US Special Operations Command Trained Military Unit Accused of Death Squad Killings in Honduras
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This article is based entirely on the report “Human Rights Violations Attributed to Military Forces in the Bajo Aguan Valley in Honduras” published on February 20, 2013. To see the full report with citations:
Since January 2010, there has been a constant stream of killings of members of land rights, campesino movements in the Bajo Aguan region of Honduras. At least 88 campesino movement members and supporters have been killed, along with five bystanders apparently mistaken for campesinos. Most recently, on Feb. 16 two campesinos were killed–Santos Jacobo Cartagena was gunned down while waiting for a bus, and Jose Trejo, an outspoken advocate for the investigation of his brother’s Sept. 22, 2012 murder, was shot while driving.
While the 2010 and 2011 State Department human rights reports described deaths of campesinos in the Aguan as the result of “confrontations” between palm oil corporation’s security forces and campesino farmers who claim the land was stolen by the agri-businessmen, only six of the killings have occurred on disputed land during land occupations or evictions. In contrast, 78 were targeted assassinations, 8 of those preceded by abductions, their tortured bodies found later; another 3 victims remain disappeared. Fifty-three people were shot while driving, riding their bicycles or walking along public roads. Another 13 were assassinated in their homes or while working on farms not in dispute.
All of this points to one explanation: a death squad is operating in the Aguan. This is not news to anyone who lives there, where it is considered common knowledge and it is widely understood that police and military participate in the killings. Dozens of acts of violence and intimidation have been carried out by the Honduran military against campesino communities over the same time period and geographical area where the death-squad killings have targeted campesinos, lending greater credibility to the charge.
While masked gunmen have been killing campesinos, the Honduran military’s 15th Battalion special forces unit and units or joint taskforces associated with it, have been receiving training from the U.S. armed forces Special Operations Command South, SOCSOUTH, which is also funding construction on the 15th Battalion’s base in Rio Claro, Trujillo.
Local residents and national press have reported the presence of U.S. Army Rangers in the area since at least 2008, and public records of the U.S. government confirm their presence. In 2008, SOCSOUTH conducted two trainings with 135 soldiers each, all from the 1st Special Forces Battalion. The Honduran press has reported that the 1st Battalion and 15th Battalion, both special-forces units, operate as one command, sharing the installations in the Rio Claro military base for training. SOCSOUTH and the U.S.Southern Command, SOUTHCOM, have also funded improvements and expansion of the Rio Claro base since September 2011.
One disturbing observation that resulted from our investigation is that conditions surrounding many of the killings involved techniques included in U.S. training. According to Honduran press, U.S. special forces train the Honduran Special Operations Forces of the 1st and 15th Battalion in insertion, parachuting, explosives, long-distance sharpshooting, intelligence, advanced marksmanship, urban operations, close combat, martial arts and offensive driving. Dozens of campesinos have died after high-speed pursuit in vehicles, either after crashing or being shot, in incidents that can only be described as offensive driving.
Campesinos have reported surviving long-distance sharpshooting assassination attempts, and many have been killed from shots fired from a significant distance. One man was found dead from unexplained internal injuries while it was rumored that the unit was being trained in mortal hand-to-hand combat, raising suspicions. At least one man was killed in a stealth raid assisted by a helicopter, in which an armed group wearing black uniforms with masks quickly and surreptitiously entered a farm in the night, assassinated a campesino, and left–an operation known in military terms as “insertion”.
The improvements to the Rio Claro military base began just weeks after Xatruch II, a military–police joint task force, arrived in the Aguan. Honduras sent a Xatruch II unit to participate in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004, and at least two of the commanding officers of the Xatruch II deployment in the Aguan participated in Iraq. There is significant evidence that the Xatruch II operation in the Aguan is the same unit that served in Iraq.
From Iraq to Aguan
But Xatruch II is not all that is moving from the Middle East to the Aguan–so is the war on terrorism. The conflict in the Aguan is an 18 year-old land dispute. Campesinos explain that agri-businessmen used violence and fraud to illegally separate them from the palm oil plantations they had labored to create and equip. In 1998 they initiated lawsuits demanding annulment of the title transfers, but ever since they have struggled to maintain legal representation as their lawyers were threatened or bribed into abandoning the cases. On September 22, 2012 they lost the only lawyer who had stuck it out when he was shot to death outside a church. Just three months before, he had won the annulment of 3 of the 28 disputed title transfers.
Honduran military, even the commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Secretary of Security, have consistently distorted the nature of the conflict, claiming there is a guerrilla group operating in the area, connected to drug traffickers. On Sept. 6, 2012, The Times of Israel ran a story citing only Israeli radio, claiming the Hezbollah had established a training camp in Nicaragua on the border with Honduras, a story that was then repeated in Latin American press. The Times of Israel then reported further on the story citing the Latin American press reports it had generated itself. The dangerous, unsubstantiated and opportunistic accusations of narco-terrorism levied against the campesino movement in the Aguan by the military fit neatly into the U.S. objective of expanding its military reach in the region.
Security forces in the Aguan explain that the mission of Xatruch II is to defend the land of the businessmen from the ‘criminal’ campesinos. However, broad evidence indicates that some of the businessmen in conflict with the campesinos are involved in drug trafficking in the region. Local residents have reported that the 15th Battalion and the Tocoa police have provided protection to the traffickers. The police define their mission as defending the property of Miguel Facusse, whose principal residence in the region was implicated in drug trafficking,according to a State Department cable leaked by Wikileaks.
The conflict in the Aguan is a longstanding land conflict, and it must be treated as such. The conflict can be resolved by duly addressing the land-rights claims. Militarization, supported by the U.S. government, will not resolve the underlying conflict and it clearly increases, rather than decreases, the bloodshed.
Only the courts can resolve the conflict, but the courts don’t function and have further collapsed since the June 2009 military coup.
There is a solution to the violence in the Aguan–the courts, not the military.
Annie Bird is Co-Director, Rights Action