On 13 October 2020, Arnold Joaquín Morazán Erazo, a human rights defender and environmental activist, was shot twice in his own home in Guapinol, Honduras, by two unidentified gunmen, later dying from his injuries. The investigation into the murder is yet to produce any results.
Morazán was an active member of the Municipal Committee for the Defence of Common and Public Property (CMDBCP), a group which brings together several organisations resisting extractive industries in the department of Colón.
Members of the group suggest his murder was a reprisal for his participation in a peaceful protest camp to protect the Guapinol River from the construction of a nearby mine. Morazán was one of 31 people who were arrested following the protest, eight of whom remain in preventive detention today on fabricated charges of ‘aggravated arson’ and ‘unlawful encroachment’ on company property.
The Guapinol Eight – as they have come to be known – have been in detention for close to two years now, a situation denounced in March 2021 as illegal by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. According to the UN group, ‘there is no legal basis for having detained the defenders and even less so for continuing to detain them’. It called for their immediate release, with commensurate compensation and reparation.
Guapinol is a village located in the municipality of Tocoa, in the fertile Bajo Aguán region of northern Honduras. Over the last few years, the villagers have been involved in a gruelling campaign in defence of their river, which is the sole source of drinking water for both the villagers of Guapinol and communities in the surrounding areas. It provides clean water for drinking, washing and bathing for approximately 15,000 people.
The river has been under threat since 2014, when the government granted the Honduran mining corporation Inversiones Los Pinares (ILP) permission to build an iron ore mine and processing plant.
This project was the first to be developed in Guapinol and is owned by one of the wealthiest couples in Honduras: Lenir Pérez, a businessman and active supporter of the ruling National Party, who has been linked to suspected human rights violations, and Ana Facussé, daughter of the controversial late palm oil mogul, Miguel Facussé. Facussé senior was accused of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in 2012 for a violent, decades-long land grabbing campaign in Bajo Aguán.
The concession granted to ILP came in spite of the Honduran Congress having declared the Montaña de Botaderos in Tocoa a national park in 2011. This extended protection to 34 bodies of water providing clean water for over 42,000 people, including the Guapinol River. However, in December 2013 the government reduced the park’s no-development zone by 217 hectares after ILP requested two concessions in the protected area. The first licence was granted to ILP in January 2014.
A report by the Central American Alliance Against Mining (ACAFREMIN) suggests the modification of the park’s no-development zone occurred under questionable circumstances, without prior consultation either with the Forest Conservation Institute (ICF) – an agency that manages and regulates Honduras’ protected forests – or with local communities. ACAFREMIN argues that this violates both municipal regulations and international standards.
According to their report, by 2015, there were 59 mining concessions in the Department of Colón, 34 of which were located in the municipality of Tocoa. In 2016, approximately one third of the municipality of Tocoa was under mining concession.
While opposition to mining in local communities in Tocoa had been brewing from as early as 2011, the conflict in Guapinol was sparked by the awarding of the concession to ILP. Local communities filed legal complaints, held demonstrations, blockaded roads and pleaded with government officials to halt the construction of the mine. Despite the strength of local resistance, the government gave ILP the go-ahead to develop the mine in the Montaña de Botaderos National Park.
In March 2018, shortly after ILP started to widen a road in the park to provide access to the mine, water in Guapinol turned brown, thick and muddy. Residents say that the water has been polluted with silt runoff from the construction of the road. After they began to get sick, suffering from diarrhoea and skin conditions, they were forced to buy bottled water to drink, cook and bathe with. It is estimated that over 14,000 residents of Guapinol and the surrounding areas were affected by the contamination.
‘In jail for defending life’
In protest, on 1 August 2018, a group of local residents, campaigners and activists from the Municipal Committee for the Defence of Common and Public Property (CMDBCP) organised a peaceful demonstration against the ILP mine. They established a protest camp, occupying the road leading up to the mine and blocking the way for the heavy machinery and mining equipment. Called the Guapinol Camp in Defence of Water and Life, the blockade was maintained daily by around 140 local people over the course of 88 days.
On 7 September 2018, the camp was invaded by security guards employed by ILP and one young protester was shot and seriously injured in front of a number of witnesses. The following month a judge ordered the camp’s removal by 1,200 state security agents who used not only tear gas to break up the camp, but live ammunition. One demonstrator was killed and many others injured.
Subsequently, the Public Prosecutor’s Office issued arrest warrants for 31 demonstrators based on ILP accusations of trespassing and arson. Charges for most of the accused were later dropped, among whom was Antonio Martínez Ramos, who died in 2015, three years prior to when the alleged events took place – a clear illustration of the chaotic and arbitrary nature of the Honduran justice system. However, charges of arson and false imprisonment were upheld against a group of eight defenders who have been in jail since September 2019.
Gabriela Sorto – daughter one of the detained – has become the spokesperson of the campaign for their release. ‘As a family, we demand their freedom,’ she says. “They shouldn’t be in jail for defending life.’
Victims of a criminal state
But it is not only those in jail who have faced curbs on their freedom. Morazán’s death has revealed the extent to which the water defenders in Guapinol are operating in a climate of fear.
‘They have taken away our freedom,’ said Juan López, one of the men criminalised after participating in the camp, in an interview given just a week prior to Morazán’s killing. ‘I used to walk to work, but now I’m scared to do so. I can’t go out with my family because we’re so afraid. There’s so much violence and persecution.’
The CMDBCP believe this violence is part of a campaign involving the police, the military and private agents employed by the mining corporations, with the aim of rupturing the social fabric of the community and curtailing any resistance to the construction of the mine. This is a strategy consistent with a pattern of violence directed towards environmental defenders in Honduras.
Indeed, Morazán’s murder was not an isolated event. According to Global Witness – an organisation that monitors repression of environmental and social justice activists – over 140 people have been murdered in Honduras since 2010 for defending their land, water and environment, though the true figure could be much higher.
Their latest report indicates that Latin America accounts for over two thirds of these deaths globally. While in absolute numbers Honduras is fifth in the ranking, per capita, it is the deadliest country in which to be a land, water and environmental defender.
The most high-profile victim of this violence was Berta Cáceres, a prominent indigenous Lenca activist who was killed in her own home in March 2016 in retaliation for her campaign against the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River, which is considered sacred by the Lenca people. This killing sparked outrage and drew international attention to the violence inflicted upon indigenous and environmental activists in Honduras.
The killings have been increasing since the 2009 military coup, in which left-leaning Manuel Zelaya was forced out of office and exiled. Since then, Honduras has been ruled by the conservative National Party which has maintained itself in power via a toxic combination of electoral fraud, rampant corruption and state violence.
The regime also has close ties to organised crime; U.S. prosecutors even argue that Honduras has become a ‘narco state’. Both current and former presidents, Juan Orlando Hernández and Porfirio ‘Pepe’ Lobo, appear in investigations into Los Cachiros, Honduras’ most powerful drug cartel. Hernández’s brother was sentenced to life in prison for drugs and weapons offences earlier this year by a federal court in Manhattan, while Lobo’s son is currently serving a 24-year sentence after having admitted to conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the U.S in 2016.
‘The president’s not on our side’
The Guapinol case shows how criminalisation in Honduras is about more than just state violence: it highlights the extent to which the state institutions, including the judiciary, have been captured and corrupted by business interests, both legal and illicit. Those who stand in the way of these interests may be harassed, threatened, prosecuted, or physically eliminated, as in the cases of Berta Cáceres and Arnold Joaquín Morazán Erazo.
‘The president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, we see that he’s not on our side either,’ Sorto says. ‘He’s on the side of the mining company, granting concessions that are clearly illegal and that are going to displace the people living in the communities. We have to fight and not let them push us off our land.’
Guapinol Resiste has been set up to campaign against the unfair and illegal detention of the Guapinol Eight, and to demand their immediate release. The campaign gives voice to the defenders and demands their freedom. They say ‘No to Violence! No to Corruption! No to Mining! No to Inversiones Los Pinares/Ecoteck!’
The Guapinol Eight are:Arnold Javier Aleman, Ever Alexander Cedillo, José Avelino Cedillo, Porfirio Sorto Cedillo, Orbin Naún Hernández, Kevin Alejandro Romero, Daniel Marquez and Jeremías Martínez Díaz. You can write them messages of solidarity and support the campaign for their release at www.guapinolresiste.org
Jasmine Haniff is a student at Goldsmiths College, London. As part of her course, she is working with LAB on a series of articles about the impact of mining on bodies of water and their surrounding communities.