More than eight months after the kidnapping of four young land defenders from the Garífuna community of Triunfo de la Cruz, in northern Honduras, their whereabouts are still unknown. Given the state’s inaction and involvement in concealing the facts of the case, the community decided last February to set up a committee to search for the kidnapped community leaders.
The cases of persecution, torture, and murder in this area have increased dramatically in recent years, in the context of the Garífuna communities’ struggle to defend their lands against the government of Honduras and private companies seeking their displacement to build tourist resorts and exploit their natural resources. In the last month alone, four Garífunas were killed in the communities of Masca and Corozal, including Martín Pandy, the president of the Community Board (patronato) of Corozal.. Two activists were also arrested in Trujillo for defending their land. In a recent statement, the local organization OFRANEH (Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras) issued a denunciation saying that the State of Honduras is committing genocide against the Garífuna people, with the aim of achieving their definitive displacement. We discussed this situation with César Benedith, member of OFRANEH, community leader and former president of the Triunfo de la Cruz Community Board.
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Can you tell us about the context in which the recent killings and detentions took place in the Garífuna communities?
As Garífuna leaders, we feel that our people are being systematically dispossessed by the government, in conjunction with the businessmen of this country. We are being threatened and criminalized, and the Garífuna leaders of different communities are being killed for the economic interests of these politicians and some businessmen from our region. Since they have control over the justice — or injustice — system in our country, when they can’t kill us, they criminalize us. It’s scary, because many communities are losing their leaders, who have been at the forefront of our struggle to protect our lands.
What are the interests behind this systematic violence against the Garífuna people?
The State wants to take control of the natural resources that belong to the indigenous people of this country. They see our land as a resource that they need to access to keep making money, regardless of whether they have to displace the communities that are living on the seashore. And when we go out and defend our territory, we are criminalized and often killed. A Minister of Tourism of Honduras has even said that his dream is to turn Honduras into another Cancun. So we feel that the State of Honduras views us as an obstacle for that.
In 2013, a complaint filed by the Garífuna community against the State of Honduras was submitted to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights demanding the recognition of the Garífuna community’s ancestral rights over their lands and their communal property titles. In 2015 the Court issued a judgment in favor of the Garífuna people. Can you tell us about that complaint and the State’s response to the ruling?
Right. In my community, Triunfo de la Cruz, we won an international case against the State of Honduras in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, because we have a communal title to our land. There is no private property in our community. But people have come here, with the support of the [neighboring] municipality of Tela, to build their complexes here, even though we are not part of the urban center of Tela. We’re neighbors, but we have a title that protects us, and the State has completely disregarded that. It has refused to comply with the ruling.
Last year, on July 18, a group of armed men in police uniforms entered your community, Triunfo de la Cruz, and kidnapped the president of your Community Board, Sneider Centeno, along with three other Garífuna leaders and a neighbor of the community. Can you tell us what happened that day and what information the community has received about this case so far?
It was 5:00 in the morning, on the 18th [of July], when a fisherman, who had been getting ready to go fishing, came to my house and started knocking on the door. He said “Get up, get up, César! They’re taking away the president, Sneider.” When I came out, the vehicles were moving in front of my house to get the other community member, Suami Aparicio Mejía. I immediately called 911, the Honduran police, and they said “We’ll send over a police car.” They took about 38 to 40 minutes to take Suami and Milton from their homes. If the police had taken action, as they said they would, they could have found these criminals here. Because it takes just 8 minutes to get from Tela, where the police are located, to our community by car. So it was a plan that the police were involved in.
I started to tell everyone, “Let’s block the road,” because there is only one access road to and from the community. They would have to go back along that road. So, we started to get organized. We woke up everyone in the neighborhood and started using ropes and stones to block the road. When they saw the people on the street, they raised their guns, but thank God they didn’t fire any bullets. When we saw the danger, I said, “I don’t think these people are members of the police force, so what we have to do is clear the way and let them go. Because they didn’t come here to talk. And if we stay, they might kill us.” Then one of the members of the group [of kidnappers] got out and removed the stones that we had placed on the road. And they left in 3 vehicles. There were 13 or 14 people in the vehicles wearing DPI (Police Directorate of Investigations) vests. They all wore vests and ski masks.
We thought they were going to Tela, so we started making calls. An hour later, the police called me back and asked what was going on. I said “I want to know if a warrant has been issued for a police raid here at 5:00 in the morning, which is the time at which they took Sneider away.” They said “No, we don’t know anything about a raid, but we’re going to investigate.” So that afternoon we started blocking the road, because we understood that the police were involved in the case. To this day, we haven’t received an answer. The police have a camera at the only access road to our community, and when we asked about the cameras, they told us they had been disabled.
The State sent its entire investigative body to Triunfo de la Cruz. But they didn’t come here with the goal of finding our community members who were kidnapped. They came here to find out how they could implicate them in some illegal activity. They didn’t give us any answers, so we asked the State to stop sending its investigators. We still have no specific information on the whereabouts of our community members. The State has been completely silent.
Sneider had been fighting for the defense and recovery of the community’s lands. Can you tell us about the struggles he was leading?
Sneider and other community members, including myself, were fighting against the deforestation of our lands. And many times, Sneider had confronted the people who were there. We’ve been told that they’re ranchers and palm tree farmers linked to drug traffickers. They’ve deforested more than 15 blocks of land along the river for the production of palm oil. Those are lands that belong to the community of Triunfo de la Cruz. But they’ve come in by force, with weapons. We’ve also been told that they’ve said that no president of the Community Board or member of the Triunfo de la Cruz community is going to get them out of there, and if they try, they’re going to pay with their lives, just like Sneider.
On February 18 of this year, the community launched a committee to search for the kidnapped community members. Can you tell us about that?
Since we haven’t gotten any answers from the State, we decided to set up a committee called “SUNLA,” which means “This has to stop” in Garífuna. A decision was made to include trusted people in the committee, both from Honduras and abroad, to seek information and find the answers we need by our own means, through that organization. Because we feel that the State of Honduras is concealing the facts of the case, and this is the only weapon we have left to possibly determine the whereabouts of our community members.
Martín Pandy, president of the Community Board of Corozal, was murdered on March 4. What is known about the identity of the murderers and the interests behind his murder?
According to the information we received from some community members, there’s a group of people who want to take control of a mountainous area of Corozal where the community’s water dam is located. As president, Martín stood up to them to prevent them from taking over that territory and clearing the forests from that area of Corozal, which is used to produce food for the community. So that seems to have been the issue. We’ve also been told that there was a group of mareros [gang members] who wanted to come in and collect a war tax from the community, like they do in [the cities of] Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, and bring their drugs into the area. And Martín was fighting against that. That’s why they targeted him. But there is no confirmed information about where the attack on Martín could have come from.
On March 3, Jennifer Mejía Solorzano and Marianela Mejía Solorzano, both members of the OFRANEH, were arrested in the Garífuna community of Trujillo and charged with the illegal seizure of land. The people took to the streets in protest and after a few days they were released, but they are still being prosecuted. Is there any new information available about the case?
They’re going to file an appeal. The area of Trujillo is a very special area, where leaders who are defending their territory are constantly criminalized. We understand that the court of Trujillo is colluding with government authorities and wealthy third parties. Even if they can’t prove that any offense was committed, even if they have no valid arguments, the court of Trujillo always ends up criminalizing the community members. So we’re going to continue to wage an intense struggle in that area, because that court in Trujillo is being controlled by money.
Are there tourism companies operating in the area?
Yes, Canadian businessmen have several complexes in that area of Trujillo, for example Njoi Santa Fe and Njoi Trujillo, which are owned by Randy Jorgensen, who is known as “the King of Porn” [for having acquired his fortune by selling pornography]. There are several areas there that are in the hands of foreigners, large areas of land that are inside Garífuna communities, and to which [the communities] have titles. However, if we file a complaint before those courts, they don’t listen to us. But as soon as these foreigners complain, they criminalize us and try to imprison our community members.
The Garífuna leaders, and the presidents of the Community Boards in particular, have been the target of systematic attacks in recent years. You became interim president of the Community Board after Sneider’s kidnapping. Can you tell us about that experience?
When I became interim president of the Community Board, a month after Sneider was kidnapped, I had to discuss the situation with my family. They were afraid and they told me, “We don’t want to lose you. Just leave the position vacant.” And some of my friends who live abroad told me, “You made a mistake in accepting to be president of the Community Board. You should come to the United States, because you’re fighting just like Sneider, and I don’t know why they didn’t take you, but they will.” That fear has remained within our community and within our families. My mother, who is in her 80s now, has never worried about me so much as she does now, despite the fact that I live close by. When the media asks me what I think, I say that it crosses my mind to leave my community. It’s a situation that always brings tears to my eyes. It makes me sad, because, ultimately, you feel really powerless. The young people in our community don’t want to be involved in the work anymore, especially in the defense of our territory, because everyone is afraid, and if they’re not afraid, their own families convince them that they shouldn’t get involved. When people see me talking to young people, they tell them “Don’t pay attention to him, or they’ll take you away, like they did with Sneider.” That’s my main concern, that there are no young people available and willing to fight anymore, at least for the time being, because I don’t know what it will be like in the future. Sometimes the thought of leaving this community and seeking political asylum in other countries crosses my mind, but I think that if I go far away, it will always hurt me to see the resignation in my community, to see the people let them take our land out of fear.
But in spite of all the pressure, you’re still fighting. What gives you the strength to keep going in this situation?
One of the things that gives me strength is that God does not love injustice, and I know that I have the protection of God and of my ancestors as a Garífuna, who support us, teach us the right path and protect us from all evil. I also do it for the children, for those who will be here tomorrow. I have my daughters and my son. And if we don’t fight, where will we take them or where will they live tomorrow? And the international support also gives me strength. Thank God for that. We ask that they not leave us alone, that they continue to be there, observing what is happening. We trust that the people who are watching us internationally won’t leave us alone.
On November 28, there will be general elections in Honduras. Do you think the situation of the Garífuna community could improve with a new administration if the ruling party loses?
We really don’t have much faith or much hope in any political party, for the simple reason that the people who run the economy are the millionaires, and the millionaires are the ones who are interested in our territory. We believe that maybe [the opposition party] Libre could comply with the ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, if it came to power, but we also know that they would be under a lot of pressure if they tried to do that. We’re going to keep fighting; we won’t stay on the sidelines.
Is there anything you would like to say to those who support your struggle internationally?
I hope that people abroad will continue to support us with these difficult cases, that they help us pressure the State to give us an answer about what happened to our community members and to stop criminalizing us as leaders, or taking our lives. Because we’re human beings too. We belong to this country. We all have equal rights. We want people to see us as brothers and sisters, as the peaceful people that we are. When the Garífuna people arrived in Honduras, they established 36 communities, and today there is not one more and not one less. They say that we’re invading the lands of other people, but we haven’t left our territories. They’re the ones who have come into our territories. We’re still here, where we’ve always been, and we hope that they respect the lives of our leaders and of anyone who fights for social justice in this country.