CALI, Colombia—It’s been almost three weeks since five Afro-Indigenous Garifuna men were abducted at gunpoint from their homes in Triunfe de la Cruz, on Honduras’ northern Caribbean coast.
Witnesses say the kidnappers were wearing police uniforms, and at least four of the five victims were prominent environmental defenders and community leaders who opposed development projects on their ancestral lands. All five remain missing, despite mass protests and calls for justice from groups like Amnesty International and members of the U.S. Congress.
A letter signed by more than a dozen U.S. lawmakers on July 30 cited the case of the missing Garifuna activists and decried “the deterioration of human rights protections and the growing culture of impunity under the administration of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández.” In spite of such concerns, Hernández remains a close ally and so-called “proven partner” to the Trump administration. (More on that later.)
In an interview with The Daily Beast, the president of the Fraternal Organization of Black Hondurans [OFRANEH], Miriam Miranda, said the Garifuna were the victims of attempted “genocide.”
“This plan of dispossession, contempt and displacement has been systematic and persistent for many years,” Miranda said. “The [Honduran] state seeks the extermination of the Garifuna population [and] has sown terror and death in our communities.”
Today the Garifuna live primarily along the Caribbean coast of Central America. Because their ancestral lands also happen to be valuable beachfront property, the Garifuna have long been at odds with those who covet their turf—namely the Honduran state and multinational corporations wanting to develop industrial agriculture or luxury accommodations for tourism.
Honduras is listed as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental defenders. Miranda, who has also survived a kidnapping attempt and received recent death threats, said that 17 Garifuna had been killed over land rights struggles since the start of 2019, including a 71-year-old community leader whose body was found showing signs of torture on June 21.
“The Roots of Racism”
In the wake of the abductions last month, Honduras’ Garifuna communities have rallied together, holding a series of protests akin to the Black Lives Matter movement sweeping the U.S., with many bearing signs that read “Garifuna Lives Matter.” As with their counterparts stateside, the protesters have suffered swift and brutal crackdowns by Honduran authorities, with some of the marchers reportedly coming under fire from security forces.
OFRANEH president Miranda said the Garifuna stand in solidarity with BLM due to the shared common ground:
“BLM’s fight against police brutality and institutionalized racism involves the Garifuna community,” Miranda said. “As a Black body [of people] we also experience police abuse and institutionalized racism—both those of us who live in Honduras as well as the 200,000 Garifuna living in the United States.”
Grahame Russell, co-director of the Washington-based NGO Rights Action—which works closely with the Garifuna community and maintains a permanent observer presence in Honduras—said there are “significant similarities” between the two movements.
“The roots of racism towards Black people in the U.S. and the roots of what the Garifuna people are suffering all have to do with European imperialism, colonialism and the slave trade,” Russell said.
Conflict with the British Empire forced the Garifuna, also known as the Garinagu, to migrate to Honduras centuries ago. “The Garifuna are descendants of an intermixture of marooned African slaves and native Amerinidians (Carib and Arawakan), emerging as a unique racial, cultural, and linguistic group in the mid-17th century on the island of St. Vincent,” said Dr. Keri Brondo, a professor of anthropology at the University of Memphis, in an email to The Daily Beast.
When their homeland on St. Vincent was captured by British forces during the Second Carib War, in the late 18th century, the Garifuna were exiled to the Honduran island of Roatan, eventually spreading to neighboring countries and the U.S. Today they number some 250,000 in Honduras, strung out along the coast in humble fishing and farming villages.
While they share a kinship with the BLM movement, Miranda also pointed out that the Garifuna face unique threats due to attempts to seize their lands. Such attempts remain ongoing despite a 2015 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights [IACHR] that condemned such practices as illegal, called for reparations from the Honduran government, and ordered land protection measures to be instated.
“Our cause is not only focused on gaining recognition as citizens and an end to racism,” said Miranda. “We’re also committed to defending our territorial autonomy as a condition for the survival of our people.”
“They Want the Land and They Want It All”
Three unmarked SUVs carrying some 12 men dressed in the uniforms of the National Investigative Police [DPI] entered the municipality of Triunfo de la Cruz early on the morning of July 18. Witnesses said they searched houses for specific victims, asking for them by name. The five Garifuna men were rounded up and driven away as their neighbors calls to 911 went unanswered. The kidnapped men haven’t been seen since, leading to fears that they might have been executed.
One of the missing, identified as Snider Centeno, 27, is a leading figure in the fight to get Honduras to recognize the 2015 land-rights decision by the IACHR, which observers say could be why he was targeted. Others taken that day had been involved in opposition to cutting down wetlands and mangrove forests in the area.
A single suspect identified only as “El Gringo” was arrested on July 22. A few days later, passports and IDs belonging to some of the men were found on a ranch property, along with several firearms and ammunition. Honduran authorities have repeatedly promised they are working to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Although witnesses allege the kidnappers wore body armor bearing the DPI’s insignia, the police have denied all involvement in the abductions.
Russell of Rights Action said the attackers could have been a “private-sector death squad working off-book with the state or off-book with financial interests.”
Such was the case in the 2016 murder of environmental activist Berta Caceres, who was killed by hitmen linked to the Honduran military and hired by a private company.
OFRANEH president Miranda, however, said the police themselves could well be behind the abductions. According to Miranda, it would be very hard for private actors posing as cops to obtain police weapons and uniforms. She also said travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic would have kept civilians from traveling to Triunfo de la Cruz in a convoy of SUVs.
“On the day of the kidnapping, no one but the police could circulate,” she said, “there was an absolute curfew at the national level.”
Russell said that whoever might be behind the recent surge in violence, their motive is clear.
“The [Garifuna’s] land is wanted. It’s not violence for violence’s sake. It’s violence to get the land,” Russell said.
“The tourist industry wants the first two or three kilometers of the beach, and they want the Garifuna people gone. African palm plays a similar role farther inland. Get them off the land so they can produce African palm that is owned by the rich wealthy sectors to control all the profits. They want the land and they want to own it all,” he said.
The landmark decision by the IACHR in 2015—in a case brought by none other than the community of Triunfo de la Cruz—condemned Honduras for the sale of Garifuna lands to developers without their consultation, and called for compensation and an end to the practice. However, critics say Honduran President and Trump acolyte Hernández has done little to enforce the IACHR ruling, which came during his second year in office.
“The Honduran state has continuously violated the rights of the Garifuna community,” said anthropologist Brondo, who also served as an amicus curiae in the IACHR case.
“For as long as the Afro-Indigenous Garifuna have lived under the Honduran state, they have been in a struggle to protect their ancestral territories,” Brondo said. “The state has not complied with nor upheld IACHR’s findings that the state has violated the property rights of the Garifuna.”
According to Brondo, the unauthorized sale of communal lands by public authorities has led to threats, murders and arrests of community leaders.
“Specifically, there is a lack of prior, free, and informed consultation regarding the execution of tourism megaprojects, the creation of a protected area, and the sales of communal lands, all of which occur within historically occupied Garifuna territory,” Brondo said.
Is The U.S. “Complicit”?
In their July 30 letter of concern, House members urged the Trump administration to “speak up on human rights and anti-corruption efforts in Honduras.” They suggested Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demand answers “as to what role state officials had in these egregious violations [...] against the Garifuna community” as well as other recent murders of activists and journalists.
Unfortunately, these requests are likely to fall on deaf ears. President Trump has routinely lauded the far-right Hernández—whom he sees as a fellow immigration hardliner and an ally in the war on drugs—for “working with the United States very closely.”
Even after credible charges of narcotics trafficking were brought against the Honduran president in a U.S. Court, even after allegations surfaced that Hernández had used drug money to rig his own election, Trump has stood by his man for “stopping drugs at a level that has never happened.”
Not only is the Hernández regime not “stopping drugs,” it’s also not curbing illegal immigration to the U.S. In fact, critics say Honduras’ neoliberal policies—policies that cater to transnational corporations at the expense of local residents like the Garifuna—also foster or enable factors like displacement, mass poverty, and the presence of organized crime, all of which actually drive the wave of Honduran migrants headed north toward the U.S.
“This Honduran regime, supported by international actors, including the U.S., are worsening the very conditions that force people to flee in the first place,” said Rights Action director Russel. “[These] policies are refugee-producing policies.”
And yet in April 2020, Trump decided to gift Hernández an extra $60 million in military and security aid—thus propping up a regime that Trump’s own State Department describes, in its latest report, as being plagued by “significant human rights issues,” including extrajudicial killings and torture, arbitrary detentions and “widespread government corruption.”
“It is the taxpayers of the U.S. who finance the Honduran military and police. If the U.S. stops supporting this narco-state, it will stop violating our rights,” said OFRANEH’s Miranda.
“The American people must know that their government is complicit in these deaths and in the genocidal plan against the Garifuna people,” she said.