The National Catholic Review
A struggle over land and power in Honduras

Enrique, an older campesino with a graying mustache, spoke calmly, but he conveyed a deep sense of urgency. “We have been threatened,” he told us through an interpreter, “because we have defended the poorest people, the land and the water.” On Feb. 13, 2013, members of his village in northern Honduras helped hang a chain in front of his house to block access and to send a clear message to the mining companies: We are not selling; stay away from our land. The next day, he said, the police broke the chain, asked for their names and promised to return.

This sort of intimidation, sadly, is not an anomaly; it is just one instance of a systemic threat faced by farming communities throughout the country. Our delegation listened to many stories like Enrique’s as we made our way across Honduras, seeking to learn more about the breakdown of civil institutions that followed the military coup in 2009 and about the response of the Catholic Church and the U.S. government to the country’s unique challenges. The delegation, representing Jesuit ministries in the United States and Canada, also wanted to learn how to be in greater solidarity with Jesuits in Honduras and the communities they work with.

As our delegation traveled along the Caribbean coast—the most violent region of the country—we encountered campesinos struggling to defend or regain their land from mining companies. We met with a variety of community leaders involved in research, organizing and advocacy: Jesuits engaged in ministries ranging from parish work to directing theater productions, a political sociologist who studies the increasing militarization of Honduran society, the female chancellor of the country’s most prestigious university and church leaders who have spoken forcefully about the human rights of their people and the urgent need to protect the environment.

National Challenges

These groups have developed a deep understanding of the root causes of the problems that plague the country and have seen firsthand the human and environmental toll. In the testimony and analysis shared by dozens of individuals with whom we spoke, three interrelated groups of issues stand out as the most pressing:

Drugs, violence and migration. An astonishing 80 percent of the drugs transported by air to the United States pass through Honduras. The murder rate in Honduras (86 per 100,000 inhabitants) has climbed to the highest in the world, in part because of the relationship between drug traffickers and organized crime in the country. An official at the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa called the murder rate “catastrophic” and “historic.” In some cities as many as 230 out of every 100,000 residents are murdered each year. In 2012 alone, there were 7,172 murders, roughly the same as the number of police in the country.

In some cases, journalists have been specifically targeted. Ismael Moreno Coto, S.J., popularly known as Padre Melo, director of Radio Progreso and of ERIC, a social research and advocacy organization, spoke before the Human Rights Commission of the U.S. House of Representatives in July 2012. In the preceding three years, 25 journalists had been murdered, Padre Melo reported, adding that these deaths represented “the most sophisticated of all political crimes in Honduras today.” In recent years, 16 associates of Jesuit ministries have received credible death threats. Radio Progreso, which has about 1.5 million listeners, continues to receive threats for its reporting and analysis of social problems, and one of its correspondents was forced to leave the country.

Frank La Rue, the U.N. special rapporteur for freedom of expression and opinion, has said that “in proportion to its population, Honduras has the most alarming violation of the freedom of expression in the world.” This level of violence—combined with high unemployment—drives migration to the north. “It is remarkable that so many people in Honduras recognize the dangers of that journey and still choose to journey north because their lives at home are so untenable,” said Shaina Aber, the policy director for the U.S. Jesuits’ office of social and international ministries, who has made several trips to Honduras.

Militarization and impunity. In the face of such endemic violence, international partners like the United States tend to have a simplistic response: increase the strength of state institutions like the military and police. This strategy, however, fails to account for the depth of corruption in the military and police forces. Organized crime has penetrated a weak police force in Honduras, leaving people vulnerable. The most powerful individuals in the country have essentially taken the government hostage; corrupt police, prosecutors and judges do not serve the people they have the responsibility to protect, especially those in poorer communities. Hondurans who can afford it have come to rely on private companies for security.

People are demanding greater security, and Juan Orlando Hernández, the newly elected president of Honduras, favors a further militarization of the police force. But this strategy has a downside. “One of the most troubling things about the military police law and generally the militarization of society is the lack of accountability this generates,” explained Ms. Aber. “In the name of security, the military has been given free rein to stop public protests, further corporate interests, investigate and detain activists. The militarization of society is compounding the levels of impunity.”

The mining industry. A year ago a new law opened the door to further exploration of mining sites throughout the country. Multinational mining companies are increasingly exploiting land that campesinos have lived on and farmed for decades. Bishop Michael Lenihan, O.F.M., of La Ceiba, told our delegation that armed people have pressured campesinos in his diocese to sell their land to mining companies. (See interview with Bishop Lenihan here.)

The aggressive tactics of the mining companies have caused division within families and parishes. Some decide, out of economic necessity, to sell their land. Young people from other regions are recruited to clear the land for the miners. There is too much money at stake and too few economic alternatives. Others decide to resist. When people expressed their concerns about the mining companies to their Claretian pastor, Father César Espinoza, he was hesitant but willing to go along with what the community wanted. Later, a mine owner complained to the bishop about Father Espinoza. “When I found out why the bishop wanted to meet with me,” Father Espinoza explained through an interpreter, “we invited him to visit our community. We wanted him to see that I was not influencing the community, but the community was influencing me.” When the bishop came, people filled the church and made it clear that they did not want the mines. This spurred church leadership to greater action.

In June, the diocese issued a pastoral letter, signed by Bishop Lenihan. The statement laid out a theology of care for creation, an option for the poor and the common good. It voiced opposition to the “avalanche” of environmentally devastating mining projects in the state of Atlántida and the militarization of the region, and decried the defamation and threats directed toward Father Espinoza and his colleagues. It called the imposition of mining projects without the consent of local communities an “outrage to personal and collective human rights” and requested consultation as well as trustworthy studies of the environmental impact of such endeavors.

Exploitative mining is a problem not only in Honduras but in all of Central America. “Every country in the region—with the exception of Costa Rica—appears to be experiencing many of the same issues,” explained Ms. Aber, “including environmental and public health issues, to false criminal charges filed against leaders, to intimidation, threats and violence by mining company representatives or government collaborators.” In Costa Rica, the government has banned open-pit mining, a precedent that other countries should follow.

International Solidarity

Many organizations in Honduras are making a difference through popular education, community organizing and spiritual formation; they not only respond to the immediate needs of the vulnerable but also attempt to hold public officials responsible. Yet the major structural changes needed to reverse the breakdown of civil institutions and stem the increasing levels of violence remain elusive. There is a sense among some that the country has been lost. How is it possible to effectively root corruption out of politics and the police force and rebuild social institutions? Padre Melo was asked if he was optimistic that conditions in the country would improve. He responded through an interpreter, “In this current situation, being optimistic means not having the facts.” When I asked another Jesuit about this statement, he acknowledged the limited capacity of the Jesuits to respond to the violence. “It is humiliating, frustrating,” he explained. “We are in desolation. Each of us has a creative ministry, but we are overwhelmed by the violence.”

Whenever we met with individuals or groups, we always asked them what solidarity looked like from their perspective. Many responded that the delegation itself was a significant gesture of solidarity. They can feel isolated and ignored, so it meant a great deal to them that an international group, especially one connected with an even larger network of institutions, visited them and listened to their stories.

Catholics in the United States have long had a special relationship with Central America, but it has been centered mostly on El Salvador, where government-backed death squads murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero, four U.S. churchwomen, six Jesuits and many others in the 1980s. The situation in Honduras today provides incentive and opportunity for a renewed commitment to dialogue and collaboration with the country. Catholic institutions in the United States can support the people of Honduras through advocacy and with human, technical, investigative and monetary resources.

It is important to keep open a line of communication with the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa. The delegation brought the testimony of campesinos and community leaders to the embassy on Sept. 12, 2013, and the officials asked that we continue to share our human rights concerns with them. While U.S. companies are not currently mining in Honduras, some have expressed interest, which makes it essential that U.S. officials have a clear understanding of concerns raised by local communities related to forced displacement, the natural environment and public health. The officer in the embassy acknowledged that human rights abuses in Honduras are a “fundamental, systemic problem,” but she said “we are only two people” in the human rights office, and “we are doing what we can.” Americans should call upon public officials in Washington to provide additional staff to help monitor and address human rights concerns in Honduras.

There is an ally in Congress with personal experience of Honduras. Senator Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, took a year off from law school in 1980 to volunteer with the Jesuits in El Progreso. He has stayed in touch with them over the years, and he visited their community in 2004. In July 2013, Senator Kaine testified before the Human Rights Commission about the “significant human rights challenges” facing Honduras today. He described attacks on members of the media, extrajudicial killings, corruption in many sectors and a general lack of accountability in the country.

He explained that the United States has allocated approximately $60 million to Honduras—some of it for police reform—but “progress has stalled.” In the first half of 2013, the Human Rights Special Prosecutor in Honduras had already received 500 specific complaints about human rights violations, the “overwhelming majority” related to police action. Yet there is only one man responsible for investigating allegations, and he is not independent of the police.

Commenting on the role of the United States in responding to the crises in Honduras, Leticia Salomón, a political sociologist at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, told the delegation through an interpreter: “We are in a situation where if the United States helps, it is bad. And if they do not, it is worse.” She said, “We need a strong civil society that can act as a check on political and military power.” Therefore, it is important to create forces independent of a corrupt system, subject to public accountability. “We must stop the advancement of the military apparatus,” she explained. “People feel safe with it, but there is a danger of a militarized state.”

Another possible step for addressing these concerns is the presence of an international group like the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, which could help deter the culture of impunity that currently exists in the country. A similar strategy worked in other Latin American countries like Colombia and Guatemala, and it could bring much-needed relief to those suffering the most in Honduras today.

. . .

In November, tensions returned to Enrique’s community in Atlántida. The mining company resumed its “exploration” of the land by removing trees and digging, in complete disregard for the land rights of the community. Father Espinoza took photos of the damage, and the community has petitioned the district attorney to intervene. When the delegation spoke with Father Espinoza, he told us, “This situation is grave for all defenders of human rights. You live in Honduras without knowing whether you will see the next day.” Yet the community continues its courageous struggle for justice.

See photos from Luke's travels in Honduras here.

Luke Hansen, S.J., an associate editor of America, traveled to Honduras from Sept. 7 to 15, 2013, with a delegation representing Jesuit ministries in the United States and Canada.

Recently by Luke Hansen, S.J.