For defending their land and culture, violence struck the Garifuna people

The kidnapping of five men in the coastal community of Triunfo de la Cruz (Tela, Atlántida), four of whom were Garifuna, is yet another instance of the violence that the Garifunas have endured for decades. Garifuna leaders like Miriam Miranda of the Organización Fraternal Negra de Honduras (OFRANEH) claim that the government has been complicit in these acts of violence. Garifuna communities have reported 105 attacks in the last 10 years, and the situation has deteriorated since Honduras lost two lawsuits in 2015 in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) for violations of the right to collective ownership of ancestral lands.

By: Allan Bu

Translated by John Turnure

Deserted beaches. There is no music, nor dancing. No drums thumping. Streets that once seemed overflowing with joy are now smothered by fear and anxiety. Young and old alike have been hiding in their homes since July 18, when heavily armed men invaded this community and hauled away three Garifuna leaders and two others. It was approximately 5:20 am. The neighbors, deeply asleep, could hardly react. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit Honduras, a full curfew has been in effect on weekends. But this didn’t stop the men who abducted Alberth Snaider Centeno, president of the village council, Milton Martínez and Suamy Aparicio Mejía, members of the Garifuna Land Protection Committee [Comité de Tierras], and two community supporters, Alberth Santana Thomas and Gerardo Mizael Róchez. Neighbors think these abductions are directly related to an old land dispute, but the government agencies in charge of the investigation have said nothing about possible motives.

This is not an isolated event, according to OFRANEH [Organización Fraternal Negra de Honduras], a Honduran Garifuna advocacy organization. Between 2008 and 2019, there were 105 registered acts of violence against the Garifuna people, including murders, threats, criminalization, forced evictions, abductions and legal harassment.

A Contracorriente investigation for the Land of Resistants project revealed that 685 cases of violence against environmentalists were reported in Honduras in the last 11 years, mostly against the Garifuna people. Seven of the 138 people murdered for defending the environment were Garifunas. 

The Honduran government has largely ignored these events, even though it lost two international lawsuits in 2015 brought by the communities of Triunfo de la Cruz (located in Tela, Atlántida) and Punta Piedra (in Iriona, Colón), for violations of collective land ownership rights. Yet five years later, they’re still waiting for the government to comply with the court’s decisions.

In its 2015 ruling, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) recognized that Garifunas in Triunfo de la Cruz held full ownership rights over lands received through outright grants, as well as title of occupancy to other lands. According to the IACHR, the government of Honduras did not honor the community’s right to be consulted in advance of the planning and development of three tourism projects — Marbella, Laguna Negra and Playa Escondida — situated on lands granted to the Garifuna people.

The road into Triunfo de la Cruz is still littered with stones slightly larger than footballs that the neighbors of the abducted men placed there in a failed attempt to block the kidnappers’ escape route. But nothing would have stopped them. According to eyewitnesses, armed men in police uniforms got out of their vehicles to move the stones out of the way. “It would’ve been a massacre,” says one of the community leaders. 

Even though they had been called while the kidnapping was still in progress, the National Police arrived an hour later from their headquarters in Tela, a mere 10 minutes away.

Garifuna houses in Triunfo de la Cruz occupy spots along the beach that are popular with tourists. July 24, 2020. Photo by Deiby Yanes.

The beaches of Triunfo de la Cruz have always been popular with tourists from all over the country. However, due to COVID-19 containment measures, the beaches are now deserted. Since the abduction on Saturday July 18, the local children no longer spent time along the seashore, either.

“When a car drives into town nowadays, our elders run into their homes. The kids used to play on our beaches, but they don’t do that anymore. They hide… terrified,” says Edgardo Benedith, a former soldier and president of the village council from 2000-2003.

The former leader says that Garifuna communities are used to living peaceful lives, with respect for life, parents and the elderly. “We should be recognized for those values, not just our music,” he says. “The whole community of Triunfo de la Cruz has suffered terrible psychological damage. We’re not used to living in an environment like this.”

César Benedith is Edgardo’s brother and an OFRANEH member. He also sits on the community’s environmental committee. He acknowledges that the community has never experienced anything like this before, even though there have been threats in the past and some community leaders have had to leave town. Although the National Police have not released any statements about their investigation of the kidnapping case, César ventures a theory. “We think it was because of the land disputes. Our village council president has been organizing efforts to recover the property.”

César Benedith, member of the Land Protection Committee for Triunfo de la Cruz (Tela, Atlántida). July 24, 2020. Photo by Deiby Yanes.

On July 10, eight days before he was dragged from his home, Centeno held a community meeting in Triunfo de la Cruz to publicly distance themselves from an organization called Plataforma de Desarrollo [Development Platform], which was holding meetings with representatives of the Municipality of Tela.

In that meeting, Centeno said: “Advisors to that organization have been responsible for the land sales in this community. But history doesn’t dictate the future. The community has said ‘no’ to that organization. We have a legal decision to enforce.” 

He went on to question who was behind this organization, which purported to represent the community. “Why don’t we create an organization to pressure the government and to say to it, ‘Hey, we need you to comply with that sentence,’ and ‘I need you to give me the deeds to my land.’ Why shouldn’t we do that?” said Centeno in a Facebook Live webcast after the community meeting. “There are 11 Garifuna representatives in the National Congress and none of them are fighting for the two [IACHR] rulings in our favor. What’s going on here?” 

Centeno had lodged a personal persecution complaint with the special prosecutor for indigenous affairs [Fiscalía de Etnias] one year ago, according to César. Centeno even appealed to the government office for the protection of human rights [Mecanismo de Protección para Defensores de Derechos Humanos] in November 2019, but nothing happened. “That’s why we think that the government is complicit in all this. If the government had honored the [IACHR] rulings, this wouldn’t be happening,” said his fellow village council members.

While we listened to their story, three women walked out their front door. They were headed to buy refreshments but paused to talk. Afterwards, they sang a song in their language. To return to the conversation, we say, “We’re missing music, right?” One woman with a wide smile responded immediately:  “There’s no music anymore. We’re in mourning because they took our brothers, but don’t ask any more questions, because I don’t know anything about what happened.” 

Residents of Triunfo de la Cruz protest on Highway CA-13 while the police watch. (Triunfo de la Cruz, Tela, Atlántida). July 23, 2020. Photo by Deiby Yanes.

Protests suppressed

Since July 20, residents of Triunfo de la Cruz have been holding peaceful protests along Highway CA-13, which runs between San Pedro Sula and La Ceiba. They’re demanding a government investigation into the kidnapping. They ask the kidnappers to spare the lives of their friends and colleagues.

On July 24, a group led by two Garifuna leaders — the congressman Osman Chávez along with the governor of Atlántida — attempted to hold a community meeting. But protesters flatly rejected the idea since the village council had not been invited to the meeting. They had seen through the politicians’ plan to only meet with supporters of the ruling National Party.

“Those politicians haven’t been supporting us in this. In fact, we can say that they’re against us,” said Francis Lopez, one of the protesters. “We don’t care if they’re congresspeople or governors. What we want is to unite the community in search of our friends,” said Lopez. “We don’t want politicians here.” 

Protestors demand freedom and justice for their kidnapped friends. (Triunfo de la Cruz, Tela, Atlántida). July 24, 2020. Photo by Deiby Yanes.

The community decided to try to meet in the coming days with the local leadership that has been participating in this struggle. They specified that the long organization that has been alongside to demand justice is OFRANEH.

Several communities have now united under the banner “Garifuna Lives Matter.”  Residents of Travesía and Baja Mar, as well as communities from Puerto Cortés, Santa Fe, Colón and La Ceiba have all denounced this violence against the Garifuna people. Some of the resulting protests in Triunfo de la Cruz have been suppressed by the National Police, and shots were fired at demonstrators on July 25. No one was reported injured. 

In Triunfo de la Cruz, the long wait continues for their friends to return. “They were taken alive, we want them back alive,” says César Benedith, repeating the chant that has been circulating on social networks since July 18. 

Atlántida Governor Noelmi Arzú meets briefly with Garífuna protestors. (Triunfo de la Cruz, Tela, Atlántida). July 24, 2020. Photo by Deiby Yanes.

The government response

A few days after the kidnapping, two teams from different government agencies responsible for criminal investigations arrived in Triunfo de la Cruz. The ATIC [Agencia Técnica de Investigación Criminal] forensic team was the first to arrive.

Three ATIC investigators interviewed community leaders and instructed us to keep our distance during their inquiry. The only information they offered was that the case had been assigned to the special prosecutor for indigenous affairs [Fiscalía de Etnias], and that they had been sent to initiate the investigation.

A few hours later, police from the DPI [Dirección Policial de Investigaciones) arrived, and both teams of investigators knocked on doors to take statements from witnesses. “We ask you to stay at a distance,” they also said to us as they conducted their forensic investigation of a crime scene that was presumably contaminated after all the time that had passed since the abduction.

This investigation is cloaked in silence. We went to the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Tela to request information, but no prosecutors were to be found – everyone was at court hearings. Nor was there any response from Yuri Mora, the spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, who didn’t reply to any of our information requests. 

DPI agents investigate at the house of one of the young men kidnapped in Triunfo de la Cruz. July 23, 2020. Photo by Deiby Yanes. 

Security cameras at the entrance to Triunfo de la Cruz. The Garifuna community has complained that no videos of the vehicles used in the July 18 abduction have been released. (Triunfo de la Cruz, Tela, Atlántida). July 24, 2020. Photo by Deiby Yanes. 

However, the National Police have detained one person linked to the kidnapping of the Garifuna leaders. The suspect is known as “El Gringo” and appears to use two names: Renie Michael Ugalde and Gustavo Alonso Cáceres. The police have yet to determine his real name. According to the police investigation, he is part of a criminal gang that terrorizes the Atlantic coast. He was caught in Tela’s Las Palmas neighborhood, and a police search of his home turned up clothing similar to that worn by the kidnappers; three firearms were also seized.

The fight to control drug trafficking corridors along the Atlantic coast has turned it into one of Honduras’ main battlegrounds for organized crime. As a result, in 2019, seven municipalities along this corridor were among the 25 most homicidal places in the country: La Ceiba (101 murders in 2019), Puerto Cortés (106), Tela (69), Tocoa (55), Trujillo (34), Jutiapa (34) and Omoa (38). 

Before they turned themselves in to the U.S. justice system in 2015, Javier and Leonel Rivera Maradiaga led the Los Cachiros cartel that controlled the Atlantic corridor route, along with 90% of the drug trafficking in Honduras. Wilter Blanco, head of the Atlántico cartel, also operated in this area. He was arrested in Costa Rica in 2016 and extradited to the United States a year later. He was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison. 

A National Police officer watches protestors on Highway CA-13 (Triunfo de la Cruz, Tela, Atlántida).July 23 2020. Photo by Deiby Yanes.

Even though these drug lords are now in jail, drug trafficking is an unrelenting part of life on the Atlantic coast and throughout Honduras. Garifuna communities must constantly negotiate the presence of organized crime due to where they live.  

Contracorriente contacted National Police spokesperson, Dania Cruz, regarding the progress of the kidnapping investigation. She said that the team in charge of the investigation has identified some people linked to the crime, but that no details could be provided yet. However, she said that “search teams have been formed and intense strategic investigative work is underway.”

On July 24, new information about the case emerged. During a search of a ranch in the Lomas del Carmen area of San Pedro Sula, investigators discovered a bag that held two passports belonging to Alberth Snaider Centeno, and an identity card belonging to Milton Martínez, both of whom are among the kidnapped men. The search also turned up three firearms, four cell phones, a laptop and a camera, among other objects.

Relatives and neighbors of the victims continue to demand more transparency in the investigation. The entrance to Triunfo de la Cruz is monitored by several surveillance cameras, but it is still unknown whether the moments in which the vehicles drove out of the community were captured. Police Commissioner Héctor Ruiz confirmed to Contracorriente that the cameras recorded the vehicles used in the kidnapping, but he was then removed from the investigation a few days after making this statement.

The residents of Triunfo de la Cruz later issued a statement acknowledging that Ruiz had been conducting a transparent investigation, but “with the removal of Commissioner Ruiz and his 30 agents, the community once again feels defenseless and unsafe.” 

Honduras’ National Human Rights Commissioner [Comisionado Nacional de Derechos Humanos de Honduras – CONADEH] issued a statement claiming it is engaging all state agencies responsible for conducting an efficient investigation of the July 18 events. It further stated that “the government of Honduras has an undeniable obligation to protect and enforce its residents’ right to life, and the additional responsibility of providing special protection to vulnerable groups such as the indigenous and Afro-Honduran communities.” 

Residents of Triunfo de la Cruz have held several peaceful demonstrations on the Highway CA-13 entrance to the community demanding the release of their kidnapped companions. (Triunfo de la Cruz, Tela, Atlántida) July 23, 2020. Photo by Deiby Yanes.

Legal decisions ignored by the government 

In 2015, the government of Honduras lost two lawsuits filed by the Garifuna communities of Triunfo de la Cruz and Punta Piedra in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). The government was found to have violated several rights pertaining to these communities. However, almost five years later, the government has not complied with these decisions.

In the Triunfo de la Cruz case, the IACHR found that the Honduran government violated the community’s right to collective ownership of property, established in Article 21 of the American Convention on Human Rights, by failing to delineate the nearly 380 hectares of land first granted to them for community use in 1950, and the free-and-clear title to the land granted in 1993. Nor did the government delineate 408 hectares established by the National Agrarian Institute [Instituto Nacional Agrario – INA] as the ancestral lands of Triunfo de la Cruz. 

The Punta Piedra land dispute dates back to the illegal occupation of the land by a military officer in 1992. Almost 30 years later, and despite an international ruling in favor of the Garifuna community, the government has done nothing to return the disputed land to its rightful owners.

The ruling that restored Triunfo de la Cruz’s rights to its ancestral lands also included preventative and protective measures due to the history of land disputes. But the government hasn’t complied with these measures either, as evidenced by the abduction of five people.

“We don’t see any political will on the part of the government to comply with this legal decision,” says Cesar Benedith. The international ruling mandates compensation for the affected people, he said, along with the return of the disputed lands to the Garífuna people. There is also talk of reparations for the community, “but to date there has been no action,” he said.

In Triunfo de la Cruz, yucca and plantain are grown on collectively owned plots, because here, land is collective property. July 24, 2020. Photo by Deiby Yanes.

The plots of land designated by the IACHR as the Garifunas’ ancestral territory currently hold three private tourism ventures, called Marbella, Playa Escondida and Laguna Negra. Benedith says the Playa Escondida Beach Club was built on land forcibly seized from the Garifunas. This happened “despite our protective orders [issued by the Inter American human rights systems] and the fact that the law requires that we be fully consulted prior to undertaking any kind of project in the community,” he said. 

The Playa Escondida Beach Club rents out homes and vacation apartments. Its social network advertising lists apartments starting at L4,915 (US$199) per night. A penthouse runs at L7,500 lempiras (US$300) per night. It offers 30 fully furnished condominiums with ocean views.

According to the IACHR ruling, behind Club Marbella is a company called Inversiones y Desarrollo El Triunfo, S.A. (IDETRISA). The owners include members of the country’s San Pedro Sula elite, including William Chaín, Jorge Canahuati, Roberto Constantino Larach, Elías Andonie, Jorge J. Faraj, Taufick Canahuati, Camilo Atala, and Nicolás Chaín. 

Club Marbella and Laguna Negra, both residential development projects, are unfinished. Contracorriente asked the Municipality of Tela’s public relations office about the status of these projects, and learned that they appear to have been halted because there is no paperwork being processed by the municipality for these projects.

An employee in the Tela mayor’s office who preferred to remain anonymous said that he didn’t know the status of these projects. He said he wasn’t sure if they were in progress or not, but did confirm that the current administration (which has held office for two and a half years) has not processed any paperwork for Marbella and Laguna Negra. “I haven’t seen any documentation about those projects, and I don’t know who the owners are. Site visits were made with the Public Prosecutor’s Office and there wasn’t even a sign at the project sites,” he said.

“I think I’ve heard of Laguna Negra, but we don’t have any documentation about it. But I can tell you that there is every reason to not build on that land,” said the municipal employee. He mentioned land disputes and protected mangrove areas as some of the many reasons that make this land unsuitable for construction.  

Municipality of Tela offices (Tela, Atlántida). July 23, 2020. Photo by Deiby Yanes.

In an interview with Contracorriente, OFRANEH’s Miriam Miranda decried the hostility towards Punta Piedra and Triunfo de la Cruz that surged after the two IACHR rulings. She believes that reaction is “a message not only of hostility and ignorance toward the IACHR rulings, but also toward Garifuna rights, and it’s important to understand that.”

Edgardo Benedith was president of the Triunfo de la Cruz village council when the international lawsuit was filed in 2003. “All we heard was promises and more promises. We wanted an agreement with the people already living in those areas, and for any unoccupied land to be cleaned up and returned to Triunfo de la Cruz. But we’ve never received any serious proposals for our lawyers to consider,” he said.

For the Garifuna people, land is an essential component of preserving their culture. In 2001, UNESCO placed the Garifuna language, music and dance on its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list. “We want to continue preserving our culture, worldview, dances and beliefs, values and ethics,” says Benedith.

And that’s why they’re unwilling to give up this life-threatening battle. Cesar Benedith makes it very clear. “That would be the last thing we would do. It would be a great sin for us as leaders and children of this community, and as Garifunas” to give up, he said. 

Edgardo Benedith was president of the Triunfo de la Cruz village council when the IACHR lawsuit was filed in 2003 against the Honduran government (Triunfo de la Cruz, Tela, Atlántida). July 23, 2020. Photo by Deiby Yanes. 

Memories of persecution

Doña Ernesta, affectionately known as “Neta,” is 79 years old and has lived the history of Triunfo de la Cruz. Some things now have slipped through the cracks of her memory, but she remembers that peace in the community has been disrupted several times for the same reason: land disputes.

The first conflict she remembers was in 1945, when a Triunfo native named Cirilo Colón sold a plot of land that was later fenced in by the new owner. No one could get through, so the community revolted and the land was recovered in 1949. “I was young,” explains Doña Neta. In Triunfo de la Cruz, property is owned collectively, so no one can sell on their own. “The land belongs to everyone,” she said.

Another dispute arose in 1993 that remains unresolved. After approval of the Agricultural Modernization Law championed by then-president Rafael Leonardo Callejas of the National Party, which dismantled an agrarian reform, several mostly older members of the community were persuaded to sell plots of land for L700 lempiras to the Municipality of Tela. The Municipality then transferred the property to the Marbella tourism project developers. About 44 hectares of land were sold in total, but since no one was allowed to sell land individually, the community assembly rejected the proposal.

The ensuing dispute could not be resolved by the Honduran government, forcing the community to file a lawsuit with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. That legal struggle ended in 2015, but the Honduran government still has not complied with the IACHR order to return the land.

Doña Neta tells the story of how her grandparents were pushed off their land in Guatemala by outsiders who drove their cattle through their crops, destroying them. “Our grandparents were afraid – they weren’t like us. Instead of fighting for their land, they preferred to leave,” she tells us, gazing out at the sea. Her grandparents migrated to Triunfo de la Cruz after that. 

Doña Ernesta, 79, recalls that battles over land ownership have been the cause of all the disputes that have disrupted this community (Triunfo de la Cruz, Tela, Atlántida). July 23, 2020. Photo by Deiby Yanes. 

The many facets of violence against the Garifuna people 

A few kilometers from Triunfo de la Cruz on the shores of Tela Bay is San Juan, the site of another land dispute. On July 23, OFRANEH reported that armed men in military uniforms entered the village to intimidate its inhabitants.

Marvin Güity, the San Juan village council president, reported being threatened and followed by armed men who have appeared in San Juan at least twice. He said they’re posing as members of the Military Police. Güity has decided to go into hiding. Fear reigns here, too.

Miriam Miranda, the most prominent Garifuna leader in the country, lives in Vallecito, Colón. It’s another municipality with a history of conflict. Vallecito was once controlled by a drug trafficker who later died at sea. The landing strip once used for drug flights is now a Garifuna coconut grove. But all is not well in Vallecito. Miranda has taken strict security measures and is always escorted by four military guards.

“It’s not an isolated event [the kidnapping in Triunfo]. The Garifuna people have publicly denounced both domestically and internationally all the harassment, persecution, criminalization, and prosecution of those who defend the Garifuna. We are in a never-ending fight to defend our ancestral, territorial and cultural rights,” said OFRANEH’s Miranda in an interview with Contracorriente

In September 2019, Mirna Teresa Suazo was murdered in Masca, Puerto Cortés. She was president of the village council that is within the impact zone of one of the proposed Zede charter cities. They successfully fought off several attempts to build two hydroelectric plants on the Masca River.

Residents of Triunfo de la Cruz building barricades on Highway CA-13 before starting their protest (Triunfo de la Cruz, Tela, Atlántida). July 24, 2020. Photo by Deiby Yanes.

In 2013, when Juan Orlando Hernández was president of the National Congress, the law to implement special development regions [Ley de Regiones Especiales de Desarrollo] was passed. This law allowed the creation of employment and economic development zones called Zedes. The Zedes exist autonomously from the Honduran government and many people consider them to be a violation of national sovereignty. The community of Masca rejects the idea.

Violence against black leaders is continual. In October 2019, the Garifuna community of Cuzuna (located in Iriona, Colon) was shaken by the murder of Maria Digna Montero, a teacher and part of the OFRANEH bilingual intercultural education working group.

On June 19, 71-year-old Antonio Bernárdez, a respected leader of the Punta Piedra community in Colón, was murdered. Like Triunfo de la Cruz, this village won a lawsuit against the Honduran government, and is still waiting for the terms of the ruling to be fulfilled. It also awaits the return of land that has belonged to the Garifuna since they arrived in Honduras 223 years ago.

Garifuna leaders have also denounced Canadian businessmen who pushed entire villages off their land in Trujillo Bay. An additional problem are the ever-expanding African palm plantations, sometimes used by organized crime to appropriate vast territories that facilitate their illegal activities.

Drug traffickers are another fierce enemy of the Garifuna in their land disputes. Upon receiving the Friedrich Ebert Foundation award for her fight for human rights, Miriam Miranda highlighted this reality in a 2019 interview with German newspaper DW. “Organized crime is all around us. The Honduran government knows this, so we hold it accountable for failing to protect our communities. The government knows who is attacking Garifuna land. The Garifuna people have always lived in harmony. The objective of this violence is to drive our people out of their communities,” said Miranda.

César Benedith, a native of Triunfo de la Cruz, echoed this sentiment, saying: “This is persecution. We have lost [our friends] here, and in Santa Rosa de Aguán they’ve killed all the fish in the lagoon that feeds the community. They’ve murdered the leaders of various villages and nothing is done about it.”

A fisherman at work near the community of San Juan (Tela, Atlántida). July 24, 2020. Photo by Deiby Yanes.
The Honduran government has made no effort to solve or prevent crimes against Garifuna leaders and communities. Investigations are initiated and then fade away amidst indifference, silence, and sometimes intimidation of those who dare to ask questions about their progress. The impunity is so extreme that even international rulings by bodies such as the IACHR are defied.

In a tweet about the Triunfo de la Cruz abductions, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández said that his government “is focused on achieving justice for the 4 garifunas of the Garifuna community, for their alleged kidnapping.”  OFRANEH’s response to this was “the government of Honduras claims to be a ‘guarantor’ of human rights, but unfortunately the facts clearly show the opposite is true. In recent years, more than a dozen Garifunas have been killed for defending their ancestral lands, and the government has not resolved any of these cases. Instead, it has tried to discredit any attempts at linking these crimes to the defense of ancestral lands.”

This is a reality in which tourism, African Palm cultivation, and drug trafficking mean the death, persecution and forced displacement of the Garifuna people in Honduras. Garifuna resistance to these forces and the solidarity of their communities clearly opposes this. Their passion in defending their rights stands in sharp contrast to the indifference, secrecy, and complicity of the Honduran government with domestic and international business interests.

Watch the video “Garifunas: fighting for their lives and lands”. 
Turn on English subtitles by clicking the “Settings” icon in the lower right hand corner of the video, and selecting English subtitles.

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