across Olancho. In some cases, these networks control the entire distribution chain for the timber, as Carlos Luna told Radio América before being murdered.

The Rio Plátano Biosphere, in northeastern Honduras, has seen numerous pine trees felled illegally (Photo: Catacamas municipal mayor’s office)

Yánez and César Luna told InSight Crime that, in Catacamas, the trafficking follows a pattern: Landowners and town officials team up to buy small plots of land, clear the forest cover and sell the wood, then use the area to raise cattle. Most of this wood, they say, is illegally-sourced.

To launder the wood, the loggers doctor or just ignore logging permits issued by Honduras’ Institute of Forest Conservation (Instituto de Conservación Forestal de Honduras — ICF). In practice, this means the loggers simply cut more timber than is registered on the permit. If they think the harvested wood might be inspected, the landowner simply falsifies the original permit to make it coincide with the total amount of timber being harvested.

Honduras’ National Commission for Human Rights has also reported that fake property claims are being used to access new plots of land. This is an important source of wood since most of the timber harvested in Honduras comes from private property. Along the way, the loggers bribe police and local officials, who allow them to expand their operations into new plots of land and sometimes provide them with the documentation to do it.

According to Yánez, this illicit association benefits other criminal economies, such as cattle rustling, illegal cattle grazing and drug trafficking. An hour’s drive from Dulce Nombre de Culmí, the dirt road narrows and the pine forest thickens near a settlement called Pisijines. But beyond that, near another settlement known as Marañones, the rows of pines gradually peter out and are replaced by green pastures cleared by the logging mafia and populated by cattle.

“There are no more woods there,” he said. “Inland, it’s only cattle…They’ve killed the forest.”

Carlos Luna – a Marked Man

Lincoln Figueroa had a strange path to congress. In the 1980s, Figueroa left his home village of Manto and moved to Río Blanco, near Catacamas. He found work on the land of Reinaldo Antonio Sánchez, a cattle farmer who later sent Figueroa to develop a logging business on some nearby land.

Figueroa soon developed a profitable business model: buy land, clear it of forest and sell it on to large landowners in the area. One of Figueroa’s first business partners was José Ángel Rosa, known around Catacamas as “Chango”. The two opened a sawmill where they processed the wood.

The illegal logging caught Carlos Luna’s attention and in 1994, the then-Catacamas councilman filed a formal complaint with Clarisa Vega, Honduras’ environmental prosecutor at the time, alleging that Chango and Figueroa were illegally sourcing timber to process and launder into the legal supply chain. (InSight Crime could not get a copy of the complaint but spoke with Vega in 2018, who confirmed that Luna had filed it.)

In 1998, Mayor Freddy Salgado appointed Carlos Luna to head up the town’s environmental commission in a move that surprised even Luna himself. Luna used his new platform to continue denouncing illegal logging in Catacamas, mostly via Radio América, but also via other media. Unhappy with the results, Luna eventually went to the Attorney General’s Office in Tegucigalpa.

He also began targeting specific companies involved in the logging, including Productos Forestales Figueroa (PROFOFI), IMARA y La Fosforera, for allegedly creating logging cooperatives that only responded to the interests of Figueroa and other Catacamas’ barons in order to launder wood that was illegally harvested from Olancho. The Figueroa in PROFOFI was because Lincoln Figueroa was its owner. InSight Crime tried to contact mayor Figueroa to get his comments for this report but received no answer.

By 1998, Chango was one of the most powerful cattle ranchers in Catacamas and Carlos Luna was on his radar. On February 26, the two crossed paths and Rosa allegedly threatened Luna, putting a gun to his head and then firing into the air, according to the IACHR report.

César Luna recalled the incident happened at a tire shop and that Rosa had tried to scare his father. Carlos Luna reported the event to a prosecutor, who tried a reconciliation process. During a meeting, Rosa accepted he had threatened Luna but apologized, claiming to have been drunk. It appears the prosecutor took the matter no further.

And in March 1998, Carlos Luna told El Heraldo newspaper that he had received new threats because reports he had issued regarding Rosa’s trafficking operations.

But Rosa kept coming. On April 10, 1998, he called Carlos Luna and said he had “the money, the weapons and the people to kill him and his family,” according to the IACHR report.

Luna soon expanded his list of targets and simultaneously the list of those who wanted him killed. On April 21, shortly after Salgado named Luna to be in charge of environmental affairs, Luna began an investigation into deforestation and timber trafficking in an area known as Quebrada de Catacamas where two other loggers in the region, Jorge Adolfo Chávez and Roberto Núñez, were operating. And on May 13, five days before Luna was killed, Chávez allegedly crossed paths with him and pointed a gun at him.

“He [Luna] doesn’t know who he’s messing with,” Chávez reportedly told one of his relatives shortly after the encounter with Luna, according to testimonies recorded for the IACHR. “I was a soldier.”

César Luna told the IACHR that Salgado then tried to bribe his father into dropping all investigations. Luna declined. Instead, he scheduled a press conference for May 20. The press conference never happened.

SEE ALSO: How Drug Traffickers Became Masters of Honduras’ Forests

On May 18, at about 11 a.m., just after a Catacamas city council meeting, Carlos Luna and two colleagues were walking outside of City Hall when two young men approached them and opened fire. Carlos pulled his weapon and returned fire, but one bullet hit him in the back. Another councilwoman, Silvia González, was hit in the head.

Carlos’ friends scrambled, including Mayor Salgado who loaned them his car. Luna was still conscious when his friends drove them to a hospital in Catacamas. His son, César, who had come to City Hall to bring his father lunch, jumped in the car with them.

But the hospital was closed, and the car was running out of gas, so they scrambled to switch to another car and drove to the city of Juticalpa, an hour away. There, they were rushed into surgery but by then Luna was dead. González was in critical condition.

Before turning over Luna’s body to his family, a doctor gave César Luna the bullet that had killed his father.

Illegal Loggers Become Drug Traffickers

In October 2016, Honduran authorities mounted a huge operation in the hills of Olancho, beyond Catacamas and Dulce Nombre de Culmí. There they dismantled a clandestine runway, seized 2,000 board feet of timber and raided 45 properties. Most of the assets belonged to a family known as Los Amador, according to agents quoted by Honduran media.

The links between timber and organized crime ran deep within the Amador, all the way back to the murder of Carlos Luna in 1998. One of the men who shot Luna was Ítalo Iván Lemus, who, according to a former prosecutor who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity for his personal safety, worked for the Amador family.

A key witness in the 2001 trial of Jorge Chávez, another alleged planner of Luna’s killing, said that Lemus was one of the killers. In 2004, that same witness had been hired by Chango Rosa, among others, to commit the crime. Lemus was initially acquitted but later sentenced to 18 years in prison for the murder.

But Chango Rosa would live to regret getting involved with the Amador family. On June 30, 2008, he was shot dead outside his house in Catacamas. One Honduran official who has long investigated timber and drug trafficking in Olancho told InSight Crime Los Amador killed Chango, as he had begun to move drugs inside the Río Patuca reserve.

In Olancho, the name Amador is more closely tied to drug trafficking. While less powerful but equally violent as Honduras’ most notorious drug trafficking clans — Los Cachiros and Los Valles — Los Amador have a peculiar characteristic: before being drug dealers, they were loggers.

The Amador family began building their domain in Catacamas and the mountains of Olancho by buying land from small farmers along the Patuca and Tawahka natural reserves, much like Lincoln Figueroa did.

“They bought land in Manto, in Najao and in Cuyamal,” one local anti-drug investigator told InSight Crime regarding where Los Amador expanded the territory that would soon be used for drug trafficking.

The investigator, who asked for anonymity due to his long involvement in anti-drug operations in northern Honduras, said that once Los Amador had established routes over land and by river, they quickly began using them to move shipments of cocaine that landed on clandestine landing strips.

“These routes stretch to Nicaragua, they are used to move wood and drugs alike through the rivers and mountain paths,” the investigator explained.

In 2015, the police captured Moisés Aguinaldo Amador Godoy, sparking a feud between Los Amador and other criminal groups they believed had worked as informants for the Honduran police and army. But before the feud could speed up, the Amador were neutralized following the arrests of key leaders.

Still, Ítalo Iván Lemus, the member who was paid to kill Luna, never went to jail. He is technically a fugitive from justice. Apart from a brief unsuccessful attempt to arrest him in 2016, Lemus has been untroubled.

For his part, Figueroa has plenty more enemies who have formally accused him of a range of crimes. The politician has always denied these claims. Of his chief critic, César Luna, he says he is jealous. And to date, the charismatic politician has been able to survive these accusations, maintain his status within the National Party and keep his tight grip on Catacamas.

César Luna has continued the environmental fight his father led for two decades in Honduras (Photo: César Luna)

To be sure, for over twenty years, attempts to prosecute Figueroa have been unsuccessful. His critics say this is because Figueroa has built up a strong network of supporters. These supporters include Reinaldo Sánchez Rivera, the son of Reinaldo Antonio Sánchez who was the rancher who gave Figueroa his start as a logger. Sánchez Rivera was a private secretary to former president Porfirio Lobo (2010-2014) and later became the minister of development. He is now the president of the ruling National Party.

“Lincoln has led the agricultural devastation of pine woods, [which have been] turned into pastures,” Luna insists. “He is the biggest logger in Catacamas.”

Back at his house in Catacamas, Luna says goodbye. The next day, he says he will travel to another city, where his family has made their home since his father was killed. Having never found justice in the courts, he hopes to find it in politics. Like his father, he is now a town councilor for Catacamas.

*Additional reporting by Wendy Funes.

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