Daniel García first received the text message, which showed the muzzle of an AK-47 above a blurry road, at 7:30 p.m. “You’re alive because God is great and powerful,” the sender wrote, “but I don’t think you’ll have the same luck this week. I’ll see you soon, love.”

García knew the message was serious. Rumor had it he’d been placed on a kill list of five land rights activists in Honduras. The first of the five, his friend Juan Manuel Moncada, had been assassinated just four days earlier.

At around 10 o’clock that night, the presumed messengers made good on their threat: Four or five men with balaclavas, bulletproof vests, and AK-47s rolled up on motorcycles and surrounded García’s property, where they proceeded to chat and smoke cigarettes while looking over the barbed wire fence into his adobe-walled house. García lay inside, paralyzed with fear.

He said they looked like soldiers. But they weren’t. They were paramilitaries who, in a resurgent campaign of violence and aggression that began this summer, have been targeting a land rights cooperative trying to protect land it retook from a corporate palm oil giant.

“When you see a soldier show up in front of your house,” García said of the July encounter, “you realize they aren’t a soldier, they’re there to murder you.”

Paramilitary_SSB-5_edited

Daniel García shows photos on WhatsApp from the night he was sent pictures of AK-47s, threatened, then surrounded at home by armed men.

Photo: Seth Berry for The Intercept

Honduras’s Hot Zone

García lives in the community of Panamá, in the Bajo Aguán Valley, a “hot zone” notorious as one of the country’s most militarized regions. Land conflicts in the Aguán date back to the early 1990s, when Dinant, a Central American transnational and consumer goods corporation specializing in African palm oil production, began buying off collective farmlands, ultimately obtaining a majority of farmlands in the region. The purchases were carried out in an environment of killings, disappearances, and death threats against campesino or rural leaders and were contested by human rights workers, journalists, and the farmers themselves.

After a 2009 U.S.-backed military coup, many campesinos reoccupied the farms — spurring a campaign of largely targeted assassinations by private security guards and Honduran security forces that left over 150 farmers dead. In 2014, international pressure momentarily put the brakes on the killing spree by disparate armed actors, opening a new era of conflict in which well-organized paramilitary groups became the main drivers of violence. Leading the two largest groups were a former soldier and a private guard who previously provided security for Dinant, with other former soldiers, police officers, and private security guards among their ranks.

The paramilitaries’ strategy begins with infiltrating social movements, killing off key members, and then installing armed groups inside communities to terrorize their residents into exile or silence, according to eyewitness testimony, interviews with more than a dozen local residents, and affidavits made on behalf of asylum-seekers in the U.S. If successful, the armed groups will extinguish land rights movements and seize back control of the palm oil lands Dinant claims as its own.

A truckload of harvested palm drives through the plantation in Confianza, Honduras to the factory where the oil will be produced on October, 17th, 2020. Seth Berry for The Intercept.

A truck loaded with harvested palm drives through a plantation before being processed for palm oil in La Confianza, Honduras, on October 17, 2020.

Photo: Seth Berry for The Intercept

Residents of the Aguán valley say the military is complicit in the paramilitary violence. Some residents claim that the military has armed the paramilitaries, while others argue that the military, given its omnipresence in the region, is at minimum aware of the paramilitary units and has done little to stop their violence.

Those suspicions were inflamed after photos began circulating on social media of a paramilitary leader at an event with Honduran soldiers in the Aguán this spring: “The context of the photos is what we’ve been submitting complaints [to the authorities] about already,” said Hipólito Rivas, a local activist who’s faced death threats from the armed group, “that as the head of the paramilitary group, we confirmed that he has support from the Army.”

Honduran special forces had already been entangled with a paramilitary group that infiltrated a farmer organization in the village of La Confianza in the mid-2010s, according to an affidavit from a human rights worker that two Hondurans submitted as part of their applications for asylum in the U.S. The affidavit details how a former special forces officer, Celio Rodríguez, joined land rights movements, including MUCA (“Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán,” per its Spanish acronym), and then rose to a leadership position under the pretense he’d protect communities from violence. But he turned out to be organizing a paramilitary death squad. The members of Grupo de Celio, as it is known, were frequently seen in contact with an active-duty special forces commander named German Alfaro, who was the head of the Xatruch, an elite military police task force, and then later FUSINA, another special forces unit active in the Aguán, according to the affidavit. Grupo de Celio was also seen doing military training on a palm plantation with soldiers and a well-known assassin named Osvin Caballero, now in prison on account of several high-profile murders.

The Intercept was not able to independently confirm the existence of a relationship between the Honduran military and the paramilitary forces, and a Xatruch official interviewed by The Intercept declined to comment on the subject of paramilitarism in the valley. In 2016, the Xatruch were accused of death squad activity. The Xatruch is one of several Honduran military units that has received extensive U.S. military training over the last decade. The Pentagon describes these partnerships as part of an effort to “combat transnational crime.”

Such training occurred as recently as July, when the Xatruch representative told The Intercept that his unit was being trained by members of the U.S. Army from Joint Task Force-Bravo, from the nearby base in Puerto Castilla. “Right now, they’re giving us training on how to conduct operations and fight delinquency,” he said. “The training already began this week.” The Pentagon and State Department did not respond to questions about the recent Xatruch training.

Heavily armed soldiers stand guard outside the Xatruch Special Forces base in Tocoa, Honduras on July, 24th, 2021. Seth Berry for The Intercept.
Members of the Xatruch Special Forces prepare to leave on patrol in Tocoa, Honduras on July, 24th, 2021. Seth Berry for The Intercept.

Left/Top: Heavily armed soldiers stand guard outside the Xatruch task force base in Tocoa, Honduras on July, 24th, 2021. Right/Bottom: Members of the Xatruch prepare to leave on patrol in Tocoa, Honduras on July, 24th, 2021.Photos: Seth Berry for The Intercept

Dinant, too, has ties to the Xatruch. Up until 2018, Dinant had loaned a shed on its property to the Xatruch for the purpose of patrolling the area, according to a company spokesperson and an April 2015 document the company filed with the International Finance Corporation — the private lending arm of the World Bank, which supported Dinant with millions of dollars in loans. “Dinant briefly granted temporary basic shelter for taskforce members patrolling the communities around the plantation,” the spokesperson, Roger Pineda Pinel, told The Intercept.

Residents are suspicious of Dinant, which has relied numerous times over the last decade on the military and police to crack down on campesinos occupying lands claimed by the company.

The company has previously been implicated in violence against land defenders: In a 2017 civil lawsuit against the International Finance Corporation, families from the Aguán accused the IFC of funding human rights abuses by funneling World Bank money to Dinant and stated that “Dinant also hired (and continues to hire) paramilitary death squads and hired assassins.” Dinant’s spokesperson was dismissive of the allegations at the time. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report, which investigated 29 killings in the valley (out of over 100 that had taken place), suggested “the possible involvement of private security guards” in 13 of the deaths. Dinant issued a lengthy response to HRW investigators, denying responsibility for the violence. Asked about it by The Intercept, Pineda said that Dinant “has a zero tolerance policy for abuses” and it “conducts its business in a just and lawful manner.”

Pineda said that Dinant is the rightful owner of the contested lands in the Aguán and that the company has no connection to “so-called paramilitary groups.”

“The allegations that you raise have long been discredited by even our most ardent critics. As we have stated before, over the last decade Dinant has been the subject of a number of credible and independent inquiries and investigations,” Pineda wrote in a statement, pointing to the IFC’s monitoring of Dinant’s activities, an International Criminal Court report on Honduras, and a review by Foley Hoag, a corporate law firm commissioned by Dinant. “Without exception, these have found no evidence that Dinant ever conducted illegal activities, used inappropriate force, or conspired against any person or organization.”

Pineda added that “a more accurate article on the Aguan would describe how more and more armed criminals are invading private farms, damaging business, stealing produce, and threatening local people and jobs; how some farms have been occupied continuously by criminal gangs for over three years without punishment; and how the constant threat of violence is damaging local economies, increasing unemployment, and forcing hard-working families to migrate out of desperation.”

Last spring, paramilitaries began targeting activists from the Movement for the Refoundation of Gregorio Chávez, named for a land defender whom other activists say was killed by Dinant private security guards in 2012. (Dinant has denied the claim.) The movement has occupied about half of the Dinant-run Paso Aguán palm plantation near Panamá since Chávez was killed. The leader of the paramilitary group accused of the recent violence, Santos Torres, was a private security contractor who worked on Dinant properties and joined the land defender collective in 2012, then broke off to form an armed group several years later.

In La Confianza, residents told The Intercept last month that they have recently seen uniformed policemen and a local politician visit the homes of known gunmen and affiliates of Grupo de Celio. On October 10, Oscar Javier Pérez, a witness to two highly publicized murders by the paramilitary group was himself assassinated at home in a village adjacent to La Confianza.

“The government discourse has always been that the campesinos are just killing each other.”

The paramilitary units in Panamá and La Confianza are notorious in the Agúan, where armed groups have entered a number of other communities: A 2019 Honduran media report about a group of armed men that had appeared in the community of Trinidad noted that “this group has the same characteristics of those operated in La Confianza by Celio Rodríguez and in Panamá by Santos Torres.”

State authorities typically blame the land defenders themselves for the violence being inflicted on them, said Jaime Cabrera, an activist in the community of Panamá, who has been threatened by armed groups and who was also named on the kill list. “The government discourse,” he said, “has always been that the campesinos are just killing each other.”

The location where Juan Manuel Moncada, 39, a member of Gregorio Chavez co-op was murdered by paramilitary members on July, 6th, 2021. Photo ten July, 20th, 2021. Seth Berry for The Intercept.

The location where Juan Manuel Moncada, a member of the Gregorio Chávez co-op, was murdered on July 6, 2021.

Photo: Seth Berry for The Intercept

“He Never Did Anything Wrong”

Ever since he began receiving the messages, their taunting invective almost identical to the texts sent to the other men on the kill list, Juan Manuel Moncada knew he’d be murdered.

“Amor, they’re going to kill me,” his wife Esmilda Rodas recalled him telling her in the weeks before his death. Rodas and other friends recall Manuel Moncada as bright and easy-going, but the last weeks of his life were filled with despair. On July 6, he was gunned down by two men at a crowded bank in downtown Tocoa.

“He never did anything wrong,” his wife said, pain still in her voice, speaking beneath the canopy of banana and guava trees at their adobe house in Panamá. Fearing for the safety of her oldest son, Rodas has since sent him to the United States without legal documents — one of many young residents to leave home in recent months, including two leaders of the land rights movement in Panamá.

On paper, Manuel Moncada should have been protected from such an act of violence: He was one of at least eight members of the Gregorio Chávez movement who’d been granted protections in 2019 by Honduras’s National Protection System (SNP, by its Spanish acronym) — a government program to defend imperiled activists — after leaders of the movement compiled and presented evidence of systematic violence against them. He was supposed to be able to call the police when he felt his life was in danger. But his wife and friends recall that the police never showed up when he called. “He had protective measures,” said García, “but only to say they had them, because he never benefited from them.”

Amid that security vacuum, the Grupo de Torres has been targeting land defenders in Panamá, residents said. The group, residents told The Intercept, is based on a Dinant-owned section of the adjacent Paso Aguán plantation known as “the Ocho,” several kilometers from Panamá and accessible via two roads through the plantation. Satellite imagery from August 2020 shows a collection of huts on a part of the plantation consistent with the location described by residents. Pineda, the Dinant spokesperson, said that the company has no way of knowing whether Grupo de Torres is based on the plantation, because the company has been unable to enter the property since it “was illegally seized by lawless criminals who also murdered a guard in the process in 2018.”

Juan Miguel Moncada's Human Rights degree he earned in 2019 as a member of the Gregorio Chavez campesino co-op on July, 20th, 2021. He was murdered, allegedly by paramilitaries, on July, 6th, 2021. Seth Berry for The Intercept.

Juan Manuel Moncada’s human rights degree he earned in 2019 as a member of the Gregorio Chávez campesino co-op is shown on July 20, 2021.

Photo: Seth Berry for The Intercept

Residents say the Torres paramilitary group patrols the town on motorcycles, usually in the late afternoon or evening, on an almost daily basis. They come in groups of two to four motorcycles, each with two men armed with AK-47s or AR-15s and bulletproof vests. Witnesses say the armed men often saunter around town’s narrow rutted backstreets, lingering in front of the houses of people they’ve threatened to kill with their weapons brandished.

Jasmin Hristov, a sociologist who has researched paramilitarism throughout Latin America for 15 years and has conducted fieldwork in the Aguán, said the model of planting armed groups within the community constitutes part of a much larger strategy: “It’s not unique to the Aguán or Honduras,” she said. “It’s definitely a strategy that dates back to the Cold War and counterinsurgency tactics. It’s a way to gather intelligence, to divide and break the community, to create fear and terror among people. It means people can’t act together against their common enemy.”

“It’s a way to gather intelligence, to divide and break the community, to create fear and terror among people.”

The Grupo de Torres is responsible for killing at least eight people since 2018, residents say, though some believe it’s likely an undercount. While many of the victims are connected to the land rights movement, others had attracted the paramilitaries’ attention in different ways. Santos Anselmo Molina, a former farmer turned Dinant security guard, was ambushed and killed by three gunmen in June 2020. He had been accused by the paramilitary group of passing information about the whereabouts of the group to members of the community, said a family member who declined to be named due to safety concerns.

The specter of murder isn’t an end, residents say, but rather the most extreme tool in a larger arsenal of intimidation, which also includes firing random gunfire at community events, following people to their homes and lingering outside, and death threats. They believe that the goal of the armed group is to get rid of the cooperative and shake its partial control of the Paso Aguán plantation.

“We’re living in terrorism in this community,” said Bertulia Castro, a resident of Panamá whose house was surrounded by the squads of motorcycle gunmen twice in July. When the paramilitaries come through the village, she said, they’re so well-equipped that it’s difficult to tell them apart from soldiers.

A man watches for Dinant private security guards at a lookout post opperated by occupiers in Los Laureles Honduras on July, 19th, 2021. Seth Berry for The Intercept.

A man watches for Dinant private security guards at a lookout post operated by campesinos in Los Laureles, Honduras, on July 19, 2021.

Photo: Seth Berry for The Intercept

False Positives

Santos Marcelo Torres Ruiz, the head of Grupo de Torres, was feared by land rights activists throughout the Aguán. Santos Torres had provided security for Dinant in the mid-2000s. He joined the Gregorio Chávez cooperative after its formation in 2012 and quickly became a spokesperson for the movement.

With time, however, he became alienated from many in the movement because of his authoritarian leadership tendencies.

By 2014, Santos Torres was widely rumored by residents to be in dialogue with Dinant, even as evidence emerged suggesting that guards contracted by Dinant had been killing land rights activists. (Dinant has denied involvement in the killings.) Castro, who helped harvest palm fruit as an employee for Dinant from 1999 to 2017, said that she saw the paramilitary leader show up at meetings between managers and employees on a regular basis until the end of her time there. (In 2015, at the same time that Santos Torres was rumored to be talking to Dinant, a team of investigative journalists asked the company about its involvement in violent land conflicts, and the palm oil giant produced radio clips of then-movement spokesperson Santos Torres saying that, if necessary, he would “fill the streets with blood” to retake the Paso Aguán.)

In 2018, Santos Torres announced at a public meeting in Panamá that he had nothing to do with the Gregorio Chávez movement and was withdrawing with his supporters to the back of the Paso Aguán farm, owned by Dinant. “I don’t want any of you to come through there,” he was reported to have said. Later that year, villagers began to see Santos Torres and other armed men patrolling the community.

Pineda, the Dinant spokesperson, said Santos Torres never worked directly for Dinant but may have worked for Orion, a now-defunct security company that had a contract with Dinant prior to 2014. Pineda said he met with Santos Torres in 2013, when he was a part of the Gregorio Chávez movement, but that Dinant “did not have any direct relationship with Mr. Torres at any time.”

On June 26, Santos Torres was murdered while attending a church service in Panamá. The attack was captured on video by a security camera at a house across the street. The video showed eight men with high-caliber rifles, bulletproof vests, and balaclavas approaching the facade of the small squat church building, half in military uniforms, with others clad in all black, according to someone who viewed the video several times before it was seized as evidence by the Technical Agency for Criminal Investigations (ATIC, by its Spanish acronym). Two of the armed men walked inside where, out of view of the camera, they shot Santos Torres dead.

A spokesperson for the Public Ministry, the umbrella agency that runs the special unit of the ATIC in the Aguán, declined to discuss the circumstances around the killing. The spokesperson added that the killings of both Santos Torres and Manuel Moncada were under investigation.

“The army is getting rid of the paramilitaries with the worst reputation,” said a longtime land rights activist in the Aguán who asked not to be named for security reasons. “But at the same time they are taking advantage of this to criminalize defenders and cause hatred [against them] and make actions against them. In effect, they’re doing false positives.”

After he was killed, Honduran media outlets described Santos Torres as a “campesino leader” — reflecting a well-established narrative that depicts the violence as occurring within campesino movements, rather than being directed against them by outside actors.

The church where Santos Torres was murdered in Panama, Honduras, on July, 21st, 2021. Seth Berry for The Intercept.

The church where Santos Torres was murdered is seen in Panama, Honduras, on July 21, 2021.

Photo: Seth Berry for The Intercept

Criminalization Campaigns

Members of the Gregorio Chávez movement in Panamá have submitted written complaints about Grupo de Torres to the authorities for years. The reports, several copies of which were shown to The Intercept, described in detail the death threats, unsolved killings, and the armed motorcycle patrols through their village. Residents said that authorities had done little in response.

That apparent indifference changed when Santos Torres was killed.

Jaime Cabrera said he received a call from a police officer whose name he recognized in Tegucigalpa, across the country, on the night of the killing. “I hear there’s been a murder in the countryside,” the officer said. “Do you know about it?”

Cabrera, whose house is about a half a mile down the road from the church, and who said the rain made it hard to hear much outside, said he was unaware that someone had been murdered. “I didn’t even know that he’d been killed yet,” he told The Intercept. The officer hung up before explaining how he already knew about the killing.

Around mid-July, ATIC agents separately detained Daniel García and another member of the Gregorio Chávez cooperative and interrogated them about Santos Torres’s killing. (The second member asked not to be named, citing concerns for their safety.) It was an ominous sign: Operatives of the investigative unit, which was created with support from the U.S., have been accused of tampering with evidence, infiltrating social movements, and carrying out extrajudicial executions. Both said the ATIC agents offered them protection — and a visa to the U.S. or Europe — in exchange for testifying that two leaders of the Panamá cooperative, Hipólito Rivas and Jaime Cabrera, were the masterminds behind the paramilitary leader’s killing.

“I see you’re young, and I see a different life for you,” García recalls one of the agents telling him. “I can take you out of the country, I can get you money.”

The offer would be tempting to many, considering the astronomical increase of people fleeing Honduras since 2018. But the two refused to betray their friends and instead fled Honduras, undocumented, on the perilous route north to the United States.

Paramilitary_SSB-39_
Hippolito Rivas holds a photo of heavily armed special forces patrolling palm plantations in Panama, Honduras on July, 23rd, 2021. Seth Berry for The Intercept.

Left/Top: Hipólito Rivas walks past the security camera that he keeps on at all times due to threats at his home in Panama, Honduras, on July, 23rd, 2021. Right/Bottom: Hipólito Rivas shows a printed photo, of what he says are heavily armed special forces patrolling palm plantations in Panama, Honduras, on July, 23rd, 2021.Photos: Seth Berry for The Intercept

A Perpetual Cycle

Despite the specter of paramilitary infiltration and criminalization, campesino groups in the Aguán continue organizing to retake their land.

Since April 1, farmers from the San Isidro sector of Tocoa have occupied the Los Laureles plantation, which Dinant acquired in 1992. The activists say the sale was approved by only three out of 44 members of the landowners’ collective. Dinant, which maintains that it is the rightful owner of the land, has characterized the occupation as trespassing and called on the authorities to remove the occupants. A similar, larger occupation began at the Camarones plantation in August.

The day the occupation at Los Laureles began, the Honduran police arrived in full force. But they did not disperse the crowd because the campesinos provided documents that they said evidenced their ownership of the farm, copies of which were shown to The Intercept. “They believe we are armed,” said Pedro Antonio Vindel, the president of the Laureles. “But we aren’t because we don’t need them. The weapons we have are documents. And with those documents they haven’t been able to get rid of us because they know they have no argument to do so.” (Pineda said that Dinant has not seen those documents and that the land defenders have not challenged the company’s ownership of the land in court.)

The Los Laureles campesino occupation zone on July, 19th, 2021. Campesinos are taking back land allegedly aquired by circumstances of violence and human right atrocities by Dinant. Seth Berry for The Intercept.

A boy bikes past the Los Laureles campesino occupation zone on July 19, 2021.

Photo: Seth Berry for The Intercept

Now the plantation is surrounded by Honduran police and private security guards contracted by Dinant, who travel in joint patrols in the same trucks. Drones hover overhead at all hours of the day and follow the land defenders around the plantation, their soft, hornet-like whine audible from the ground. Multiple members of the occupation, upon leaving the rusted metal gate with their cargo of harvested African palm, have been arrested by police.

On a July evening, activist Yoni Rivas gave a speech to a crowd carrying machetes at the ramshackle store they’d set up beneath the palms. “They’re trying to find the weak among you, to pay them off, to arm them and have the campesino movement destabilized from within.”

But residents say they’ve already seen three young men going out at night and meeting with people they believe to be Dinant security guards on a regular basis. In October, five bruised and bloodied corpses, including one of a man whose hands were tied behind his back, were discovered in three communities that have been the site of land conflict, including Los Laureles and Panamá, sparking fears from land rights organizations of more violence to come.

“The conflict has already started,” said Abraham Leon, the secretary of the Los Laureles cooperative. “We’re afraid. I don’t feel safe in the cooperative anymore.” The paramilitary infiltration of Laureles, Leon said, is already beginning.