President Xiomara Castro has officially denounced the Guapinol mine and Palmerola airport projects. They are going ahead regardless, with no interruption to the power and influence of businessman Lenir Pérez, who owns the concessions for both projects. Pérez has already been accused of benefiting from his relations with former president Juan Orlando Hernández to obtain irregular contracts and abuse human rights. Now, Contracorriente has found that Pérez could maintain privileged access to the new government through lawyer Pamela Blanco Luque, partner, and wife of Tomás Vaquero, Secretary of Government, Justice, and Decentralization.
Text: Fernando Silva
Research assistance: Vienna Herrera and Jennifer Avila
Photography: Jorge Cabrera and Fernando Destephen
Translation: Ann Louise Deslandes
Despite Xiomara Castro’s government condemning the criminalization of the Guapinol environmental defenders, the government maintains close ties with businessman Lenir Pérez, who is responsible for that criminalization.
An investigation by Contracorriente has found that, since June 2020, Peréz began frequently using the professional services of lawyer and notary Lourdes Pamela Blanco Luque. Blanco is the partner and wife of Tomás Vaquero Morris, Secretary of Governance, Justice, and Decentralization.
From June 2020, Pamela Blanco became the notary public in charge of legally incorporating multiple companies from the conglomerate led by Lenir Pérez. She was also granted legal powers to represent several of his companies before government institutions.
Lenir Pérez is president of Grupo Emco Holding, a group of companies that holds investments in different sectors such as construction, airports and steel. Among its most important projects in the country are a mining megaproject located in the buffer zone of the protected area of the Carlos Escaleras Park in Tocoa, Colón (the Guapinol project), and the concession for the construction and operation of the new Palmerola International Airport. Both projects have been widely criticized by various sectors of society for having been granted illegally.
There has been conflict over the Guapinol concession since 2018 in which 32 defenders were arrested On January 7, two leaders of that community movement that opposed the mining project of Lenir Pérez were murdered: Jairo Bonilla and Aly Dominguez. The latter was one of the first environmentalists criminalized for defending the river from the destruction of the mining company.
Lawyer and human rights expert Joaquín Mejía said on social media that the murder of Bonilla is the responsibility of the current government since, despite their denunciations of human rights abuses and environmental impacts, the government has not canceled the concessions, allowing for the conflict to continue.
After the 2021 presidential elections, which resulted in Xiomara Castro’s victory, the concessions granted to the companies led by Pérez were raised by officials of the new government and part of the business sector.
In December 2021, the president even referred to the concession awarded to Palmerola International Airport as an “illegal contract” and announced that it would be reviewed and modified.
The president also promised in her inaugural speech that open pit mining permits and mining concessions on rivers would cease. She called for the release of “the Guapinol political prisoners”, eight environmentalists who were in prison for almost two and a half years because of the environmental conflict.
An inspection of Carlos Escaleras National Park, carried out by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, confirmed environmental damage in the Guapinol area. Another inspection carried out by the deputy head of the Department of Natural Resources (Secretaría de Recursos Naturales y Ambiente, SERNA), Malcom Stufkens along with Isabel Albaladejo, representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, found that there was no concrete demonstration of compliance with the environmental laws.
There also being no concrete sign of compliance with Castro’s declaration, the companies led by Lenir Perez and his wife, Ana Facussé, continue to operate normally, increasing their capital as their activities expand throughout Central America and the Caribbean.
Pérez has been able to establish relationships with the government to protect his businesses. As he has acknowledged, Pérez negotiated with National Party deputies in the government of former President Hernández to reduce the protected area in Carlos Escaleras Park where the mining concession is held. In the case of the Palmerola airport, he signed a contract with the president without his companies having had experience in the airport construction business.
As Secretary of Governance, Justice and Decentralization, Tomas Vaquero has the mission of guiding national government departments and municipal governments, becoming the direct link between governors, mayors and the president. The Ministry must ensure access to justice and the linkage of the executive branch with civil society organizations, and also has “the promotion of access and the timely and impartial application of justice” among its functions.
A connection to Vaquero’s department, which has power over municipalities and departmental governorships as well as the monitoring of access to justice in Honduras, could provide businessman Lenir Perez with an invaluable opportunity to influence local power in the areas where he maintains his investments. Similarly, he could leverage a level of influence between the direct links between the president and civil society organizations, which in several cases claim human rights abuses against the communities where Perez maintains his investments.
Lenir Pérez and his connections with Castro’s ‘national refoundation’ government
According to records found by Contracorriente, on June 1, 2020 Pamela Blanco received a “general power of attorney for lawsuits” for five Emco Group companies. In addition, businesswoman Ana Facussé, a partner in Emco Group and Pérez’s wife, granted Blanco power of attorney for the company Xtreme Twisters S. de R.L. on the same day.
Since then, Pamela Blanco has worked continuously for Lenir Pérez’s companies, for instance, as the notary in charge of the incorporation of at least other five companies that are part of this conglomerate.
These powers of attorney and notarial acts for the incorporation of the companies were signed in an office belonging to law firm Vaquero Blanco, located in the Suyapa neighborhood of San Pedro Sula. Of 35 companies that Contracorriente found registered in the name of Lenir Pérez, Pamela Blanco Luque has provided her legal services from that office in 14 of them. She shares the office with Secretary Vaquero.
Another link between the Vaquero-Blanco family and Lenir Pérez is in the ‘Corporación Candeo’, an anonymous society constituted in August 2012 by Laura Maria Blanco Luque, sister of Pamela Blanco, and Guillermo Bueso Anduray, president of the board of directors of Atlantida Investments.
As Pérez himself said in a public speech, Atlantida Investments was his link with the national private bank for the construction of the Palmerola International Airport.
Banco [Bank] Atlántida, headed by Guillermo Bueso, was also the broker of a US$163.5 million loan granted to Palmerola International Airports by AFP Atlántida, Banco de Occidente, Banco Promerica, St. Georges Bank, Banco del País and Banco de Desarrollo Rural.
The role of Tomás Vaquero in the LIBRE party
Tomás Vaquero Morris, the current Minister of Government, Justice, and Decentralization, is a well-known lawyer and businessman in the northern part of the country. Between 2006 and 2007 he was executive director of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Cortes before joining the cabinet of former President Manuel Zelaya in early 2008.
In January of that year, Vaquero was appointed head of SERNA. There, he was in charge of signing contracts for the operation of energy generation projects, as was the case of the Mezapa Hydroelectric Project, located in the municipality of Arizona, Atlántida, to which residents of the surrounding communities and organizations defending the territory and the environment have objected.
In addition, Vaquero was a promoter of the General Mining Law, which was finally approved in 2013 and which various civil society organizations have said needs to be revised or repealed because it favors a small group of businessmen and causes environmental damage. At the time, Vaquero stated that “investors should not be scared away, I do believe in the control mechanisms now existing, there are quality and export standards that allow the regulation and enforcement of general exploitation rules”.
After the 2009 coup d’état, Vaquero faced prosecution for abuse of authority and violation of the duties of public servants in which he was formally indicted; he was acquitted. Vaquero continued practicing as a businessman and lawyer at the Vaquero Blanco law firm located in Suyapa, San Pedro Sula, with his wife Pamela Blanco as his partner.
It was in that same office, that in April 2016 Vaquero and Blanco incorporated a company called Ideas 21 S. de R.L, creating an official business link between the two of them.
Four years later, on June 1, 2020, in the middle of the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, Lenir Pérez, in his capacity as president of the board of directors of Inversiones Los Pinares, granted Pamela Blanco a “general power of attorney for lawsuits”. He thereby empowered her to represent that company, owner of the mining concession in Carlos Escaleras Park, before “any administrative institution of the State in any of its dependencies, before the courts of justice of the Republic of Honduras and before competent authorities […]”. As of the date of publication of this investigation, this power of attorney is still in force .
These connection between Lenir Perez and Vaquero-Blanco law firm is significant given the fact that Tomás Vaquero, in addition to being one of the most important officials in Xiomara Castro’s government, is a confidante of Manuel Zelaya, coordinator of the Libertad y Refundación (LIBRE) party and former president of the Republic.
The confidence in Tomás Vaquero is such that several sources confirmed to Contracorriente that he was in charge of fundraising at the national level for Xiomara Castro’s political campaign in 2021, in addition to being in charge of the coordination of LIBRE in San Pedro Sula.
Engineer Roberto Mena was part of the coordination of the political campaign of the candidate for mayor of San Pedro Sula, Omar Menjívar. Mena confirmed to Contracorriente that, before starting the campaign for the general elections, former president Zelaya introduced Tomás Vaquero and said that he would be helping the campaign in the area by obtaining funding to promote candidates in San Pedro Sula, chiefly then presidential candidate Xiomara Castro.
Mena also said he had worked with Vaquero in previous political campaigns.
“He was the liaison for the coordination of the party here in Cortés, if we wanted to get along with Mel it was practically through him because he was the one who was managing the president’s campaign at the Cortés [district] level.”
“He also had the responsibility of seeking financing for Omar Menjívar’s campaign, but in the end, he did not support us because there were certain discrepancies,” said Mena.
In addition, Mena assured that Vaquero’s business links, far from generating distrust, generated hope, “we thought that we would have more access and more support from the businessmen without the need to commit to any promise, but it was very difficult”, and he assured that one day Vaquero said that because of the president’s promises to build “democratic socialism” in the country, it was difficult for him to obtain funds.
Network of connections: from Pérez to Vaquero to the Department of Justice
In addition to the importance that the current secretary has in the structure of LIBRE, so far Tomás Vaquero and Pamela Blanco are the only visible connection between the interests of Lenir Pérez and the office of the Attorney General of the Public Ministry. Together with the mining company, the latter institution was in charge of leading a campaign of criminalization and harassment against the communities and defenders of Carlos Escaleras Park.
Contracorriente found that the Blanco Luque family maintains a friendship with Attorney General Oscar Chinchilla, who is regularly invited to the family’s important events. Nicole Vaquero Blanco, daughter of Tomas and Pamela, also worked for at least 9 years as a lawyer directly associated with the Attorney General.
The Public Prosecutor’s Office accused and successfully imprisoned eight environmentalists defending the Carlos Escaleras Park and the Guapinol River, the area occupied by Lenir Pérez’s mining project.
Likewise, the Public Ministry ignored international petitions to stop the human rights abuses in the case of the Guapinol prisoners. These include a letter sent by Amnesty International on December 11, 2021 to the office of Attorney General Oscar Chinchilla, in which they expressed “their concern about the serious irregularities in the investigation and prosecution against the eight Guapinol defenders, concluding that the criminal charges against them, as well as their prolonged pre-trial detention, are unjustified and constitute a misuse of the justice system.”
Environmental Activism- Local Resistance
On June 3, 2020 – just two days after Lenir Pérez gave the general power of attorney for lawsuits to Pamela Blanco – the Municipal Committee for the Defense of Common and Public Goods of Tocoa issued a public letter in which it demanded the release of 8 environmental defenders who had been in prison since September 2019 and were then facing an outbreak of Covid-19 in the Olanchito Penal Center. The Committee is a community organization formed to coordinate social organization and action against the dispossession produced by the extractive projects in the area.
In March 2020, the defenders’ legal team had filed a habeas corpus requesting their release following the recommendations of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The Working Group had concluded that the detention of the Guapinol defenders did not comply with international standards regarding the right to a fair trial, and also that the detention contravened the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Human Rights.
At that time, the public letter issued by the Municipal Committee said “in the first place, the State whose government is headed by Juan Orlando Hernández, together with Rolando Argueta in the Supreme Court who have full knowledge of the nature of these violations” was responsible for the human rights abuse of the Guapinol defenders, and “secondly, the mining company Inversiones los Pinares [headed by] Lenir Pérez and Ana Facussé in Honduras is … responsible for the life and integrity of the environmental rights defenders”.
Despite the public exposure of the conflict and the fact that Pamela Blanco was surely aware of every detail of it, the legal power of attorney to represent this company fell on the office of the law firm of the person who two years later occupied the position of Secretary of State in the Office of Government, Justice and Decentralization.
Other Connections to the Government- Military Contracts
Rita Romero, who supports the Municipal Committee for the Defense of the Common and Public Goods of Tocoa, stated that several actions of the current government make it clear that there is a partnership with Lenir Pérez’s companies.
Attorney Romero referred to the construction of the new military aviation academy to be executed by Lenir Pérez’s company Palmerola International Airports, which will be located at the José Enrique Soto Cano Air Base next to the civilian airport.
According to official information, the project is preliminarily valued at more than 91 million lempiras [3.7 million USD] , which will be fully invested by the company as part of Palmerola International Airport’s commitment to the Military Aviation Academy, whose original headquarters were displaced a few years ago due to the construction of the new Palmerola International Airport. Businessman Lenir Pérez and the President’s nephew, José Manuel Zelaya, head of the Ministry of Defense, were present at the groundbreaking ceremony.
“We cannot deny that last November and December  was like a great light of hope,” said lawyer Romero. “I think it has been a good learning experience.”
As she continued, “it is illusionist to think that a change of government administration [could stop] a well-established investment in a country”
“Here, the strength is in the solidarity of the population.” stated Romero.
The connections between Lenir Perez and Tomas Vaquero
The future of Carlos Escaleras Park
Leonel George, member of the Municipal Committee and community leader, told Contracorriente that as defenders they have been counting on the new government with its discourse of defense of human rights for the political persecution to end. They also hoped it meant the state security forces would no longer guard the mining company. However, said George, they have faced the opposite scenario.
“Hope has been diminishing,” said George.
“People have been placed in different institutions where we know that their background is not so clean or transparent,” said George.
On March 8, 2022, Secretary Vaquero sworn in Adán Fúnez, elected mayor of Tocoa, as the governor of municipality of Colon. Funez has been previously accused by environmental activists for being the main ally of Lenir Perez and Ana Facussee on Los Pinares Mining project. In 2017, he was linked to drug trafficking operations by Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga who declared in a United States court that the mayor of Tocoa, provided assistance to Los Cachiros Cartel in exchange of brides.
Fúnez resigned from the governorship due to the public pressure and left Icxer Barahona, his former public relations manager in the position. Adán Fúnez continues to be the mayor of Tocoa and according to sources from the area, is the one who meets with senior officials in private and in the territory of the metal processing company owned by Pérez.
“Both the mayor and the new governor continue to consider that we are their enemies, simply because we are against mining exploitation and they are in favor”, explained George.
“That is expressed very clearly by them and that is the reason why it has not been possible to establish relations of dialogue or to advance in conversations to address these issues with the government. The company continues to be protected and continues to have absolute control”, he said.
George also noted that the response from SERNA authorities, led by Secretary of State Lucky Medina, and from the Forest Conservation Institute (El Instituto de Conservación Forestal – ICF) led by Luis Soliz, is that they are studying the project files. However, Leonel said that it is already enough time to continue making such excuses, and said that these delays are giving the company an advantage to continue destroying, threatening, criminalizing and exploiting the communities’ resources.
“We would just like to believe that this is not a plan in which they have agreed to give them illegal advantages or benefits so that they can take advantage of the resources and destroy the area of this National Park,” said George.
Finally, George said that the environmental defenders linked to this conflict feel more unprotected and at greater risk than before the beginning of Xiomara Castro’s government, because “the company has had Fúnez as an ally here in Tocoa and now he has much more power.”
“This makes the communities and us more vulnerable because we understand that if there are these interests to exploit, they will not care about any opposition”.
In August 2022, the Municipal Committee issued a technical geological report describing the environmental impact of what is now the mega mining project of Inversiones Los Pinares and Ecotek, which includes the mining concessions ASP and ASP2 to Inversiones Los Pinares, a processing and palletizing plant owned by Inversiones Ecotek, an electricity generation plant with a capacity of 50 megawatts, and a national water contract on the Guapinol River.
The report concludes that “this mining project was ill-conceived from the beginning by government authorities who, abusing their authority, caused damage to the environment.”
“Likewise, the community outcry reveals the magnitude of the community’s non-conformity with a mining megaproject whose intentions are unclear and which is seriously damaging their water sources, their forest and their livelihoods”.
In addition,the legal representatives of the communities have demanded in various instances the application of the precautionary principle established in the Declaration of Rio de Janeiro. That is, to refrain from a project “when there is danger of serious or irreversible damage, without the lack of absolute scientific certainty being used as a reason to postpone the adoption of cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation”. In this case it is argued due to the danger of serious or irreversible damage in the risk zone in which the megaproject operates.
What is the future of the concessions owned by Lenir Pérez?
According to information from the National Institute of Geology and Mines of Honduras in April 2013, the company Inversiones Los Pinares requested two concessions for non-metallic iron oxide mining exploration in a territory that at that time was still part of the core zone of the reserve. In December 2013, the National Congress, through Decree 252-2013, modified the park’s delimitation to reduce 217 hectares of its core zone and convert it into a buffer zone.
The decree did not say so, the mining company could operate as a result of this change because Honduran law does allow activities such as non-metallic mining in the buffer zones.
In 2020, Lenir Pérez admitted to having organized meetings with government representatives so that officials would redefine the limits of the park’s core area.
That decree, which reduced the park’s core zone, was presented before the National Congress by former alternate congressman Ricardo Antonio Díaz Aceituno of the National Party (2010-2014).
Díaz was indicted by the Specialized Prosecutorial Unit Against Corruption Networks (Unidad Fiscal Especializada Contra Redes de Corrupción – UFERCO) in June 2022 for his links to fraudulent operations and looting of funds from the National Congress in collusion with non-governmental organizations. UFERCO accused Díaz, together with three former congressmen (one of them, congressman Oswaldo Ramos Soto, for whom Díaz was an alternate) and current congressman Alberto Chedrani, of diverting some 773 thousand dollars.
The board of directors of the National Congress that approved this decree was formed by Nationalist deputies Mauricio Oliva Herrera, as president; Rigoberto Chang Castillo as secretary and Gladys Aurora López, as secretary. The latter was involved in the investigations of the Mission of Support Against Impunity and Corruption for embezzlement of public funds (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH).
Chang Castillo was Secretary of the Interior during the government of Juan Orlando Hernández (2014-2016), the same position now held by Tomás Vaquero, and according to media reports he was one of former President Hernández’s most trusted men since he served as president of the National Congress.
Chang Castillo is the owner of Concretos Argos Honduras, which was in charge of providing 30 thousand tons of cement for the construction of the Palmerola International Airport. Chang Castillo is the father of Catherine Yamileth Chang Carías, wife of Honduran Attorney General Óscar Chinchilla, a close friend of Vaquero and Blanco Luque.
In 2014, the ICF declared the iron oxide mining project in the park “not feasible” by ruling that its impact on flora and fauna would be severe, since it is an open-pit mine and, even with the reform, the concession is very close to the core of the park. The report also determined that 32 hectares of broadleaf forests (tropical hardwoods) and a river 100 meters from the project that supplies water to the Corozales community could be affected by the mine.
Following this legal reform, a few months later Emco Mining Company (now under the name Inversiones Los Pinares) was granted the ASP and ASP2 concessions, of 100 hectares each, to exploit iron oxide. And despite the ICF report, the Secretary of Natural Resources granted the environmental license to the project.
Last November 30, Leonel George together with Rosa Aquino, of the Municipal Committee for the Defense of the Common Goods of Tocoa, hand wrote a letter and delivered it to the office of the private secretary of the Presidency, presided by Héctor Zelaya. In this letter they expressed the need for the appointment of an executive director of the Honduran Institute of Geology and Mines to comply with a request they made in May 2022 asking for the cancellation of “the mining rights granted in favor of Inversiones Los Pinares in the protected area of Carlos Escaleras National Park”.
However, as of the date of publication of this text, the president has not provided any communication in response to this request.
On the other hand, Lenir Pérez and the Emco group, accompanied by their legal team, which includes Pamela Blanco Luque, seem to be remaining calm while their investments increase. Blanco remained involved in the operations of the business group until 2022.
This note is part of a larger featured investigation by Contracorriente. For full investigation in Spanish check out “Bufete del actual ministro Tomás Vaquero representa empresas de Lenir Pérez, empresario señalado de vulneración a DDHH”.