On November 7, the Honduran military and police riot squads removed 110 Garifuna people from their homes in Punta Gorda, on the Caribbean island of Roatán. A local judge had ordered their “preventive dislodging” within 24 hours from the commune —founded by their ancestors in 1797, making it the Carib-Arawak people’s oldest settlement in what is today Honduras— for alleged “usurpation” of private land.
Present for the operation were the Honduran Army, National Police, Public Prosecutor’s Office, and Police Investigations Directorate (DPI) — the same police unit that the Garifuna community in Triunfo de la Cruz, Atlántida, accused in June, 2020, of kidnapping five community leaders. They are still missing.
During the eviction, police arrested six people including Melissa Martínez, a coordinator of the Black Fraternal Organization of Honduras (OFRANEH). The organization asserts that they have been released but expects them to face court summons.
“I truly believed that under the government of @XiomaraCastroZ this wouldn’t happen,” wrote OFRANEH coordinator-general Miriam Miranda. “For the Honduran state, the Garifunas defending their territories are ‘invaders,’” wrote Carla García, international relations coordinator, “whereas foreigners are ‘third parties of good faith.’”
The ‘third party’ refers to the requester of the eviction. Journalist Célia Pousset, who reviewed the removal order and is investigating the case for independent Honduran outlet Contracorriente, told El Faro English that the Norman Jones family —who claims to own the land since 1950— is the only one listed in the judicial dossier and that they filed the removal request on September 10.
Xiomara Castro campaigned on extensive promises to the country’s 52 Garifuna communities, like the repeal of the 2013 ZEDE —or charter cities— law, the installation of a Congress of Indigenous and Afro-Descendant Peoples, the striking-down of preventive dislodging from the Penal Code, and, like in Panama, “the creation of autonomous zones under their control.”
False legal dilemma
The ownership of the land settled by the Garifuna people 225 years ago in Punta Gorda is a legal question settled by Honduran law and by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
Honduras’ ratification in 1995 of ILO Convention 169 granted Garifuna and Indigenous peoples the right to ancestral land, a historic debt of the state to these communities. In 2015, the Inter-American Court issued unequivocal protections for Garifuna land and ordered the Honduran state to make reparations for dispossession and other violence. That has yet to happen.
“The Garifuna people have property rights and dominion over the land and resources that we have ancestrally held,” wrote the Garifuna leaders in Punta Gorda. “We thus have the right to be juridically recognized as the legitimate owners of the territory, making any forced removal illegal and racist.
The day after the dislodging, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the six arrests for “prohibiting access to ancestral land,” arguing they were designed to “directly affect the defense of land, territory, and the environment.” U.N. resident coordinator in Honduras Alice Shackelford wrote, “I join the urgent calls for liberation and the search for solutions that are peaceful and respectful of human rights.”
Hours after the removal, President Xiomara Castro reacted over Twitter: “I’ve requested a report on the violent judicially ordered dislodgement. I was not informed in advance.” There were two clear problems with her claim: OFRANEH had denounced the operation a day in advance and the secretary of defense is Castro’s nephew.
“That Madam President says she didn’t know about the removal is irrelevant. That’s why she has her ministers to run day-to-day operations,” Honduran human rights attorney Joaquín Mejía told El Faro English. “What is relevant is what the military was doing in a violent removal when she promised to reduce the militarization of citizen security.”
The new owners of Roatán
Castro’s assertion on Punta Gorda strains credulity given that land disputes in Roatán were top-of-mind that week for Secretary of Economic Development Pedro Barquero.
A few miles away from Punta Gorda on the island is the Economic Development and Employment Zone (ZEDE) Próspera, a bitcoin-using charter city founded with Silicon Valley capital, promising “a rule of law oasis of economic freedom and legal stability.”
Próspera has had problems of its own with the Garifuna community in Crawfish Rock, Roatán, stemming from reported pressure on locals to sell property at low prices and privatization of potable water distribution. According to an investigation by Rest of World, Próspera turned off the taps when locals tried to revert to their old distribution system
Próspera broke ground in 2020, under legislation crafted by former president Juan Orlando Hernández and rejected as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court until the magistrates who voted against the proposal were removed and replaced by Hernández’s National Party in 2012.
Castro’s party Libre repealed the ZEDE law in April, widely seen as a change of course on the now-opposition National Party’s signature project.
But Barquero told Congress on November 3 —four days before the dislodging— that Próspera, a Delaware-based company, had notified the administration in September that it is readying to sue the state for $10.7 billion —one-third of GDP in 2021— for allegedly violating CAFTA for the repeal in April of the 2013 ZEDE law.
Barquero added that the government and firm had until December 16 to settle.
Another of the three ZEDE charter cities, Ciudad Morazán, wrote on Monday morning in response to Barquero’s remarks before Congress that it met with the secretary in May, and with other government officials through late September, to seek a settlement.
In 2017, the Honduran government disregarded Convention 169 in launching the charter cities project, citing the ZEDE law from four years earlier. After the repeal of the law in April, Próspera responded that it would continue operations anyway, citing international free-trade agreements.
The Garifuna people also turn to international law in their demands to the Honduran government. The removal of the Garifuna community from its land in Roatán “implies complete ignorance and irresponsibility by the judges and prosecutors,” Mejía told El Faro English. “Article 18 of the constitution guarantees that when a [national] law contradicts an [international] treaty, the latter prevails,” he said, in reference to the ILO convention and Inter-American Court rulings.
“That the Garifuna have yet to obtain an ancestral land deed isn’t their fault,” he said. “It’s that of the government, which has not upheld its obligation to issue the deeds.” OFRANEH said on November 10 that, despite the administration’s campaign overtures, it had yet to be granted a meeting with Castro.
García of OFRANEH told El Faro English that the Castro administration has “relegated our problem [of land rights] further down the road.”
The struggle for recognition of ancestral land rights generally expresses itself with violence across all Garifuna communities in Honduras — like the coastal islands known as the Cayos Cochinos. In its July multimedia special, El Faro called the archipelago “an Eden for tourists, a goldmine for big business, and a hellscape for islanders struggling to survive.”
*Correction at 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time on Nov. 17: The Honduran government launched the ZEDE project in 2017, not in 2020 — the latter was the year that Próspera broke ground.