A bloody and long-running land dispute in Honduras has claimed dozens of lives, and some parties to the conflict claim that drug traffickers and foreign armed groups are involved.
Violence broke out in Bajo Aguan, a region that lies in the northeastern provinces of Colon and Yoro, when 11 people died in two incidents in mid-August. Like so much about the conflict in that region, the facts of the deaths are unclear -- in the first incident, the government said that six private security guards were killed in an attack by a group of armed peasants who were attempting to take over a farm. The next day, five civilians were apparently murdered in a revenge attempt, despite having no connection to the land reform movement.
Days later, Secundino Ruiz, head of the Authentic Peasant Protest Movement of Aguan (MARCA) was shot by masked men riding a motorbike. They made off with a large sum of money he was carrying, causing officials to say it was probably a robbery. However, the style of the attack, combined with the current highly charged situation in Bajo Aguan and the victim's place as leader of a prominent land reform movement, suggest that it was more likely a hired kill. The next day, the vice-president of another peasant body, the Unified Peasant Movement of Aguan (MUCA), and his wife were gunned down in their house, providing further backing to the theory of that the killings were linked to the struggle for land.
The region has been in the throws of a violent land conflict for more than two years. Some 37 people have died since December 2009, 15 of them guards and 17 peasants, according to newspaper El Heraldo. Peasant organizations date the roots of the conflict back to the early 1990s, when change to the law temporarily made it legal for landowners to buy up large tracts of land -- a previous law had banned the ownership of more than 300 hectares. Honduran businessman Miguel Facusse, owner of the company Exportadoras del Atlantico, took the opportunity to purchase thousands of hectares of palm oil farms from peasant cooperatives that had run the land since a previous reform process in the 1960s. In 2009, MUCA claimed that the sale had been illegitimate and demanded the return of the territory, first through legal channels and then by occupying the farms, which they held from December 2009 to February 2010.
In June 2011, after more than a year of talks, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo announced that he had reached a solution to bring an end to the crisis, with a plan to purchase more than 4,000 hectares of palm oil cultivation from Facusse and grant it to peasant organizations. This deal has reportedly fallen through following the latest round of violence. Now the government has sent in another round of reinforcements, bringing the number of troops and police officers in the region to 1,000, and says they will remain there permanently.
Local authorities, and the national government, have gone to great lengths to pin the conflict on outsiders and link the peasants to organized crime. The commander of the army taskforce sent into the area blamed "infiltrators" from Venezuela and Nicaragua who, he said, had come to the region arm and train the peasants, while Colon police chief Julio Benitez suggested that the groups might in fact be criminal gangs “using the name of the peasants.” These allegations have been floating for some time; in February 2010 a leaked intelligence report, seen by newspaper La Prensa, said the peasant groups had “support from leftist movements, training from Colombian guerrillas, and strategic funding from narco-traffickers.” Security Minister Oscar Alvarez said after the most recent round of violence that, “These groups call themselves peasants [but] may be groups of drug traffickers who want to establish themselves in this region and scare people away.” The head of the armed forces, Rene Osorio Canales, threw another nation into the mix, suggesting that Salvadorans could also be involved in fomenting violence in the region.
The evidence for these multi-national conspiracy theories is at best sketchy. Drug traffickers are certainly a powerful presence in Colon, but other reports have tied them to palm oil plantation owners, rather than to the peasant movements. The state, located on the Caribbean coast close to Nicaragua, is a key transit location for trafficking groups moving drugs from South America towards Mexico and the U.S. A statement released by representatives of the Catholic Church in Honduras said that drug traffickers are in the process of becoming big landowners in the region, and that they dominate Bajo Aguan, flaunting their wealth. Similarly, the palm oil landowners have themselves been accused of using foreign firepower, with allegations after a series of killings in November 2010 that Facusse had hired 150 Colombian paramilitaries to form a private army and attack the peasant movements.
Land conflicts in other parts of Latin America, driven by the accumulation of land to grow monocrops such as palm oil, have tended to feature organized criminal groups on the side of big landowners, rather than on the side of the peasants. In the 1990s and 2000s Colombia saw mass displacements carried out by paramilitary groups, who would remove peasants from their land on behalf of big agribusinesses like palm oil.
Palm oil, which comes from African palm trees, has long been a profitable crop, used in food products. Demand has surged in the last decade, as it has become popular as a source of clean energy. In the two decades since 1990, the area under palm oil cultivation worldwide went up 43 percent. This has made it even more profitable to plant vast plots of the trees in countries across Latin America, often worsening the situation in areas already in dire need of land reform.
One of the things driving the massive displacement of small-scale farmers within Colombia was the influx of drug money as the country became a world hub for narco-trafficking in the 1980s. Land ownership was a convenient way to launder vast sums of dirty money, as well as to help a gangster with aspirations to take a step up the social ladder. In Honduras, where land reform has a long and dark history, and where drug gangs are increasingly moving to grab power and influence, the situation could be just as explosive.