By Geoffrey Ramsey
InSight: Organized Crime in the Americas
Reporters Without Borders has said that the biggest threat to press freedom in Honduras is powerful landowner Miguel Facusse Barjum, though the accusations do not stop there — Facusse has been accused of ties to the drug trade, and of waging a violent campaign against land activists.
As the organization’s report demonstrates, journalists across Latin America are often targeted by criminal groups, from guerrillas to street gangs and drug cartels, but violence can also come at the hands of corrupt state authorities and economic elites.
This is the case in Honduras, which had the second-highest number of journalist killings in the region (after Mexico) in 2011. According to a new report by Reporters Without Borders (known by its French initials, RSF) which identifies the world’s 40 main “Predators of Press Freedom,” the biggest threat to the media in the Central American country is wealthy businessman Miguel Facusse Barjum.
Facusse was one of the main supporters of the 2009 coup in Honduras, which has brought violent retaliation against opposition media sources in its aftermath, with at least 22 journalists and media workers killed in the past two years alone. In addition to this, however, RSF claims that Facusse maintains his own “private militia” which “can count on support from the police and army to impose his will.”
His “will” reportedly includes directing his private security forces to crack down on small farmers and land rights activists in the troubled Bajo Aguan region, where a turbulent land conflict has raged for several years.
Facusse is head of agro-fuel giant Corporacion DINANT, a major landholder which owns large tracts of palm plantations in the area (some 22,000 acres, or about a fifth of the entire region).
According to international and domestic human rights groups, DINANT-hired guards and local police are waging a violent campaign in Bajo Aguan, intimidating and clashing with activists and small farmers there. At least 55 people have been killed since 2009 as a result of the violence, mostly farmers.
In an effort to resolve the conflict, the Honduran Congress passed a decree in 2011 which allowed farmers in the region to purchase over 4,700 hectares of land in Bajo Aguan with the help of government loans. Although the main farmers’ union in the area, the Unified Peasant Movement of Aguan (MUCA), originally accepted the deal, the group subsequently backed out, saying the government was not holding up its end of the bargain.
But Facusse’s role in the Bajo Aguan land conflict is not the only factor contributing to his notoriety. In 2011 a leaked US diplomatic cable from March 2004 was released by WikiLeaks, describing a shady incident in which a plane carrying 1,000 kilograms of cocaine allegedly landed on private property owned by Facusse in the northern department of Colon, where Bajo Aguan is located.
Sources told US embassy officials that the cargo was unloaded onto a convoy of vehicles, guarded by 30 heavily armed men. Perhaps most alarmingly, this is not an isolated report. The cable noted that the incident was “the third time in the last 15 months” that drug trafficking activity had been reported on Facusse’s property, citing two past incidents (one of which involved a drug plane using the same airstrip).
So far there have been no charges leveled against Facusse for any of the above allegations, but they have hurt his reputation. Last year a German government-run investment bank withdrew financing for DINANT’s biofuel venture in the Bajo Aguan due to concerns over the conflict, and was swiftly followed by French Energy company EDF, which announced it would no longer purchase carbon credits from DINANT.
While Farcusse has attempted to reverse the toll that allegations of drug trafficking and human rights abuse have taken on his image, helping fund social works and biodiversity projects, RSF’s report is not likely to do him any favors.