Honduras’s Deadly Water Wars
In the lush Bajo Aguán valley, successive land and water conflicts have left over 150 people dead. And the fight is not over yet.
By Jared Olson for The Nation
MARCH 24, 2020
The mine can’t be reached from the gate along the road, which is guarded by soldiers bearing M-16s and a helmeted foreman with a shotgun over his chest.
So if you want to see the sprawling mineral extraction complex being constructed here in Honduras’s lush Bajo Aguán valley, you have to hike past El Guapinol, one of the villages many fear the mine will poison. You ascend a mud-sluiced path of boulders, passing a line of barbed wire to reach a grassy embankment. From there, you can see the excavators, the trucks, the rows of concrete pilings, and the gaping brown hole scraped out of the valley’s verdant floors. The mine, whose conjoining iron oxide processing factory is set to be the largest in Central America, hasn’t been built yet. But blood is already being spilled over it.
“We live in fear every day,” says Reinaldo Domínguez, a resident of El Guapinol, looking out over the construction site in the distance.
Here, in the heart of Carlos Escaleras National Park, at the head of dozens of rivers, a deadly water conflict is playing out between the local oligarchy, intent on extracting as much value from this area as possible, and the residents of the valley’s small villages, who depend on the rivers for much of their sustenance and livelihood. This isn’t the first time these two forces have faced each other in the valley, either. Rather, this conflict is a continuation of over 25 years of bloody strife between the valley’s de facto rulers and the people who live under them.
In its massive wealth inequalities and disparity in land ownership, Honduras is little different from much of the rest of Latin America, its colonial-era oligarchy indirectly buoyed by financial and military aid from over a century of US governments. With its economic fortunes tied closely to banana prices in the first half of the 20th century, and to agricultural products like beef and coffee in the latter, Honduras became a country that supported a small group of wealthy plantation owners on the backs of a much larger group of underpaid laborers. This situation was shaken somewhat by the presidency of Manuel Zelaya, who after his election in 2006 shifted steadily leftward in his policies. But the country’s brief flirtation with progressive policies came to a jarring end in 2009, when a military coup overthrew Zelaya. Since then, impunity for corporate crimes has only increased and the violence used to enforce inequality has skyrocketed.
One of the first post-coup battlegrounds was here in the Bajo Aguán valley. In the 1990s, benefiting from IMF-led structural adjustment measures and in an environment in which campesino activists were being killed or disappeared, Dinant, a Honduran consumer goods corporation founded by Miguel Facussé Barjúm, had succeeded in purchasing the land from the campesinos in order to build a massive African oil palm plantation. Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the landless campesinos had waged a steady legal and bureaucratic campaign to regain 28 farms that had been taken over by Dinant, without success. Soon after the coup that ousted Zelaya, the campesinos decided to resettle the lands themselves, moving into abandoned buildings and setting up encampments on their former lands. This didn’t sit well with the local Dinant-associated oligarchy, and the violence began almost immediately afterwards.
Between 2010 and 2014, over 150 campesinos were killed or “disappeared,” and more detained, in a conflict that pitted valley residents against the Honduran military, local police, and heavily armed private security guards, often working in tandem, according to reporting by The Guardian. The Aguán witnessed a form of low-intensity war: There were accusations of torture; villages were burned down; and over 8,000 soldiers were deployed to the valley.
In late 2013, the Facussés and their allies decided to expand their investments by cashing in on a hastily executed move to resize protected land in Montaña Botaderos, now Carlos Escaleras National Park, in the heart of the mountains immediately to the valley’s south. EMCO mining had been pushing for a mining concession in the region since April 2013. Carlos Escaleras, its darkly serrated ridgelines looming above the Aguán, sits at the heart of the region’s watershed, the fount from which dozens of rivers spill northward through fertile agricultural tablelands to the Caribbean Sea.
The project, which was gearing up to construct an ecologically catastrophic mine that could destroy the agricultural livelihoods of the campesinos who live in the valley, was spearheaded by individuals from the same family that controlled Dinant corporation when that company was allegedly involved in the land conflict killings.
“It’s the same people who are running the mining project,” says Raúl Ramírez, of La Lempira, a campesino settlement and one of the communities next to the mine. “One of the people running the project is the daughter of Miguel Facussé, of the Dinant Corporation.… It’s the same actors.”
The government granted permission to construct the infrastructure for the open-pit mine to Inversiones Los Pinares (“Pinares Investments”), formerly EMCO mining, co-owned by Lenir Pérez and Ana Facussé. Ana’s father, former Dinant head Miguel Facussé Barjúm, who passed away in 2015, was a supporter of the coup that ousted Zelaya,and had been described by the US Embassy as “the wealthiest, most powerful businessman in the country.” State Department cables revealed that his properties were being used to import cocaine as early as 2004, and a 2014 Human Rights Watch report that investigated 29 killings and one disappearance that occurred during the land conflict over Dinant’s palm plantation in Bajo Aguán—which they investigated as a cross section of the more than 150 killings and disappearances—found that in 13 of the deaths, “evidence suggests the possible involvement of private guards.”
When contacted for comment about the land conflict, Dinant prepared a response that said that the company’s employees have never been found to have “conducted illegal activities, used inappropriate force or conspired against any person or organization.” The statement also said that “The Company strongly condemns violence, criminal land seizures, intimidation and all illegal activity. Dinant has been the victim of numerous violent attacks over the years; many Dinant employees have been the victims of such acts.”
Like much in post-coup Honduras, the mining concession was granted under questionable circumstances: On December 16, 2013, in the waning days of President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, Honduran congressional representatives led by a conservative, Ricardo Díaz, pushed through measures to resize Montaña Botaderos, now Carlos Escaleras National Park, cutting 217 hectares from the “core zone” in which construction activity is prohibited. With the land resized, the first exploratory mining concessions were granted to EMCO mining, the previous name for Pinares Investments, hardly a month later, on January 28, 2014.
“The way they did it, the mining company had the opportunity to have the concession given to them,” said Ramón “Moncho” Soto Bonilla, the opposition LIBRE party’s congressman for Colón, where Aguán is located. “It was a cheat—they approved the law overnight so that no one would realize they had done so.”
In the years since 2014, the project has faced resistance from larger cities like Tocoa and from smaller villages like El Guapinol, which is sustained by the flow of the Guapinol River where it leaves Carlos Escaleras. But Pinares has continued exploration through a legal loophole under which iron oxide, its stated target mineral, was categorized as a non-metal at the time the company received its concession.
“The mining law of Honduras says that iron oxide isn’t metal,” says Esly Banegas, a union leader in nearby Tocoa whose son and ex-husband were both assassinated in the land conflict. (This loophole was closed in 2015, but Pinares has not altered their exploration plans.)
Leaping between the clumps of boulders that span the width of the Guapinol, Reinaldo Domínguez leads us to a spot on the river where thick walls of verdant foliage loom like a corridor high overhead. Several of the boulders are painted with chipped acrylic messages—love messages to the water coursing past.
“We love you, Guapinol,” one of the messages reads. “Water is life.”
At this spot this past summer, a young man was reportedly shot in the legs while swimming in the river where it flows past the village of its namesake. The shooting took place because the young man was too close to mining infrastructure, according to community members.
Crossing to the opposing bank, hardly 20 feet into the forest, Domínguez shows us where the perimeter fence for the processing factory being built comes to a corner less than a quarter mile from the village. It stands 15 feet tall, topped with thick, fresh coils of barbed wire that run along the fence as far as the eye can see. Several hundred yards past the fence, you can see the distant crests of dirt embankments and can hear, very faintly, the sound of heavy equipment working.
“We fear for ourselves,” Domínguez concedes. “But we were born here, raised here. We don’t want to leave.”
Eight people, including community leaders, mine workers, and military policemen, have been killed in relation to the proposed Guapinol mine since 2013, the two most recent in November 2019. And though the reasons behind some of the killings have remained murky, with some investigators attesting that some deaths are the result of the overlapping of drug cartel territory with that of the mining company, the deaths have fueled a sustained media campaign by both Pinares and the Honduran government to criminalize the anti-mine movement. Pinares maintains that the source of the violence has been an anti-mine armed gang, an accusation for which there is little to no evidence.
“The reality of Aguán is really complicated,” says Banegas. “It starts with a criminalization of organizations and people… The same [happened] with Berta Cáceres [the murdered Honduran indigenous environmental activist]. It was the same pattern: to criminalize them, wage attacks through social media, false profiles, invented news.”
The specter of environmental fallout from mining looms over Honduras, where 30 percent of the national territory was earmarked for mining concessions following the ’09 coup. The San Martín mine in the country’s Valle del Siria region, for example, having only operated from 2000 to 2009, and in spite of the parent company’s rhetoric of environmental concern, became notorious for producing high, lasting levels of cyanide, arsenic, and mercury in surrounding communities and for the harassment of environmentalists who resisted its presence. Many in the Guapinol region fear that, should the Pinares mine go through, their communities will endure a similar burden.
“We’re going to suffer serious consequences [from the mine]: through the air, the water, through the noise,” says La Lempir’s Ramírez.
Tensions over the Guapinol mine began boiling over in May 2018, when, frustrated over the continued presence of the mine and the seeming acquiescence of municipal authorities in the face of it, residents occupied the Tocoa municipal building for eleven days.
When that failed, residents against the mine shifted strategy.
“The mayor said to us one time,” says Domínguez, “‘Why don’t you go to take over the road that Inversiones Los Pinares used instead of taking over the municipal building?’ And so we did just that.”
The encampment was soon set up to block the CA-13 highway constructed by Pinares, through the village of El Guapinol and into Carlos Escaleras. It lasted 88 days, from August 1 to October 27 of 2018. The stakes had been ratcheted up by that point: The water in the Guapinol River was filling with sediment from a hydroelectric project upstream, part of the growing infrastructure for the forthcoming mine, making the prospect of using the water for drinking, cleaning, or agricultural purposes impossible.
“The water came down looking like chocolate because of the business,” says Gabriela Sorto, whose father, Porfirio Sorto Cedillo, is one of the seven “Water Defenders” who still remain behind bars for their protests against the mine. “The water couldn’t be used for anything, not even for washing your hands, because your hands would come up entirely filled with mud. The Guapinol river is the only source we have to live in our community.”
“The women in the community were saying, ‘My God, what are we going to do with this dirty river, because the water once picked up on your skin was pure mud,’” says Dilma Cruz, the mother of Sorto Cedillo. “The young kids were drinking it as well.”
By September 7, the camp had been cordoned off and besieged. That day, a group of Pinares employees cut off the road so that food and supplies couldn’t get in, and began a first attempt to disperse the protesters.
Rigoberto Hernández, a resident of El Guapinol, was in the camp that day when he was grazed by a bullet fired by people he believes were security guards employed by Pinares.
“On the seventh of September,” he says, “we were in the encampment defending the environment, our water, when I was hit by a bullet in the back, at the hands of [people working for the mine]. I was incoherent. I couldn’t walk. They brought me in a car to a clinic, and I began my recuperation, little by little.”
Nearly a month later, a special court issued arrest warrants for 21 of the men involved in the protest, sparking a series of raids and operations by the authorities to apprehend them. At nights, Domínguez says, anonymous men reportedly approached the protesters with threats that they would “clear them out,” a promise state authorities would fulfill a few weeks later.
“It looked like a war,” one witness told a journalist of the dispersal. At 11:30 in the morning on October 27, over a thousand National Police and Military Police arrived in a convoy to eject the protesters.
The security forces fired volleys of tear gas before opening fire with live ammunition. In the ensuing blitz of bullets, eight civilians were injured and one activist, Levin Alexander Bonilla, was killed. But later that afternoon, after they broke up the camp and continued chasing protesters into the village of Ceibita, two military police were also killed.
“The strange thing about it was that they [the soldiers] died in the palms,” says Mario Munguía Alemán, a local TV journalist for Channel 35 who lived in Bajo Aguán for decades and who assisted us in reporting this story. “Afterwards, the army and the police entered the communities to search each house. And it wasn’t announced that they had found anyone with firearms. Strange, because the blockade had been on the highway, but nonetheless it was never explained why the soldiers died on that plantation.”
According to one human rights investigator, who has submitted their research to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the Organization of American States and who shared their research with us under the condition of anonymity, the deaths of the two military police at the camp’s dispersal may have been a case of cartel infighting that was reframed to criminalize the anti-mine movement.
This investigator, in concert with numerous human rights leaders interviewed in the valley, said it was likely that the mining exploration licenses granted during the last days of President Lobo were controlled by Javier and Devis Lionel Rivera Maradiaga, leaders of the Cachiros drug cartel, and very shortly afterwards Pinares received a neighboring exploitation license. In 2015 the Rivera Maradiaga brothers became DEA-protected informants, leading to the extradition of former president Lobo’s son Fabio Lobo. Devis Lionel Rivera Maradiaga testified that Lobo had received a drug plane on one of Miguel Facussé Barjúm’s properties and acknowledged that two key politicians backing Pinares, Tocoa Mayor Adán Fúnez and Colon congressman Óscar Nájera, were Cachiro associates. Facussé had previously denied any involvement with the drug plane’s landing on his property.
Reports collected by the human rights investigator indicate that former Cachiro enforcers very close to the Rivera Maradiaga brothers, known as the Taboras and said to be from the village of Ceibita, were engaged in the October 2018 shootout that killed military police officers, which the researcher found evidence to suggest resulted from infighting between the Cachiros’ former associates. The firefight took place after security forces violently dispersed the encampment, chasing protesters into Ceibita and firing tear gas into their homes. The investigator suggested the clash was between the Taboras and the Honduran military.
We were unable to reach Ana Facussé for a direct comment on this article. When asked if Facussé would like to comment on either this article or the Guapinol mining conflict, a PR representative for Pinares suggested that the company’s corporate leaders are transparent about the company’s activity and are willing to discuss those activities in interviews, but only when done in-person. The representative had offered an interview with Pinares’s co-owner Lenir Perez in January, after our main reporting, but because the representative insisted it could only be conducted in person as opposed to over Skype, this was not possible for The Nation. There was no offer for an interview with Facussé.
Pinares, which assented to providing a written response to the allegations, maintains that its workers uphold the utmost transparency in their operations, and that the company as a whole adheres to the highest standards of corporate environmental ethics. They claim that the Guapinol water defenders are “false environmentalists,” suggesting that many are armed criminals who, financed by unknown sources, were sent from outside the Aguán to sabotage the construction of an otherwise responsible, non-polluting, job-creating mine.
It was in August of 2019 that the charges against seven of the protesters finally landed them in prison. According to Juana Zúniga, a leader in the Guapinol community and wife of the prisoner José Abelino Cedillo, a number of the protesters decided to present themselves in court in Tegucigalpa because they felt themselves innocent and didn’t want to have outward expressions of fear of the law.
Upon arrest in Tegucigalpa, they were sent to La Tolva—a prison reputed to be so dangerous that COFADEH, a Honduran human rights organization, has described it as a “torture center.” And though they were moved to Olanchito, a safer prison, they still remain incarcerated.
“They treat them horribly, knowing that they defend our river and environment,” says Zúniga. “And what they say is, ‘We fight so we don’t have to emigrate from our country.’ If we cease to fight against the mining company, there are 3,500 people who would have to leave the community.”
While seven water defenders remain behind bars, Pinares has been waging a defamation campaign against them, saying on Twitter that “the Honduran environmentalists are really criminals that have killed innocent people.” When, in mid-October, some of the campesinos involved in the protests against the mine traveled to DC to accept the Letelier-Moffitt Human Rights Award for their activism, a man stood outside the awards event handing out flyers depicting mutilated corpses that the company accused the environmentalists of having killed.
Protesters haven’t been the only targets of security services: On November 18, Radio Globo journalist Cesar Obando Flores, who had been covering the Guapinol water conflict, issued a press release detailing how, on numerous occasions, he had felt he was at the point of being kidnapped by men in military garb who warned him to “not mess with Inversiones Los Pinares.”
On January 6, Mario Munguía Alemán, who while assisting our reporting for this article also investigated the conflict for the local TV station Canal 35, was riding his bike in nearby Tocoa when a new, double cabin pickup swerved abruptly in front of him. A man jumped down. “You’re talking a lot of shit on that channel,” he said to Munguía Alemán. “You’d better leave.” The truck skidded off in a whorl of dust, pelting Munguía Alemán with stones. Munguía Alemán, whose friend and colleague Nahúm Palacios Arteaga was assassinated in 2010 for investigating drug trafficking links in the valley, went into hiding soon afterward. He has since fled the country.
Despite the killings, the arrests, and the threats, residents are continuing their pressure to halt the mine’s construction. After years of pressure, a cabildo abierto, or “open community,” meeting was finally held in Tocoa on November 29 last year. Before a crowd of over a thousand people, including ousted ex-President Manuel Zelaya, the municipality “declared itself free of mining.” The mayor and the rest of the municipal government signed an act to be brought to Congress that would order Pinares and any other mining corporations to leave the area. But that hasn’t changed much on the ground: The construction of non-mining infrastructure continues on the project, and the campesinos assume that this groundwork will continue to be laid.
Inversiones Los Pinares asserted in a statement released after the meeting that despite the community vote, “Pinares investments will continue working strongly and contributing to the development of Tocoa.”
Heavy construction equipment can still be heard trundling past at all hours of the day. Military patrols continue through villages adjacent to the mining complex. The Tocoa offices of COPA [Coordinator of Popular Organizations of Aguan], a campesino organization at the forefront of the fight against the mine, which Pinares accused as having been financed “from dark places,” were attacked and ransacked by unknown assailants twice in two months, first on December 20, then on January 26.
“Unfortunately,” Pinares wrote in an official response prepared for this article, “this group of unscrupulous false environmentalists launches attacks because they have personal interests, and without having any evidence they accuse respectable people who have decided to invest in an area where few investors dare to do so because of legal uncertainty caused by ex officio invaders who profit financially from this activity.”
For many of those living in close proximity to the mine infrastructure, in the shadow of Carlos Escaleras, on the banks of the Guapinol, San Pedro, and Aguán rivers, the reality augurs a far darker future.
“Imagine having large trucks going by your house day and night, day and night. Constant sound. It affects us quite a lot,” says Doña Reina Ordoña, of La Lempira.
“If the company goes through with the project, installs the machinery, violence is going to rise,” says Carlos Leonel George, the treasurer of COPA, and ex-prisoner incarcerated for resisting the mine. “Because the people are convinced that it will destroy their water source, and without that water they won’t have a way to live. It’s not a joke for them. It’s about survival.”
All photos in this article are by Seth Berry, an award-winning photographer focused on documenting threats to the human condition in Central America and beyond. Find more of his work here.