Honduras: Corporate and Military Interests Above Garífuna Community Survival

By Greg McCain

Six children from the community of Puerto Castilla, Trujillo, suffered severe respiratory damage resulting from an attack carried out on May 23, 2014 by the Honduran National Police, Military Police, and in conjunction with the Operation Xatruch III military unit. Hundreds of tear gas canisters were fired into the community in a haphazard manner as a means of dispersing a peaceful protest. After inundating the town with tear gas, the roughly 500 security force members entered the community, dousing anyone within reach with pepper spray.

Tear gas canisters landed in the yard of the kindergarten and the Colegio 14 de agosto, the local high school. The wind pushed concentrated levels of the gas into the classrooms. Younger students were foaming at the mouth and convulsing as they gasped for air.Canisters landed at doorsteps and windows of houses and businesses, which also filled with the noxious fumes. No one in the town could escape the irritant laden clouds. A cat, hit by one of the intensely hot canisters, has a permanent scar the size of a nickel on its head. The clouds of tear gas and pepper spray covered the entire town to the extent that many of the children had to be evacuated by small fishing boats out to the Bay of Trujillo. After a week, many of the children and adults still suffered nasal irritation and severe coughs while the four still hospitalized, one as young a six months old, continued to suffer headaches, vomiting, asthma like symptoms, and emotional trauma.

According to the Material Safety Data Sheet supplied to OSHA by a manufacturer of the gas,

Overexposureto some of the components (such as to people in a confined space) has been found to cause liver abnormalities and kidney damage in laboratory animals. Vapors can cause headache and nausea…  Medical Conditions Generally Aggravated by Exposure: May put persons with pre-existing heart disease at risk. Vapors released at high concentrations may have an asthmatic effect and will displace air in confined spaces.

According to medical professionals writing in Irish Medical Times:

CS (teargas) is a cyanide compound and when it is metabolized, cyanide can be detected in human tissue. Also, when exposed to fire, cyanide compounds are undoubtedly released…  According to the United States Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, CS emits “very toxic fumes” when heated to decomposition, and at specified concentrations CS gas is an immediate danger to life and health.

The Honduran security forces were acting at the behest of the Municipality of Trujillo and of the Empresa Nacional Portuaria (ENP, the National Port Authority). On its web page, it states that the primary user of the Puerto Castilla port is Dole, the multinational fruit company. Further, it states,

The National Port Authority is a decentralized institution of the Government of the Republic …  Our goal is to create leading market positions in order to establish and develop investment projects in the short, medium and long term to provide port services and profitability by offering our customers very competitive flexible rates to allow us to compete in a global economy.

Perhaps ENP’s goal of profitability and global competitiveness are in conflict with the promises that it has made to the local community. The first being a contractual agreement to pay for the potable water it gets from the town of Castilla which it has not fulfilled. Second, it has made promises to employ 270 people from the town, but only employs a small fraction of that number at any given time. It has also agreed to end the harassment of those who do work at the port which often takes the form of racial discrimination as well as threats to those who openly support the community. On the day of the attack, community members were protesting these and other issues.

Beginning on May 18th, Castilla, a coastal fishing community populated primarily by Afro-indigenous Garifuna, Miskito and Mestizo people, set up a roadblock, closing truck traffic to the port. This roadblock lasted until May 20th. Three days later, on the 23rd, after the community attempted to communicate with ENP to no avail, the roadblock went back up. Within hours, the police and military arrived. They made no attempt to talk to the community, but rather opened fire with teargas bombs and pepper spray.

According to OFRANEH, (The Fraternal Organization of Black Hondurans) the conflict between ENP and the town of Castilla stems back to 1974 when General Alvarez Martinez, a graduate of the School of the Americas, forced the Garifuna communities in the area, at gunpoint, to give up their communal land to ENP. This forced the communities to relocate to a very constricted area. The current living space has become more cramped as the population has grown.

Over the years, the residents have negotiated agreements with the Port Authority, agreements which the Authority has subsequently ignored.  As reparations for displacing the community from what is now the site of the port, an agreement was made to construct 250 houses for the community as well as parks and recreational areas, and reforestation projects in addition to the employment agreements.

A further demand of the community, as stated by Julio Cesar Paks, President of the Town Council, is the removal of Carlos Barquero, Superintendent of the port, and Godofredo Martines, Head of Port Security (Protección de la Instalación Portuaria/Unidad de Protección Portuaria) who, “through an abuse of authority, have exhibited a lack of respect to the community through their insults and threats of reprisals.” They further ask that, “newly named authorities of the port keep in constant communication with the Town Council in order to make a commonwealth plan and have better results that benefit both parties.”

Adding to this tension is nearby land, 120 hectares (about half a square mile), that sits idle. The Honduran government “loaned” it to a Japanese company Intermares in the 1990s for business development that never materialized. It is now in the possession of José Mauricio Weizemblut Oliva, a representative of Intermares, who now intends to sell the loaned property.

According to OFRANEH, the Garífuna community of Puerto Castilla has had a history fraught with land seizures and harassment by both the Honduran government and corporate and military interests. A presidential decree in 1899 and a later presidential endorsement in 1904 granted the Garífuna ownership rights to territory on the peninsula in the Bay of Trujillo that measured 12 miles long and 3 miles wide.

In 1921, the government reneged on the decree and gave parcels of the land to the Truxillo Railroad Company, a subsidiary of the United Fruit Company, a US enterprise, that later became Chiquita Brands. Due to a soil disease in the banana plantations of the North Coast, the Truxillo R.R. abandoned the peninsula and the land reverted back to the Garífuna community in 1942. But they had lost other land when displaced in 1940. Garífuna residents were forced to move south down the peninsula due to the construction of a US military base built in preparation for entry into World War II. At the end of the war, the land was returned to Honduras, but not to the Garífuna community.

A Honduran naval base, with US naval personnel, is currently there. Recent construction of “heliports and a jetty for speedboats, both to facilitate actions against drug trafficking and organized crime,” guarantees that the area will be crowded with very little available land for the community to expand. Adding to this threat is a proposal by the Juan Orlando Hernandez administration to make the area one of the sites for a Charter City or Special Economic Development Zone (ZEDE in its Spanish acronym). This would effectively be a neo-colonial sale of sovereign territory to foreign investors with a legal structure decided by administrators, presumably selected by the investors to ensure that they maintain profit growth.

Two-year-old Fabricio Hernandez returned from the hospital 4 days after the attack. He plays with his siblings, running through the sand, but a fit of coughing forces him to stop. His mother fears that he may have developed asthma and he has trouble sleeping at night. She worries about the emotional effects that the attack has had on him and the other children in the community. She states, “We were horrified when we saw the police and soldiers running through the streets shooting the gas bombs everywhere, They didn’t care that there were children in the school or playing in the streets.” She explained that the security forces came far past where the protest was located and made it clear that military police’s primary aim wasn’t to break up the roadblock, but rather to terrorize the community. “There are more children in this community than adults,” she added, “what is the future going to be for them with the military in the streets?

Greg McCain is an International Human Rights Defender in Honduras. You can find more information about the human rights situation in Honduras by visiting hrohblog.wordpress.com