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Latin America Blog

Deadly tensions over land on the rise in Honduras

Gunmen shot dead Honduran farm workers' leader Secundino Ruiz. 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.

By Hannah StoneGuest blogger / August 23, 2011



Violence broke out in Bajo Aguan, a region in the eastern province of Colon, when 11 people died in two incidents in mid-August.

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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 that the killings were linked to the struggle for land.

The region has been in the throes 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 to 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.”

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