Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez used to be a businessman in the timber industry and an ambitious drug dealer in Choloma, northern Honduras. He set up his own narcotics lab in the most remote region of El Merendón. There, with the connivance of municipal authorities, military and police officers, the support of a transnational Canadian company, and funding from an international bank, he created an illegal mine, a reforestation project, and illegally mortgaged more than 1300 acres of land inhabited and cultivated by communities. Today, three years after Geovanny Fuentes was apprehended, villagers still live under the threat of eviction because the same institutions that allowed this land dispossession deny responsibility.
Text: Célia Pousset
Editing: Jennifer Avila
Photography: Jorge Cabrera
Translated by: José Rivera
In the mountain range of El Merendón, also known by locals as «The Sacred Mountain», north of Choloma, there is a large shadow, it covers thousands of acres of land and dozens of small villages. This shadow instills fear, it has a face and a name, but it is not said out loud. Locals call him «the man» or «the one who went to Miami». They often call him «he», and so you have to be certain that you are talking about the same man.
Edwin* is one of the few people who says the name Geovanny Fuentes out loud. Maybe because one day he made his acquaintance when the drug dealer came to his house unexpectedly. It seems he wanted a warm welcome even though he was uninvited. Geovanny wanted to buy Edwin’s property.
First meetup: the Tamarindo mine
When Fuentes first met Edwin in 2012 he was with two bodyguards. Back then, Geovanny Fuentes was not well-known, people just muttered that he owned land in Cerro Negro, in the municipality of Choloma. No one said a word about drugs. Fuentes sat on Edwin’s sofa and told him that he wanted to buy his property to extract minerals. Edwin said someone else had already expressed interest in buying the property and they had a contract, he was called Don Manuel. Fuentes left but came back a few days later and asked Edwin to meet him in a restaurant in San Pedro Sula. Much to his surprise, Don Manuel was there with Geovanny and his brother, Cristian. They agreed that Don Manuel would get 18 dollars for each ton of extracted minerals.
«After the meeting, I didn’t hear a word from Don Manuel. He never paid me. I don’t know what happened to him. Then Geovanny trespassed without any notice into my property with his equipment and they started to dig», stated Edwin.
He did not do anything because he thought he is the kind of person you do not mess with. Weeks later, Fuentes wanted to negotiate the price of minerals. They met on Fuad Jarufe’s property, a businessman who owned a rice-growing company in Choloma that laundered Geovanny’s money. They offered Edwin four dollars a ton for a period of six months. Edwin accepted, but the day they agreed to sign the contract, he noticed the terms were different. The new contract would be valid for 30 years and he would get one dollar a ton. It was outside the country’s legal framework for mining activities, and there was no mining concession and no environmental permit.
Edwin remembers the lawyer who gave him that contract, Julio César Barahona, former judge and adviser in the Supreme Court. They testified against him in Fuentes’ trial, Fuad Jarufe’s accountant stated that Barahona had received 300.000 lempiras to hinder police investigations concerning Fuentes’ narcotics lab. That day Geovanny said: «Sign the contract if you want to». Edwin signed, but he did not get a copy.
They searched for gold, iron, silver, and bronze nonstop. «Geovanny damaged the land», said Edwin. On the strip mine, a man from the community that supported Fuentes agreed to talk to Contracorriente. He got 2,500 lempiras (100 USD) every two weeks for preparing food for mineworkers and police officers because «there were always two men who escorted him», said the man. He hid weapons for Geovanny at his home whenever he asked.
«When I met the man he said to me: “See that over there? Those rocks look very shiny, just like silver”. I showed him some rocks from Edwin’s property and then we went to a plot of land in Agua Blanca. “Man, you have everything going for you, I will give you a car and a gun. He came back 15 days later and asked his bodyguards “how do we pay him?”. “We should kill him”, said one of them. I got scared and looked at him. I noticed he was playing around with his gun. I felt like I was thrown off a cliff».
One of Fuentes’ henchmen was president of the council in Jutosa, the largest village in this region near the side of the El Merendón mountain.
Geovanny Fuentes was always armed, he had AR15 rifles and 9-millimeter handguns, according to a US District Attorney, and he had political connections. Another ally of his was the then-mayor of Choloma, Leopoldo Crivelli.
«The then mayor of Choloma, Leopoldo Crivelli, came here with Geovanny. They were at my house and made me an offer regarding the minerals. I told Crivelli I didn’t have an extraction permit. He replied “Don’t worry about it. We will give you 250,000 lempiras. We just need your name for the paperwork when the time comes to export minerals.” You can’t use my name, I told him». Geovanny got angry and said, “Fuck, we can’t do business with you”.
In a telephone interview with Contracorriente Leopoldo Crivelli denied helping Fuentes with his businesses: «I don’t go to the mountains, I am scared of heights. That’s why I don’t go there», said Leopoldo when we asked him about his alleged visit to that region with Fuentes, whom he described as a «young man» from Choloma.
«His father was a friend of mine. I used to work for Don Fuad Jarufe. I am a rice expert and I managed a project in the outskirts of Choloma. And when I went to Jarufe to collect my two weeks’ payment, Fuentes was always there. We would often chat, but that is all. I am a public figure, I was mayor of Choloma for 16 years. You can ask anyone in Choloma who I am and they will tell you. I have no connections to drug dealers. I have never consumed cocaine, never owned a gun, I have always minded my own business, I did not smoke marijuana when I was young and that is Polo Crivelli’s word before God, I know nothing about this whole business», he said.
Crivelli said he was «not aware of any investigations that proved Geovanny was a drug dealer, but he seemed like a dangerous man who would not hesitate to kill. Everyone was afraid of him».
Back then, when the mining negotiations were underway, many men were already under Geovanny’s influence. First, he bribed Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, boss of the Los Cachiros cartel, by killing a mechanic who spoke badly of him. Just like a cat shows dead prey to its owner, Geovanny showed Maradiaga a picture of the mechanic’s corpse. Melvin Sanders, president of the soccer team Atlético Choloma, told Maradiaga that it would be smart to partner with Geovanny […] he could kill anyone if we ask him».
Leonel Maradiaga denied his participation in the narcotics lab because he preferred to bring cocaine from Colombia and not manufacture it in Honduras. However, after that act of loyalty, Fuentes began transporting drugs from the Cachiro family to Juan Carlos «el Tigre» Bonilla’s ranch in Honduras. Bonilla is the former Chief of Honduran Police and is now awaiting trial in New York. Geovanny also transported drugs for the Valle cartel, the most powerful cartel in western Honduras before they were brought down in 2014. Geovanny carried out his missions transporting drugs successfully, and his narcotics lab in Cerro Negro was still producing 200-300 kilograms of cocaine each month. To produce this amount he hired two Colombians to cook the drugs and a dozen guards.
After the only raid in Cerro Negro in 2011, two murders took place in Choloma that echoed across communities as an act of retaliation.
The police officer who organized the raid was later kidnapped by Fuentes and his men. US authorities stated that «the defendant and his confederates tortured the officer, hitting him in the face, and putting a plastic bag over his face to suffocate him. They put pins through the officer’s fingers […] The purpose of this brutal torture was interrogation: the defendant wanted to know if his money launderer and benefactor, Fuad Jarufe, had been implicated in the investigation relating to the Laboratory. After the defendant was satisfied that the officer had “told them the truth” about the investigation, the defendant killed the officer, firing “three mercy shots to his head.»
According to a US District Attorney, nothing was found during the investigation because Leopoldo Crivelli’s son leaked information about the police investigation and Chepe, a drug dealer from San Pedro Sula and collaborator in the narcotics lab, alerted about the investigation.
Denis Muñoz was also murdered, he was a councilman in the mayor’s office in Choloma and his property neighbored Fuentes’ in Cerro Negro. According to villagers in El Merendón, Muñoz filed a complaint against Fuentes for environmental crimes, but to this day no one has been held accountable for that murder. In 2015, his son was gunned down and the case remains unsolved.
Crivelli stated: «I know nothing about that. I’m very friendly to other people and I would never do something like that».
In March 2020, the DEA arrested Geovanny Fuentes in Miami for importing cocaine. He was sentenced to life in prison by the Court for the Southern District of New York in February 2020.
In El Merendón, at the side of the road heading to Tamarindo, there is an abandoned house, completely destroyed. Locals say it is a shelter for evil spirits. However, in these parts, the specter of death is not just a legend. The man who worked with Fuentes on the mine used to say «Those who refused to work with Geovanny live there».
Second meetup: a reforestation project
«Judge, he’s 52 years old. He’s a citizen of Honduras. He was raised under humble circumstances in a violent country. He studied hard. He’s a high school graduate. He worked as a farmer. He started out in a rice production place where he was a rice sweeper. But he worked himself up, Judge. He worked in the textile industry for 26 years as a manager. He started at the bottom, worked his way up to the top. From 2013 and 2018, he had a biomass company. I’m going to call it a forestal». That was John Burke, Geovanny’s lawyer, as he introduced and defended his client during the trial that led to his sentence after being found guilty by the Court. Burke sought a 40-year prison sentence for his client.
However, his alleged respectable timber company was not respectable at all. In Honduras, he faced trial for environmental crimes and for using his company to register and mortgage land owned by farmers in El Merendón for generations.
Gustavo Mejía, the current mayor of Choloma and a member of the Libre political party who had been a councilman since 2014, said to Contracorriente «we always regarded Geovanny Fuentes as a timber businessman, and he was responsible for most of the deforestation in Choloma, according to authorities. We never thought he was a drug dealer. He was not the eccentric type like many drug dealers who show their guns and drink excessively, he kept a low profile, but who knows what he did in private. I knew him for his biomass business. Then, the most cunning thing he did was to get rich off land that did not belong to him. And he was backed up by municipal authorities».
A few months before Geovanny mortgaged the properties, he met with inhabitants from two villages in El Merendón, San Antonio de las Quebradas and La Jutosa, and offered them to start a new project to develop local communities. That was the second time he approached the communities.
Don Rafa, leader of the Las Quebradas community, remembers quite well when Fuentes and Crivelli went to his house in 2012. Back then they were already illegally extracting minerals in Tamarindo.
«A man introduced himself and said that he wanted to invest in plant nurseries to reforest the region. There was a meeting where I introduced myself along with two neighbors and we listened to his offer. Three men came, supposedly lawyers, to talk about the project, mayor “Polo” Crivelli and two well-armed men. They said the project would help communities repair highways, build dispensaries, and provide good wages for those who work in the plant nurseries. The man said that they would build a school, but in exchange, we had to plant trees since the forest was ready to harvest timber».
Fuentes wanted to grow a tree known as jumbay (guaje in Spanish). It is not a very sturdy tree and it is even used as food for cattle. Rafa recalled asking him: «Why cut down the trees?»
That was a common business practice in Agroforestal Fuentes, to take advantage of highly biodiverse land and grind the trees to produce sawdust. Biomass is renewable energy generated when organic material is ignited, but there’s a difference between generating energy from waste (sugar cane, African palm tree, and roots) and from oak, mahogany, pine, silk-cotton, and conacaste trees.
In 2015, the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office in San Pedro Sula issued an arrest warrant and an injunction against Fuentes for «logging and illegal exploitation of timber for aggravated commercial purposes». Fuentes was accused of environmental crimes in the municipality of Santa Cruz de Yojoa, in the department of Cortés, but not for crimes committed in Choloma. The Environmental Municipal Unit issued a report to the district attorney describing how Agroforestal Fuentes operated without a permit issued by the Forest Conservation Institute (ICF in Spanish) on private property: «we determined that trees were being logged, placed in a wood grinder, and the sawdust was used to generate biomass and sold to a company called Gildan».
Read document here
Gildan is a Canadian textile company that works with many sweatshops in Choloma. It also owns a boiler on the outskirts of the industrial city that generates energy. On the website they proudly claim to be a socially and environmentally responsible company, «we use energy and water responsibly, and pay attention to any input and output in our work». Agroforestal Fuentes was not just a provider of organic material, they also took loans from Gildan.
Gildan did not reply. We sent emails to two female workers in the communication services in Canada but were ignored.
Luis Soliz, ICF Director, said «the drug trade and money laundering have severely damaged our forest. We know that the biomass industry was a cover up for money laundering. A higher than actual input was declared and since it was all incinerated to produce energy, there was no control. There’s still no control because it’s a mess in there».
There are rivers and streams running through the mountains of El Merendón which are shaped by crests and ravines. Local communities protected the forests and refused to cut down the trees. Fuentes set up two plant nurseries in El Merendón, one in Jutosa and the other one next to the Tamarindo mine. «Some people from the community worked there cleaning and getting plants ready for sale. There were 50,000 plants in the nursery, but a quarter was planted and the rest was lost», said Rafa.
The plant nurseries were a cover up so Fuentes and his employees could move around the region in El Merendón freely, drive up to Cerro Negro with bushes – and cocaine imported from Colombia, according to the injunction – and come down with tree trunks. «He used to drive by with well-armed men, he would bring wood from Cerro Negro on military trucks», explained a farmer from Jutosa. That’s why Denis Muñoz filed a complaint against Geovanny and paid with his life.
Agroforestal Fuentes was established in 2008. Carlos Augusto Hernandez Alvarado, the notary who registered the company and director of the legal consultancy office at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras in San Pedro Sula, said to Contracorriente «It’s our job to register properties. Notaries don’t do background checks on partners who wish to start a business. If they comply with legal requirements, which are minimal in Honduras, they are allowed to». While on trial in New York, Geovanny claimed his business operated between 2013 and 2018 and employed 30 permanent and hundreds of temporary workers. He said he made 70,000 dollars a week in this business.
A former employee of Agroforestal Fuentes shared his experience with Contracorriente, an experience he wants to «forget». We met him in a shopping mall, he was uneasy and evasive and asked if cameras could record his voice. «I got out with my head held high. I wasn’t involved in anything. I wasn’t aware of anything. You know how it is», was the first thing he said. He explained that they worked in groups of 10 with chainsaws and other machines to grind wood. It’s very exhausting and dangerous work. «Sometimes we had to sleep outside». They cleaned properties owned by wealthy landowners and bought organic material. He admitted that they later «took it too far cutting down pine trees» and «that wasn’t clean energy because trees were cut down» He was already out of the business because he had a bad feeling.
When we asked him about this he did not answer and just said that he didn’t know anything. But he slowly outlined a sketch of a violent and angry boss who used to hit his own guards. «They were military or former military, you could tell by the way they carried themselves», he added.
«I asked God to let me out of this business and he miraculously did», he concluded as he got up to leave.
Fuentes and his men were not able to work in San Antonio de las Quebradas because locals were against it. Back in 2013, the mine was a failure because they did not find the amount of gold and silver they had expected and the «reforestation project» was not successful. Geovanny Fuentes then decided to steal the land of those inhabitants who refused to give it away.
Mortgages and property fraud
Between April 2013 and May 2014, Geovanny Fuentes obtained four lines of credit and mortgaged properties in El Merendón, Choloma. Banco Promérica granted the mortgage for a total sum of 92 million lempiras.
Affected communities are El Ocotillo, El Majaine, Planes María, San Antonio de Las Quebradas, El Tamarindo, Agua Blanca, Chachahuala, and El Chorrerón, where hundreds of people live.
It was until March 2021 that locals realized their properties were encumbered. «We discovered in the Gaceta (the government’s official newspaper) that the entire region was put up for auction on March 25 and the properties now belong to the bank», explained a 50-year-old farmer from El Majaine whose property was mortgaged in September 2013.
«We have no idea how our land was taken by someone else, but the person who mortgaged our land needed approval from the municipality to register the land as his own». Property deeds had to be forged because we’ve had the original ones for many years. I got mine from my grandfather. My father inherited all of his land, it’s 29 blocks. But we’re screwed if they send the military or if another drug dealer buys the land. Anything can happen because people don’t want to leave».
In January 2013, a few months after the land was mortgaged, José Ulises Guevara was murdered. He worked in the mayor’s office and was in charge of the land registry in Choloma. Locals in El Merendón believe Ulises didn’t take part in any corruption schemes.
In Honduras, a very strict process has to be followed to register properties: a contract of sale, a legal title of ownership, and the property has to be registered in the Land Registry so there’s a record that a property deed was issued.
According to locals, land registered by Fuentes’ company was backed up by the Municipal Corporation, and these properties were later registered in the Land Registry.
The first mortgage by Banco Promérica for 3 million lempiras to guarantee a line of credit includes two pieces of land in Cerro Negro, previously donated by Fuad Jarufe to Geovanny Fuentes, and a batch of properties in Río Blanquito. The second mortgage was for 7 million lempiras and included more than 1000 acres between El Chorrerón, El Tamarindo, and Majaine. The third mortgage was for 9 million and includes more land and two wood grinding machines. There was one last mortgage, a biomass supply contract signed by the Canadian transnational Gildan, for 73 million lempiras.
Read documents here
One day after finding out about the auction, Rafa, a community leader in San Antonio de las Quebradas, went to the municipality of Choloma to look at the map of registered properties and to check which properties were mortgaged. «The agent at the Land Registry office told me “your village is not on the list”. I said no, I want to see the map. I found out my property would be put up for auction». Rafa owns four acres of land and holds the property deed issued by the National Agrarian Institute (INA in Spanish) in 1995.
«This is my land. I’m the sole owner of the property that was mortgaged, how is that possible? But thank God we still have the forest», said Rafa expressing consolation.
The foreclosure took place in 2018 because Geovanny Fuentes and his joint guarantors, Frederick and Fuad Jarufe, did not pay. It was a long process because the judge claimed Fuentes’ address was not known and he couldn’t be notified. Maribel Espinoza, a lawyer whose law firm represented the bank, said to Contracorriente that the process was abnormal and difficult, probably because of the collusion between the civil court in Choloma and Fuentes. «The city court ignored regulations that ensured the debtor would be notified of any legal processes to his current address or in case he changed his address, this bought the debtor time to avoid the auction where mortgaged properties were being sold», she said.
One year after Geovanny’s arrest, the judge in Choloma announced the auction.
In view of having their land sold by auction, around 300 people from communities in El Merendón protested in front of the bank in San Pedro Sula. The bank manager suggested three people go into the building to talk. They refused and replied, «We either all come in or no one does».
On that day, March 25, there were no bidders. The judge granted ownership of the properties to the bank which are valued at 717,623.98 dollars. Communities live under the threat of eviction ever since.
«Life is kind, but we know if they threaten us at gunpoint, we have to leave», said Rafa on his patio. His house is right in front of «Lempira», a school built by the community without any help from Fuentes.
When a drug dealer is arrested it is not over yet. Honduran institutions, whether it is police, military, municipal, or judicial, transnational companies such as Gildan, and the banking system, were directly or indirectly involved in criminal activities committed by Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez. «US-Americans are interested in confiscating drugs, we should be interested in improving our own country and reforming our corrupt institutions, that’s our duty. Not every issue is going to be solved in the United States. It’s important we do our part and deal with corruption», expressed Carlos Paz from the “Cáritas en Honduras” mission, an organization the communities in El Merendón turned to for support.
Contracorriente contacted a source in the mayor’s office in Choloma who remained anonymous and repeated a dozen times «I stayed out of many things that were going on». That person also denied the mayor’s office was involved in granting property deeds to Geovanny Fuentes. «We talked about it in the municipal council, but we were never involved. I think it was a collusion between the government and the Institute of Forest Conservation that led to schemes in the Land Registry, but the municipality was not aware of this». Our source defended the institution, but also claimed «we had to keep our mouths shut since we know how things are», suggesting that the whole situation was not so clear. «What was going on internally was complicated. The head of the Land Registry and a city councilor were murdered. A lawyer had to flee Choloma because he wouldn’t tolerate this kind of corruption […]».
Our source finally stated the issue was caused by Banco Promérica because they allow property to be mortgaged under irregular conditions.
We contacted the bank and asked under what conditions did Geovanny Fuentes mortgage those properties and if an inspection took place to verify that he owned the 1,000 plus acres of land. They replied: «The loan was granted in accordance with current credit policy and rules and regulations established by the National Commission of Banks and Insurance. A valuation was done in compliance with banking regulations and the bank’s policy. As part of the bank’s processes, we verified at the Land Registry guarantees brought forward by clients to verify they were the legitimate owners».
Verification was not very thorough and the Land Registry has been under scrutiny for being plagued by corruption. José Cardona, president of the board of directors and Secretary of Social Development (SEDESOL in Spanish), blamed the nationalist governments since «they tolerated corruption on issues of land regularization to benefit drug dealers. Many mayors granted property deeds to anyone who paid them and didn’t care if people lived there. Property deeds were granted even though legitimate owners had the original ones. Files went missing. There’s no governance to avoid granting property deeds twice and to prevent bribery. This mess is one of a kind in our history and we can’t solve it in four years», he argued.
We went to the National Property Management System and looked up records of properties mortgaged by Fuentes to understand how he became the owner, but there is no record of previous owners, with the exception of a piece of land given away by Fuad Jarufe. An employee from the Property Regularization Office commented «we couldn’t verify who the previous owner was, but we noticed Fuentes submitted property deeds in 2013. These documents can only be obtained from a municipality».
Only a municipality can issue property deeds, but according to former mayor Crivelli, they were not issued by his office: «I was the mayor. They are my neighbors, how could I allow this? How could I steal land that belongs to someone else, land I have not seen, to benefit this man? I don’t know how he registered those properties as the owner, I first heard about the mortgages when the auction was taking place. There are rumors he financed my political campaign and gave me 220,000 lempiras, but thank God that never happened. I have been dragged into this issue and people in politics don’t mean well, that’s one reason I lost the elections. I don’t know what the documents in New York say, but it’s all made up. Claims from random people are not necessarily true. You can come here and investigate. I can take you there, even though I am no fan of heights».
Crivelli lost his fourth reelection, but his daughter, Katia, was elected representative for the Liberal Party in Congress. A political party led by Yani Rosenthal who served time in prison in the United States for laundering money from the drug trade.
Gustavo Mejía, the current mayor of Choloma, promised to help communities in El Merendón during his campaign, but he is shifting the responsibility to solve the problem to Congress. During the interview, he called Iris Pineda, a representative for the Libre Party, to whom he claims a report on the case was sent.
—No, Tania [Head of the Environmental Department in the mayor’s office] has the report», said representative Pineda.
—Well, Tania said she gave it to you.
—I don’t know, I would have to look for it among the pile of paper I have at home.
—Well, then look for it.
In the meantime, communities live under constant threat of eviction. We asked the bank about the future of communities living in those properties and they replied «there are no offers at the moment, when offers start to come in we will analyze the situation».
«You know what’s ironic? —asked Rafa— we still pay taxes to the municipality».
When it was time to leave the mountain, as it was getting dark and farmers were leaving the fields to go home, we came across a man on a white horse, his boots were covered in dirt. He said his name was Ezekiel. He talked about politics, religion, and money, the three tools of oppression. He knows the story of the mine, Fuentes’ company, and the mortgaged properties… But as we tried to understand his view of the situation —he glanced at us one last time before leaving— he laughed a bit and said from on top of his horse: «That’s how it’s always been, but, you know, here the struggle is born and grows in blood. It’s what we have».
This investigation was possible with support from the Consortium to Support Independent Journalism in Latin America (CAPIR) and led by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR).