"We just want the government to enforce its own laws," we heard over and over again, as we listened to women and men from campesino communities who were testifying about murder, torture and violent land evictions in Bajo Aguán, Honduras.
I was in the farm town of Tocoa, Honduras, in the open-air parish meeting hall, for an International Public Hearing on the Human Rights Situation of the Peasant Communities of Bajo Aguán, on May 28, 2012. LAWG was part of a commission of Latin American, European and U.S. experts hearing the testimony and issuing recommendations to encourage justice and protection for peasant communities (English declaration here; Spanish here). Surrounding the town are miles and miles of massive African palm plantations, beautiful and a bit sinister. The roads leading from Tocoa are filled with army and police roadblocks.
Local human rights organizations have documented the murders of 48 campesinos associated with the campesino movements in Bajo Aguán since January 2012. One campesino leader was disappeared, a number of campesinos have been wounded, and several people have been tortured. There are numerous incidents of threats against campesino activists. In addition, a journalist who had favorably covered the peasant movement, along with his partner, were assassinated.
These abuses are attributed primarily to private security guards on large plantations, as well as to soldiers and police. Campesinos are not the only ones harmed. According to the Attorney General's office, 12 security guards have also been killed during this time period. There are several other deaths that are still not explained.
Soldiers took 16-year-old Santos Bernabe Cruz from his house. "They put a plastic bag over my head, doused me in gasoline and threatened to burn me," he said. ¨They took me to the cemetery, said that there was an open grave to put me in.¨ According to Santos's father, while this crime has been denounced to the Attorney General's office, the family is not aware of progress in attaining justice. ¨They take our information, but then they just shelve the cases."
"We were just trying to call for land, as usual," said Neptaly Equivel, who approached the table where testimony was given on crutches. "But the battalion and the police did not try to dialogue. They threw tear gas, then they shot me in the leg, and beat me with their rifles. When I woke up later in the hospital, I was told that soldiers and police were trying to see me, saying they were my cousins. But I don't have cousins in the police.
"The violence stems from several long-standing, unresolved land conflicts. Much of the disputed land was agrarian reform land granted to cooperatives, and this land was not supposed to be sold. But once the Law to Modernize the Agrarian Sector was passed in 1992, corrupt Agrarian Reform Institute officials and large landowners pressured cooperative leaders to sell their land, often without the consent of the membership. A variety of peasant movements, such as MUCA, MARCA and MCA, for some years have been "recovering" this land, taking it over, farming it, and negotiating with the Agrarian Reform Institute and the large landowners to purchase it back.
"We work the land collectively," said a campesina, "we do everything together, we have built a school. Everything we have, we have created ourselves.
"The plantation security guards along with members of the army and police have violently evicted campesino families.
In Rigores, private security guards and security forces burned the houses to the ground and slaughtered the campesinos' animals.
In Tumbador, 5 campesinos were killed and 5 wounded in an eviction on November 15, 2010.
"It is hard to live without him," testified one of the Tumbador widows. "I leave at 4 AM to work in the fields, I come back at 4 PM, the children are alone. It is hard to be alone. What I can't stand is the injustice of it all. I am afraid."
"I ask for justice," said the son of one farmer who was killed. He was at the edge of tears. "There are many reports, but justice does not come. The life of a campesino is worth nothing."
What is the solution? The Honduran government must seek a just, sustainable solution to the campesinos' demands for land, livelihoods and a life with dignity. All human rights violations and murders in Bajo Aguán must be effectively and promptly investigated. The private security guards that act as the law in Bajo Aguán must be strictly regulated. And the militarization of the area, and any U.S.support for it, should end, as this only brings more violence, not true security.
"We make an urgent call," we said in our mission's declaration,"to all the relevant actors, particularly state institutions, to prevent any act of violence and guarantee that human rights are fully respected."
¨The worst is that our children are growing up with fear¨ said another woman to me after the hearing. I replied that at least they were growing up with the example of their parents standing up for justice. "Yes," she smiled, "that is the good part."