Honduran government officials claim that criminal groups are behind the latest outbreak of violence in Bajo Aguan, the site of a long-running conflict over land rights. The chaos has only made it more difficult to judge the alleged role of organized crime in the region.
Bajo Aguan is one of Honduras’ most fertile territories, and home to one of its bloodiest conflicts. Several peasant organizations say that much of the land now occupied by palm oil plantations is rightfully theirs, and have clashed with the business sector and the security forces. Local and national authorities have made repeated efforts to discredit the peasant movement by linking it to organized crime. They are helped by the fact that Colon, the province where Bajo Aguan is located, is an important transit point for drug shipments heading north.
A new wave of violent attacks has reignited the debate over whether organized crime plays a role in the land conflict. In March, a group of 30 gunmen reportedly attacked a military convoy in the region, injuring five soldiers. On April 12, three employees of the region’s most powerful agribusiness, Corporacion DINANT, were assassinated while on their way to work. Gunmen shot at the victims from a vehicle, causing the workers to crash their truck into a roadside ditch. The gunmen proceeded to strip the victims of their belongings and some 50,000 lempiras (about $2,624) of DINANT sales revenue.
Several theories have been put forward to explain these attacks. Rene Osorio Canales, head of the country’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said criminal groups ambushed the military in retaliation for the army’s increased presence in the area, while some have suggested that the killing of the DINANT workers was an armed robbery.
Other Honduran officials have suggested that criminal groups are looking to create more instability in Bajo Aguan just as the government is working towards an agreement with the land activists. The vice president of the Honduran Congress, Marvin Ponce, has asserted that the government is on the cusp of finalizing an agreement with one activist group, the Unified Peasant Movement of Aguan (MUCA). The recent acts of violence have nothing to do with the land conflict, Ponce said, and only involve criminal groups. Secretary of Defense Marlon Pascua also said he did not rule out the ongoing involvement of drug trafficking organizations in the Bajo Aguan conflict.
Armed groups are a tangible presence in Bajo Aguan — residents recently told La Prensa that there was a cache of 500 AK-47s buried underground in one rural area. And, as Al Jazeera highlighted in a video report last year, Colon department, where the Bajo Aguan valley is located, is a haven for drug traffickers. Al Jazeera reports that many palm oil plantation owners collaborate with drug traffickers, allowing aircraft loaded with cocaine to land in their fields.
But, depending on the source, Bajo Aguan’s gunmen are alternately described as drug traffickers, guards hired by DINANT, or armed farmers. The relationship between these actors is frequently distorted in local press reports, as well as by government officials. Former Security Minister Oscar Alvarez once said that the groups calling themselves “peasants” in Bajo Aguan were actually “groups of drug traffickers who want to establish themselves in this region and scare people away.”
Just as these groups of gunmen are assigned a wide range of characteristics, they are also attributed a wide variety of motives. After the recent attacks in Bajo Aguan, many government officials said that the “criminal groups” responsible were acting in the interest of crime and drug trafficking, with no political agenda. One military official blamed these criminal groups for attacks against the land activists. After the arrest of two gunmen allegedly involved in ambushing the military convoy in March, the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said they were linked to “organized crime” and had also “assaulted” farmers’ groups. “They are people dedicated to maintaining chaos,” he added.
Bajo Aguan has seen 55 killings related to the land conflict since December 2009, 27 of which targeted farmers. Between January and August 2011, more than 30 people were killed. In an effort to bring the conflict to an end, Honduras Congress passed a decree last year to allow farmers in the region to buy over 4,700 hectares of land. Although activist group MUCA originally accepted the terms of the proposed deal, the group later said the government was not holding up its end of the bargain. Meanwhile, farmers continued to occupy DINANT property, taking produce as well as trucks, chainsaws, and other tools. And as the land occupations continue, so do attacks against members of organizations like MUCA, including two men — Arnoldo Robles and Doninely Lopez Alvarado — who were gunned down on April 10 and 11.
Official claims that criminal groups are fueling the fire in Bajo Aguan are not unfounded, but they are not the main drivers of the conflict. In a region where drug trafficking is thriving, the military, business sector, and land activists have all suffered from attacks during the past few weeks. The only thing that is clear is that the region will remain volatile in the foreseeable future.