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How a bloody land feud in Honduras is stoking migrant flight to U.S.

On July 3, Juan Moncada, a leader of a Honduran agricultural cooperative, sat down with his wife, Esmilda Rodas, and told her: “They’re going to kill me.”

Three days later, gunmen shot Moncada dead outside a bank in Tocoa, a small city in the fertile Aguán Valley near Honduras’ Caribbean coast. For a decade, the couple, their family and their cooperative have been struggling to reclaim land in this region where they once grew food crops but that is now dominated by large landowners and sprawling, lucrative palm plantations.

 That very afternoon, family in Tennessee began gathering money to pay smugglers to get Josué, the couple’s 17-year-old son, to the United States. Despite death threats against him, Juan Moncada hadn’t fled because he was worried his enemies instead would kill Josué, who had also become active in the cooperative.

 “Better they kill me than our son,” Rodas said her husband told her.

Moncada’s killers haven’t been found. His murder is part of a free-for-all in northern Honduras that pits peasants, landowners, public and private security forces, criminal gangs and government officials against one another. Decades in the making, the conflict is a growing source of bloodshed and a record tide of migration by people seeking to flee land grabs, violence, poverty, and the widespread corruption and impunity that fuel them.

Nearly 150 murders and disappearances in connection with the land conflict have convulsed the Aguán Valley since 2008, when violence first intensified here. Convictions have been reached in just 25 of those killings, according to a government summary of the cases reviewed by Reuters. Disputes still rage over some of the land now growing with palm. The Honduran government hasn’t verified many of the contested titles or resolved allegations by local residents, human rights groups and others that farms were acquired by force and at unfair prices.

The result, say those who monitor the region, is a legal and social vacuum increasingly filled by violent criminals and abandoned by locals who find the valley unlivable. “Corruption and impunity have flourished in the middle of this conflict,” said Juana Esquivel, director of the San Alonso Rodríguez Foundation, an organization in Tocoa that studies the land dispute. “That has allowed it to continue.”

“Corruption and impunity have flourished in the middle of this conflict.”

Juana Esquivel, director of a Honduran foundation that studies the land dispute

Honduras’ presidency didn’t respond to requests by Reuters for comment about the conflict or its efforts to resolve it.

The Public Ministry, which oversees a task force established to investigate the conflict, said its probes have led to “excellent results.” It said much of the conflict is driven by locals themselves and that public and private security forces often blamed for the violence aren’t solely responsible. “Not all these murders were specifically by them,” Yuri Mora, a ministry spokesperson, said in an interview, referring to the security forces.

Often, it’s impossible to disentangle the various groups behind the violence.

At times, the perpetrators have allegedly included private security guards working on behalf of large palm growers, small farmers ostensibly defending their plots, would-be landowners seeking to muscle in amid the chaos, and armed gangs increasingly moving cocaine through Central America. The 146 victims tracked by the Aguán Human Rights Observatory, a local monitoring group, include more than 100 farmers, 16 private security guards, a judge, a police officer, and a handful of collateral victims, including a 13-year-old boy.

“It got to the point where we didn’t know who is good and who is bad,” said Elvin Ochoa, a longtime cooperative member who fled the valley after receiving death threats in 2018. He spent two years in Mexico and in April entered the United States legally and with a court appointment to claim asylum, according to immigration documents reviewed by Reuters. 

The conflict in the Aguán, named after the river that shapes the valley, festered as land here grew ever more profitable. Oil from the small red palm fruit is an increasingly common staple of the global food, personal care and biofuels industries. Palm oil exports from Honduras, now trailing only those of coffee and bananas, last year totalled almost $380 million. That accounted for 9% of total exports by value and over six times as much as 15 years ago.

GROWING DEMAND: The fruit of the African palm in recent decades has replaced many of the subsistence crops once farmed in the Aguán Valley. Most cooperatives in the region now grow it, too. REUTERS/Yoseph Amaya

But the growth, and the thousands of jobs palm growers say it created, has had downsides.

In a region where many once relied on subsistence farming, palm has overtaken much of the fertile terrain, creating food shortages and a reliance on outside sources for nourishment, agronomists say. Palm has also altered the topography, making the land more susceptible to drought, floods and crop damage, especially during increasingly powerful hurricane seasons. More than half the population of the Aguán Valley, Honduran government data show, lives in extreme poverty and has trouble putting food on the table.

“The Aguán is a region of rampant poverty and misery surrounded by a crop that makes millions in profits,” said Andrés León, an anthropologist at the University of Costa Rica who has studied the valley.

The hardship has contributed to the flocks of migrants, most of them Central Americans, crippling border controls along the southern United States. For the 12 months ending September 30, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents apprehended Hondurans attempting to enter the country illegally more than 308,000 times, a historic high. In October, agents recorded 22,000 apprehensions, far more than previous levels for that month, too.

In Aguán, groups like Moncada’s, the murdered cooperative farmer, have dwindled, mostly because of migration. Once boasting 248 families, the cooperative is now half that size. Those who remain are intensifying efforts to reclaim land, occupying disputed palm plantations and stepping up campaigns to authenticate titles they say prove ownership of some plots.

Although many of the farms have changed hands in recent decades, the legality of some sales is contested. Titles are in dispute because some buyers allegedly paid bribes and used force to coerce collectives to sell. And land that cooperatives held, originally obtained by rural workers in an ambitious land reform that began in the 1960s, was later sold by some of those workers to bigger landowners during a period of regulatory changes that muddled the rules for some transactions.

“The land titles and the claims of corruption related to ownership are just as important as the impunity and lack of investigation of the killings,” said Juan Frañó, a former member of Honduras’ national human rights commission.  

Last month, after more than a decade of conservative governments roiled by corruption and drug-trafficking scandals, Hondurans elected Xiomara Castro, a leftist, to assume the presidency next year. A former first lady of a president toppled in a 2009 coup, Castro has promised to revive land reform programs that fueled anger among property owners before her husband’s ouster. The coup was led by the military but supported at the time by many of the country’s moneyed class.

Less than 5% of Honduras’ landowners, government figures show, control 60% of the fertile terrain, including many monocultures of palm and other export crops.

“Honduras has been abandoned,” Castro said during a September campaign speech. “We are capable of making our land produce and guarantee food for families.”

PRESIDENT-ELECT: Hondurans recently elected Xiomara Castro (left) to the presidency. She has promised to revive land reform programs that angered opponents of her husband, former President Manuel Zelaya (right), before he was ousted from office in 2009. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

It will take far more than agricultural savvy for some farmers to overcome the obstacles they face, from the confusing legal landscape to death threats and violence. Before he fled for the United States, Josué, Juan Moncada’s son, had become the driver of the cooperative’s only tractor. The position won him respect among the co-op’s families and he was increasingly involved in the collective’s efforts.

“I didn’t want to leave,” Josué told Reuters by telephone from Tennessee. “But I was afraid.”

“Given away”

Esmilda Rodas, Moncada’s widow and Josué’s mother, was born in the Aguán Valley in 1985.  

Her mother moved there from southern Honduras to take advantage of the land reform. The effort, enshrined in Honduras’ constitution, expropriated land deemed unproductive from large landowners, paid them, and redistributed it to landless workers, granting collective property rights.

“Agricultural production should preferably be oriented to meet the food needs of the Honduran population,” the constitution reads.

Like other recipients, Rodas’ family joined a cooperative. On their collectively owned farm, known as Paso Aguán, they cultivated corn, beans, yuca and even some palm.

CUTTING THROUGH: Esmilda Rodas has continued to work on Paso Aguán since her husband’s murder, clearing grass with a machete so colleagues can more easily harvest. REUTERS/Yoseph Amaya

But the reform, while common elsewhere across the developing world, was divisive. In 1992, a market-friendly government gave cooperatives permission to sell their land and briefly lifted a requirement that the state approve any transaction involving property granted by the reform.

Rodas’ family resisted offers to sell Paso Aguán. But others in their cooperative outvoted them. 

In 1993, the cooperative completed the sale of their roughly 700 hectares of farmland to a precursor company of Corporación Dinant SA de CV, a family-owned food producer that today is one of the biggest growers of palm in Honduras. The Rodas reaped less than $3,000 from the sale, using current exchange rates, an amount the family told Reuters it considered unfair.

Their complaint wasn’t rare.

Because some peasants were eager for cash – and the market was distorted by coercion and uncertain regulation – many farms at the time sold for a fraction of their true value. “Land was practically given away,” said Renán Valdez, a former regional director of the National Agrarian Institute, the agency in charge of the land reform.

Some big landowners, including the one that bought the 700 hectares from the Paso Aguán co-op, don’t dispute the assertion. “Dinant purchased land from farmer cooperatives at below market price,” Dinant spokesman Roger Pineda told Reuters.

Although the new law lifted the requirement of state approval, Congress later reversed that change in 1994, leading many who opposed sales at the time to dispute transactions. Cash changed hands, but the titles of properties, issued by the agency that managed the land reform, sometimes didn’t. The result: conflicting narratives and contradictory paperwork that stoke the conflict today.   

After the Paso Aguán sale, the family of Rodas, Moncada’s widow, and others from the cooperative continued living in adobe and cinder-block homes nearby. Her father, José Rodas, found himself working the same fields, on a salary that today would total less than $25 per week, and with none of the food he had been able to take home from the farm. The new owners ordered workers to plant the entire terrain with palm, even areas where they once grew subsistence crops, and blocked their access to the Aguán River, where they once fished.

NEAR THE FIELDS: Cooperative members continue to live in adobe and cinder-block homes near Paso Aguán, the farm they claim was unlawfully sold. REUTERS/Yoseph Amaya

“It wasn’t enough to feed my family,” said José, who soon quit the fields. Like others in the cooperative, he began irregular work as a day laborer for other employers.  

Pineda, the Dinant spokesman, said the company has always followed Honduran labor laws and provided “sustainable, well-paid jobs.”

Dinant and its lenders would later be targeted by activists and human rights groups with lawsuits over its land acquisitions and alleged violence by its private security guards. Pineda said six of the company’s guards were tried for the murder of five people after a dispute in 2010, but were acquitted. He said 33 of Dinant’s staff, including guards, have been killed in the land conflict since it began.  

Over the rest of the 1990s, large companies and wealthy families bought up yet more land.

If financial incentives didn’t suffice, some big buyers, along with cooperative members eager to sell, used bribes, threats and violence to pressure holdouts, locals and human rights activists said. “Our house was shot up so many times that our mother had us sleep on the floor,” said Martha Arnold, whose family opposed the sale of another collective farm in the valley. Arnold later left the Aguán and now lives in Houston.

By the early 2000s, many locals were leaving.

Palm oil sales soared, but the economy grew less diverse. In the decade following the law authorizing land sales, the amount of cash circulating each month on the streets of Tocoa fell by 80%, said Miguel Macías, a sociologist at the National Autonomous University of Honduras and author of a book about the Aguán. Growing revenues went mostly to the pockets and bank accounts of large landowners.

LUCRATIVE SPRAWL: Palm oil exports in 2020 totalled nearly $380 million, trailing only coffee and bananas in value for Honduran trade. REUTERS/Yoseph Amaya

Esmilda Rodas, 17 at the time, met Juan Moncada in 2002. With jobs scarce, they moved to the Caribbean coast, where Moncada toiled as a day laborer. They had a son, Josué.

Her father and colleagues from the old cooperative, meanwhile, grew frustrated by the lack of opportunity. They and other collectives began efforts to reclaim land, questioning the legality of the sales and pressuring the government.

In 2008, former President Manuel Zelaya, husband of the current president-elect, signed a decree that authorized the land reform agency to resume expropriations. Large landowners were outraged. Francisco Funes, the director of the agrarian institute at the time, told Reuters his staff received threats as they fanned out to survey lands. “Police and soldiers had to accompany them,” he said.

The next year, soldiers roused Zelaya from bed and flew him to Costa Rica. One of his ministers was flown abroad on a private plane, which was later discovered to belong to the family that owns Dinant. It isn’t clear how the plane was enlisted; Dinant told Reuters the vessel was used without the family’s or the company’s knowledge.  

The military said it had ousted the president, in concert with Congress and a court order, because Zelaya was seeking constitutional changes to reverse a ban on reelection. The coup was applauded by some wealthy Hondurans upset by Zelaya’s policies.

The Aguan Valley erupted in protest.

In late 2009, thousands of peasants occupied more than two dozen farms owned by large landowners. The standoff grew violent, as rural workers fought big landowners, private security personnel and police. Authorities arrested many of those occupying the lands, but solved few of a mounting toll of murders.

LONG CONFLICT: Hondurans in 2010 demonstrated in Tegucigalpa, the capital, over tensions then starting to flare between peasant groups and large landowners. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

“Our lives are worth nothing”

In 2011, amid the growing chaos, Rodas and Moncada moved back home. They now had two kids, Josué and a baby daughter.

Aguán cooperatives, dozens of whose members had lost family in the violence, accused public and private security forces of the killings. Dinant was among several companies increasingly being blamed.

That year, the German Development Finance Institution, a state-backed lender known as DEG, canceled a $20 million loan it had authorized for Dinant because it couldn’t finance projects in an area of growing conflict, Anja Strautz, a DEG spokesperson, told Reuters. The conditions needed “to settle the land conflict were beyond DEG’s control,” she added.

Dinant told Reuters the loan cancellation had nothing to do with its conduct or operations. The company was never charged in any killings.

In July 2012, Gregorio Chávez, a neighbor of Rodas, went missing. The collective searched for several days and ultimately found Chávez’s body in the fields of Paso Aguán. The murder rallied the community, which adopted Chávez’s name for their cooperative. Some members said at the time they suspected Dinant security guards had been involved in the murder.

Dinant said it had no involvement in Chávez’s death. “It isn’t, and has never been, the policy of this company to eliminate rural workers,” Dinant said in a statement at the time of the killing.

Chávez’s killers were never identified, nor were others as tensions escalated. “The consequence of inadequate investigations and lack of transparency has been virtually complete impunity,” wrote Human Rights Watch, the international activist organization, in a 2014 report.

That year, the Honduran government announced a new investigative task force, the Lower Aguán Violent Death Unit. Its mission: “address the acts of violent deaths…thereby reducing the rates of impunity.”

Peasant organizations, human rights groups and other critics say the unit has made little difference. Emblematic murders, like that of Chávez, remain unsolved, they note.

Mora, the Public Ministry spokesperson, didn’t answer a Reuters question regarding Chávez or other unsolved cases. Among the 25 deaths for which ministry documents said prosecutors had obtained convictions, two involved murders around Paso Aguán, the farm the collective once owned. 

In August 2017, cooperative members invaded Paso Aguán. Wielding their original titles to the land, they claimed to be its legitimate owners. Shortly afterward, the bodies of two Dinant security guards, both with gunshot wounds and their hands tied behind their back, were found on the outskirts of the farm.

“It isn’t, and has never been, the policy of this company to eliminate rural workers.”

Dinant, a corporation and major landowner, after locals suspected it was linked to the death of a farmer

The cooperative denied any role in their killing. The deaths haven’t been solved.

In April 2018, Dinant staff and a group of soldiers who had remained on Paso Aguán after the collective seized it withdrew from the property, the company said. The cooperative and Dinant both still claim the land, but the cooperative now farms it. They tend the palm already there, but again grow corn, beans and other food crops.

Reuters couldn’t independently confirm whose claim to the farm is authentic.

Ramón Antonio Lara Buezo, the outgoing director of the land reform agency, told Reuters that the current government considers contested sales valid unless courts find otherwise. “Only through a ruling by an appropriate judge can disputed sales be nullified,” he wrote in a statement.

Tensions have only increased since the cooperative took back the farm. 

Criminal gangs, increasingly moving cocaine from South America, have also begun extorting locals, seizing farmland and stealing crops. As with the killings, locals say, authorities haven’t effectively investigated. 

In May 2018, the cooperative voted to expel a member named Santos Torres, who is now deceased. Once one of the group’s leaders, members alleged he was involved with one of the gangs. After his expulsion, cooperative members say, Torres began seizing plots on the farm, forcing other members to leave and harvesting crops for his own profit.

Moncada and other cooperative leaders filed police reports and a complaint with the attorney general’s office, according to documents reviewed by Reuters. The documents denounced a series of threats and violence by Torres and his gang. Neither authority responded to their filings, the cooperative said.  

The police and the attorney general’s office didn’t respond to Reuters requests for comment.

“Our lives are worth nothing,” said Marlen Echeverria, a cooperative worker. She said she was stalked by armed members of Torres’ gang while walking to work on the farm.

In November 2020, back-to-back hurricanes slammed into Honduras, flooding the Aguán Valley. More cooperative members left.

Last January, Kevin Moncada, a 23-year-old nephew of Juan Moncada, joined a migrant caravan bound for the United States. He crossed the border with his infant son and requested asylum, he told Reuters. He is now living in Tennessee and working in construction while he awaits his immigration court date.

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol said it couldn’t comment on individual migrant cases.

In late June, a gunman entered a church service near Paso Aguán and shot dead Torres, the expelled cooperative member. His murder hasn’t been solved. Moncada was shot 10 days later.

Josué, Moncada and Rodas’ son, made it to the United States.

Kevin, the cousin in Tennessee, raised $4,700 to pay smugglers to get Josué across Mexico. Josué reached the U.S. border in August, he told Reuters, and then turned himself over to authorities. He spent a month at a shelter for unaccompanied minors in Texas, according to his immigration documents, and was released to the custody of his cousin.

He now works on the same construction crew, Kevin and he told Reuters.

Rodas, Josue’s mother and Moncada’s widow, continues to toil on the farm. She clears grass with a machete so that cooperative colleagues can more easily harvest. With few answers to the murky conflict, she nonetheless hopes authorities can someday restore some sense of order.  

“I’m asking for justice,” she said. “There’s only impunity.”